May 22, 2011

Saved the Best (and Worst) For Last: Halong Bay

It was hard to imagine at first whether it could live up to the hype.  We included it in our itinerary as it was simply ‘THE’ must-do while in Vietnam and hoped for the best.  We are happy to report that it did not disappoint.  The 4 days/3 nights that we spent in Halong Bay was simply our best experience in all of our time in Vietnam -- we managed to have saved the best for last.  

We had read that there was little to gain, if at all, by getting yourself to Halong Bay on your own then organising your own tour from there, so we spent a good day in Hanoi shopping for an all inclusive tour to Halong Bay from there, which is what most people do, by visiting numerous travel and tour agencies.  

After a few, we were able to conclude that it was actually about the name of the boat which you booked on that mattered.  Each boat company had its own set packages that they offered as well as pricing.  Although all the boats were all ‘junks’, being crafted in the traditional wooden sailing boat style’, they did differ in internal fit out.  

Other differences existed too such as the levels of ‘luxury’ of the boat, the number of days you wanted to spend on your tour (from 1-3 days) and the quality of the food and options for additional accommodation. The itineraries themselves were fairly similar though.  

However at the end of the day, all you had to go on were the pictures in the brochures and the word of the agent and hopefully a first hand recommendation or two, the latter of which we didn’t have.  The agencies did differ between themselves with the knowledge of the agent as well as the amount of discount they were able/willing to offer off the published price in the brochures.  

In theory each agency had the ability to basically sell the same trip on the same boats, but in reality they each had their preferred boats that they dealt with, possibly due to the amount of commission they could make.  The consequence of this is that it was very confusing ‘shopping’ for the tour as rarely did two travel agents ever reccmmend the same boats to us.  

We finally decided to splurge on a ‘middle of the road’ tour in terms of pricing which in turn reflected the level of ‘luxury’.  We booked a 3 day/2 night package through Volo Travel  on the ‘Imperial Junk’ which included our bus transfer to Halong Bay, all meals (3 x lunch, 2 x dinner, 2 x breakfast) excluding beverages, all entrance fees, tour guide, kayaking, cycling, 1 night sleeping on board and 1 night accommodation on Nam Cat Island.  We also paid a $20 surcharge to have a triple room on board.  

On the trip out to Halong City where we were to board our junk, it became apparent what an absolute touristy trip this was going to be.  Mini van after mini van including ours, loaded with tourists bound for the same destination as us, charged down the road from Hanoi.  We had an overcast and rainy 3hr drive but when we arrived just before noon, the rain had stopped.  The wharf was packed with eager tourists of all shapes, sizes and nationalities, and the harbour was wall to wall with the traditional ‘junks’.

Once all the confusion of loading the appropriate passengers onto their respective boats was over, and the inspection by the harbour police was done, we set off.  We had 18 people on our junk, from Singapore, Spain, USA, and a couple of other Aussies besides us.  

After about 20 minutes, the awe and beauty of Halong Bay began to unfold before us.  The limestone karsts were everywhere as far as the eye could see; the greyness of the early afternoon only added to their mystery and majesty.  

While the landscape is similar to that found in Southern China stretching all the way to the Gulf of Thailand, Halong Bay has the greatest concentration of limestone islands—apparently close to 2000 of them in fact.  It was an awesome sight and we were torn between devouring our delicious lunch and taking a billion pictures to try to capture the moment.  

Thankfully the weather gradually cleared and the rest of the afternoon’s activities were carried out in bliss, including a visit to the ‘Surprise Cave’, a bit of kayaking, some swimming before dinner and some more karst-gazing in the moonlight.  

All junks who overnight are required to do so in a set area of the bay, and we counted approximately 19 other boats anchored that night. Our cabin was exactly as it was pictured in the brochure and we all had a very sound sleep—the water was absolutely still.

On our second day we awoke to another gray drizzly morning.  After breakfast, the 5 of us (us 4 plus the American-Vietnamese guy, Jonathan) who were all doing the 3 day/2 night option transferred onto the sister ship, The Luxury Imperial, to continue on with their passengers. (The rest of our junk were only doing a 2 day/1 night option so they were returning to Hanoi that day.)  

The rain was heavier this morning so our planned activities of a bike ride followed by a brief 1km hike had to be cancelled for safety reasons.  Instead we proceeded to Namcat Island where we were to all have lunch and where a couple from Ireland and ourselves had opted to spend our 2nd night (the others were spending the night in a hotel on the main island of Cat Ba).  

Namcat Island was the perfect island getaway.  It was a private island set on a small secluded stretch of sandy beach, enclosed on each end and backed by towering walls of limestone.  The view from shore was of the quiet bay and of more of the unique island karsts. 

A few bungalows perched over smaller limestone clusters set in the water, one of which had our name on it for the night.  A long walkway joined the thatched roof jetty to the beach.  It looked idyllic and peaceful and amazingly, just like in the brochure.  

We were so glad that we had opted to stay here for the night.  We bid the rest of our tour group farewell as they set off for Cat Ba Island.  The weather gradually lifted and we took out a couple of kayaks to explore the islands around us.  While we’d never spent any time kayaking, it really was the best way to get up close and personal with Halong Bay and we really enjoyed the experience.  Afterwards the girls had a great afternoon playing on the sandy beach and collecting treasures.  

We had a great BBQ dinner that night, with plenty of food and great company among the other guests who were staying there.  They lit a bonfire on the beach and after we put the girls to bed, a group of us stayed up talking by the light of the near full moon (and the hum of the generator in the background) til midnight.  

The next morning instead of rejoining our group to return to Hanoi, we managed to get a bamboo boat to Cat Ba Island where we stayed on for another day at our own expense.  It was nice to be in charge of our own itinerary again, including determining what and when we ate our meals. 

The town itself was much more developed than I had expected, with the marina strip lined with multi-storied hotels, yet it’s tree-lined promenade, wide streets and huge limestone backdrop eased the commercialism. 

We found a nice hotel on the bay for $10 USD per night, hired a scooter to explore a bit of the island, then spent the remainder of the afternoon at Cat Coi 2 beach, which was very secluded and near empty when we were there.  I even had one of the best massages while on the beach that I’ve ever had.  

On our last morning, we re-joined another group from the same company to return to the junk for the return trip out of the bay and back to the mainland.  We had a relaxing morning on the boat, soaking up the warm sunshine and the amazing scenery.  After a delicious lunch on board while anchored offshore Halong City, we were ferried to the mainland and to our awaiting mini van which would return us to Hanoi by 4pm.

Halong Bay, a World UNESCO Site and touted as the 8th Natural Wonder of the World, was definitely the highlight of our time in Vietnam and more specifically, our night spent on Namcat Island was really the highlight of the entire tour—highly recommended!   Although it may seem like a complete tourist cliché, the vastness of Halong Bay really does quickly makes room for all its visitors to contemplate in utmost privacy.

**FOOTNOTE:  Within 2hours of returning to Hanoi from our trip, we had our camera stolen with ALL of our pictures from the trip to Halong Bay still on it!!  So we went from having our best experience in Vietnam, to now having our worst.


  1. Really love your blog and more specifically, I love this post! - we are a Canadian family living in China and leaving for Vietnam in a few days with our 2 kids in tow as well.

    Just wondering if you recall the price you paid for this tour as it sounds like an awesome adventure ! Tx

    1. Hi Ellabella,
      We negotiated a rate of $90 per adult, and only paid for 1 kid at $45, plus a $20 surcharge for a triple room on board the boat. The kids shared a bed. The staff on board were nice. Hope this helps.

  2. great post! we are pretty much trying to copy your haloing bay trip lol as it sounds amazing (minus the stolen camera)! do you remember where you stayed on Cat Ba island? $10 for a nice hotel is not always so easy to come by...

    1. hi
      we actually found quite a few budget hotels to chose from in Ca Ba Town. We eventually decided on Trung Loi, which from memory was further down on the right side of the main street as you face the waterfront. It was quite a tall building with balconies, but there was no lift/elevator. We got a double with AC, tv, wifi for $10. Hope this helps. Feel free to email me directly if you have any further questions and thanks for visiting us:)

  3. HI! I've been reading your blog lately and I'm loving it :-) We're just planning a family round the world tour ourselves. Thorough you say that you "hired a scooter". What exactly does that mean? I'm curious how you load 2 adults and 2 kids on a scooter? We have an 8 and a 5 year old, and I suspect we'll need to arrange some kind of transportation because little legs will only take them so for! I'll probably come up with more questions as I get further into your adventure :-) Thanks!

  4. Hehe... I just checked your next post and discovered the answer to my question. I guess I'll have to convince my husband to learn to drive a motor bike. We rented scooters once in Chiang Mai to go to that temple on the mountain outside of town. I screamed in his ear the entire way and back :-) We'll need to work on that, as a scooter seems to be the perfect solution to the travel problem.

    1. hi!
      Yes, we love being able to rent a scooter in Asia and fit our family of 4 on it! However, on our recent trip to Malaysia, we were not allowed to do the 4 and had to hire 2 scooters, which meant that i had to get over my fear of riding one NOT as the passenger! It was good fun, but the roads in Malaysia are great and FLAT too. Also, our kids are 6.5 and 8 now and likely we'd have a hard time all fitting onto 1 scooter anymore anyway :( Just go slow :)