Halong Bay, Vietnam: Throwback Trip Report, Part IV

Well, like I mentioned in the video (what do you think of the video by the way?  I know the production value is crap, working on it), After a couple of days in Hanoi I made my way to Halong Bay.  Halong Bay is simply one of the most incredible places on earth.  It features over 2000 limestone karsts that dot the entire bay.  There’s obviously a big tourism draw to it, but even more incredible is the life it supports.  There are fishing villages and towns that exist entirely on the water, to the degree that some say people are born, raised, and die in the villages without ever touching solid land!  I read that on the internet so it has to be true.

Scooters
Scooters.  They’re everywhere in Vietnam.  The Top Gear lads posit that it’s because cars have massive import taxes on them which keep them out of affordability for all but the rich.  So you end up with millions of scooters.  It’s really hard to put into words how many there are, they’re everywhere, driving every direction, and somehow everyone makes sense of it.  The scooter functions as their daily driver, their family vehicle, a construction truck, the lot.  It’s amazing how much use they squeeze out of a two-wheeled vehicle, but once you see a family of three plus their pet poodle all managing along on a scooter, you begin to understand it.  It’s just their normal.

Family on a scooter (notice the kid wedged in between the parents)

Family on a scooter (notice the kid wedged in between the parents)

Roving scooter gang

Roving scooter gang at a traffic light on the outskirts of Hanoi

Crossing the street is another matter completely, at least in Hanoi.  There aren’t really a lot of traffic lights in the cities, so you look left and right, not for a clearing in vehicles but for buses and cars.  If all you see is scooters, they say you should point your eyes across the street and step out into traffic, and, whatever you do, DON’T STOP WALKING.  The traffic will adjust around you as long as you keep moving predictably.  If you stop all of a sudden though, you’ll get hit.  Take this advice at your own risk, I’m not liable if you follow what I just said.  It seems to work for them, and true to form, the only time I was in an accident was when Carnation and I were in a taxi on our way to the Temple of Literature.

Getting to Halong Bay
There are tons and tons of companies that will book you onto Halong Bay cruises.  It’s a big tourist racket, so pay attention to TripAdvisor, Flyertalk, and Milepoint for recommendations on the most reputable vendors.  I used Far East Tour, which can be found at www.fareastour.com.vn.  They were responsive and delivered everything as promised, up until everything went wrong with the tour, but that’s for later 🙂

I had booked an overnight cruise on Halong Bay, which included the 8 hour roundtrip bus ride from Hanoi.  The morning of the tour, the bus arrived promptly sometime after the scheduled 7am pickup time.  I hopped on and we made our way eastward out of the city.  Very quickly the crowded, urban feeling was swept into the city’s outskirts, then into rural Vietnam.

Working the field

Working the field

Rural Vietnam (houses in the background)

Rural Vietnam (houses in the background)

As we drove through the countryside, you’d see really tall and thin houses off in the distance.  I was told this is because houses are taxed based on how much physical land they occupy.  So everyone builds these really skinny houses that go up 3-4 stories, even out in the middle of the countryside.

We’d pass through a village every now and again, when the scenery would get a bit more interesting.

Random livestock walking around

Random livestock walking around

Probably dinner

Probably dinner

And then we’d inevitably drive past some of the electronics factories that make the devices that some of you are using to read this very report.

Foxconn

Foxconn

We then stopped at a “shop”.  When I say “shop” I mean tourist trap.  There are all sorts of souvenirs that you can buy there, no doubt overpriced.  They have almost anything you could imagine there, from people painting nice paintings to beautiful needlepoints, to statues, to intricate stone tables.

Tourist trap table for sale

Tourist trap table for sale

Some of the stuff was pretty impressive, but they made us stand around there for almost 30 minutes when we all really just wanted to get to Halong Bay.

We got back on the road and, after just a little bit, caught our first look at some karst formations in the distance.

First view of the karsts

First view of the karsts

After a bit longer, we went across a beautiful bridge to the main docking facility for all of the tourist boats.

Ha Long City Bridge

Ha Long City Bridge

The tourist boat center split everyone up into groups according to their boat, and after everyone had arrived, we made our way to the Dragon’s Pearl of the Indochina Junk company.

Our boat

Our boat

It may look a little junk-y (pun intended), but the reviews were excellent, this is one of the nicer boats on the Bay.  A few years ago the government decided that the boats all needed to painted white, so the former array of differently colored boats is no more, just white boat after white boat.

As we boarded, we were directed to our rooms to put our stuff away.

Lovely room

Lovely room

It was a small room but appointed very nicely with local decor.  There was a freshwater shower in the restroom as well, so, although spartan, the room was perfect for an overnight cruise on Halong Bay.

We all met in the dining hall for our orientation.  Lunch was included with the tour, and we had the option of buying alcoholic beverages.  So I did.

Tiger Beer!

Tiger Beer!

The lady from Indochina Junk began her orientation lecture by telling us how the Bay was formed eons ago and today enjoys UNESCO protection.  She said there are over 2000 islands and that her company would be taking us to a section of Halong Bay to which they have exclusive rights so our pictures wouldn’t be crowded out by other boats.  The weather was bad so we wouldn’t be staying overnight in the bay and would come back that night.   We’d be visiting a private beach to swiWAIT WHAT DID YOU SAY?!  She said it so smoothly that nobody even noticed, but I asked her to repeat that one part, about the weather.  She said that yes, the governing authority predicted the weather would be bad that evening so no boats would be allowed to stay out in the bay that night.  Someone else asked if that meant we’d be staying in our rooms while docked in the harbor, but I don’t think she understood the question, so she just politely nodded.

Thinking everything was still ok, I stepped out and enjoyed the beautiful Halong Bay.

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

The boat was really nice, with lounge chairs to soak in the sun, and the captain took us on a wonderful tour of the various formations.  True to the lady’s word, it seemed like we were the only tourist vessel in that part of the bay.

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Ship's mast

Ship’s mast

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

I had the tour lady take my picture as we made chitchat.

Some guy blocking Halong Bay

Some guy blocking Halong Bay

While she was taking my picture, I asked her to confirm that we’d be spending the night in the harbor and would tour again the next morning.

“No,” she said, “you’ll return to Hanoi tonight.  The weather is going to be very bad.”

[record needle noise]

I asked her to stay put and got the rest of the passengers together and made her repeat what she had said.  She then reiterated her point about the weather.  I pointed directly above my head with the camera.

The stormy skies above Halong Bay

The stormy skies above Halong Bay

At that point everyone became a bit…upset.  We didn’t throw anyone overboard, and I guess logic would dictate that just because the skies were ALMOST CLOUDLESS at that moment didn’t mean storms wouldn’t blow in later.  There was an unfortunate incident a few years ago where some boats got caught up in rough seas that resulted in a fatality, so better safe than sorry I guess.  I just wish the lady could’ve been up front about it and ensured we understood.

She did say we could stay in Ha Long City if we liked, but we were on our own for finding a hotel in either Ha Long or Hanoi.  They reimbursed us the difference between a day tour and the overnight tour we had scheduled.  It was just a huge bummer, Halong Bay was literally the reason I went to Asia.  I hate being told no, also.  She was on the phone at one point when we were asking her to help us book hotels and she said she was on the phone with her supervisor, so I told her to give me the phone and had a nice conversation with her boss, after which wheels started spinning and our booking agents were contacted to assist us with hotel bookings.  I spoke with Sophie from Far East Tours, and she was able to contact the Hilton in Hanoi and get me a booking at a reduced rate for that night.  I was incredibly frustrated, but decided to try and enjoy the experience as best as I could.

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

We approached the private island, where the tour lady was sure to tell us that for their overnight cruises they can arrange a fish cookout on the island.  Gee, thanks.

Beach on Halong Bay

Beach on Halong Bay

From the beach she led a tour up to a large cave on their island, which was admittedly impressive.

Our boat and our sister boat

Our boat and our sister boat

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Cave

Cave

Leaving the cave

Leaving the cave

I went for a swim and a kayak ride from the beach, which helped reduce my stress levels a bit.  Our beach time was up, and we made our way back aboard the ship and got showered up and ready to disembark.  The boat started making its way back towards Ha Long City and the end of our tour.  I was still bummed, as were all of us, but I enjoyed the ride and snapped a few more pics, until the tour lady interrupted me and asked me to fill out a customer satisfaction survey.  I had tried as hard as I could to be polite to this lady, as she was clearly in over her head and wasn’t trained on how to handle a situation like this, but that was the last straw.  I politely took the survey from her, ripped it into tiny pieces, and put it back in her hands, admitting that she probably wouldn’t want me filling it out anyway.  She sincerely thanked me, which I thought was odd for how rude I was to her just then.  Oh well.

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Wrapping up
Charles Dickens said “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”…ok that’s probably exaggerating it a bit too much.  Let me be clear: I am complaining that my overnight cruise of Halong Bay, one of the most beautiful places in the world, was cut short to only 5 hours on the bay.  That means I have it pretty dang good and have been really blessed.  While I was disappointed and almost incited a mutiny aboard a foreign passenger vessel, I still got to see this incredible place that took my breath away even more than I thought it would.  At the same time, I was probably a bit too harsh on the tour lady.  It wasn’t her fault, she was just doing what she was told.  Her managers hadn’t equipped her with the authority to handle the situation so it’s not surprising people ended up angry.  At the end of the day, I safely made it back to the Hilton in Hanoi and had a restful night’s sleep, an enjoyable day at a spa in Hanoi the next morning, and safely made it to the airport for my red-eye flight to Tokyo.  I had, and still have, a lot to be thankful for.  I guess that’s a lesson for all of us in our travel pursuits: while packing, leave room for grace.

It’s been almost two years since my trip to Halong Bay and, although retyping all of this made me a bit upset, I’d like to think I have a better perspective now: I’m glad I didn’t get to spend the night on Halong Bay.  It gives me another thing to look forward to when I go back!

Halong Bay sunset

Halong Bay sunset

16 Comments

  1. The videos are delightful. As long as the posts don’t get a substantial amount of length chopped in favor of going video-heavy. A lot of readers consider the written word to be the highest form of communication.

    Reply
    • Oh absolutely, the videos will always act as a supplement for the text of the article, not a replacement.

      Reply
  2. So did it storm that night?

    Reply
    • Not a drop of rain fell on Halong Bay that evening.

      Reply
  3. Just came back from Halong Bay 2 day. Was told the previous night was cancelled by the authorities, so it’s true there is risk. However, the second day was a visit to a Pearl Farm which was to another tourist trap followed by return to Halong Bay at noon for ride back to Hanoi – second day was a waste! And no additional routes to see more ‘mountain’ islands. One day is recommended. Noticed some high speed boats which perhaps better to cover more ground.

    Reply
  4. Hi. I am a Vietnamese and now living in Hanoi and Halong. All of Your Halong is so true and make me like you blog more

    Reply
  5. you have made best report for this trip. you have clicked best picture on this trip and thanks for sharing with us.

    Hanoi Tour Tailor

    Reply
  6. I have seen your all pictures, it is so beautiful ..nature and weather.

    and all the picture clicked by you…Thanks for post on this blog.

    Halong Cruises Luxury

    Reply
  7. Hi Andy,

    I have linked to your blog from our article on the Top 50 Tropical Travel Destinations Worldwide to give our readers a bit more information on each place.

    I hope you find it interesting and it inspires some more traveling!

    Merry Christmas!
    Ash – TourTheTropics.com

    Reply
  8. Oh mixed feeling when reading this post. At first, I was sad to know how upset you were to stop the tour. Then, I was confused with the lady’s attitude. At last, I just think it’s a little bit irony when there was no storm on that day. You may feel a little bit angry with that fact, right?

    Also, I view think post about everything on Ha Long bay cruise, I’m on a budget so I want a DIY tour as the article refers. Do you think it’s possible? They also wrote that a DIY tour is not as good as others. Can you give me any ideas?

    Reply
    • Hi Christine, I think most of the lady’s indifference was cultural and not malicious. I was angry that there was no storm that day but the Vietnam government had final say on whether or not the tour could operate overnight after an accident claimed the lives of 11 tourists in a sudden storm the year before.

      I do not have any information on DIY tours to the bay, sorry but best of luck!

      Reply
  9. wow.. i think i will have to read more and more blogposts from various sources about halong bay trip because i was planning a trip there with my friend and we totally clueless.. your post is very helpful! thank you!

    Reply
  10. Hi Andy,

    Great blog, I’ve only ready a few of your blog entries and in no particular order yet they all seemed relevant. Vietnam seems beautiful! You ought to visit Malaysia as well, its gorgeous and plenty of things to do. Best of all our scripture is latin so no fancy thai or vietnamese lettering. And we were colonised by the British, thus basic English is a must. Keep up the good work!

    Greetings from Kuala Lumpur,
    Nakia

    Reply
  11. Best time for Halong bay is summer, don’t do a one-day trip, and if you can avoid it, don’t do a two-day one either. The three-day, two-night option is best, and gives you a chance to really soak in the atmosphere and scenery that makes Halong so famous

    Reply

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