Ha Long Bay is Vietnam’s most famous natural site and probably its number one tourist attraction. Made up of thousands of beautiful green karst islets scattered near the coast, the bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was also the main reason I’ve wanted to come to Vietnam for a long time, so of course when I planned this trip to Vietnam, I was intent on visiting Ha Long Bay (Descending Dragon Bay). As the bay is just a few hours from Hanoi, it is relatively easy to get to, so you can even visit it in one day from Hanoi. But why should you when you can do an overnight stay? I chose an overnight tour on V Spirit (V for Vietnam!), which was a bit pricy at US$130 (including a single supplement), but was very good value since meals, accommodation on board the boat, activities, and most importantly transportation to and from Hanoi, were covered (some tours do not provide this). I booked my tour through a travel agency online, but my hotel, as is common in Vietnam, also offered tours to Ha Long Bay as well (they don’t run it themselves but contract through tour operators).
My tour started early on my second day in Vietnam, as my tourbus came to pick me up from my hotel in the Old Quarter. It arrived about half an hour late, which had prompted my hotel receptionist (she was really nice to do this as I didn’t ask her) to give them a call to make sure. Then after I got on board the bus, a few minutes later and still in the Old Quarter, we had to stop because an overhead electricity wire had fallen onto the street. Luckily there was a work crew right there, and they lifted it up for us to pass. Eventually we left Hanoi, passing over the Red River, which helps give the city its name – Hanoi means within the rivers (both in Vietnamese and Chinese). We stopped at a large store that sold all kinds of souvenirs inside a factory-like building. In the store, many craftswomen were working on items and I think much of the items such as cloths were handmade by them. For pretty much the entire trip, we drove on a double-lane “highway”, passing through towns and villages. where the most interesting sights were skinny 3/4-storey buildings that were the width of one room. During the drive, our guide T came to sit beside me, probably since one of the few vacant seats was next to me. We had a very decent conversation, especially since his English was quite good, which is common for many Vietnamese in the tourism industry. In the beginning, he’d told us his name meant “three” since he was the third son in his family, which got some laughs since he said it in a very deadpan way. He had a good sense of deadpan humor. It was kind of weird at one point though, when after T talked about his family, and I told him I wasn’t married, he said “don’t get married” in a straight face. I tried to see if he was joking and I was expecting him to laugh at any moment, but T was dead serious. Marriage was just too expensive, he said. Even though he was making a good salary from being a tour guide, it was just enough to take care of his family, with his wife expecting a second child. As such, he had little money saved up and he warned me again not to get married. I hope his wife doesn’t ever come across this post! He also talked about how expensive it was to buy land in order to build a home, (he was from a province near Hanoi) which I thought was similar to the pressures many Chinese face in having to buy a home.
Anyways, enough about marriage and home-buying. We eventually reached Ha Long City, which is next to Ha Long Bay, and from the coastal road to the city’s pier, it was possible to see the islets in the distance. I got a little excited just at this first sight. Eventually we got onto a boat to our ship, which was all-white, wooden, two-stories with an open deck on top, and had a sail mast, but no sail. My cabin was fantastic, with a large bedside window, comfortable bed, wooden plank floors, and a bathroom (that was actually bigger than the ones in Japanese hotels). Our ship pulled a boat at the side, which the crew ate in and presumably slept in too. We had a good lunch, during which I had to contain myself while seeing so many attractive islets through the dining room window. All around us were multitudes of islets, covered in green vegetation, rising out of the bay’s green waters. It was peaceful, pleasant, and amazing. There were other ships around, though not as many as I’d expected, probably since this was the low season. Regardless, the sight of the ships surrounded by green islets made for a nice sight. Some had sails, unlike my ship, which were proudly unfurled in red or orange. Each islet was beautiful, but it was the collective sight that was spectacular. The bay is huge, covering over 1,500 square kms, which is bigger than Hong Kong.
We then passed by a fishing village, made up of floating houses, on our way to the Sung Sot cave, which is nestled inside a hill located near a cove. I’d seen pictures of the cave, which was lit up in bright lights, in travel websites and I was a little skeptical, figuring it wasn’t going to be much of a sight. I was dead wrong, because the cave was huge and quite beautiful, and were full of huge, interesting rock formations, some of which were twisted and heavily wrinkled. T’s wry humor really came into play as he showed us “King Kong,” the turtle laying its eggs, and the “magic finger,” a long rounded piece of rock, lit up red, jutting out at an angle towards the sky (it’s a very powerful magic, which only men have, T said). The cave was divided into three main compartments and we spent an hour in there or so. At one point we saw a rock with Chinese words carved on it, and (luckily for me) T asked an European woman to read it, which she did. On the way out, the view was great (please excuse me because I’ll be using this adjective a lot to describe Ha Long Bay) coming down from the cave entrance. While walking on the pier to our boat, a monkey came onto the railing and actually slapped a guy who’d come close. The cheeky animal then climbed back up the cliff, while another bold monkey sat on top of a sign exposing himself while attracting a small crowd below.
After the caves, we went to a small beach, with a small hill behind. The ship stopped near the beach and we got onto a boat to the beach, which was protected by a net. For sharks, I asked T. No, the sharks in Ha Long Bay are friendly, he said, they like to swim next to you and touch you – I assume he was joking. These nets were for jellyfish actually. Most people in my group, most of whom were young couples and one family with two little twin boys, swam and relaxed on the beach. I didn’t swim, but hiked up to the top where there were great views – the top photo in this post was taken from here. I had a nice, brief conversation with two Vietnamese-American sisters, who took my photo for me. On the way down, I heard some Vietnamese guys yelling, so I figured it must be T and the ship’s crew having fun in the water. Yet when I reached the bottom, T was there and some Vietnamese were leaving. These were rich locals, who’d come in their own ship, said T, with a little annoyance. He said regular Vietnamese just came to Ha Long Bay for one day, but wealthy people like these could hire their own ship or on a ship they owned (I actually can’t remember which was it T said). By this time, the sun was setting and we enjoyed a great view from the beach’s pier. There were two cocks which a beach staff goaded into fighting by pushing them together. It was interesting seeing them flare up with neck feathers rising and going at each other like hardened warriors before separating and going back to normal.
We enjoyed a good dinner back on board the ship, during which I got to know a Dutch mother and her daughter, and an English lady who was in the midst of a four-month Asia-Australia trip. The English lady was the only person besides me who was solo on this tour. One thing I really appreciated about the tour was that T had asked us whether we couldn’t eat anything during our drive to Ha Long City, and of course, I mentioned I didn’t eat seafood. For each meal, I got a personal replacement dish for the seafood, which I wasn’t expecting and found very considerate. Each meal had several dishes so I could have easily gone without the seafood replacement dish. During dinner, we started with some basic chitchat about ourselves and our travel, but somehow it turned into a very good conversation about race relations and discrimination. The mother and daughter were from Holland, and the daughter was mixed, so the mother talked about how that had an effect on her sons, who were back home. The daughter was a spirited girl who was finishing up a year overseas, mainly work-study in Australia, after graduating from high school last year. Coincidentally, the girl’s father was from Suriname and had a little Chinese in him, so the girl’s surname was hyphenated Chinese. Just like Trinidad, I said, and for a while it was really nice to talk about a shared connection – my name isn’t hyphenated but I knew many Trinidadian Chinese whose names were, since it was a mistake by ignorant colonial Caribbean immigration officers. I ended up talking about Taiwan and differences between Chinese/East Asian and Western culture, such as work and Asian top-down dynamics. It was a great conversation which was unexpected.
For the night, the ship anchored in a bay, which many other ships had done as well, and it was a nice sight to see the lights from those other ships. It was quite peaceful though there was one ship which was showing a movie and had the volume up loud. After dinner, I went on deck to do a little shrimp fishing in the dark, which turned out to be fruitless but was a little fun. We didn’t get shrimp but we attracted jellyfish, who showed clearly due to their white color. The two little kids and their father, a Frenchman, were there as well, and the kids were funny. One was kind of serious, while the other was more open and a bit of a rascal, threatening to kill everybody and take over the boat, in a cute way. When I asked the serious one what his name was, he told me, then he said his father was French and his mother was German, which made me wonder why he’d say that from the start. Perhaps he was used to people asking him about it and hopefully not teasing him. The family were based in Hong Kong. While on deck, I met the guy in charge of the ship’s restaurant, a pleasant Chinese-looking person around my age who was married and whose wife was expecting a child – I can’t remember his name but I’ll name him “Simon”.
The next day, I woke up early at 5 just so I could go see the sunrise. When I went up to the top deck, it was already quite bright. I was already too late so all I could do was take in the view, which was still fantastic, for a while and then go back down to my cabin. In the morning, the group split up after breakfast with those who were on the two-night tour going to another ship to go elsewhere for the day, while the rest of us went kayaking in a secluded bay. As I was the only single person, I got T as my partner which was good as I’ve only done kayaking a few times. We did this for about an hour, going around the bay and then out through a cavern to the sea.
When kayaking was over, it was time to wrap up our tour with lunch and “cooking” class. T taught us how to put together Vietnamese spring rolls using rice paper, a very thin, crinkly, paper-like object that had me wondering if it was actual paper (it’s not, being made completely from rice). The ingredients – raw vegetables, egg, tofu,noodles – were all ready so all we had to do was wrap it up, which was not too easy. We passed a fishing village again and then the Fighting Cocks, two rocks sticking out of the ocean that resembled cocks fighting. A few ships surrounded the Fighting Cocks and it was apparently quite famous as I’d see it in postcards later.
My tour was slightly marred by a bizarre event towards the end, when we gathered on the front of the ship to take in the sights and await lunch. We had been joined that morning by a Dutch couple, who were leaving with us as they were finishing up their 2-night tour at the same time as we were finishing our 1-night tour. This Dutch couple hung out with the Dutch mother and daughter on board, and as they chatted, I got a negative vibe from the couple as if they were making remarks about me, and strangely enough, I had a sense that the mother and daughter were also doing that too. Earlier that morning after kayaking and before the cooking class, I’d went up on the top deck and I’d seen the Dutch couple, who ignored my admittedly quiet hello. Fortunately, I’d met an expat couple from China the evening before, an Indian guy and an Italian lady (who had read out the Chinese words in the cave), who were quite decent and I was able to talk to them again as we waited for lunch. I sat with them for lunch, with the Dutch people at another table across the room, and we had a good conversation about China and traveling. At one point, as I was talking to the people at my table, I sensed the Dutch people listening in, and right after I said something, the Dutch lady said, “yeah, I can see what you were talking about” to the mother and daughter, as if to confirm something that they might have said about me. What strikes me about this incident is not so much the Dutch couple, but the mother and daughter, whom I’d had such a great conversation the previous night. It’s perplexing to me though it’s not the first time something funny like this has happened.
Anyways, I finally paid for my trip, having paid the deposit online when I’d made the booking. I’d wanted to do it earlier but T said the company hadn’t sent him the details so he had to check with them. I actually reminded him several times (being the ultra-honest person I am, haha) and he was quite grateful. “One time I forgot to get the payment from a guest, and the company cut my salary,” he said. I paid T in US dollars and he put in a big stack of money in his pocket. “He have so much money,” said “Simon” next to T, who hammed it up a little.
When we reached Ha Long City, we took the boat to shore and then got on a bus. It was that moment when I asked T about my small luggage, which he’d earlier said we could leave outside our cabin. Oh no, he had forgotten it so he had to rush back to get it so the bus had to wait for him to come back. The Dutch lady turned to me and asked “how much luggage did you bring?” in a subtle snarky way, which I simple replied just one and that T had told us the crew would bring it. The Italian lady backed me up and the Dutch lady hurriedly said she was just joking. We returned to Hanoi, stopping briefly at the same large souvenir store we had stopped at going to Ha Long Bay, and I was dropped off at my hotel without incident.
I definitely say it’s a must-visit if you go to Vietnam, and it is worth it to stay at Ha Long Bay on board a ship for a night or two.