One of the most recognizable natural places in the world, Halong Bay’s unique karst formations had a mystic appeal to us. Part of France’s past is entangled with Indochine’s history, and the scenery of Halong Bay filled our mind, from historical events to contemporary movies. Cruising on Halong Bay was a must-do during our Vietnam trip and happened to be by far the best way to discover this UNESCO World Heritage site.
We splurged and booked a 3-day 2-night cruise on the Golden Lotus, a traditional junk boat. Located in the Gulf of Tonkin, Halong Bay – also known as Ha Long Bay or the “Descending Dragon” in Sino-Vietnamese – is immense and includes around 1,600 islands and islets. Given the size, the three days would give us ample time to explore and enjoy quiet nights under the sky of Halong Bay.
After an early hotel pickup and a high traffic drive from Hanoi, we reached Halong Bay around lunch time and soon boarded our junk boat. Going on a small bark allowed us to admire our boat in its whole glory, something that is harder to do aboard. Once we got our luggage, we quickly settled in our room. I was pleased with the nice wooden design, quite luxurious. We headed to the sundeck, and my oh my, what a view. Halong Bay, here we were!
The boat soon departed and cruised among the limestones and the tall islands. Our destination for the afternoon was Dau Go Grotto, one of the many caves scattered across Halong Bay. Other popular caves include Thien Cung Grotto or Sung Sot Cave. The landing pier of Driftwood Island, where the Dau Go Grotto was located, was packed with boats. A popular place, it took us a while to reach the top of the 90 steps as we had to pause every now and then.
The Dau Go Grotto is composed of three main chambers with the main ceiling about 75-feet (25 m) high. Stalactites upon stalactites composed the rooms and created different shapes and forms. I have to say I am not a big fan of crowded caves and was claustrophobic at a time. Thankfully the high ceiling and wide rooms helped on the issue. Various spotlights illuminated the cave in red, green, blue, and yellow – I guess to give it depths and meaning. Personally, I would have preferred the natural lights, as it felt like the Las Vegas strip at night, minus the loud music.
Back to our boat, we sailed for the night, headed deeper into Halong Bay. Dinner happened to be uneventful. One of the downsides of many of these touristy activities is that the food rarely matches our expectations. We like street food, home-cooked by mama in the little hole-in-the-wall. On these types of boats, the food is good and safe. I guess we should be happy with it. We did not leave hungry, but it had none of the fantastic flavors we had come to enjoy in small streets corners. They did serve us seafood and “local” delicatessen. Let’s say we did not take the cruise for gourmet food either, that we were properly fed and did not starve and let’s leave it at that. I know I should not complain, we had plenty food. It just we know how good it could be and in a very affordable way.
The next morning we arrived at the southeast side of Cát Bà island where we anchored for a while and kayaked for the next hours. Many of the islands have been named in an attempt to interpret their specific shapes, but I have to say that I was not able to see the elephant of Voi Islet, the kissing cocks of Trong Mai Islet or the Monkey of Khi Islet. Nearly 1,000 islands still need names, but I won’t volunteer for the job as I would be hopeless to define any shape!
Hungry after our hours kayaking in Halong Bay, we could not wait for lunch, this time prepared by our day boat crew on the side of the boat. Simple, this tasted much better than the main dinner prepared on the junk boat. Finally a genuine home-cooked meal that filled our tummy and satisfied our palate!
Rested and satiated, the afternoon looked promising as the boat approached one of the several fishing villages in Halong Bay.
Not far from the fishing village we reached a pearl farm, where oysters are cultivated to grow pearls. Workers showed us how they inserted pearl seeds into each oyster, and would harvest the beautiful pearls 12 to 18 months later. I rarely fancy these “commercial stops” as I call them, but I have to say I had no knowledge on these farmed pearls so that was somewhat interesting. But we gladly escaped the shopping area as I am not a pearl person. The prices seem on the expensive side, even if the pearls look exquisite and are known to be of fine quality.
Our last stop brought us to Tip Top Island for a bird’s view of Halong Bay. The hike up the hill required to go over 400 steps and was a good workout, but it gave us a fantastic panoramic view of the Bay. It was really worth it, even if on the busy side. We enjoyed the wide view of the Bay in its full glory. Though the weather was overcast, the rays of the sunset were coloring the whole landscape in various shades of gray and yellow, painting Halong Bay in surreal effects. Just mindblowing. Going back to the beach, a few people from our boat had traded the steps to the hill with swim time. We were glad we had gone the extra steps (literally) instead of the refreshing dip as it has been a unique opportunity to see the Bay from a high point of view.
That night after dinner, equipped with a long bamboo stick and a fish net, I gave a try to squid night-fishing. I was the only one of the boat at it, but given the impressive number of zero fish caught, this was not the most impressive activity possible. Squids are most active at night and attracted by the light, and on lucky nights one might see 30-40 squids. On that particular night, waiting for the elusive fish to bite, I was reflecting how hard a life it would be to just live out of traditional fishing techniques, remembering the life we saw at the fishing villages.
Our third and final day brought us back to port. The clouds remained low, sad to see us leave. Though the temperatures are dropped sharply, to a point of we decided to wear our fleece jackets, Bruno and I stood the entire time on the sunset deck. We wanted to capture as much of the scenery as we could, memorizing the unique shapes of the islands, the tall cliffs against the sea and low sky. Too soon we disembarked and were saying our goodbyes to Halong Bay.
Other Halong Bay Activities
Besides cruising, swimming and kayaking in Halong Bay, biking and hiking are popular on Cát Bà National Park, one of the biggest islands and home of the endangered langur. Kayaking can be part of an afternoon activity or be organized over a couple of days. Rock climbers will love the islands’ tall and challenging cliffs while scuba divers will love the calm and turquoise waters of the Bay. Helicopter tours and parasailing are also available for bird’s view.
When to Go
Spring and Fall are the best time to go though Summer will still be enjoyable. Winter is best avoided given the Northern location of the Bay. With high humidity, the cold of Winter can be truly disagreeable.
Choice of Boat
From just a day cruise to multiple nights, how to choose your Halong Bay cruise depends on your expectations as they are available at different costs and amenities, from budget to luxury, with a various number of activities included. Other also offer sunrise yoga on the sundeck, Vietnamese cooking classes, and onsite spa and massage. I would not recommend a day cruise as the drive from and to Hanoi would take most of the day. A multi-day cruise, though more expensive, allows for a better experience of Halong Bay. We booked our cruise directly ourselves but as the former Director of Content Marketing at Viator.com, I would recommend their Halong Bay cruises. This is an affiliate link, which means we receive a percentage if you make a purchase using this link. Our opinion is our own and is not impacted by this affiliate link.
How to Get There
Halong Bay is easily reached from Hanoi but is still over 170 km / 105 miles and a 3h-4h drive in busy traffic. The route might take longer as the company picked up other customers and we ended driving over one hour around Hanoi. Wish we had slept one more hour…