How many wonders does it take for something to not be so wondrous anymore? I wonder when I reflect on my visit to Ha Long Bay. In 2011 Ha Long Bay was voted one of the seven new nature wonders of the world, a feat of which the Vietnamese are really proud. Paying a visit to this wonder is one of the top tourist attractions in Vietnam which makes for a very crowded bay full of traditional junk boats hoarding tourists along the most important stops, but despite the crowds its still worth a visit.
A trip to Ha Long Bay starts with comparing all the different tours that are offered in Hanoi. The itineraries are pretty much the same so the most important decisions to make are how much money and time you are willing to spend. Most tours are either two or three days, with at least one night spend on the boat. The prices vary greatly and in general one would think that more expensive equals better service and quality but from other travelers I have heard that this is not necessarily the case. On the lower end of the spectrum you definitely seem to get what you pay for: old boats and not much food. I decide to be lazy and book a tour through my hotel, which price-wise falls somewhere in the middle: 79 US dollars buy me a two day trip to the bay with one night on a boat and all meals included. Drinks to be paid separately.
Exploring the Bay
When we arrive at the harbour the passengers on the bus are split into two groups and everyone receives a ticket that serves as the entrance ticket to the bay and the attractions we will be visiting. The next two days I will be amazed by how casual but seemingly efficient and without error groups are split up and merged back together on buses, on islands and even in the middle of the bay. Somehow it just works even though dozens of tour groups are waiting in the same areas.
As we board our boat we are welcomed by the captain and his crew and handed a welcome drink — lemonade, no alcohol yet. I look around and perform a quick headcount: fourteen passengers, myself included. Five couples, two Kiwis traveling together and one other solo traveler, from Germany. After the welcome drink and leaving the harbour we check in to our rooms and I am pleasantly surprised by the size of the room, which I'll be sharing with the German. The bed feels hard and comfortable, the bathroom is big — taking into consideration we are on a boat — and features a hot shower. It is not time for bed yet though, first well explore the bay and all its wonders.
Todays itinerary starts with a visit to Sung Sot cave where there are so many people we can only slowly shuffle forward. The cave is an impressive big hole, just what you would expect from a cave. After the cave we boat to Titop Island where we relax on the beach, go for a swim and do a strenuous climb to the top of the hill on the island, from where we have a great view on the bay. The day ends with kayaking around a floating village which is a good workout and nice because it is quite late and the crowds have already left. When we're done kayaking we sail around the corner where we park the boat and where we will spend the night. Dinner is served, and I must say that the food on board is surprisingly good. It is not going to win any Michelin stars but it tastes good, looks fresh and the portions are copious.
After dinner tables are quickly cleared and the karaoke system is installed. This seems to be the moment the crew has been waiting for all day and I admire their efforts to engage the Westerners to join their musical festivities. Apart from one person who had started drinking early nobody seems really inclined to participate in Asias favourite pastime. Not to completely disappoint our hosts I decide to sing a duet with one of the crew, but trying to karaoke a Vietnamese song without knowing the language is not easy. All the guests flee from the bar area to the upper deck to gaze at the stars, unfortunately there are many clouds blocking the view tonight so most resort to the alternative: drinking.
The next morning the world has disappeared behind an impenetrable layer of rain and mist, all limestone islands have disappeared. The mystical atmosphere in the bay is amplified by this weather and brings with it an eerie silence and end-of-the-world feeling in a bay said to have been created by mighty dragons. Imposing limestone rocks rise up out of the water and disappear behind a thick, grey curtain.
I enjoy this sudden change of weather as it plays well with my schedule today: enjoy breakfast, eat lunch and get driven back to Hanoi. For the others on the boat, who all stay another night in the bay, this is not so good news as they have a hike scheduled after lunch. After breakfast we set sail for Cat Ba island where everybody except me leaves the boat and another group that just spend the night on the island boards the boat as they also need to go back to Hanoi. A group of French join me at my table and I in turn join their game of trou du cul, also known as asshole. Even though their English is abysmal and my French is rusty we have a good time and I look forward to having lunch with them, but when we are on our way to the harbour in the middle of the bay groups are again shuffled, this time between two boats. My new lunch mates are a Japanese and an Australian couple. This is starting to feel an awful lot like speed dating. The lunch, grilled fish covered in vegetables, fried chicken, squid with tomatoes, mashed potatoes, more fried vegetables, a salad, fresh fruit and — of course — rice goes down well and is just finished when we reach the harbour.
In the harbour the people shuffling begins again when the group is split amongst several buses, ready to start the drive back to Hanoi. A very uneventful, bumpy ride later I am dropped of at the same spot where this adventure started almost thirty-two hours ago: the doorstep of my hotel.
Was this trip worth 79 dollars? Yes, it was. Do I recommend going to Ha Long Bay? Yes, I do. If you happen to be in Hanoi and have the time I can heartily recommend a trip to Ha Long Bay, but be warned: you will not be alone. However, the jaw dropping scenery more than makes up for it.