Consisting of more than 1600 karst limestone islands rising from the Gulf of Tonkin, Halong Bay is one of Vietnam’s biggest tourist attractions. Designated as a world heritage site in 1994, Halong Bay attracts millions of visitors every year, either on day trips or live-aboard cruises.
As our remaining time in Vietnam was limited, we opted for the day-trip from Hanoi using The Sinh Tourist (previously known as the Sinh Café). It is however worth mentioning, that although the company has received a lot of praise from The Lonely Planet, it seemed to us, that they were cashing in on this. Supposedly, The Sinh Tourist’s main Hanoi office is located at 52 Luong Ngoc Quyen, however there are 7 number 52s on that street, with each office claiming to be the ‘real’ Sinh Tourist. After a few price comparisons, we realised that the offices sell pretty much the same excursions. We ended up booking with, well one of the Sinh Tourist offices, although it would be hard to tell which one given they all have the same address. Whilst booking, we found that the exchange rate we were given was very unfavourable, even though we wanted to pay in Vietnamese Dong. Most of the Sinh Tourist offices quote a price in USD, but when converting to VND, will charge way over the quoted price – another scam!
We were collected at 8am (although we were told to be ready at 7.15-7.30am) and made our way to Halong in a mini-bus with around 12 other visitors. Taking around three and a half hours, the bus did the usual tourist-trap stop for a ‘toilet break’, where overpriced lacquered items, trinkets and jewellery were all for sale, along with a café (serving the worst coffee we had tasted during our three months in Vietnam) and toilet area. As usual the allotted 30 minutes was more than enough time needed and we all headed back to the bus to continue our journey.
Arriving in Halong, the famous karst peaks rise out of the Gulf of Tonkin, showing teasing glimpses of what we expected to see on the upcoming boat trip. The mini-bus took us straight to the harbour area, where row upon row of tourist boats were moored, awaiting their allocation of day-trippers or over-night guests. After filling in a small ‘insurance’ form with our dates-of-birth, nationalities and names, we were handed our tickets to board ‘our’ boat, the Thanh Cong 18.
Setting off slowly into the bay, we were quickly served lunch. A good selection of fish, rice, morning glory, chips, fried spring rolls, tofu, chicken, pork and seafood vinaigrette salad. Beer and soft drinks were sold as an extra, with a small can of 333 costing 30,000VND.
The cruising continued with our guide, Tien pointing out well known and named islands such as Fighting Cock Island (also known as Laughing Chicken) and Dog Island, as we made our way to a floating fishing village. There, we were able to alight onto a small floating pontoon and step into either a kayak (we had already booked and paid for the kayak) or a manned rowing boat – a more serene choice, with no rowing necessary.
The kayaking was the highlight of our trip. Free to head away from the boat, we made our way towards a small cave, which led into an enclosed lagoon. Inside, we were completely encircled by towering limestone cliffs, with kites soaring high above and the noisy sounds of unseen insects hidden in the clinging foliage. Paddling around this small lagoon, just the two of us, I wondered if this, rather than Maya bay, was the inspiration for Alex Garland’s Beach. It was paradise.
After just under an hour of paddling around in the Kayak, we headed back to the boat, which then made its way to the Thien Cung caves. Even though many tourist excursions stop here, it was still, as caves go, very pretty. Coloured lights were strategically placed around the main caverns, creating an air of mystery – up lighting stalactites and down lighting stalagmites. Given our group was only in Halong for the day-trip, time was of the essence and we didn’t have nearly enough of it to see the caves in all their glory. We could have stayed for another hour.
Once we had all boarded the boat, it was time to return to land and then head back to Hanoi; with the obligatory pre-planned toilet break en-route at yet another huge souvenir rest-stop.
Regardless of the confusing number of Sinh Tourist offices or the unfavourable exchange rate charged for the trip, Halong Bay was a real highlight of our three months in Vietnam. If we had a little more time, we would have booked an overnight cruise in the bay too. Although prices do vary greatly, you can see Halong Bay on a backpacker’s budget or splash out on a night stay on a replica paddle steamer or 4 star junk. Regardless of which option you choose, the highlight is the Bay, rather than the vessel that gets you there. In my opinion, Kayaking is a must, it gives you the freedom (that a large boat simply cannot offer) to explore caves and grottoes, and find a little piece of paradise for yourselves, just as we did.
Halong Bay Day-Trip with The Sinh Tourist on 22nd May 2013:
650,000 VND Per Person
Pick up and drop off at Hotel
All transport (van/bus and boat)
Lunch on board (vegetarian option available)
Kayak (an optional extra when booking)