From one national park to the next, my next stop after Phong Nha was possibly Vietnam’s most famous tourist spot: Ha Long Bay.
First thing to note on this is that rather like my experience with Angkor Wat, you can easily research yourself into a bit of a black hole deciding how to visit Ha Long Bay, as you can only visit it on a tour. There are so many different options in price, time length, activity, group size and accommodation. Some people make their own way to Cat Ba island and pick up a tour from there, but if you’re on a time limit, it’s better to join one that starts and ends in Hanoi as transfers are a bit more streamlined. I’d recommend you spend at least 2 nights there as 1 night won’t give you enough time to explore both land and sea in the bay – it’s a huge area, and it’s good to spend some time on the little islands as well as out at sea.
If you want a booze cruise-style tour, there’s the infamous Castaways. If you want more of an active tour, there are companies like Asia Outdoors which offer kayaking and rock climbing. If you’re after a premium cruise experience there are operators like Pelican or Paradise. In the end I opted for the ‘Halong Hideaway’ tour run by Central Backpackers hostel. It had really great reviews on TripAdvisor, included staying in island bungalows rather than a boat, offered a range of activities, and promised to be a group of people around my age. It was middling price range at $130 for 3 days and 2 nights.
After breakfast, a group of 25 of us from the hostel popped our bags on the bus and we drove 2 hours to the port, took a boat over to Cat Ba island (‘the island of women’, where women and children came to live to support the production and movement of war materials in and out of Hai Phong harbour), took another 30 minute coach, then finally another boat out into the bay. The weather was still miserable, but the surroundings were amazing. There are the famous karst mountains rising out of the bay, peppered with tiny floating villages where communities live and work full time.
We had a delicious barbecue buffet lunch on the boat, and sat out on the top deck with some speakers playing whilst we got to know the rest of the group. We stopped for a ‘swimming spot’, where only 3 of the group were brave enough to go in – the rest of us were wrapped in fleeces and my hands and feet were completely dead, so I didn’t fancy my chances dunked in the sea without a towel or any sunshine to dry off in! We continued on, and arrived at the tiny ‘Hideaway Island’ where we were to spend our 2 nights. It was a great little place, with a few dormitory bungalows on stilts over the sea, next to a beach, volleyball court and bar/dining area. It’s a shame the weather didn’t let us lie on the beach in our down time before dinner, but we put on some more layers and played some cards in the bar.
In the evening, we were served another tasty bbq buffet, and settled into the bar to play some games. I’m still banned from drinking so couldn’t partake in the beer-drinking bit, so I had an unfortunate ‘designated drinker’ to suffer for my losses… It was good fun getting the whole group together – and quite the novelty being on our own little island in the middle of such a famous bay!
Our full day on the island was activity-based. After breakfast we hopped back on the boat to another larger island in the bay for a slice of outdoor action. We got on some bikes – rather vintage-looking things with baskets – and peddled through the lovely national park for a few miles to the bottom of activity number 2: a trek. It was a little more of a challenge than we’d been prepped for, we were all wearing trainers but we definitely could have done with hiking boots! We wove through the jungle, clambering over rocks and avoiding some huge millipedes. It was a really slippery path so we unfortunately had to turn back before we reached the top, but the group wasn’t too sad given that the summit was immersed in cloud and fog so there would have been zero view anyway! A bit of a disappointing ramble but a nice to be able to explore the jungle and some good company all the same.
We cycled back to the boat where some more good food was waiting for us for lunch, and we cruised back to the island. We had a lukewarm shower and nestled into our duvets to warm up for a bit before going back outside for games and dinner.
The next day, we filled up on breakfast and braced ourselves for what promised to be a bit of a chilly water activity given the weather: kayaking. It was a little windy and there were pools of water waiting for us in the kayak seats, so we paired up and attempted the slightly futile task of trying to empty them before getting in and wobbling off. Despite the chill it was a really fun thing to do as a group, and a lovely way of seeing some of the bay around the island. We paddled across to an abandoned resort island and did some exploring there before we made our way back to the island for lunch. We were very well-fed throughout the tour, it feels like I ate more over those 3 days than the previous week combined!
After lunch, we started the boat-bus-boat-bus journey back to Hanoi, which took about 5 hours in total. I was due to be heading straight to Sapa the same night, but I wasn’t feeling top notch so moved my Sapa tour, and settled in to chat to my Aussie dorm mates and watch a bit of Peep Show for the evening. Sleep that evening unfortunately didn’t come too easily, thanks to a Vietnamese man in our dorm who snored like nothing I’ve ever heard. It was SO LOUD. The other 7 of us in the dorm were all tossing and turning, knowing everyone else was awake, so we made a group decision to wake him and ask him to sleep on his side. He complied, and the snoring stopped for a little while, but sadly recommenced rather soon. I must have drifted off at some point, but I can’t say it was the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had…
The bay was beautiful and I’m glad I saw it, I’m just happy I had such good company given that the weather ruled out some of the outdoor activities! Next, I’m off for some mountain trekking, which promises to be even chillier. Time for my knock-off North Face to shine…
Until next time,
Number of strangers I’ve spoken to today: 11, including a Dutch guy I met in a dorm in Hanoi when he wasn’t well, and we then ended up on the Halong tour. Turns out, he’d been so delirious when I spoke to him he didn’t have a clue who I was when I asked him on the tour if he was better, but he chose not to reveal this for about an hour.
Interaction was: weirdly more embarrassing for me than for him. Must work on being less of a bashful Brit.
One Woman and her Backpack x
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