Ha Long Bay

halong bay vietnam

              Ha Long Bay is easily Vietnam’s top tourist destination and brings in thousands of tourists daily during the peak season.  There are many cruise companies that offer 2 day/1 night or 3 day/2 night cruises through the bay and this is by far the most popular way to tour this area.  Known for its beauty, Ha Long Bay is scattered with thousands of forest-topped, karst limestone islands that reach out of its blue waters into the heavens.  Its ethereal beauty is something you would only expect to see on a movie screen and it in fact has been featured in a small handful of movies; namely the recent King Kong: Skull Island.  It has also been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its outstanding geological and geomorphological value, as well as its aesthetic value.  

rock formations halong bay vietnam
A view of just some of the many karst limestone formations

              Leaving Cat Ba by ferry, we made our way to Ha Long Bay, the main port for the cruise ships, deciding that we would just set up a cruise on our own.  This turned out to be much harder than we expected.  Since most tourists book their cruise out of Hanoi, most of the offices are based there.  Due to this, many of the tours also include the price of transportation to and from Hanoi; something we didn’t need.  After walking to a few tour agencies we found on Google Maps (that ended up not existing), we decided to just book a cruise online instead.  This turned out to be equally as difficult.  It is highly recommended to book a Ha Long Bay Cruise in advance as they fill up quickly.  In the end we emailed a few agencies about reserving a spot on a 3 day/2night cruise for the following day and hoped for the best.  To our surprise, we had a response the following morning from Lavender Cruises and had to be at the port just one hour later.  

halong bay cruise ships vietnem
Cruise ships sailing through Halong Bay

              Our cruise turned out to be pretty nice.  The ship was really classy and our room had a window the length of the wall overlooking the bay.  The first and last day of a 3 day/2 night cruise are the same as a 2 day/1 night and since they don’t book all of the people as the same type of cruise, half of our ship was different when we returned to the boat on the second day.

lavender cruise ship halong bay vietnam
Our cruise ship, the Lavender

              After settling into our room, we were given a great lunch as we shipped off, out of the port, and made our way through the bay.  As we arrived at our destination we were surprised at the number of ships that were anchored there.  The place which we were anchored was a large body of water surrounded on all sides by tall, karst limestone islands and about 50 other boats similar to ours.

              After making anchor, everyone boarded a ferry boat and headed for Luon Cave.  There were tons of people all lined up for the tour and we were given the option to either go on a bigger bamboo boat with others from our boat or do it ourselves by kayak.  Knowing we would have the chance to kayak later in the cruise we opted for the bamboo boat.  The boat took us through a short tunnel through the rock wall and emerged on the other side in a small lagoon completely encircled by tall limestone walls.  While in the lagoon we watched monkeys as they scampered across the rocks above.  

luon cave halong bay vietnam
Tourists and boats preparing to go through Luon Cave

lagoon luon cave halong bay vietnam
Bamboo boats and kayaks in the lagoon

monkeys luon cave halong bay vietnam
Monkeys eating fruit on rocks inside the lagoon

              After Luon Cave, our ferry boat took us to Ti Top Island, a small island in view of our ship that had a small beach and a view point overlooking the bay.  The staircase to the top was steep and lined with people making their way up and down.  Walking up the stairs almost felt like waiting in a line instead of hiking.  At the top was an amazing 360° view of the bay.  On our way down, we ended up at the front of the line of people hiking down and walked a little bit faster than we should have.  Jade lost her balance and flew down a few stairs (and stuck an amazing landing if I do say so myself), hopping up and continuing the rest of the way down.   

ti top island halong bay vietnam
Ti Top Island

ti top island panorama halong bay vietnam
Panoramic view from atop Ti Top Island

              That night we attended a cooking class in which we learned how to make spring rolls.  Then, after another great meal, I tried my hand at some squid fishing with a bamboo pole off the back of the boat.  Needless to say, I was unsuccessful at catching anything, but I did see a few squid swim by in the light.  Having been defeated by the squid, I grabbed a beer from the room (we smuggled in our own beer because it is just cheaper that way) and went to the top deck to hangout and view the bay at night.

fishing boat halong bay vietnam
Vietnamese fisherman in Halong Bay

              The following day was a little different.  Since half of our boat was on the longer cruise, our ferry boat took us back to Ti Top Island where we awaited a different boat to pick us up.  Here we were joined by people from other boats that had also chosen the 3-day cruise and spent the rest of the day exploring with them.  

our ferry boat halong bay vietnam
Our ferry boat during our second day out

              We started the day with a visit to Ho Dong Tien Cave.  It was a small cave that was divided into three chambers; the last of which was only accessible by crawling through a small tunnel.  There was nothing particularly appealing about the cave itself.  To me, it was just another small cave that had the signs of being over toured.

ho dong tien cave halong bay vietnam
Last chamber in Ho Dong Tien Cave

              After finishing the cave, we rode further into the bay to a spot set up with kayaks.  We were told that we had 1.5 hours to kayak and, if we wanted, there was a cave around the corner that we could explore.  Sliding into our kayak, Jade and I made our way to the cave (when I say we made our way to the cave I mean that Jade took video and pictures while I did the paddling…).  At first sight the cave just looked like a large but short opening in the rock face, but, as usual, I had to explore further.  After a little rock climbing I found a path that led deeper and opened up into a large cavern that opened to the bay on the other side.  The cave was much larger than I had expected and had a great view of the bay.  While exploring the guano-covered rocks, I could see bats as they swooped through the cave and could hear them screeching as they wondered who had stumbled upon their home.  

kayaks halong bay vietnam

kayaking halong bay vietnam
Jade and I kayaking in Halong Bay (as you can see, I am the only one holding a paddle)

              The final part of our tour for the day was a visit to a pearl farm.  Although not exciting, it was informational and kind of cool to see how it all happens.  There was also the opportunity to buy some pearl jewelry at the end of the tour.

oyster fishing halong bay vietnam
Oyster farmers checking the oyster lines

culling oysters halong bay vietanm
Workers culling through oysters

              Upon returning to our ship we were met by a bunch of new faces.  We knew this would be the case but were not prepared for the dining hall seating arrangements to be all changed up.  When we entered the dining hall, all of the tables had been moved around and the only table free was with a few girls that had been split from their group.  After they complained to the crew about being split from their group, the crew asked if we would like to move tables.  Although we didn’t care, we had already started eating and it seemed like a bit of an annoyance to have to move everything in the middle of a meal.  Still, they made another table move around to make room for us and helped us move all of our plates to the new table.  We later found out that they had told our new table we wanted to move so that we could practice our English…(Really!?!?)

boat halong bay vietnam
Squid fishing boat in Halong Bay

              The final day of our cruise was only a half day.  After breakfast, we loaded up in the ferry boat and made our way to Hang Sung Sot Cave.  At this point I was not expecting a lot from the caves of Ha Long Bay but Hang Sung Sot Cave was surprising.  There were two openings to the cave, both on the side of a sheer cliff and we had to climb a series of stairs to get to the entrance.  Upon entering the cave, it was full of people.  All of the cruise ships had sent all of their patrons to the cave at the same time so it was shoulder to shoulder with people.  After entering the first chamber we overheard one of the tour guides tell some of his group that if you climbed through a tiny hole in the wall it would take you into the next chamber.  So, after watching them disappear into the darkness of the hole, we looked around and followed them.  Popping out the other side, we were greeted with a bunch of startled faces of tourists surprised that we had just come out of the cave wall instead of walking on the prescribed path.  At this point the cave began to open up but it wasn’t until the third chamber that the cave really became expansive and the area between groups of tourists began to clear.  The cave at this point was magnificent.  I was surprised by the size of the third chamber and all of the formations that it held.  

hang sung sot cave halong bay vietnam
Last chamber in the Hang Sung Sot Cave

              After we finished the cave, we were taken back to the ship where we packed our bags and ate our last lunch aboard the Lavender as we sailed back to port.  All in all, the cruise was nice.  The bay was not as secluded as I thought it would be with the number of ships that were anchored there and the tours were at times (mostly the first and last day) overly crowded.  All of the tours seemed very touristy as well, though some of them were still nice.  The food and accommodations, on the other hand, were great to say the least and worth the money.  All of that being said, in my opinion the whole Ha Long Bay cruise thing is worth the time and money.  It may be over touristy but the experience and sites are worth it.

halong bay vietnam location

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