Written by: Jaii Fredregill
Destination: Long in Hạ Long Bay, Vietnam
Visited: August 2016
Following the lead of nearby Thailand, Vietnam has worked hard in recent years to attract visitors and build a thriving tourist industry. One attraction that has long drawn visitors is Ha Long Bay, which translates to “descending dragon bay” in English.
Local Cua Van Villager
According to local legend, the Jade Emperor sent a mother dragon and her babies to help the ancient people fight off foreign invaders from the north. The dragons incinerated the invaders on the mainland then spit emeralds in the bay to construct an impenetrable wall. Over time this wall of jewels and dragon spit slowly broke apart to become the many islets that remain today.
A passing boat spotted from our cabin porthole.
Nearly 2,000 limestone karsts have formed over hundreds of millions of years. Some house grottos or larger caves as varied in size as the islands themselves. Just 3-hours outside of Hanoi by car, the cruise sails from the Tuan Chau Marina located in the Quang Ninh Province on the northwest coast of the Gulf of Tonkin.
Private and group cruises from 4-hours to 3-days are available. Some offer the opportunity to sail aboard pimped out junk ships in style and nearly all promote varying levels of luxury. When booking it may be worth your while to research which company you would like to go with, then reserve with them directly. Cutting out a middleman like a hotel, travel agent, etc., will often spare you a markup and be kinder to your budget. The cruise companies also run promotions which can sometimes result in additional savings.
The bay is not just for tourist. Other large ship pass through frequently.
I sailed aboard the Paradise Luxury cruise. Activities and meal times were very structured. I believe this is the case regardless of who you travel with unless you spring for a private vessel. Typically, I am not fond of this type of structured agenda. I have only been on one other cruise in my life. It was on a major cruise line with loads of people who didn’t leave the ship much.
Kayaking was not exceptional but it was a nice way to break up the day.
Thankfully, that was not the case in Hạ Long Bay. The boat was smaller and far more charming, and the overall atmosphere was calm and relaxed despite the systematic churning of activities.
Excursions offered include climbing hundreds of steps to take in an impressive bird’s-eye view of the bay, a walk-through Sung Sot Cave, kayaking, and a couple of hours at a not-so-great beach. Most ships also have a spa for those who prefer to stay aboard and drift along for massage or other treatments.
A passing cruise ship.
Paradise is a first-rate cruise line and some consider it to be the best Hạ Long Bay has to offer. The rooms are comfortable, there are not a ridiculous number of passengers, the food is appetizing and plentiful, and overall, I had an enjoyable experience. However, after taking the 3-day/2-night cruise, I do have to say I think 2-days/1-night would have sufficed.
View from the top of Tip Top Island
Though the bay is stunning and cruising through it is lovely, the magic begins to fade as the ship circles the same loop repeatedly beside other nearby cruise ships. The other let down was that those staying on for the second night get shuffled onto a smaller boat on Day-2 called the Paradise Explorer.
This boat is not nearly as nice or comfortable as the main ship. It consists of a small dining hall, a decent rooftop deck, and a poorly ventilated bathroom. There were showers inside these hot boxes, but they didn’t feel very private or refreshing. After a day in the beating sun, this was not much of a substitute for the room and shower I had booked and wanted to return to.
Local Cua Van woman selling souvenirs and refreshments
During the outing on Day-2, the crew took passengers to climb 400-steps to the top of Tiptop Island, then hang out on the beach for a while before returning to the Explorer for lunch and kayaking. Meanwhile, the main boat sailed back to port to drop-off and pick-up other passengers.
Tiptop Island is not a terrible place, but it’s not exactly paradise either. Despite the sweltering, August heat that comes in this northeastern part of Vietnam, the island was overrun by several large tour groups traipsing around behind their guides and stepping on everyone else like an angry herd of rabid sheep.
View from the entrance of Sung Sot Cave
For those who had opted for the shorter cruise, Day-2 included a trip to climb the steps to the Sung Sot Cave after breakfast. Here you can take in yet another magnificent view and stroll through the cave before return to the ship to sail back to Tuan Chau Marina to end the cruise. Those of us with an extended stay visited Sung Sot on Day-3, and I found it to be a much more enjoyable experience than Tiptop Island. Paired with a single night of cruising, this would have been enough to leave me with happy memories.
Sunset over Ha Long Bay
It is always wise to check the itinerary before you book to make sure the excursions listed are actually on offer. For example, snorkeling was listed as an activity when I booked with Paradise but was not offered on board. Honestly, the thick green bay water is not water the best for snorkeling, so for me this was okay. Paradise also warns that they may change the schedule, for example, the itinerary posted online includes a visit to Tung Sau Pearl Farm and the Cua Van Floating Village but once on board these outings were not offered.
A Note on The Cua Van Floating Village
A young boy greets us at the floating village
I did kayak past the floating village. In fact, after reading that there would be a visit to the village, I kayaked up to it, but when I tried to climb out of my kayak, cruise members signaled for me to return to the big ship instead. No explanation was ever offered for this even when I asked, so I dropped it. I have read from different sources that the population of the village is somewhere between 800-1,600. I only saw 50-100 people during my time in the bay. Some are so familiar with living on the water that they can be seen rowing the oars of their boats with their feet.
Cua Van Villager selling beer
The village does seem to rely on the tourism to boost their economy. Most of our interactions with the villagers were through daily transactions for beer or Pringles. You can find plenty of refreshments on the cruise, but why not support local commerce? These small mobile stores offer everything from snacks to souvenirs, so don’t be shy. Plus, how often do you get your beer served to you at the end of a 10-foot pole?
Overall, cruising through Hạ Long Bay is fun, relaxing and goes nicely with cocktails, so be sure to enjoy happy hour and a lovely sunset at the top deck bar.
Most tourists travel to Hạ Long Bay from Hanoi, where you can catch a train or a bus, or hire a driver or taxi. Your cruise companies can also help arrange a shared or private car for you. The bus takes approximately 4-hours, whereas the drive will take about 3-hours, but include a stop at a large tourist trap souvenir shop. If you do not book with your cruise company, be sure to let the driver or hotel know what time you need to arrive. It appeared that the drivers eat for very cheap or free at these places, so you might as well look around, get a snack and use the bathroom because they’re not going to leave before they finish their meal. This is not good tourism, especially since you are already paying but it is what it is. You can ask them nicely to skip the stop or offer them a small gratuity to hurry it up if you like, but you may just get attitude back.
Rates for transportation do vary by company. Be sure to ask for the price before you begin your journey or you could get ripped off. If you have not negotiated directly with the driver, let them know the price you agreed to before you go. Most are honest but if there is any confusion or disagreement on the price ask them to kindly call the company or call the company yourself to confirm. If they are trying to con you this is when they will back down. If not then it's good for them to call so they know you're not conning them either.
Mini Bus from Old Quarter – USD 6+ per person
Standard Bus – USD 10 per person each way. Depart from the My Dinh or Gia Lam bus terminals in Hanoi; these larger, faster buses offer more comfort than minibuses for a few dollars more.
Private Car – $20-$40 per person R/T
Trains – Hanoi Main Station to Hai Phong Station – USD 25. Travel time 4+ hours. You can find tickets online at https://vietnam-railway.com/
For those who can’t stand long rides or just want an aerial view can travel by seaplane. Like cars, these can be arranged by your cruise company, or you can arrange your own here.
Looking to learn a few phrases before you go? Duolingo now offers free Vietnamese lessons.