Halong Bay: Natural Wonder of the World
One of the most picturesque places in Vietnam, Halong Bay is on the coast of northeastern Vietnam and about a 4 hour bus ride from Hanoi. Halong Bay’s thousands of jutted limestone karsts and islands are one of the natural wonders of the world. It has become one of the great places to see in Vietnam, so we weren’t going to miss our chance.
Typically, I would try to get to Halong City by public bus and set up something myself, but there is an abundance of tours with great prices that make the planning so much easier. If doing the trip independently, we would’ve had to found a public bus to Halong City (finding the bus station, booking the ticket, etc.), planning and figuring out transportation to different parts of the bay, figuring out food along the way, etc., etc. In comparison, we found a 3 day, 2 night tour including everything (pickup from hotel, bus transfer, food, activities) for $115 per night. Doing everything ourselves, we would’ve spent a lot of extra time and energy for saving a minimal amount of money. So we booked a tour with Monkey Island Tours which included the first day and night with Royal Heritage Cruise.
The entire tour was fantastic. The quality of the food was incredible, ranging from crab and shrimp, to beef and seafood hot pot, to all-you-can-eat barbecued beef, chicken, and squid, to typical Vietnamese rice and noodle dishes. It’s quite a treat to have a few days of this quality of food while backpacking! The activities from the boat were pretty good on the first day, although we were promised the chance to kayak on both days but were later told that it wasn’t possible. We were told later that the company had probably sold us to another with a different itinerary. Luckily for us, we were booked to the Royal Heritage Cruise which was a more expensive tour than we expected. Our time at Monkey Island was very good, as it was a resort on a beautiful island that is almost deserted in this season. Below I’ll give a day-by-day rundown for a more detailed description. For $115 for a 3 day, 2 night tour, it doesn’t get much better.
Day 1 – Transport and the Royal Heritage Cruise
We were picked up from our hotel at 8am in a bus full of other tourists heading to Halong Bay. When we arrived in Halong City four hours later, we were taken through the pier, loaded onto a small boat, and taken to our larger Royal Heritage Cruise boat. The boat had just 10 different rooms and probably about 5 staff members. There were just 15 tourists on board, making it a quaint atmosphere. The boat had three levels, with 6 rooms on the bottom level, the dining room and bar and four rooms on the second level, and a sun deck on the top level. Unfortunately, the cloudy weather eliminated the use of the sun deck for its purpose, but it was still a great place to see the scenery of the limestone cliffs.
We sat down for lunch in the fancy dining room as our cruise started. Soon, we were in the middle of the limestone karsts jutting out of the sea from all directions, all while eating delicious crab. We then jumped onto the little boat and docked just outside of a Surprise Cave. The cave has been visited by people since the French discovered it over a hundred years ago. The cave became part of the UNESCO Heritage Site in 1994, when the government made the cave much more accessible to the average tourist by creating paths and steps inside the cave. They also added lights that shine different colors on the cave walls, which actually makes it look pretty nice. It’s an impressive cave for its size alone. The only downside was the amount of people visiting the cave; it was hard to actually walk in many places because there were so many people inside (and this is low season!). It was overwhelming with the people but still nice to see.
Afterwards, we loaded back into the big boat and headed to a small island which two things to do, a hiking trail to the top with a view and a small beach to swim. We immediately went up the path to the lookout point. This actually proved difficult since so many people were coming down that we’d have to wait for minutes at a time to allow others to pass by us on the one-person width path. At the top, we had a nice view of the surrounding limestone cliffs in the bay. At the bottom, I decided to swim for a bit even though the water felt ice cold. It wasn’t Antarctica cold.
Back on the main boat, the captain found the place to anchor for the night, and we were told that we could swim more. And we could even jump off the boat if we wanted. Not passing up this chance, Chika and I went up to the sun deck. At her request, I jumped in first. As I waited for her, she started having second thoughts. A minute or two later, I was started to feel a bit icy from the water, but she finally jumped (to my relief).
At night, we were given the chance to squid fish off the side of the boat. Squid are attracted to light like mosquitos, so a bright light was shined in the water as we used a stick, a green rubber bait, and a hook to try to reel them in. We saw plenty of squid but were never able to catch any. A French guy, however, was able to catch two but threw them back afterwards.
Afterwards, we just hung out with some of the people on our boat. It was quite the mix of people we had. We had 3 Filipino girls who were living in Singapore, a German guy, a Burmese girl, a French/English couple, two sisters from Kazakhstan and their mother, and two Vietnamese guys with a German guy all in their 50s. The latter was the most interesting story. Way back when, the two Vietnamese guys studied in East Germany with a partnership between the two communist countries. They all met there. They lost contact for years and years, and they finally reconnected via Facebook last year. The German man now made a trip to visit his old friends. Pretty cool, and it does show an advantage of being connected on social networks.
Day 2 – Monkey Island
We woke up early to relax for a bit on the calm sun deck before all the movement started again. Unfortunately, the cloudy weather meant no sunrise, but that was expected. After breakfast, we were transferred to another boat, with which we cruised for two hours to Cat Ba island, located just south of the main Halong Bay islands. The cruise itself was incredible, again moving through the beautiful scenery of the bay. We then took a 45 minute minivan ride across Cat Ba to the south port, and then were transferred on a 20 minute boat ride to Monkey Island. When we arrived, we saw many bungalows built right behind the beach but saw almost no other people. To be at a nice resort with a deserted feel was really cool. Later in the day, there were more people but definitely less than 10 others!
The German guy and Burmese girl were the only ones from the Royal Heritage Cruise that also went to Monkey Island. After the hot pot lunch, we took out the kayaks to explore the different islands around. What we found was surprising, almost no boat traffic other than local fishermen. We went around Monkey Island and found a different beach where the monkeys lived. On the beach, we saw about 8 different monkeys, including a mother carrying a baby on her back. We were warned that they can be aggressive at times and so we kept our distance.
Afterwards, we continued on with our kayaks. Many of the islands around had small sandy beaches. I imagine that these get many visitors in the high season. But since we were in low season, they were all empty. We picked one out and stopped. This small beach was tucked in between two large cliffs. We hung out here for a bit, enjoying the quietness and also skipping rocks.
In total, we kayaked for about four hours. This was my favorite part of the Halong Bay tour. The weather was cloudy and foggy, so there was an almost mysterious feel to kayaking around. It had the same atmosphere as the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. And with the lack of other boats around, it was cool to be out on our own there.
We stayed in a very nice bungalow just about 50 meters behind the beach. It was one of my favorite places that I’ve stayed in before. The food here was also incredible, with the hot pot and also the all-you-can-eat BBQ. The breakfast buffet was one of the best, as well, with good pancakes, omelets, and fresh fruit and fruit drinks. It’s hard to believe that this was all just one part of the entire tour that we paid so little for.
Day 3 – Back to Hanoi
Our third day was uneventful since it was mostly travel. We woke up early again and walked to a lookout point just above the bungalows we were staying in. The funny part was that the lookout point was like a small gazebo, but it wasn’t quite finished yet. So the entire frame was built except for the flooring. The support beams were there but underneath was steep rock leading down. It’s something that would never be allowed in the United States for safety reasons!
After the breakfast buffet that I just raved about, we were then taken to Cat Ba, transferred across the island in bus, and then finally back to Halong City. After an hour long wait in Halong City, we jumped on a bus back to Hanoi. We arrived in Hanoi at 5pm, ate a quick dinner, and then took the night bus to Hue. A transportation-packed day. Not the most exciting, but obviously a necessary step in taking the Halong Bay tour.
Overall, I am extremely happy with the tour to Halong Bay. It’s a must-see place in Vietnam, and the quality of the tour was fantastic. Although we were disappointed by not kayaking the first day as well, everything else about the tour was incredible. Tours from Hanoi also offer 1-day and 2-day trips, but I don’t think those trips give enough time. To really enjoy your time there between the long transfers, I think a 3-day is the best way to go. I would even do a 4 or 5-day trip if they offered it! It’s one of the most memorable places on this trip so far.