Halong Bay is the site of a cluster of some 1400 monolithic limestone islands each topped with thick jungle foliage that stand in epic fashion in the ocean. As you can full well imagine, the area is known to be very big with tourists, especially Chinese tourists, and nowadays there are literally hundreds of cruise ships and junk boats – both large and small – on hand to take these tourists around the Bay to admire the scenery.
The night before was extremely wet and windy. I stayed at the Novotel Halong Bay Hotel nearby for just the one night (after an arduous journey from Hanoi that morning), which is supposed to be a fairly good hotel, but I still thought the roof was going to blow off in the storm! I can only imagine what the conditions must have been like for the tourists who were sleeping onboard luxury ships in the Bay overnight.
They do say your experience of Halong Bay depends on the weather and the time of the year you come here. November-February will be very wet, and the rain and drizzle will obscure your views of the Bay, and seeing as the views are probably the main reason you come to this part of Vietnam, then it is certainly wise to plan your trip accordingly. I visited in April, which is prime tourist season, and the weather is supposed to be at its best in these spring and summer months. However, although I had already prepared for my experience at Halong Bay to be ruined, by the afternoon I was very happy to see the clouds dissipating and the sun came out for what turned out to be a glorious afternoon on the South China Sea! I had read good reviews about IndoChina-Junk, and that is the tour company with whom I booked my tour.
One of the great things about travelling solo is the ability to meet some new friends, in particular tourists from other countries. I met a small group of Koreans on my trip to Halong Bay, who had a fun time trying to understand that ‘Lee’ was my first name, and not the family name! Fortunately, I am pretty good with my Korean language skills and was able to converse with them for a good while before and during the cruise out the caves. The caves, especially Sung Sot Cave (although at the time I didn’t know the names of any of them!), were fantastic to explore, and not many people realise that when they come to Halong Bay it’s not just a basic cruise around the Bay that the tour operators offer. The cave exploration is usually part of the tour. We spent a good 45 minutes or so in each cave system, and while some were more impressive than others (we also visited Dau Go cave, which in my opinion was nothing special), it still gave rise to the belief that we were getting value for our money.
As the sun came out in the afternoon, I breathed a sigh of relief. All of a sudden I realised I was floating on the waters of one the most famous bays in the world – with the hoards of tourists to prove it! I enjoyed a nice drink onboard the Red Dragon, which was the name of my cruise ship. I would really recommend using Indochina Junk if you are planning to come to Halong Bay for a one day cruise. The tour with them lasted over five hours and included all entrance fees, a welcome drink (which, incidentally, was only a can of Coke, so don’t get too excited), and a seafood lunch buffet. You will be back on shore by sunset, which was perfect for me.
Although I didn’t get the chance to participate myself, I saw lots of people canoeing on the Bay. It must be awesome to have such an experience. I remember having some friends who took a sunrise tour of Sydney Harbour in a canoe, and they still to this day rave of their experience. I am jealous of them, and I am also jealous of the adventurers who canoed Halong Bay. I wanted to join them, and it just goes to show the different kinds of activities available out here, but I was happy enough to continue my affliction for Tiger Beer onboard my vessel.
Halong Bay is truly one of the wonders of Asia. It was not my personal highlight of the region, due to it being too touristy, but it’s all relative. It seems the guys over at Brooklyn Meets Bombay have a similar opinion to me in that regard. I prefer quieter, more inaccessible regions of the world, such as Bukit Lawang or Tana Toraja in Indonesia, and places in Bhutan, which few tourists will ever visit.
However, despite saying this, I would recommend a trip to Halong Bay to everyone – you cannot leave Vietnam without a trip here. It only takes around three hours by car from Hanoi, which is similar to the time to the Taj Mahal from Delhi. And if you’re in the Halong area and don’t want to sail on the Bay, then check out what else you can do in the city.