With almost 2000 islands, this archipelago part of the Unesco World Heritage is a must see in Vietnam.
HOW TO REACH HA LONG BAY
Ha Long Bay is commonly reached from Hanoi, the easiest way is to book a cruise with some agency or hotel in Hanoi and then be transferred by bus for a 4-hour trip. Alternatively, some visitors prefer to go by bus from Hanoi to Cat Ba, and then opt for either a cruise from there or spending some nights on Cat Ba Island.
There is also a third way, now we are sure to say definitely less beaten, to go from Hai Phong to Ha Long by bus (or from Hai Phong to Cat Ba by ferry): the reason we chose this option is because flights from Da Nang to Hai Phong were much cheaper than from Da Nang to Hanoi, so we thought yeah why not. Well, we are happy we saw the laid back city of Hai Phong, but we certainly do not recommend this way as the easiest!
BUS FROM HAI PHONG TO HA LONG
We spent the night in a bit of a dirty and beaten-up guesthouse (we had got used to be treated in Da Nang), and had a walk along the wide boulevards of Hai Phong. In the morning we have to reach Ha Long harbour, about 50 miles away; “it shouldn’t be hard to get there”, we think. We are wrong. Let’s just say it could have been easier.
We ask a taxi driver to take us to the bus station and he nods, but we must soon correct him as we check the itinerary on the GPS. At the end of the ride he turns again in the wrong direction, so we get off and decide to go on walking. It’s time for us to get the first approach with north-Vietnam minibuses: we find it almost by chance when it’s about to leave, well actually they (the driver and his partner) find us, shouting out from far “Ha Long Bay Ha Long Bay!”.
We will soon learn that here bus stops are optional, you just need to be on the road and some bus will pick you up sooner or later. Obviously this no-bus-stop rule counts when you have to get off too, and we experience this on our skins when, trying and asking them to drop us at the harbour (the bus destination was Mong Cai, last city before China), the driver stops by and makes us gently step off at the end of a bridge, pointing in an imaginary way to the harbour behind a hill and repeating “Ha Long Bay Ha Long Bay”. Well thank you very much sir!
HA LONG HARBOUR
After a few minutes of panic and bargaining with a man who believed he could easily take us to destination (3 people and 2 huge backpacks on a scooter?), we find a taxi for the last few miles.
We had already booked in advance the 2-days/1-night cruise through our hotel where we will stay in Hanoi. As we got here by ourselves, we have to wait for all the other passengers coming from Hanoi with the tour. At the harbour there’s a big coming and going, but not as much as we expected. The cruise boats wait for the passengers twenty meters away from the shore, small tenders take us on board.
HOW DO BOATS LOOK LIKE IN HA LONG BAY?
We had many questions about these boats, we had heard discordant opinions online and by word of mouth, so we didn’t know what to expect: from the outside our junk looks a little bit aged, but the inside is pretty decent. Our cabin, the restaurant area and the deck are very comfortable.
After a nice abundant lunch with views on the mesmerizing bay that opens in front of us, the first stop is at a floating village where fishermen live and breed mostly oysters. At the end of the day they leave the village to go and sleep on their small huts docked offshore (the sea is usually placid in the bay).
ACTIVITIES IN HA LONG BAY
Later we head towards another islet where we embrace oars to do some kayaking through a scenic track. We paddle our way among three small islands and a tunnel-grotto, followed by a bath in front of a long sandy beach. Our boat brings us further more eastbound from Ha Long Bay, precisely at Bai Tu Long Bay.
The price we paid was higher because instead of staying in busy Ha Long Bay, our boat would take us in a more remote area, less known to tourists and less popular. We are very happy with the choice we made, at night we dock for sunset in a wonderful spot, and the tour guide delights us saying “tonight we sleep here”. We are in a really isolated place, as calm and relaxing as breathtaking. After dinner, we try squid fishing (zero luck for Ambra), enjoy some music, and spend the night under the stars. A true paradise.
The next morning after a good breakfast, we pay visit to a cave in yet another of the 1696 islets, Thien Cung: it is very nice but very busy as well.
Later while having lunch, the junk heads back to the harbour in order to be there by 12. We are taken back to Hanoi, whilst crew members welcome aboard new guests for new cruises.
AN UNFORGETTABLE EXPERIENCE
A cruise in stunning Ha Long Bay is an experience we definitely recommend to do, we had heard and read that some had complained about the food, the filth, the overcrowded boats and bay. Spending a little more money and avoiding cheap cruises that might result disappointing, you can still enjoy an authentic and worthy adventure in one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
And we were lucky with the weather too, a lot of sun and blue skies. The day after in fact, all the cruises were cancelled by the government for a 2-day storm forecast! We just got a thunderstorm on the way back to Hanoi, which extended the bus trip from 4 to 5 hour-long, but nothing too bad to take the smiles off our faces!
WHICH CRUISE COMPANY TO CHOOSE:
- Lemon Cruise Ha Long: medium sized boat, 14 people, comfy and clean cabins, excellent food and helpful staff. Sailing through Ha Long and Bai Tu Long bays, prices from 110$/head;
- Viola Cruise: A bigger junk, deluxe and family cabins, large deck. From 140$, 3days/2nights.
WHERE TO STAY:
- The Hanoian Hotel, Hanoi: excellent location, outstanding staff&hospitality, recently renewed interiors, rooms and suites available, wi-fi and breakfast included;
- Graceful Hotel, Hanoi: lovely accommodation close to Hoan Kiem lake, from 20usd/night;
- Find a guesthouse in Hai Phong, from 200.000VND/room;
- You can pre-book all your accommodation in Vietnam with free cancellation here.
HOW TO GET THERE:
- Flight from Da Nang to Hanoi, with Vietjet or Jetstar, from 60usd/1way;
- Hanoi to Cat Ba by bus: from 300.000VND/person.
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