When I first started planning our Vietnam trip I was very keen on going to Halong Bay. All the images I've seen of those lavishly green limestones were simply stunning. Although, I've seen a similar landscape last year at Phi Phi islands, I was really looking forward for our first "cruise" experience. Plus, having in mind that Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site I was hoping for it to be less touristy and with better control of the number of boats around.
A legend says that the bay was formed when a gigantic dragon ("ha long" means descending dragon) plunged into the Gulf of Tolkin and created millions of islets by lashing its tail. Actually, they are a bit more than 2000.
We were picked up at our hotel in Hanoi and headed to Halong Bay in a minibus. It took us around 3 hours to get to the port. Of course, we did a stop at a very touristy, huge workshop and market place by the road, to buy some souvenirs. However, it was nice to see all these women embroidering beautiful sceneries from Vietnam's culture life with silk strings.
When arriving at the port the confusion was complete. There were so many people waiting to embark. 800 boats have a permission to sail around Halong Bay and at "just" 300 of them it's possible to spend the night on board. The other 500 are doing day-trips only. We've booked 2 nights/3 days cruise as I wanted to also reach Lan Ha Bay which, from what I've read, was less touristy and more authentic.
As our group got together we embarked our cruise ship. The one we've booked was mid-range 388$ (for two) which for Vietnam is quite a lot, I think. I was aware it would not be a luxurious experience, but at least I was hoping it to be a genuine cruise experience, where we spend our time on the cruise ship sailing around the limestones. Apparently, this is not how cruise works in Vietnam at least. As we sailed off the port we went inside for lunch and quick presentation of the "rules":
- Meals were served at a certain hour (breakfast was at 7:00h and in order to not miss it, there was a bell ringing inside every room to wake you up... Seriously?!)
- For day-trips we would take the smaller (like fishing) boat and the cruise ship would stay anchored at the bay (or would go back to the port to drop leaving passengers and take new ones)
- It's impossible to not participate in the daily activities as everybody should leave the cruise ship
- Any boat change (except for the small boat, attached to our cruise ship) should be registered at the "administrative island" which means it would take around one hour there, waiting for a single paper
- There's no wifi at the cruise ship, and sometimes even no phone reception (here the company did mislead us, as they were promoting it as "free wifi included")
- It's forbidden to swim in the area where the cruise ship is anchored. Swimming is allowed only in some specific areas and swimming anywhere else can cause your arrest
- If you buy snack or drinks from the ladies on the tiny boats around the cruise ship you're not allowed to consume them in the common areas - only in the privacy of your own room
At least the food was delicious. After lunch we went to the Hang Sung Sot (Cave of Awe). Yes, it's the one best-known for its phallus-shaped rock. After the cave we stopped for one hour at the "administrative island" where we could either spend our time at the beach or climb to the top to appreciate the views. Actually they are both doable as climbing the stairs to the viewpoint was not more than 5-7 minutes, so if you don't spend more than 15 minutes up there, you still have time for a quick swim.
We were done with activities for our first day. Went back to the big boat, got some drinks, dinner and conversations with our fellow travelers on board. There's not much to see at night at the bay, but the reflections of the ships' lights on the green water were beautiful. And it was a very peaceful environment.
The next day I woke up before the bell ringing in the room to go at the upper deck and join our captain for a tai-chi class. I was hoping the sunrise would help warming up my sleepy body but that didn't happen. Halong bay is cloudy almost all-year round. What can I say about tai-chi? I was expecting some quite technical exercises, when in fact it was very similar to the morning gymnastics I did in primary school. But it was a good way to wake me up.
After breakfast we went to the "administrative island" where four people from our cruise ship were going to spend the day on a different boat, so this change had to be registered. Thumbs up for the strict control. Unfortunately, we spent more than an hour just waiting at a corner - we were not able to go and wait at the beach, neither to climb to the viewpoint, or even to just walk around. After finally embarking on our boat for the day, we got stuck at some low sand. And it was high tide. I guess the crew were not very experienced and panicked. Thankfully, some other boats noticed and came to help, pulling us out. Next, we went to the Monkey Cave - it's actually an open air cave, surrounded by green limestones. Monkeys were there in their natural habitat, waiting for tourists to arrive and throw them fruits.
Next we went to a more quiet place, where we could either enjoy a calm swim or go fishing. There was only one more boat around us and it felt really peaceful. The water was clean but a bit fresh though. What I didn't like was the heavy, industrial ship I noticed passing in between the green rocks. Supposedly it's a protected area, what would it do around here?
After lunch we headed to the Pearl Farm where they explained us the process of cultivating artificial pearls, which was actually interesting. Something else and quite funny, however, happened at the pearl farm. Apparently, on our day-boat there were people who did the exact same itinerary the day before. As they had to leave their cruise ship during the day, they were sent to do some activities, which no one took into consideration they've already did. So, while we were exploring the pearl farm, (in order to not pay the entrance fee for them again) they were supposed to stay at the day-boat and enjoy a light snack with an afternoon coffee. The crew however, forgot to serve it while we were all at the farm, and did it only after we got back at the boat. And while everybody was tasting the fresh fruit, the guide started yelling that this was only for those who stayed at the boat and not for all us. Yeah, it was pretty awkward. And funny at the same time. On our way back to the "administrative island" they served fresh food and coffee for all of us.
When arriving back at our cruise ship we found a new, big group of people who had just arrived. So we finally got it - the cruise ship would go every day back to Halong City to change crew and passengers and then go back to the bay to spend the night. After dinner we all gathered together at the upper deck for drinks and talks.
The next morning after tai-chi and breakfast we all headed back to the city. Halong Bay is a beautiful peace of nature, but it's overrated and I didn't really enjoy our experience there. Everything was too scheduled, rushed and guides and crew were (most of the times) unprofessional. Normally, I'm not a too-peacky-traveler, as I'm quite flexible and can easily go along with whatever the situation is. This time however, it really didn't work for me.
Cruising Halong Bay is not an experience I'd recommend to my friends and family, as to me it was a waste of time, expectations and money.