When we were doing our research of where to visit in Vietnam one place that everyone agreed that we must visit was Halong Bay. When we looked further into trips in Halong Bay it didn’t take long to start to understand why. Having been there, I would wholeheartedly agree with all the advice we received on this one!
The fun really began with choosing which trip to do in Halong Bay. The common options are two day / one night cruises and three day / two night cruises. We were advised that, if we have the time, to do the longer trip as we would get to see more of the bay than is seen on the shorter cruise. With that part decided, the next decision was with which company to book with. Looking at the reviews on TripAdvisor it was not difficult to identify the better companies, but the challenge was in deciding which one to go with. We had some spare time in Hanoi before heading to Sapa we decided that we would visit the offices of the shortlisted companies in order to make a booking. After a 20 minute walk from our hotel we failed at the first hurdle when the office we were looking for was not at the address we had found for it on the company website. We returned to the hotel, managed to find another address in a completely different part of the city and set off again. We must have spent too much time looking at the sights as we walked as we managed to walk right passed the road we were looking for. After realising our error, we turned round and managed to make it to the office of Indochina Junk. After all of this walking, we were out of luck as they were fully booked until after our Vietnam visas had expired. Feeling a bit downbeat that we were not able to book with our first choice, we set off in search of lunch and to come up with an alternative plan. As it happened, the alternative plan presented itself to us when we stumbled across the office of one of the other companies we had been looking at – Handspan. They had one space left for the dates we were looking at and we decided that this was meant to be, so booked it quickly! With our trip booked for Thursday 14th – Saturday 16th November we were able to relax and enjoy our time in Sapa.
Thursday 14th November got off to a very early start as we had to meet at the Handspan office for 0745. We had a quick breakfast at 0700, checked out and then hopped in a taxi for the short journey across the city centre. On arrival there were quite a few other people there who were also booked on this cruise. We quickly discovered that, of the twenty-or-so people there, we were the only ones booked on the three day / two night option – the others were all booked for the shorter cruise. There were another six people booked on the longer cruise with us but they had decided to make their own way to Halong City by private transfer. This worked in our favour as there were enough people booked on the shorter cruise to fill one bus, leaving just Lindsay, our guide for the cruise and me on the second bus for the four hour drive to Halong City. We made one stop along the way at a handicraft shop to give the driver a rest while we perused the items for sale. We arrived in Halong shortly around midday, met the other six people who were also on the longer cruise and boarded the tender out to Treasure Junk – our home for the next few days. Once on board our guide gave us a brief outline of plan for the rest of the day and then showed us to our rooms. We had around 45 minutes to sort ourselves out before we were due back in the dining room for lunch. During this time the people on the shorter cruise arrived, were given an introduction by their guide and shown to their rooms.
The lunch turned out to be quite a feast. When we saw the menu on table we assumed that we would be able to pick the dish we would like. We were wrong – we were to have all of the dishes on the menu as a six course meal! During our feast the Treasure Junk left Halong City and headed for Bai Tu Long Bay – a quiet bay that very few other boats visit. After lunch we had a bit of time to rest before getting ready for the afternoon’s activity – kayaking! In total there were 26 people, including the two guides, going kayaking and it was entertaining to watch everyone wobbling as they got into their two-man kayak from the side of the tender, which was moored to the side of Treasure Junk. We had a great time paddling around the huge karsts before stopping on a secluded beach for a rest and an opportunity for those who wanted to go for a swim. After around half an hour on the beach, the sun was getting low in the sky and it was time to head back. Back on Treasure Junk, a few of us took the opportunity to go for a swim from the boat, jumping off the main deck. The current in the bay was quite surprising and it was quite hard work to keep from drifting off into the distance. It was then time to shower and freshen up for dinner. We were ready early and even managed time for a civilised game of chess – drawing a small crowd as we did so. Dinner was yet another six-course feast and, although we had built an appetite paddling around for the afternoon, it was still a struggle to finish. During the evening our guide put on the Top Gear Vietnam Special. We had both seen it before and like Top Gear, but as we recognised some of the places they visited during the programme it was that much more interesting.
Day two we had the option of joining a Tai Chi class at 0630. However, after a long day yesterday and expecting another full day today we decided to take the lazy option and meet for breakfast at 0730 instead. As we had expected from the meal sizes the day before, breakfast was not a small meal. We had pastries to start followed by a cooked breakfast and rounded the meal off with fresh fruit. During breakfast our guide filled us in on the plan for the day. After breakfast we would get ready to spend the day on a smaller day-boat, which would take us to less accessible parts of the bay where we would spend the morning kayaking. We would have lunch on the day boat and then meet back up with the Treasure Junk and return to Bai Tu Long Bay. While we were on the smaller day-boat, Treasure Junk would return to Halong City to drop off the people on the two day / one night cruise and pick up another load of passengers. Once on the day boat we bade a temporary farewell to the Treasure Junk and set off toLan Ha Bay while we sat and enjoyed the views. Once at Lan Ha Bay we dropped anchor and climbed into the kayaks which we had towed with us. Around the corner from where the day-boat was anchored we passed through a low tunnel into an enclosed lagoon. As the tunnel wasn’t very high – and would be almost underwater at high tide – the only vessels able to access the bay were kayaks. There were the nine people in our group (eight tourists plus our guide) and a few other kayaks sharing in the peaceful serenity offered by this lagoon. We paddled around the lagoon and through another tunnel into a second lagoon. After a couple of hours paddling around we headed back to the day-boat for lunch. Another feast followed and then we raised anchor and set off to meet up with Treasure Junk on its way back from Halong City. Back aboard Treasure Junk, we set off for Bai Tu Long Bay and were able to sit on deck enjoying the views. The previous day and this morning had been quite cloudy, but the clouds had now dispersed leaving a beautiful blue sky. Upon arrival at Bai Tu Long Bay we were given the option of joining the new guests for some more kayaking, which we readily agreed to. Back in the kayaks we set off on a different route to that taken the previous day and we stopped on a different beach. On the paddle back to the Treasure Junk we were treated to a stunning sunset and we couldn’t help but stop paddling to just enjoy the scenery. We did eventually make it back to Treasure Junk, where it was time to shower and freshen up before dinner. The dinner menu was different to the previous day but still contained six courses and we struggled again. After a busy day of kayaking and knowing that breakfast on our last day would be served at 0630, we decided to skip the film after dinner and get an early night instead.
Our final day in Halong Bay got off to a very early start when the alarm went off 0540 (although we didn’t get out of bed until 0600), ready for breakfast at 0630! Breakfast this morning was the only small meal of the trip, consisting of three little pastries. There was a reason for this, however, as we would be having a six course brunch in only a few hours time. After breakfast we boarded the tender which took us to nearby Vung Vieng floating village in a very sheltered part of the bay. On the edge of the village we all boarded small, local boats for our tour, which were rowed by women from the village. The village is home to around 300 people and has been inhabited for generations. Each house was separate and looked about the size of one room building, floating on numerous polystyrene blocks. As fishing was the primary trade in the village most houses had a fishing boat moored outside. The tour of the floating village finished at the other main trade for the village – a pearl farm. We were given a talk about the process of growing and harvesting the pearls before being allowed time to wander around the floating showroom. At 0915 it was then time to board the tender to head back to Treasure Junk. We were given 20 minutes to pack our bags and check out before meeting in the dining room for brunch.
While we were enjoying our brunch we lifted anchor and started the journey back to Halong City. After breakfast we went up to the sun deck to enjoy the final part of our cruise in Halong Bay, arriving shortly after 1100. We disembarked and waited in a local bar for our bus back to Hanoi. He bus arrived at 1230, with the passengers ready to start their cruise in Halong Bay. Two hours into the four hour drive back to Hanoi we stopped at the same handicraft shop we had visited on the way to or cruise. We had seen a few things which interested us on our previous visit and, having had time to think about it, we purchased a couple of small souvenirs to remind us of our time in Halong Bay and Vietnam.
Photos from our visit to Halong Bay can be viewed below or at http://photos.andywicks.com/HalongBay