Ha Long Bay was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Azure seas, floating islands and lush vegetation. It was the most Avatar-like landscape I have seen (that’s a geographical term – “Avatar-like”!!). It was just stunning.
We cruised through these islands, until we reached a floating village. The people live in the bay on floating huts on rafts and I understand that some have never been to shore! Our first stop was at a fishing raft, with lots of holes in the deck containing different kinds of fish. We had the opportunity to buy fish to take home and cook for dinner.
The next stop was at a (floating) kayak shop, which had expensive kayaks for hire. We declined and instead my BF went on a small boat trip into a cave. I sat on the top deck of the boat in the warm sun taking photos of the bay – it was like an unspoilt paradise and I felt overwhelmingly happy to be there. As I sat there, a lady rowed past with a floating fruit shop!
I loved Ha Long Bay and was disappointed when the boat turned back when I felt we had only just covered the tip of the iceberg of the bay. Instead, the boat stopped at a cave. The cave was nice enough – with stalagmites and stalactites, and a cool opening to the sky letting in a shaft of light. However, if I wanted to visit a cave, I would visit a cave. I wanted to see Ha Long Bay, and I could have done without the cave, in exchange with more time in Ha Long Bay!. (See below for more details on the boat tour).
We got a bus from Hanoi. Following our nightmare experiences on a long bus ride in South America, I was terrified that we would get vomiting or diorrhea (we didn’t!). But little did I realise, that was the least of our problems! The bus driver was in a hurry. He drove fast and hard, often on the wrong side of the road (overtaking) or often on the correct side of the road, but with oncoming traffic coming towards us (them overtaking). My BF tried to get some sleep and often woke up when the bus went over a bump and his head hit the ceiling. He would open his eyes to see another vehicle speeding directly towards us! Probably better to keep your eyes closed! 😉
The bus ride was fine – we stopped half way for the obligatory gift-shop stop, where there were at least clean toilets. And after about 4 hours we were there! Upon arrival a man came to meet the bus – I thought he was official – part of the bus company coming out to greet the bus passengers. However, he was just a man trying to sell stuff. He would become a bit of a nuisance over the next few days, as he would often recognise us walking in the town and stop on his motorbike to come and stop to try to sell us more stuff! However, in the end he turned out to be a gem as he got us a bus back to Hanoi for a good price when we were stuck!
We stayed in Bai Chay, which is the side of the bay with the hotels and restaurants – the touristy bit. (The other side of the bay is called Hong Gai, which I will write about next week). I wasn’t keen on Bai Chay. It was convenient for tourists as there were many hotels, restaurants and markets along the sea. However, the prices were clearly aimed at tourists and everything was very expensive.
The boat to Ha Long Bay was interesting – we had a price in mind from our guidebook which we believed was reasonable (50,000 to 60,000 Vietnamese Dong, which is around $2 or $3 USD). Unfortunately the prices we were quoted were MUCH more expensive – the prices seemed to be more like $60. We shopped around as much as we could, and in the end paid $15.
The ticketing process is massively complicated. Nothing is in English, which is surprising considering the hundreds of tourists that pour through here daily. Even apart from the lack of English, there were several ticket counters, and it wasn’t clear who was selling what. My understanding now is that you need a ticket for the boat. You also need a ticket to get into Ha Long Bay – like a National Park entrance fee. This wasn’t clear to us (you’d think if you were on a boat tour into the bay, that this would enable you to go into the bay?!), so unless you’re very tenacious, a tour is really the only way to see the bay.
We paid $15 each for a tour that was leaving “Now!”. The man showed us the route of the tour and it seemed to go deep into Ha Long Bay, so we jumped at it. Although I loved loved loved Ha Long Bay, I was disappointed that we didn’t get to see more of the bay, and I’m sure we didn’t go as far into the bay as the man promised. I felt a bit ripped off, but there was nothing I could do, short of having a mutiny, and it was far too hot for that 😉 I suspect that if we had paid a bit more, we would have gone further into the bay – something to think about when choosing a tour!
And incidentally, despite being the queen of travel-sickness, I didn’t get sea sick at all! 🙂
Overall, Ha Long Bay was amazing and I would highly recommend it. As with many tourist traps, it is slightly tarnished by the very thing that sustains it. I didn’t really like being crammed on a bus with lots of tourists, and I didn’t like the commercial presence (prices quite high and on a par with western prices; people constantly trying to sell you stuff; occasionally feeling ripped off) but I guess you can’t blame the locals for trying to make a living in the most sensible way they can – tourism!
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