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Joe and Sarah's Adventures

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

VIETNAM | Tuesday, 20 November 2012 | Views [3520]

After meeting up with Sam and our friend Patrick whom we'd met at the Phong Nha Farmstay, we travelled with a guided group tour from Hanoi to the coast to spend a weekend exploring the spectacular Ha Long Bay! This is considered one of the must-sees of any trip to Vietnam. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and widely acknowledged to be one of the most beautiful places on earth. Words cannot describe it, and pictures sadly cannot do it justice, but we will still attempt to *briefly* tell you the highlights.

Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay is off the north-eastern coast of Vietnam and takes about 3 hours to reach by car. If you are rich enough you can charter your own cruises around the bay, going where you want and staying as long as you want/can afford to. However, if you're a budget-conscious backpacker (like us) you book a 3-day, 2-night tour through one of the many hostels in Hanoi. The quality and price of these vary greatly and scams abound, so it is difficult to decide who to book through and you never know what you are going to get... you just have to ask around, pick one, and hope for the best. We booked through Sam's hostel, which seemed reputable enough and fit our budget and schedule needs nicely. We left Friday morning and were on our boat sailing through the karst mountains by late afternoon. This is like something out of a fairy tale. Or a Lord of the Rings movie. The jungle-covered mountains rise straight out of the sparkling blue water surrounding us on all sides. Vinh Ha Long or "Descending Dragon Bay" and there are several different legends describing the formation of the bay, including one that says all of the thousands of islands are the tail of a giant dragon whose body forms part of Vietnam, Laos, and up into China.

Ha Long Bay

After sailing around a bit, we stopped on an island in Cat Ba National Park that has a famous cave, which we got to go explore. It was a bit packed with tourists, and again had all of the crazy colored lights that made the place feel like more of a nightclub than a national park, but it was still cool to visit. (Literally, it was HOT out and going inside the cave felt great!) We also went kayaking off the boat- this was one of the coolest kayak experiences ever! We paddled up to the mountains and found one with an opening. We went through it and everything suddenly opened up to the sky again. We were inside a cove, surrounded by mountain on all sides, just floating in a secret pool of water- it was beautiful! We could have stayed out all day.

Cave light
Cave light

We also visited a floating village of houses built upon rafts. Living here were people who fish in the bay for their livelihoods and sell what they can to the swarms of tourists who stop by during their tours. The rafts have spaces in the floors that are open into the water and these are lined with nets, which hold the fish they catch and keep them alive until they can be sold. The tour boat companies have some agreement with these floating fishing villages that makes them a regular stop on most boat cruises- hopefully this works out beneficially to both parties. It is hard to believe people get to live in such a beautiful place as this.

Floating vilage
Floating Village

Our boat was 3 stories high, with the galley and a hallway of cabins on the bottom floor, the dining room, bar, outdoor lounge, and two larger cabins on the 2nd floor, and a sun deck on the 3rd. Joe and I were given one of the 2nd floor cabins, complete with our own bathroom and shower, and a large window for watching the views. We hardly spent any time in there though, besides sleeping. As the sun set on the first night we all took advantage of the warm water by jumping in for a dip... from the top floor! This was quite the drop! Sarah was the only girl to jump from the top, a fact of which she is proud. Several other boats "parked" around ours so as the sun set through the mountains you could hear the happy yells as people jumped off their respective boats. Apparently this is one of the 'must do' experiences of any trip to Ha Long Bay. It was beautiful.


On our second day, we travelled first to another island in the national park for a "moderate" hike. Now, we are not sure who in Vietnam is responsible for determining the difficulty level for the various hikes throughout the parks, but whoever it is, they got it wrong. This was no moderate undertaking. Innocently, we set off on the path in flip flops and with backpacks containing our laptop and other not-so-lightweight valuables. At first the climb was simply difficult. In 95 degree heat anyone doing a steep trail will get tired and dehydrated. After the first hour, we were pretty bushed. After the second, the real challenge began. Sweat poured out of us, completely changing the shade of our shirts. We slipped and slid in our flip-flops. We'd finished the last of our water what felt like ages before. And by now we were full-on rock climbing. Hands and feet gripping the sides of the cliff where any wrong move would send us hurtling down into jungle-covered chasms. At one particularly nasty point, other climbers were backed up in a gridlock because it was so difficult to get through. The rusted remnants of an old safety rail dangled precariously over the edge, and a young girl who clearly had also not known what she was in for was crying as her parents tried to coax her down. It is safe to say that it was a miracle we made it up to the top of the mountain, where we found an old rickety TV tower that threatened to topple over at any second. Our success was short-lived. It was so hot and sunny and we were so horribly dehydrated that after resting for about 10 minutes we decided to try to somehow find our way back down. The best part of the climb was the lady selling ice cream bars and water at the bottom.

At the top!
Sweaty and exhuasted, but we made it to the top!

Following our "death march" as Sarah called it, we got to relax again on the boat as it took us to a private resort on Monkey Island, so-called because of the troop of "wild" monkeys that live on one of its beaches. We were assigned bungalows, right on a tiny little beach, and left to our devices to pass away the rest of the afternoon. The only downside was that as it was a remote island, air-conditioning was rationed (just like on Phu Quoc) so while we could take cold showers, we could not enjoy any AC until after 9pm. We were so exhausted from our hike that, instead of enjoying more kayaking or trekking off to visit the monkeys, we all fell asleep! Woke up just in time for an enormous fresh seafood buffet for dinner that made the day's excursions well worth it. Unfortunately this was the last we got to enjoy of Ha Long Bay, as our guide informed us that we would be checking out by 7am the next morning to head straight back to Hanoi! So much for the full "3 days" that was advertised. More like 1 and a half. No one in our group of around 25 was pleased about this, but there was also not much we could do since everyone pre-pays and they were our ride home. So after a brief night's sleep, we groggily woke up, had breakfast, and boarded our boat for the 3 hour journey back to shore and then the additional 3 hour ride home.

View from our bungalow
Brothers chilling on the porch of our private bungalow on Monkey Island

View of a boat like ours
View of a boat like ours

Altogether, the "false advertising" and hooligans we had on our boat (didn't mention them, but there was a group of about 6 boys from Holland who thought they had signed up for a booze cruise and were pretty obnoxious, disrespectful, and drunk the entire time), were not enough to dampen the natural beauty of this place. If we could have done this on our own, without booking a big tour and without having to follow a strict schedule of planned activities, well, that would have been a million times better. It would also cost a heck of a lot more. Yes, Ha Long Bay is over-touristed. But yes, there is a reason for it and we tried to make the most of our chance to be here. While Sarah swam around in the warm, turquoise water, and Joe sat with his feet dangling over the back of the boat, smoking a cigar, fishing with a little hand reel, and talking with the Vietnamese crew, few things felt more peaceful or simple. We would have liked to stay here for weeks instead of just days, but we are definitely fortunate and thankful we got to visit this place at all.

Joe enjoying himself
Joe enjoying himself

Tags: boating, caves, ha long bay, sunset, vietnam



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