Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the northeastern part of Vietnam, is known for gorgeous, tall, green limestone karsts jutting out of the water as if the karsts were gorgeous, tall, green middle fingers to the sky. How dare you sky, for being so high and mighty!
It’s not really surprising that anyone who visits Vietnam would want to see and cruise around the bay. There are tons of cruise operators at every price point and you can book a day tour or an overnight cruise either online or at a travel agency in Vietnam.
When we arrived in Hanoi, we visited a couple of travel agents and found a cruise through Ethnic Travel that could provide one night’s lodging, four meals, two kayaking trips, and transfers to and from our hotel for about $100 per person. The cheapest rates we saw were about $40 per person, so we booked a cruise that provided a bit more comfort.
What we experienced was basically being churned through the Ha Long Bay tourism machine: It’s not a bad thing, not a good thing, just what happens to people exploring a ridiculously popular tourism site.
On the day of departure to Ha Long Bay, we waited in the lobby for our bus to take us to the cruise. What ended up happening was that a staff member showed up to the hotel and walked us a couple of blocks to the office to catch the bus. That wasn’t a huge problem: Traffic in Hanoi is bad and our hotel was maybe three blocks away. But practicality didn’t soothe my annoyance that this company advertised free transfers and now we’re hauling 30-pound backpacks to the travel office.
The van taking us on the four-hour trip to the harbor had 13 tourists including us, a tour guide and a driver. After two hours of driving, we stopped at a tourist trap gift shop for a 20-minute rest break where you can stock up on food and trinkets and use the facilities.
Upon arrival to the cruise terminal, our group was one of many flurry of waiting to board. Most people boarded in a timely manner; our ship was about an hour late. I think we were all very happy to get on the boat and get on the water once the boat and the captain arrived.
One thing to note: In some marketing materials, Ha Long Bay cruises look cool because the ships that cruise the bay look old and wooden. Now, almost all the ships are painted white. From what I understood from our tour guide, all licensed boats departing from Ha Long City need to be painted white. (Ships departing from Cat Ba island could continue to be brown.) The aesthetics of the ship isn’t a major issue: The ship still did ship things like floating and cruising. But for this couple, we remarked that our ship looked more like a Mississippi River cruise ship than a traditional Asian junk.
Once on board, we got keys to our room and then sat for lunch, which the cruise staff served family style. After about a couple of hours, we went on the first kayak tour around the bay, where our guide showed us how natives live in floating villages on the bay. We were pretty blown away by the islands overhead and the peacefulness of the little alcoves we visited via kayak.
Every so often, we’d see a plastic bag or a piece of garbage in the bay. The bay could use a bit of a litter clean up, but a few of us remarked that the presence of litter wasn’t nearly as bad as what we read in some reports.
One of the tourists on our ship asked the guide a couple of times if the water was too polluted to swim in: We didn’t know if the guide ignored the question or didn’t understand it. It didn’t matter, we all jumped in to swim because there aren’t many opportunities to jump into a bay with giant islands towering overhead.
After the kayaking, 13 of us: four Germans (all doctors), five French, two Belgians, a Kiwi and an American, would go up to the top floor and take pictures of the karsts at sunset (Kiwi took all the pictures in this blog post), chat about travel experiences, drink beers… It was a good time and everyone got along.
Almost everyone on the tour was in their late twenties and thirties and shared a similar mindspace: liked having an evening beer or wine but purposefully didn’t seek out the hedonism that would be a Ha Long Bay booze cruise. Our tour guide told us about booze cruise tourists that would drop their trousers and shake their extremities to bypassers. The tour guide said he asked the drunkards to please respect their culture (I took this to mean that Vietnamese culture is conservative, but it can also be interpreted in that many cultures don’t want to see someone’s junk off a junk). That request only made the male guests shake their “happy finger” more.
Because English was the lingua franca on the ship, the Europeans, the American and the Australasian all found humor in the euphemism “happy finger.”
The next morning, we went on the second kayaking trip to explore some caves. After an hour, we rowed back to the ship, packed up and checked out of our cabin, and enjoyed the 90-minute cruise back to the port. The rest of the group jumped on to another van to explore another part of the bay, while Kiwi and I traveled back in an empty air conditioned van to Hanoi.
I’m glad we had the experience to spend the night in Ha Long Bay and would recommend it. But it is a super-touristy experience and we were looking forward to a few days in a quieter town.