Our Halong Bay excursion started with a long bus ride to Halong City that included a 30 minute stop at the bus driver’s sister’s textiles shop.
You see this all over SE Asia. When you buy a tour package the includes transport by bus you will inevitably stop at a restaurant, shop, or store owned by the bus driver’s brother-in-law, sister, mother, etc, where you are expected to buy overpriced things. It can be family but it also can be a general business deal between the tour company and sho. The usual sell is that the stuff is hand made, and it is – you can see the workers in the side room.
But these stops are the definition of a tourist trap – you are literally trapped at the venue until your bus driver decides that the group has collectively given his sister’s shop enough money.
The first thing you see when you arrive in Halong City is thousands and thousands of tourists. Throngs of them, all standing about waiting for their guide to herd them like cattle onto boats. And we were no different. We stood around for about thirty minutes before getting ushered onto a small transport boat.
This boat transported to us to our actual boat, a “Junk” boat.
“Junk” is just the name for these types of boats but the name isn’t too far off the mark. These are not luxury cruise boats. But they were simple and nice and Ben enjoyed our time on them.
Within an hour we were enjoying a filling lunch as we cruised into Halong Bay.
Halong Bay has more than 3,000 limestone-peaked islands, all between 40 and 100 meters above sea level. The below video shows us approaching the Bay from a distance.
After lunch we took some time to explore our Junk Boat to catch different perspectives of the Bay. Both Ben and I enjoyed sitting down on the front of the boat.
This video will give you a sense of what its like to be standing at the front of the boat.
Lots of other boats were entering Halong Bay along with us – this place is a money maker.
I ended up on the sun deck which gave the only 360 degree view of the Bay.
Unfortunately the three days we spent in the Bay were overcast but the views of the Bay were still impressive – you’d don’t get this in the Midwest, thats for sure. Our first stop for the first day was Sung Sot Cave, a cave set into sheer rock wall overlooking the Bay.
Nearly 50 other Junk Boats were docked next to us and the cave was packed with tourists, all in a long line shuffling through the cave.
It was not the spacious and silently powerful experience we had had in Paradise cave in Phong Nha but it was a pretty cave.
We eventually made our way up to the cave’s opening in the sheer face rock.
It provided a good view out over the Bay and a chance for the obligatory we-were-here-and-this-is-my-scary-beard-blocking-what-would-otherwise-be-a-good-view photo.
After the cave we went kayaking in the Bay for a bit. Kayaking up to and under the massive projecting rock islands gives you a true appreciation for their size.
Later that night we enjoyed some dinner with Elina, Kim, and three blokes from the U.K. we had met on the tour.
That night we docked in one small area of the Bay and relaxed on the sun deck along with about 25 other Junk Boats.
Some people might think that the presence of all the other boats would ruin the experience but I loved the way they lit up the Bay.
We got a good night of sleep in our cabin on the Junk boat and the next day we transferred to a different Junk boat, this one with a nicer sun deck than the last.
No matter which boat you are on in Halong Bay the views are the same – awesome. All over Halong Bay you see hawks gliding while looking for fish swimming below.
It was another overcast day but I wasn’t complaining too much – you don’t have these views in Iowa…
Before we could even get settled we transferred to yet another Junk Boat- there are way more boat transfers involved in this excursion than you would think.
This boat led us back through some tighter coves to get to Cat Ba Island, the biggest rock island in Halong Bay.
As soon as we got to Cat Ba Island there was a line of bikes waiting for us. The first ten minutes of the ride was along the side of the island.
We made our way into Cat Ba’s jungle but the trail we were on was still smooth and paved. The paved trail led all the way to a small village in a low part of the island.
We eventually arrived at the village and took a break while our guide explained the trekking options we had.
There were two options – low and easy or steep and hard. I chose the more challenging of the two and was rewarded with a good view over the village we had just stopped for lunch at.
The trek was legitimately difficult and dangerous.
But taking it slow made it easy to mitigate the dangerous aspects.
And surprisingly everyone was able to cross this creek without getting wet.
Our guide leading the way on that tree in the picture above was constantly coming up behind me, brushing my foot with a stick and yelling “Shnake!” And yes, his snake had an H in it. The joke got old after the first ten times he did it and I never did see a snake but did see this sweet little spider.
After we done trekking we hopped back on our bikes and left the village.
The ride back to our boat was steeper but the views were just as good.
You could pick up some pretty good speed on some of these hills.
When we got back to our boat it took us to our private island bungalow resort.
Our bungalow had a nice view of the bay but we didn’t spend too much time in it.
Right after lunch we played a game of football on the sandy court.
I scored two goals (more of a comment on the other players – I’m not a good football player) but by the end of the 10 minute game I felt like puking I was so tired. I’m completely out of shape and the fact that I had just put down a massive lunch did not help.
After football we did a bit of kayaking and frisbee throwing on the beach. That night we enjoyed a big barbeque and I help our tour guide set up a big bonfire. Nothing like a good fire to bring people together.
The next morning we bid adieu to our private beach and got on yet another junk boat.
Our fun tour guide (out of the three we had) paused for a picture with Ben.
And then he agreed to take a shot of both us as we cruised out of Halong Bay.
On this ride we saw one of the coolest “islands” of Halong Bay, a rock rising straight up on a base that was no more than 10 meters in diameter.
The below video shows us cruise past it.
We then transferred to what must have been our fifth junk boat of the trip – this one had another nice sun deck.
Before lunch everyone I was tired from the last two days’ activities and needed some R&R on the sundeck.
When I woke from my mini-nap I realized pretty much everyone had the same idea as me.
Everyone on the boat got a crash course in how to make spring rolls. With some rice paper and some veggies pretty much anyone can do it, even me!
Ben and I shared lunch with the three English guys in our tour group.
Ben has loved talking to people from the U.K. during our trip because he loves British television, most notably “Peep Show” and “The Thick of It”. So when he brings it up and demonstrates his absolutely incredible knowledge of the shows, the U.K. folks we meet are really impressed and glad to see an American so into British T.V. One of the guys in this group of three was almost as knowledgeable on Peep Show as Ben but I don’t think I will ever meet any human who can match my brother’s knowledge on this show.
When we got back to Halong City there was a cluster of boats both docking and leaving
The exchange on these things is incredible. I’ll give you the rundown. A bus full of tourists from Hanoi drops Tourist Group A off at Halong City around 11:45. Around 11:50 a junk boat drops off Tourist Group B, who are just finishing their Halong Bay tour. At 12:00 Tourist Group A takes a small boat and boards the junk boat that just dropped off Tourist Group B.
At 12:05 Tourist Group B is escorted onto the bus that 15 minutes ago dropped off Tourist Group A in Halong City. At 12:10 the bus takes Tourist Group B back to Hanoi and the junk boat begins its journey back out to Halong Bay with Tourist Group A. Like clockwork – Halong Bay is a giant money making machine.
In this scenario were Tourist Group B and thankfully our bus back to Hanoi was not as long as our ride from Hanoi to Halong City. There were even some heavy-London-accented brits behind us and we watched “That Mitchell and Webb Look” (same guys that do Peep Show) with them as we rode back.
All in all Halong Bay was a great experience, albeit a hectic one filled with one too many boat transfers and activities.