I’ll admit, I was initially a bit nervous about writing this post. Throughout our travels, we’ve had some pretty incredible experiences and as we go along, these experiences only seem to be getting more amazing. The issue being that words such as, “amazing” and “incredible” can lose value over time and sometimes fail to reflect just how (insert positive adjective) and unforgettable these experiences have been. As I write, I hope, that you’ll forgive the, “kid in a toy shop” descriptive ceiling and that this will somehow translate in a way that honestly reflects our experience of Halong Bay.
We are not known to shy away from treating ourselves every now and again but this was a slice of something a little extra. Usually a little extra, comes with a price tag and this was no exception. Our most expensive outing so far, we really took our time deciding, which of the countless tour operators, we would select. With each operator offering something slightly different and costs ranging from the cheap and tacky to the grand and ridiculous, we quickly decided that joining the swarms of floating selfie droids in Halong bay was not something we were that keen on. As always, Ella managed to find a best of both option that meant we got to see Halong Bay itself, while also exploring the other neighbouring bays and for the most part, avoided that ant colony feeling.
We booked with Christina Diamond for our 2 day, 1 night cruise which included a pick up and return from our hostel in Hanoi. The minibus journey lasted around 4 hours (including the 30 min stop off at a souvenir warehouse) and was mostly spent listening to our guide giving the worlds longest introduction to a tour. This was also the first time that the “expected tips” got a mention. Our guide was kind enough to let us know exactly how much we should give as a tip and at which point. In essence, this was just a hidden cost that isn’t mentioned anywhere online or by the provider. A sneaky way of getting more money but keeping it under the radar, we were skeptical and a bit worried as the already expensive treat didn’t leave a lot of room in the budget for throwing away an extra $50 at a time. 😪
As we approached Halong Bay, the minibus practically lurched to one side as everyone on board began hugging the windows, blown away by the first sight of the Bays countless islands. We pulled into the harbour, grabbed our bags and transferred onto a small ferry that would take us across the harbour to our boat. It was very much a case of safety first on our little ferry, as we were each handed the worlds largest life jacket and told to hang on tightly in case we are hit by other boats. 😳
As we floated across the harbour at less knots than a shoelace, it was easy to see that our junk boat was (or at least looked) a lot nicer than the many others moored nearby. This was later confirmed as we stepped on board, what I can only describe, as a mini floating hotel. Three floors of tastefully decked out, wooden maritime eye candy. It wasn’t a new boat but looked “vintage old” rather than “should we be worried?” old. The first floor had 8 cabins, kitchen, viewing deck and a little decked area used for squid fishing at night. 🐙
The second floor had another 8 cabins (one of which, was ours), a large dining area and balcony. The entire top floor was an enormous sun deck that basically offered a 360 view, bar the captains bridge. Our room was also a really nice ensuite double room with private balcony with every freebie you could imagine. Feeling a lot better about the price tag, we were a little disappointed to be only staying 1 night.
Having been declared a world UNESCO heritage site in 1994, popularity for Halong bay as a tourist destination has grown exponentially. This now means that on any given day, up to 400 cruise ships will be moored in the bay (so much for that perfect photo). Unlike other operators, our ship was one of a fleet of only 15 vessels allowed to moor in the neighbouring BaTu Long Bay and as we left the harbour, we left the huge cluster of ships behind.
Once on board, we were strategically seated at tables in the dinning room and treated to an all you can eat lunch buffet. It wasn’t a huge surprise to be sat with the only other white, western couple but this worked in our favour as Elie and Reece, the sophisticated, mature couple (not unlike ourselves 😜) were really easy to get on with and ended up being our organised fun buddies for the trip.
Feeling royally stuffed, we spent the next 30 mins up on the sun deck with our jaws gapping, as the floating limestone landscape stretched into the horizon. Almost too picturesque to believe, it felt like we were suddenly in a story book, watching as someones imagination created a never ending Avatar landscape. I’m not sure if it’s because almost all of the islands are uninhabited or because there are simply so many, that if you parachuted in, you’d have no chance of knowing where you are, but there was something majestically eerie about the place.
📷 – glad the captain brought his map
Our little trance was quickly broken by the unforgettable voice of our guide 😐, announcing over the intercom that we had 15 minutes to get ready for our first activity. Yay organised fun! A little panicked, we carried our bags to our room, changed and headed to the lower deck to board the ferry that had been latched to the side of the boat. Again, safety first meant we were reunited with our sexy life jackets for the 10 minute journey to the floating village.
Before the bay was declared a world heritage site, lots of little floating villages dotted around the islands were home to fisherman and their families. Since then, families have been relocated to the mainland, given money for schools and bigger fishing boats for their businesses. This village has been preserved, mainly as a tourist attraction but helps you imagine what life was like. We split into our little dinning room groups and each had a row boat tour of the village.
The tour took us past huge limestone islands, through caves and along the many floating houses that make up the village. An incredibly peaceful place, far from the sound of engines, the silence was broken only by bird calls and water lapping the oars.
To our amazement (and Ella’s delight) there seemed to be a large population of dogs in the village. Walks must take a lot of effort. 🤔
Our last stop was at an oyster farm, located adjacent to the floating village. We had a quick intro to everything pearl and a demonstration in which a member of staff harvested a prefect pearl. ⚪️
It was a weird experience, standing on a pontoon, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by what I can only describe as a floating Tiffany showroom. It seems everywhere on the planet accepts MasterCard these days.
Before heading back to the ship, the ferry dropped us off at a private beach where we took a sea kayak out to paddle around the islands. This was easily my favourite part of the trip. The scenery was consistently incredible and the idea that we were just floating around the Gulf of Tonkin was blowing my mind. We explored caves, hidden coves and even took off our life jackets because we’re total renegades that know no boundaries! 😎
Being in the kayak really magnified that eerie feeling. It was as if we were in another planet entirely. Granted, this planet still accepted wireless payments but the views were just so impressive. I could tell I wasn’t alone in thinking this as Ella seemed to be equally captivated. In fact, looking back now, I think the surreal landscape may have affected Ella more, as even the less impressive bits were enough to distract from paddling. 🤔
Back on the beach, feeling like accomplished explorers, albeit a little tired from the workout, we hung out with the resident beach pups until it was time to head back to the boat.
Back on board we were invited to the sun deck for complimentary wine and nibbles while the sun began to set. I’m not kidding when I say we took around 200 photos of this sunset. It was unbelievable.
That night we had an enormous seafood dinner. I can’t remember how many courses there were but it was a lot of food. Topped off with a few beers, it was a fantastic end to a really fun day.
The next morning we were up early for a trip to one of the nearby natural caves. As the water levels change in Halong Bay, the limestone islands are slowly excavated over time, forming vast caves. Unfortunately the beauty of this cave was no secret and we were joined by dozens of other groups. Tourist swarm aside, the cave was pretty magnificent. Knowing that most of the islands in Halong Bay have been hollowed by this process, creating thousands of unexplored caves only further excited my inner child. #adventure
Back on board again, we endured the worlds most disappointing cooking class as we cruised back towards the harbour. Okay, it wasn’t that bad but when someone says, “Vietnamese cooking class” wrapping some veg in rice paper wasn’t really what sprung to mind. After we had devoured our terribly made spring rolls, we continued the trips tradition of eating way too much food, having our final lunch before we arrived back in the harbour.
For a trip that only lasted 2 days, it definitely feels like we packed a lot in. Maybe organised fun is the way forward. As we make our way back to Hanoi, I’m a little worried that with all of the niceties, we might have forgotten how to be backpackers. I say that while also secretly hoping the next place has a champagne reception and all you can eat buffet!! 🤞🏼