Right after I booked my flights to Vietnam, I started to make a list of thing I wanted to do, foods I wanted to eat and places I wanted to see. On top of that last list was Ha Long Bay; the bay of the descending dragon, a UNESCO world heritage site know from National Geographic, with over 2000 limestone mountains emerging from emerald water.
Since I was staying in Hanoi, a day trip seemed to be the best choice. A very long and detailed search online brought me to a company called OneTrip who offered a Ha Long Bay Tour for one or two days, away from the tourist masses.
Their website offered two different kinds of tours, by private car or in a group and since I was travelling alone, the group tour seemed to be the best choice. The only catch? Group tours only take place with at least three people and there was only one person, other than me, who was interested in that tour on this particular date.
Instead, I was recommended a company called OceanTours. Their tour was considerably cheaper and in a much bigger group than I had planned, but at that point, they were my only option, since I wasn’t going to risk just booking something at random.
The Ha Long Bay tour I went on
At 8:12 am I was picked up by a quite old looking tour bus, which turned out to be an adventure in itself since my homestay was between a busy intersection and a road that was blocked off for busses and cars. After circling the block three times, the tour guide waved for me to walk down the street so I could hop into the bus.
Once onboard I walked to the back since most of the seats in the front half were already taken. That choice soon proved to be a bad one. Due to the busses age, the axles were super springy and with every bump in the road and every pothole all four people sitting in the back of the bus were catapulted a few centimetres into the air.
During the 3 hour drive to Ha Long, I got to talk the three people sitting closest to me: Matthew from Canada in his late 20s and two older gentlemen from Malaysia in their late 40s to early 50s. We talked about our respective travels and gave each other tips on visiting our home countries.
We stopped once for roughly 20 minutes, everyone had to leave the bus and walk through the building we had stopped in front of, through rows and rows of souvenirs and a line of food stalls to entice us to buy something. We also had a chance to go to the toilet, which was surprisingly clean. On the other side of the building, our bus was already waiting.
At around noon we arrived at Tuan Chau Marina, a harbour where tour buses were lined up on the one side and cruise ships on the other. Following our tour guide, who carried a blue and gold flag with him at all times, we managed to find our ship without losing anyone. Quite the contrary, we picked up around 12 more people, a group of students from Hanoi.
Once all 45 people were on the ship we were seated with six people each around each table, the four of us being joined by two young men from Düsseldorf (Germany), both 19, who had just graduated. We had lunch: spring rolls that we could fill ourselves, rice, vegetables and a fried fish per table. What sounds good in theory wasn’t much of a feast. Every table got six sheets of rice paper and just enough to fill it sparsely. We stayed hungry and hoped that there would be more, or that chance to buy something to eat, later. During lunch, we went past the Dog islet, the Incense Burner Islet (which is featured on the 200.000 VND note), the Fighting Cock Islet (pictured above) and many others.
Our first stop was Sung Sot cave or Surprising cave. When we arrived there were already two moored ships. Members of the crew quickly came around the cabin and told everyone to keep our arms inside and close the windows. A second later screeching metal gave away why, as the captain of our ship rammed it in between the other two. The manoeuvre finally ended with a loud bang as the ship hit the stone pier.
We had the choice to stay with the group or explore the cave on our own. I chose to stay with the group until our tour guide had given us some background information on the cave, then went off on my own. The first thing you notice as you step into the cave is it’s incredibly high air humidity. After just a few steps you are immediately covered with a sheen of water (pictured below).
What was most surprising about this cave was how it was perfectly done up for tourists walking through it, with walkways, lights and even steps leading through the three chambers that are open to the public. Inside you are far from alone since this massive cave is included in most itineraries.
That doesn’t mean that the sights aren’t incredibly breathtaking. Nature proves, over and over, that she is, and forever will be, more impressive and more beautiful than anything humans build.
This time we didn’t spend much time on the ship before we landed at a swimming wooden island. There we paired off, were given a (more or less fitting) life vest and a paddle then lined up and waited for a kayak to explore the Luon Cave and the lake behind it. It was my luck that Matthew does kayaking as a hobby back in Canada and offered to do all the work, so I could just sit back and take in the breathtaking scenery. As you can only get to the lake through the cave it was free of cruise ships and since there are only so many kayaks to go around there aren’t too many people inside at the same time.
The last place we stopped at, around 3:30 pm, was TiTov island. This island boasts a viewpoint and an artificial beach. The beach was overrun and the water wasn’t very clean, but the view from the top of the island is worth climbing the over 300 steps!
After just 15 minutes on the island, we were herded back to our ship and set off towards the harbour. On the way back most of us were too exhausted to do anything other than lounging on the sundeck. The sun was hidden behind clouds and the temperature was perfect. We also went past the same islets as on the way into the bay, which was nice, since we didn’t really get the chance to see them the first time.
Around 5:30 pm we arrived back on the harbour and quickly got onto the bus back to Hanoi where we arrived at 8 pm and started dropping people off. Since I had been one of the first to be picked up I was also one of the last to be dropped off again. I ended up getting off at the end of the street, so I could grab a Banh Mi for a much-needed dinner.
A short recap, to answer the question in the title:
- 4 – 6 hours are spent on the road, remember that when choosing your tour company
- When you are going where everyone else is, don’t be surprised that there are masses of tourists and cruise ships
- Bring your own food. Grabbing a Banh Mi (or three) before pick up is quick, cheap and easy
- Make sure your camera battery is full because the nature around you will be breathtaking
- Having said that, don’t just look through the lens of your camera the entire time. No picture or video can compare to the feeling you have when you just focus on your surroundings
The tour I went on cost 42$ or 37,7€. Which means I paid 3,1€ per hour. For that money, it was excellent value. However, I would rather pay more and have more, than “get a great deal” and leave with mixed feelings (since the lack of food resulted in a serious headache).
The tour was worth it for the once in a lifetime sights and the people you meet on the way. Just remember to bring extra food.
If there is any way, you should stay in Ha Long or on one of the nearby islands for a night or two. You can still go on a cruise directly from there, but you can also explore the coastline of the bay and make use of the lesser-known beaches.
If budget isn’t a problem, I would recommend OneTrips Ha Long Bay Adventure. If you want to see the bay without cruise ships, far away from most other Tourists, this is the tour for you. Because when OneTrip writes “off the beaten Path” they really mean it. You can (and should!) choose the two-day option, so you don’t rush it.
If you’re on a tight budget and want to book with Ocean Tours, I would recommend the DELUXE Acardy one day cruise. It is only a little more expensive, but further away from the crowds.