Ha Long bay is one of Vietnam’s top natural wonders and it’s recognized by UNESCO as a World Natural Heritage for containing “superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance.” There are thousands of untouched limestone islands rising out of the bay even though people here have inhabited these islands for centuries. The natural beauty has somehow remained immortal and untouchable. Naturally, an area of this great beauty has risen to such great fame that it’s become extremely touristy. The most touristy area in Vietnam in my opinion. That might repel you, but trust me, this place will awe you. A must go! The summer of 2016 was actually my second time at Ha Long bay but it’s something I can’t get tired of.
I think 2 nights, 3 days is enough to see Ha Long. Since I was squeezing 9 places in 3 weeks, I only spent 1 night and 2 days at Ha Long, but I managed to see the most important things that I personally wanted to see within that period.
Logistically and geographically, Hanoi should be set as your central headquarter for when you travel to Ha Long and return back to the capital before continuing to venture south on your Vietnam Journey. This is strategic if you have a lot of luggage that you’d like to leave behind at your accommodation in Hanoi so you can carry light for the trip. Since I’ve never stayed at any hostels in Vietnam before, I have no idea about the quality or service, but I still wouldn’t trust leaving my stuff at hostels there in fear of it being stolen because there’s lots of thieves targeting tourists in Vietnam. If you’re staying in a hotel or have taken my suggestion to give a try at the Hanoi Moment Hotel, you can easily tell the staff to keep your luggage secure while you’re off to Ha Long.
I highly recommend that you stay overnight on a boat or ship! Watching the sunset and sunrise from your room is breathtaking and it’ll be something that will stay infinitely in your memories.
How to book transportation and a boat/ship?
Since I stayed at the Hanoi Moment hotel, I booked the transportation and boat through their staff receptionist. Usually all hotel staff are specialized in tour packages because they have partnerships with local tours and travel vans and busses so they can provide discounts. There were 3 types of Ha Long bay packages that Hanoi Moment Hotel offered me: Upper class, middle class, and basic. Like all Vietnamese tourists agencies, they were really persistent in convincing me to go with the upper class package which was the luxury cruise. I’m a poor student anyways. I don’t need to be treated as a princess to have a nice time. After all, I just want to see the islands and the landscape so I wouldn’t be hanging that long in a room to enjoy all that five star luxury anyways.
The basic package ($20) was for roughin’ and toughin’ backpackers who wouldn’t mind sharing the outside deck and sleep among the stars with everyone else. Sounds adventurous but after enduring a typhoon in Hanoi, I wasn’t ready to risk being rained upon in the middle of the night when sleeping. I went with the middle class package at around 1,000,000 VND ($50) and it was luxurious enough for me! For 1 night and 2 days, I got a clean, simple bedroom with my personal bathroom and shower. From the bedroom, I had a scenic window view of the sea and beyond.
Regardless of what pack you decide, transportation will be fairly the same for everyone, unless you’ve specifically ordered a limousine or private driver. A van will personally come to your hotel to pick you up along with around 10 other travelers as well so this makes it longer because it takes time to go from hotel to hotel. They usually come pick up tourists that are staying close to each other in order to save time. Depending on the traffic, it takes around 4-5 hours to go from Hanoi to Ha Long so pack a book or listen to some music. I left the hotel early in the morning so traffic wasn’t that bad. Only in the evening of the following day was traffic terrible. It took almost 6 hours to get back to Hanoi Moment Hotel.
Lastly, everyone gets a tour guide in all three package. So if you don’t enjoy being ushered around in groups, feel free to be daring and adventurous by customizing your own trip. However, I think the Vietnamese believe it’s better to put tourists into tour groupies because most tourists cannot speak the native language to know where to go and the best places to eat.
Perhaps the only time you will speak to Vietnamese locals is when you’re communicating with your tour guide or the driver. They might come off as unfriendly or rude judging from how they speak. Don’t worry, they’re not purposely trying to sound rude. Vietnamese is very direct with simple sentences so they are probably translating their message directly word by word into English. For example, our tour guide would speak as such, “Ok, my friend?” “Hey my friend!” “What is it my friend?” That’s because using “you” and “I” to the person you’re talking to is too informal–too impolite so we address strangers and acquaintances as “friend.” But during our journey back to Hanoi, after giving no warning to a passenger that we’ve arrived at his hotel, our tour guide says, “Ok my friend, get out.” The passenger was a bit taken back at the abrupt directness. But in Vietnamese, telling someone to “get out” doesn’t sound rude at all!
Once you arrive at the bay, you will be escorted to the area where you wait to board your boat and then it’s take off. Just sit back and enjoy the scenery.
After passing many limestone rock like islands and you might start to create characters or personalities out of them. Among many, there’s the 2 famous kissing rocks that the locals adore. It’s basically 2 limestone rocks that are learning in towards each other, hence the “kissing.” For couples that are enjoying vacation in Ha Long, if you spot the kissing rocks, you should immediately kiss each other for good luck or everlasting love or whatever it is… I don’t know who makes this crap up, but it’s what the Vietnamese tell me. Although I was vacationing with my boyfriend, I never spotted the kissing rocks but oh well, love goes on. If you’re single and traveling alone with the other passengers on the boat, it might be an opportune time for you to use the kissing rock story to catch some lucky fish that night. “Hey there, you see those two rocks over there? Locals call it the kissing rock and if you kiss someone in its presence, you will get good luck for the rest of you life. So how about some good luck right now?” 😉 Please let me know if anyone actually falls for it.
My favorite, favorite, favorite part of every Ha Long bay trip is the food! But you will get two difference experiences depending on if you’ve gone with the foreigners tour package or the local Vietnamese tour package. My first time at Ha Long was with other Vietnamese nationals so we were served incredible, fresh, fresh, seafood that were caught moments before hitting our table.
During my second time in Ha Long, I was the only Vietnamese among other foreigners, which were mainly westerners from the U.S. and Europe, which I really don’t mind. The food was still good, but it was nothing compared to the food photos above. I still get the fresh seafood like the stuffed flounder or bass shown below, along with shrimp and other shell fish and clams, but then suddenly the boat staff served french fries which made me feel a bit strange. Why would you give Westerners junk food when they came all this way to taste your food?
A great souvenir idea are Ha Long bay pearls! Ha Long bay is famous for their pearls but I would recommend getting them at a higher end shop. It’s definitely going to be expensive but buying it through local hops increases the likelihood that you’ll get scammed. There’s a lot of fake pearls being sold around the bay. Just wait once you’re back in Ha Long bay city to scavenge around for some nice shops there than in the bay area.
Your boat will also stop by some nice areas for resting, tanning at the beach, or some exploration. There are many beautiful caves in Ha Long on some island that they will definitely show you at least one.
Be prepare to climb lots of steps to get into the caves. Your tour guide will probably also take you to the top of one of the islands where you can enjoy Ha Long bay in its entirety from above. You can also enjoy nice beaches on some of the islands. You must be careful with the water because it’s quite polluted today. It’s quite clean on the shores of certain beaches but I wouldn’t suggest jumping into the water while your boat is far off from the shore.
One activity provided by our tour was kayaking through Ha Long bay. It was very nice to get out of the boat and paddle through the islands yourself. I was initially afraid because I don’t know how to swim so if the kayak capsizes, I’d be gone, but we all had life vests. Our tour guide, for such a skinny little man, he led us kayaking really far from the boat and on the way back, everyone was dying from exhausting. He was quite aloof to our fatigue.
When the sun is about to set, find a nice spot to enjoy the evening sun. There about thousands of boats bringing in tourists everyday but as dawn sets in, everything quiets down and sets a very peaceful mood to help you relax from your tiring travels.
If your boat crew was as Asian as ours, they even set up a karaoke area in the dining room for us after dinner. Unfortunately, the westerners preferred going to the rooftop for some drinks than to show of their singing sensation.