An emerald sea dotted with thousands of towering limestone islets, pillars, and arches, each coated in thickets of green jungle. That is the allure of Halong Bay, a designated UNESCO World Heritage site, and huge 1,553 kilometer2 seascape east of Hanoi, in Vietnam’s Quang Ninh Province.
Why Go to Halong Bay
Halong Bay is a place of almost mythical beauty. Even its name comes from an ancient legend, roughly translated as “descending dragon bay”. According to one version of the tale, in the early days of Vietnam, the locals were forced to fend off invaders. The gods, coming to the aid of the Vietnamese, sent dragons down to help defend the region. These dragons, rather than breathe fire, began to launch gemstones down towards the sea. Each gem was then transformed into the beautiful islets and islands that dot the bay, acting as a defensive wall against the invaders and their ships.
The bay is now home to a community of about 1,600 people living in or around four floating fishing villages nestled between islands. Fishermen live on boats or floating homes many kilometers away from the mainland and can go quite some time without stepping foot on solid ground.
In the region, tourists can enjoy day or overnight cruises around the bay, kayaking around the islands, cycling and trekking on Halong Bay beach and Cat Ba Island, scuba diving, squid fishing, exploring the islands’ many grottos and caves, climbing limestone cliffs, and visiting the floating villages.
With this in mind, Halong Bay seemed like the most extraordinary place for Rich and myself to start our post-wedding journey through Vietnam.
Seeing the Sites: Why We Decided Not to do a Multiday Cruise and Instead Stay on Cat Ba Island
Joined by my family and two friends, we were to spend 3 nights and 2 full days in the area. Originally, the hope was to do a nice, multi-day cruise through the Bay. However, when planning, Rich, being much better at doing the leg work than I am, discovered that unless you’re willing to shell out the big bucks for a luxury cruise, most multi-day services through Halong Bay are sub-par: bad food, bad service, and bad sleeping cabins.
Luxury cruises in Halong Bay can be really fantastic. At a later time during our trip through Vietnam, we encountered a Dutch couple that did one such cruise. It cost about $300 for their trip with Paradise Cruises. They seemed exceptionally happy to have been able to do this, and were really pleased with the overall cruise quality – announcing that the food was lovely and that every two cabins even came with a butler. Their cruise normally costs a fair amount more, however the company was offering a heavily discounted “eco-package”, which they booked. In this package, they missed out on a few activities in the tour itinerary and instead took the time to go kayaking through the more polluted areas of Halong Bay and collect trash. (If you’d like to look at the photos from their trip, please click here).
If you want to do a cruise but don’t want to pay up for it, don’t book through a Hanoi travel agency upon your arrival there. Make an educated decision for yourself. There are over 300 licensed cruises active any given day in Halong Bay and travel agencies will pass you onto their friends rather than actually find what is best suited for your needs.
For us, not wanting to splurge and be trapped on a slow moving boat for a few days (I tend to get restless and don’t do well with confined spaces), we opted to use Cat Ba Island – the largest island in Halong Bay – as our base and venture out from there. Cat Ba is also considered to be Vietnam’s adventure sport and ecotourism hub – so if you want to do something really adventurous during your time in Halong, go straight to Cat Ba and skip the cruise routine.
Cat Ba Island is very tourist friendly, with a small, fairly built up main town full of hotels, restaurants, shops, and karaoke bars. Its appearance though is rather unfortunate, comprising of some truly unappealing concrete buildings, all looking as if they were constructed in the 1980s and most certainly showing their age. Outside of town, however, the island, like much of the Bay is really quite idyllic. Nearly half of the island is an untouched national park.
When to Go and Where to Stay
September through November is generally considered to be the best time of the year in regards to weather in Cat Ba. However June through August with its hot, stormy, and humid weather is considered peak tourist season. We were coming in February, when the air is cooler, the fog heavier, rain more frequent, and the humidity picking up. We were therefore caught up in Halong Bay’s low season.
Though this obviously wasn’t ideal, and it was less likely that we were going to have the proper conditions to do activities like rock climbing (I wouldn’t recommend coming to Halong Bay at this time of the year), I wasn’t going to complain about our timing. This was a place I had always wanted to see, and Rich and I needed a lot of rest after our wedding in Hoi An. The daily rain showers certainly forced some extra sleep time upon us. As well, coming in near the end of the low season meant that hotel prices were greatly reduced.
Unfortunately, one look at the reviews on hotel booking websites like Agoda or Booking.com will make it painfully obvious that the hotels on the island tend to have a very polarizing effect on its guests. A single hotel can be either wonderful and clean, or it won’t have hot water (a typical complaint for most of Vietnam), will be covered in mold, and with walls made of paper.
Though there were certainly cheaper options on the island, wanting to make certain that my family was comfortable and had hot water and decent wi-fi access, we chose the lesser of all the evils and settled on Cat Ba Sunrise Resort, a beautiful but very dark, Japanese styled resort a kilometer and a half outside of Cat Ba town – and happily going for a fraction of its on-peak rate. Mold in the bathrooms however came included.
Staying along the main street is fine – one of the friends we had joining us decided to stay here instead of at the Sunrise. However, this area does get very noisy during peak months, hot water is essentially non-existent year round, and internet is hard to come by. It does however offer the perk of making it exceptionally easy to get around Cat Ba. Other hotels exist nestled into the sides of the national park, or even on their own islands just off Cat Ba, but it is much harder to get around if using these hotels as a base.
Getting To Cat Ba Island
Finding our way out to Cat Ba Island was a bit of a struggle. For most multi-day cruises, the tour company will arrange for transport to and from Hanoi – a nearly three hour drive one way. However, having decided to spend our nights on Cat Ba, we had to find our own way out.
Several hotels listed as being on Cat Ba Island will, for a fee, arrange transport from Hanoi’s Noi Bai airport for you. Unfortunately, most of those hotels are not actually on Cat Ba Island, but rather island adjacent meaning that you can’t actually leave the resort unless you’ve arranged for a day cruise or ferry transport to the main island. Our hotel did not give the option of airport pick-up and we were forced to find our own way.
One of the options that we considered was that of catching a bus or taxi from the airport to Hanoi and the Luong Yen Bus Station. From there we could catch the public Hoang Long bus for 2.5 hours from Hanoi to Hai Phong City or Halong City (Halong City is further from Hanoi and generally not recommended for independent travelers as it is very hard to get to Cat Ba from there, even with the bus), take a 45 minute ferry from the pier and then arrive on Cat Ba. These buses depart every few hours, with the last one departing at 1:20 PM (as of February 2015). This may sound like a really early last departure, however, when you consider that the last ferry to Cat Ba departs around 4 PM, even a 1:20 from Hanoi could be cutting it fine.
The $11 bus ticket covers the fees for the bus and ferry ride. It costs approximately another $13 to take a taxi from the airport to downtown Hanoi.
For us however, seeing as we were a group of nine travelling together, we opted to hire a private van from Hanoi Transfer Service. Per person, taking the private van would only be a few dollars more expensive than taking the bus and be much more comfortable. Additionally, we would get met directly at the airport by our driver. This also made more sense because we were landing in Hanoi at 12:20 in the afternoon and didn’t want to risk missing the bus to Cat Ba. With private transport we were assured that we would make it to the Hai Phong City pier in time for the last ferry.
We all felt like we made the right choice in using Hanoi Transfer Service. We were picked up from the airport quite promptly, and though our driver didn’t speak a word of English, every time we were in need of something that could not be easily mimed and understood he would call the service organizer, Leila, a Vietnamese local who is fluent in English to act as translator. For example, we had all been quite hungry when we landed in Hanoi and with few options at the airport in regards to food. Using Leila to let our driver know what we were after we organized for the driver to find a decent and clean restaurant for us along the way, and then had Leila order food for us over the phone. Additionally, with instructions from Leila, on arrival at the ferry pier, our driver was able to help organize our tickets.
Many guide books do leave out that not all ferries arrive directly in Cat Ba town. Only the hydrofoils do, so if you’re in the mood for a faster trip, when arriving at Hai Phong Pier, do buy a ticket for the next hydrofoil. This, unfortunately, was something that we were not aware of, so catching the last boat out to Cat Ba for the day, we were surprised to find that the ferry we took did not actually dock in Cat Ba town. It instead stopped at Cai Vieng harbor, on the western side of the island and about forty-five minutes removed from Cat Ba town. We didn’t even realize to get off the ferry when we did dock, as I half expected it to drop off some passengers at Cai Vieng harbor and then continue into town.
The ferry we took getting to Cat Ba is much smaller than the hydrofoil and sufficiently stuffed to the brim with bags, motor bikes, and people (we being the only foreigners). The bus that we had to take from Cai Vieng harbor, by not catching the hydrofoil at Hai Phong, is an experience on its own. The ride takes you through the mountains of Cat Ba, past tiny towns seemingly untouched by westernization, and with goats dominating the roads. The views are really quite beautiful thanks to most of the island’s national park status with plenty of greenery and stunning family temples. If you’re happy to spend the extra time and don’t have the chance to explore the island during you’re stay, I’d recommend taking this trip at least one way so as to be able to at least catch glimpses of this really beautiful place.
The hydrofoil that we took on our departure from Cat Ba, despite being much quicker, is no real treat. The boats look much like something that Korea needed to get rid of in the most economical way and in turn decided to donate to the Vietnamese. If you get on the boat early enough, the seats are overly cushy and offer no support. If you find yourself at the back of the line upon boarding, you’re squeezed into the aisle and made to sit on a folding metal chair. The ride as well is quite bumpy – the hydrofoil does rock back and forth over choppy waters. Really, the best thing about it is that it is a short trip.
Doing a Day Cruise
Despite our deciding against going for a multiday cruise, doing a cruise is by far the best and really the only way of seeing the wonders of Halong Bay. For $35 each, our group of nine arranged for a really lovely private cruise with tour operator Classic Sails. This tour included hotel pick-up, boat fuel, lunch, water, snacks, kayak rental, and various entrance fees.
The boat we hired was a cute double decker wooden junk boat, painted brown. We were to remain on the open top upper deck, outfitted with wooden benches, lounge chairs and long table. It was an almost spartan outfit but comfortable enough for a single day out. The lower deck was reserved for the crew, containing cots for them to sleep on as well as a small kitchen.
From the harbor, we sailed first to a local fishing village where the cruise chef came on board, a large bag of seafood clutched in his hands. Departing from this stop, we continued out into the bay, enjoying the sights, marveling each time we went by a floating village, wondering how the dogs the fishermen kept could possibly get any exercise. Our guide for the day had limited English but attempted to speak in an almost inaudible voice to tell us everything he knew about the bay, my aunt having to translate what she could for us.
After about an hour, we docked at Cai Tai Islet. Here we were meant to explore Tien Ong Cave. Discovered in 1938, the cave is only now becoming a major tourist attraction, the appeal being that the cave, with its massive grotto, served as a home to ancient Vietnamese approximately 8,000-10,000 years ago. Archeologists are still exploring the depths of the cave and have found evidence of work tools, excavation holes, housing, nails, and clam shells.
As tourists, you don’t get to see too much of the cave, but the grotto, standing at ten meters high, is stunning. Even we were able to pick up on signs of former human life with what remained of half eaten clam shells scattered along the cave floor.
From the caves, we motored along to a sheltered stretch of water tucked in the middle of a ring of islets. This area in particular seemed to be quite the tourist attraction, as by the time we arrived, just around lunch, a fair number of other cruises had already dropped anchor.
Stopped here, we were able to feast on a truly delicious lunch before being led off the boat and onto the wobbly platform of a floating house. Off of this house were a series of kayaks that we and our inaudible tour guide climbed into. Paddling through this bay, we were able to catch sight of golden-headed langurs traversing cliff faces, and make our way through dark caves.
Although paddling around this area and viewing the limestone mountains from a different angle is an experience not to be missed, it was also quite depressing. Getting down and onto the water level we could see just how much trash there was floating around the bay. Styrofoam boxes, plastic bags, and empty bottles floated in from all directions, oil slicks impeding on the picture perfect emerald water. Several of us grabbed what we could in order to toss the rubbish properly, but it’s going to take a lot of effort to clean this bay.
From here we were transferred to Monkey Island, our final stop before heading back to Cat Ba. Monkey Island is populated by the many macaques that were introduced to the island for tourism purposes (Disappointed? I was too, until I saw their adorable little faces – now I’m only slightly annoyed). The macaques absolutely run the show on the island, terrorizing tourists, and running along the huge limestone pillars.
At this island we were given the option to go swimming in the bay, but opted not to given the chilly February afternoon temperatures. Instead we opted to climb to one of the island’s peaks, encountering a pair of macaques along the way. This pair chose not to annoy us, but we could hear little squeals of delight and fright from other tourists further down the hill from us. We would later get to feed pieces of bread to some of these cheeky monkeys, who would stare out at us with their giant brown eyes.
The way the limestone is formed made climbing to the peak quite uncomfortable and sandals/high heels (we saw a few Chinese women attempting to go down the hill in stilettos – I was terrified for them) are definitely not recommended. Steps can be quite jagged, with little sharp rock points that jut out quite menacingly every few inches, just waiting for someone to slip or tumble backwards. Parts of the hill also get very steep, forcing the climber to get creative with how they get up and down. The view from the top however is quite worth the tough climb, and perching yourself atop a jagged point really helps give the viewer a true sense of the magnitude of the bay. It’s quite the sight to behold.
It was a brilliant day out.
Eating on Cat Ba Island
Food on Cat Ba Island is extremely hit or miss. We understand that generally we’re meant to go where the locals are in order to get a good authentic meal; however, on Cat Ba Island if you want to eat well and still enjoy local food after your stay, please do follow the tourists. Neither Rich nor I have been able to look at spring rolls the same way since our trip to Cat Ba – over a month later and I still won’t go near them.
Trip Advisor-recommended restaurants like Phuong Phuong and Green Mango, which are actually next door to one another on the main street, facing out onto the bay, kept us well fed and quite happy during the rainy evenings. Phuong Phuong is quite local and the menu can be difficult to understand at times – with poor English translations and serving dishes like “fried gasoline”, but the food is well prepared and really delicious. Lines for tables can get long, but it is really worth the wait. Green Mango on the other hand is a bit more westernized, serving very decent European and American dishes, along with the usual local Vietnamese suspects.
Other restaurants, like that within the Hai Long Hotel, which might look appealing in part due to the large local clientele, should be avoided at all costs. Not only is the service poor with hour plus wait times for food, and the meal quality bad, but the aftermath of the meal (when you finally get it) will make you hate seafood, and gag at even the mention of certain foods.
Halong Bay is a must visit when you’re in Vietnam. There is nothing quite like those majestic limestone mountains and islands towering over and out of the sea, and there are some really incredible things to do and see. I’ll never get sick of the view, even if it is now just a memory.
Unfortunately, the options for seeing the Bay are limited and, unless you’re willing to pay for it, of limited quality. If you don’t want to pay the high prices for a luxury cruise, Cat Ba Island is a decent alternative, but once on the island, you have to be wary of pretty much everything, including hotels, food and tours – you most certainly get the bad with the good out here.
Regardless, Rich, my family, our friends and I, all seemed to have a great time exploring this region and I would love to visit again – in the month of October, in 10 years, when we’re much better off financially…