If you’re planning a visit to Vietman, find out why Ha Long Bay should definitely feature on your itinerary!
This guest post comes from James and Lee at The Travel Scribes, who are two 30-something ex-corporate marketers now turned full time travellers. Swapping wheelie bags for backpacks, they are trying to master the art of mid-range travelling while providing unique insights on places to see and things not to miss.
You’ve seen the pictures: limestone pillars reaching out from the depths of the sea. Crystal clear blue water all around. Boats chugging slowly across the surface.
It’s Ha Long Bay, a stunning natural wonder which was awarded UNESCO world heritage status back in 1994 and has been rated as one of the 7 New Wonders of Nature.
Sitting alongside the likes of Table Mountain in South Africa and Iguazu Falls, an indication of how stunning it is. In fact, it reminds us of a smaller archipelago we visited a few weeks before – Ang Thong National Marine Park near Koh Samui, Thailand.
About Ha Long Bay
The Ha Long Bay archipelago is made up of 1,969 islands, with Hạ Long Bay itself the centre of this larger zone. This includes Bái Tử Long Bay to the northeast, and Cát Bà Island to the southwest.
Most of the islands remain uninhabited, increasing the feel that you are in a very remote location – bar the other boats. This becomes an important factor when choosing the area and cruise to take.
When to visit
According to our guide, and after a bit of research, the best time to visit Ha Long Bay is between March and June. We went at the beginning of July 2019 and the weather was perfect, if not even a little bit hot.
But it is the start of rainy season. And if you know Asia, the rains come heavy when they do arrive!
How to choose your cruise
Length of cruise
It is possible for you to do day trips to experience the islands. But to really experience them in all their glory (sunset and sunrise being important moments) we definitely recommend staying at least one night on board one of the boats.
Many people actually opt for two nights and having met a number of people doing two nights, none have said that they regretted it. Due to the itinerary we had in Vietnam, we could only stay for 1 night. But boy, we were not disappointed…
You might also want to consider your options between cruising Ha Long itself, or Bái Tử Long Bay.
Ha Long has become quite overpopulated with boats and you could find yourself sharing it with over 200 of them at any time. Whereas Bái Tử Long Bay only has a handful of operators approved to sail its waters. This offers a more secluded experience.
We chose the latter and went on our 2 day, 1 night cruise with 4 star company, Paloma Cruises, who we highly recommend. However, we know that Swan Cruises, Athena and Emperor Cruises all provide great service for this area.
Ha Long Bay offers options for all age groups and budgets. Friends of ours did the ‘backpacking’ budget cruise while we saw options on Emperor which included huge suites including a gym!
We found our cruise to be very family friendly but it also catered to us, as a single 30-something couple.
Our Ha Long Bay Itinerary
Day 1: Hanoi to Ha Long – lunch, cave tour, kayaking, sunset party and dinner
We kick off very early with a pick-up in Hanoi at 7.30 am and a four hour drive to Ha Long Bay itself. The transfer was luxurious; a private van with only three other passengers and a very friendly driver who took us to Ha Long very safely.
Upon arrival, the 50 or so guests are all ushered onto the boat to check into our rooms. Ours is well-appointed with crisp white linen and soft pillows. There’s also a good-sized bathroom equipped with towels, toiletries and a toilet with an amazing view!
It’s up to the dining room and we start off with a 6 course lunch; the quality of which was impeccable! Think pumpkin soup, sweet and sour chicken and incredibly delicious fish parcels, all served up on white linen tablecloths.
We liked that the crew seated us with people around our age. This mean we could quickly make friends with our fellow passengers.
We’re given about an hour to digest our food before we’re sent off to visit one of the islands, exploring the largest cave in the area. This is the most commercialised part of the tour as our guide, named Hoa, weaves us through quite a few people to give us the history and point out the route.
After a tour of the cave and about 20 minutes on the accompanying beach, we’re back onto the boat for a rest and to get changed for our next activity: sea kayaking!
The crew are obviously very passionate about their work in Ha Long Bay and this becomes really evident in the sea kayaking portion of the tour. We’re carefully deposited into two man kayaks and led by the cruise manager, Hoang, around the bay.
He takes it slow, ensuring everyone is comfortable, and makes sure that we visit quiet spots around the area. The kayaking quickly became our favourite part of our Ha Long Bay experience. Hoang found all the secret, quiet spots for us.
It was magnificent to be in the middle of the bay in your kayak, with almost nothing around you.
We get back to the boat and freshen up for a sunset party. Here generally you have a few cocktails on the upper deck, while watching the sun go down. As with many operators, Paloma offered a 3-2 deal which, although expensive, was probably in keeping with the prices you’d experience in a mid-range bar in Hanoi.
Finally, it’s into dinner. 4 courses this time, punctuated by an amazing seafood stew and a cream caramel dessert to die for!
Day 2: Ha Long to Hanoi – Tai Chi, bamboo boat tour, cooking class
While it’s optional, we make sure we roll out of bed for Tai Chi at 6.15 am. Somehow the crew rustles up a Tai Chi master who takes us through our paces: the perfect way to start your morning in the middle of the stunning scenery.
This morning we’re served a buffet breakfast to rival a 5 star hotel spread. It includes pancakes, cereal, toast, bacon, eggs to order, fresh fruit, juice, coffee and tea.
Our first activity for the day is a tour of a local fishing village. This is done via a bamboo boat rowed by a local fisherman. It’s a great experience but also a little touristy, if we’re honest.
We’re taken through the floating fishing village on the boat, reaching a pearl farm where they explain how pearls are made in captivity. This is of course an opportunity for them to sell their wares but it’s not too overt and you can comfortably leave without buying any jewellery.
Once we’re back on the boat it’s time for lunch but, with a twist. The crew teaches us how to make the traditional Vietnamese spring roll. It’s a fun, easy to follow experience. And once we’ve all tried our hand at rolling them, they are cooked and served up as part of our lunch.
Before we know it, it’s time to head back to Hanoi.