Ha Long Bay

January 15 – 18

After almost a week in Hanoi, we headed east to Ha Long Bay for a few days. Kevin, our host in Hanoi, had helped us book a three-day/two-night cruise trip on the bay. We let him talk us into going with a particular company and, in retrospect, maybe we should have stuck to our guts better, should have gone with an outfit of our choosing… But hindsight is 20/20 and we still got to see some beautiful sights!

Our cruise experience began with a pick-up from our homestay, which then went around and around Hanoi in circles picking up other guests. We finally got on the road and eventually made it to the port in Ha Long Bay.

At the harbor, we were unloaded from the bus and ushered onto a small boat which took us to the cruise boat. We definitely could have just walked from the bus straight onto the cruise boat, but apparently the authorities require that tourists arrive to the cruise boats in this manner so as to better keep track of visitors. We all had to put on lifejackets for the two-minute boat ride. All of the lifejackets throughout our entire cruise experience were comically large (big even by American standards; one wonders why they are so large when Vietnamese people tend to be quite small!) and I think meant more for show than anything else (“safety third,” as Martin likes to say!).

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Once we were all securely loaded on to the cruise boat, we had lunch as the boat motored out further into Ha Long Bay. Our lunch soundtrack included an easy-listening instrumental version of “My Heart Will Go On,” the love theme from Titanic, which felt a bit ominous for a cruise boat… (As it turns out, the song is very popular in this part of the world and that is only the first of many, many times that we’ve heard it.) At lunch we met Philip and Jane, a British couple who are spending their retirement traveling around the world: in the winter they travel to warm places, and in the summer they sail around Europe. They were really lovely and we ended up chatting with them quite a bit over the three days.

We shared the bay with many many other cruise boats and unfortunately we didn’t get the clearest of days on the bay, but it was still incredibly striking scenery. Despite the craziness of the boats, we still got some pretty magnificent views of Ha Long Bay, the karst islands scattered haphazardly and rising straight out of the water.

The first activity on our cruise itinerary was stopping at one island to check out a cave, Hang Sung Sot. We had to transfer from the cruise boat to a smaller boat, put on lifejackets for the 30-second ride, and then to the island (if you’re counting, boat #3 of the day). The cave was pretty cool: There were some neat formations; our guide kept pointing out to us the ones that looked like animals, and he even stood at the entrance to one cavern and made sure to point out a particularly phallic-looking formation (not that we could have missed it anyway because it was the only thing lit up in red). 🤦‍♀️

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After the cave, we headed back to the boat (via small boat, of course, #4), and then to Ti Top Island (#5 and #6, for the round trip!). We hiked to the top of the island via some steep stairs and jostled with the other tourist at the look-out station; it was totally worth the effort as we got some amazing panoramic views of Ha Long Bay.

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Kevin had assured us that this would not be a party cruise. Back on the boat as evening fell, it became obvious that maybe we had differing definitions of “party”: There were music and colorful lights, happy hour 2-for-1 deals, karaoke (including the ever-popular karaoke hit, Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien”…??), and “Vietnamese sangria” which we used to learn a toast in Vietnamese (which is basically, “One, two, three…drink!”). It all seemed geared towards an ambitious amount of partying given that there were only about a dozen guests on board. After some drinks and then dinner, we chatted with some other cruise guests and then retired to our cabin where were lulled to sleep by the lapping of the water outside, the karaoke still raging upstairs.

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The next morning we opted to skip the 6:30am Tai Chi class, and after breakfast everyone piled yet again onto a smaller boat (#7, #8) to transfer to a kayaking station. We spent about 45 minutes paddling around a beautiful little cove in an island where we saw some monkeys, and then those of us doing the longer trip were transferred to a different boat (#9) to take us, eventually, to Cat Ba Island.

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We had a couple more stops before our final destination of Cat Bat. The first stop was to see a floating fishing village tucked in amongst the karst islands. The bay is liberally peppered with these tiny islands but they are pretty uninhabitable for humans. So instead, the fisherman have built these haphazard-looking villages that just float between the islands. People may go their whole lives without leaving these floating villages; if the children go to school, they have to commute to the larger Cat Ba Island. It was interesting to see how people live, but we opted to hang back instead of touring through peoples’ homes.

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We headed back to the boat for lunch, for which our tour guide had a very specific seating arrangement in mind that we couldn’t quite understand which in turn led to a very frustrated guide and very pissed off guests. After lunch we checked out Monkey Island for a little while. We had to transfer from the boat to a small fishing boat (#10, #11) which had to do several rounds in order to transport us all to the beach.

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And yup, there are indeed monkeys on Monkey Island! The monkeys were pretty cute and entertaining, and we mostly just wandered up and down the beach while I laughed at them and took pictures. This time, to get back to the boat, they cut down on the number of trips by loading the last trip up with so many people that we couldn’t get off the beach, oops! We did eventually get off the beach and back on the big boat. This whole cruise experience was certainly a lesson in inefficient efficiency!

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One thing that has gotten to us a bit here is the lack of concern for environmental issues. It was particularly evident in Ha Long Bay where it is totally common for the cruise and fishing boats to dump trash overboard, or for hoards of tourists to leave their refuse on the islands’ beaches. (We’ve also noticed it in the cities where the streets are full of litter and plastic straws, plastic bags, and excessive plastic packaging come with everything you buy or eat.) Whereas we were taught not to feed wild animals, no one here gives a second thought to feeding the monkeys who have clearly become used to and expectant of it. People don’t just marvel at the formations in the caves from afar—unless physically barred from doing so, they wander over and around them, touching every stalagmite they can. The fact that the beaches are covered in huge chunks of coral leads one to imagine that there must not be much left in the ocean, the pollution killing the tiny organisms and then the fishing and tourist expeditions knocking the pieces loose to be washed ashore. It has been a good experience in that it gives us a better perspective on what can happen when we don’t take care of the environment.

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We did finally make it to Cat Ba Island. I’m sure it’s a beautiful island: there is supposed to be a really great national park and everyone recommended renting a scooter to drive around. But…the weather was kinda crappy and we were just feeling pretty exhausted by that point. We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the waterfront and hanging out in a cafe.

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The final morning, we got picked up from our hotel in Cat Ba and headed back to the boat, from which we were transferred to the “four star” cruise (#12) for a little while before being transferred to the “two star” cruise (#13) (we had booked, and had originally been on, the “three star”) which would take us back to the harbor. The weather was actually sunny and clear for the last few hours of our trip and we enjoyed finally seeing the bay in its glory. We got back to the harbor, transferred to the small boat (#14!!!) to disembark on land, and were eventually on the bus back to Hanoi again.

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See more photos of our cruise on Ha Long Bay here! And stay tuned for more stories of our Vietnam travels—next up is Phong Nha National Park.

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