Halong Bay in a Day

5:47:00 AM

A video posted by Danielle (@awsmchos) on

I managed to stay away from most of Vietnam's tourist traps during my trip, but there was one that I couldn't resist (not that I wanted to, anyway): a cruise along the towering limestones of Halong Bay in Quang Ninh Province.

It's in the face of every travel brochure, a top attraction on rating sites like Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet, and is regularly featured on blogs and magazines. It's also the highlight of recommendations from friends who've been to Vietnam: "YOU HAVE TO GO," echoing the deluge of online reviews. It was all very tempting, especially when there are hundreds of photographs (outside official tourism campaigns) to prove how beautiful it really is. (TBH, I didn't need anything more than an Instagram search to be convinced.)

I was set. Come what may, I was heading out to Hạlong Bay.

Booking a tour

I opted for a day trip with APT Travel which I secured with the help of Especen, the hotel that housed me in Hanoi. I normally DIY nature-tripping but considering Vietnam's ill reputation in the Travel Scam and Highway Robbery categories, I was willing to spend a king's ransom for safety and convenience.

Although, I wouldn't exactly call organized tours to Hạlong Bay expensive. I spent 40 USD (PHP 1,900) for a package that covered transportation, entrance passes, the actual cruise and seafood lunch. Except for a single mishap* on the way back to Hanoi, I didn't have much to complain in terms of staff service.

*Without giving us a heads up, our shuttle buses were switched for our return to the city. There were a few belongings (non-valuables) that were left on the first bus, but the agency did make sure everything was returned properly.

I still think it was a good deal. Everything was organized beforehandall we had to do was show up and be tourists.

There are options to stay overnight at Halong Bay or even longer, and it's recommended for those who want a sunrise experience by the beautiful bay and enough rest in-between the long land travels. Personally, I found the day trip enough to satisfy traveler's curiosity.

Tip: Exercise caution when looking for an agency to book with. Know which to avoid. Do background checks on Trip Advisor and social media before committing any payments.

A photo posted by Danielle (@awsmchos) on

Before the cruise

Hạlong Bay is about three hours away from Hanoi. If you're joining a one-day group, the call time can be as early as 7AM, depending on how your tour guide plans the pick-up. I was scheduled at 8:30AM and when I got on the bus, it was nearly full. We started to make our way for Hạlong Bay not long after that, though it took us a while to get out of the city proper due to terrible traffic.

The drive to Hạlong Bay was fairly comfortable. We rode a small, air-conditioned bus and for half of the ride, we had an energetic (sometimes, too energetic) guide named Nhung. She said a lot of things that forced us to bite our tongues, but we found her tackiness amusing for the most part.

We drove through a nice view, going past the countryside with a few little towns and industrial plants, and had two stopovers. We arrived at the port around noon and, as soon as Nhung secured our passes, we were escorted to the boat where we were immediately served lunch.

All aboard!


Our lunch was simple but satisfying. Each table shared steamed shrimp, steamed vegetables (chop suey), fish (tilapia, I think), spring rolls, fried pork, rice and fresh cucumber. The spring rolls were everyone's favorite!


The cruise kicked off the moment we were sat for the meal. As soon as we were satisfied, we jumped out of our seats to take in the view.


The scene at Hạlong Bay is so wonderful, you guys, and it almost felt surreal to be in the middle of all that! They say winter (December to January) is not the best time to go as it can get too cold, which it did, and the formations disappear in the mist. It wasn't the case when we came. Though it was bitter cold, the skies were clear and there wasn't a drop of rain. Hallelujah! 


As part of the tour, we spent a few minutes near a fishing village where we rented kayaks and bamboo boats for a closer look at the limestone karst landforms.


I went for a bamboo boat with two newfound friends, Cara and Jen. Camila went for the kayak. The boat ride was not part of the packaged I paid for, so I spent an extra 60, 000 VND (3 USD) for a 20-minute boat ride.


From the bamboo boat, you can see how high the landforms go. Each one was monolithic, with thick vegetation that seems to sprawl out from the insides of the rocks. 

Since this is a famous tourist spot, it would be nice if the locals manning the boats could be taught a bit of English. That way, they can share stories that guides from the city aren't privy to. I'd love to know what life is like floating on water 24/7 and why they refuse to leave despite threats to their safety during typhoon season. It would've made the trip a lot more special.


After the quick side trip, we wound down for a bit atop the White Tiger while waiting for the kayakers. As we sailed (okay, more like motored) for the next stop, Nhung started telling the story of the "descending dragon" or where Hạlong Bay got its name. I found myself not really caring much for it—instead, I thought about the locals and their untold everyday lives. Those are the stories I want to hear. 


They call this one The Chicken. Can you see it?


Providing a nice break from Halong Bayas beautiful as it is, it was quite a monotonous viewwe headed for the Thien Cung Cave (Heavenly Palace Cave). 


From the outside, Thien Cung looks like a jungle but as soon as you step in, it's like being inside a museum. I'd never been in a cave like it. So big and spacious inside, and the rock formations were so magnificent. Nhung had so much fun pointing out what certain rock forms resembled and she was extra giddy about the elephants that hung from the ceiling. (I really thought they were jellyfish though.)

I can't help feeling overwhelmed as I looked around.


My only gripe about it were the colorful lights. There was no questioning that the cave is set up for tourism (I mean, there were man-made stairs and trails), but did they really have to go this far? It's tacky.


When we were satisfied with our pictures, we went back to the boat and officially ended our tour at around 4PM. Four hours at Halong Bay may sound short but man, was it exhausting!

I dozed off on the way back home and during the stopover, I had a painful accident wherein I twisted my left ankle. It didn't necessarily ruin the trip because everyone was so caring. Extra thankful for Jen and Camila who acted as my human slings, the British dude who hoisted me up the steps and the Korean family who handed over a relief patch. (And Cara, too, who lent me her cardigan for an extra layer of warmth soon as we arrived in Halong Bay.)

What a day to remember!

***

It's funny now when I think about how I almost didn't go. All the things that make Hạlong Bay attractive are also the very things that make it a candidate for disappointment.

Out of 10 reviews, you can find one or two disgruntled travelers whose experiences were nothing close to wonderful. At best, they were booked with less than enthusiastic and non-articulate tour guides but at worst, people were actually scammed and robbed of money and other valuables. It can happen to anyone!

Hạlong Bay is every bit the tourist trap and I won't be surprised if one day, it ends up looking like our very own Boracay [1, 2]. If you ask me, it might already be well on its way.

When we arrived at the port, I noticed that there are many developments underway, to add to the hotels and resorts that are already there. Not to mention they sell souvenirs *everywhere* you go—from the cruise ship to the fishing village and even by the foot of the cave. (And by souvenirs, I mean keychains. FOR CRYING OUT LOUD—keychains?!)

During peak season (March to June), the bay itself can be crowded with junks and party groups. Other people claim they've actually seen trash floating on the waters.

Despite all that, I think Hạlong Bay still deserves a spot on the must-visit list. Only, I'd say the best time to go is NOW: before it finally gives in to over-development and when there's still much natural beauty to behold.

(Or just go for the alternative: Lan Ha Bay!)

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