Halong Bay isn’t the most original place to for a tourist to visit, but as I commented before, there is a reason why certain places became tourist hot-spots: because they’re worth visiting. Halong Bay was no exception, though you’ll get some snob tourists who claim otherwise, disregard that, Halong Bay is definitely worth checking out.
You can go on day trips to Halong Bay, do an overnight trip staying in the island town of Cat Ba (or stay on the island longer) or you can stay on a houseboat. I opted for a combo, one night on a houseboat, one night in the island town of Cat Ba. I would recommend against staying in Cat Ba more than one night; it’s relatively expensive, and objectively both tacky and expensive. But the city is fine for a one night stop-over given that you’ll spend most of the day on a boat checking out the bay.
From Hue, I took a sleeper train to Hanoi, the Hue train station:
Strangely enough the train departed nearly 30 minutes late. I didn’t think it was possible to run a train network with tardy trains, but apparently Vietnam has figured out the way—so when planning your connections, don’t rely on trains to be perfectly on time as they are in every other country.
The first-class sleeper accommodation consists of a cabin with four beds, and the beds have been the most comfortable beds I’ve experienced on a train so far. But for the fact that it is apparently socially acceptable for strangers to put their bare feet on your bed on their way up to the second level (I am seriously disgusted by bare feet and there is a ladder that makes it unnecessary) it would have been ideal accommodation. Also, the tracks in Vietnam are a bit on the rough side so the train shakes more than normal during the night. The trains do have an eating cart (alas my pictures of it were blurry) so you can readily get a simple meal and a beer:
The train arrived in Hanoi early in the morning, and since the travel agency where I was being picked up was still closed I treated myself to a breakfast buffet at a fancy hotel. I didn’t have much of a choice in the matter, I was hungry and hotels were the only places open for breakfast at that time. After breakfast, a bus picked me up at the travel agency and drove us to the pier near Halong Bay. With traffic it takes a fair amount of time, about four hours.
I was staying on a houseboat for the first night. Since houseboats are too large to dock at the pier, they all have a smaller vessel attached to take passengers to and from various docks and piers throughout the day. On the smaller boat:
The accommodation was surprisingly comfortable. I believe I paid approximately $100 USD for the 24 hours on the boat which is a pretty good deal given the excellent accommodation and considering that it included four meals, kayaking, and visits to a cave and a pearl farm. My room had a really comfortable double bed, a fairly large private bathroom with a nice shower, and a big window looking out onto the water. I had a very nice night on the boat. The only downside was that the drinks on the boat were exorbitantly expensive, be they alcoholic or not, and no outside beverages were permitted aside from water. I would advise you to sneak in some vodka in a water bottle if you want a few drinks on board.
The room and upstairs deck:
Onto the main event, the bay. In my travels, I would have to rate the limestone mountains both in Guilin, China and in Vang Vieng, Lao, as some of the most impressive natural sights around. Halong Bay adds water to that already spectacular equation. I stood on that upper deck for hours, taking pictures, and even more pictures the following day. It never got old. Some shots from my first day:
During my time in Halong Bay we visited two caves inside the limestone mountains on consecutive days. Since the caves were quite similar, I’ve combined the photos. The last two pictures were from the second day, the main difference being that it was a lot more crowded that day because it fell on a national holiday:
Video inside one of the caves:
A picture from the elevated exit to the cave we visited on the first day:
A photo from the area where the houseboat dropped anchor for the night. We took the smaller side-boat to the pearl farm.
The pearl farm is pictured below. The process is quite impressive, they manually insert little pieces of oyster shell balls inside young oysters. Many do not produce any pearls, and most of the pearls that are produced are not the optimal shape. A spherical pearl is relatively rare, even less so in nature:
When we returned to the houseboat we had our dinner and were able to do a bit of swimming off of the boat. The water was refreshing and very clean. When sun had properly set, we then did a bit of squid fishing, alas I caught nothing:
Halong Bay at night:
The following morning we were up nice and early for breakfast so that we could fit in a bit of kayaking before our trip back to the pier. We were out on the water for a good hour at least, and were able to go right up to the limestone mountains. It was up there with some of the best kayaking available in B.C. After kayaking we got back on the houseboat and set back for the pier:
The other guests on the boat were only staying for the overnight trip, so once I got to the pier I joined another group that was just arriving from Hanoi. Since we would be spending the night in Cat Ba, the second boat was smaller and had more guests. However, most people chose to stay away from the sun, in the area below, so it was relatively quiet and spacious on the top deck:
Cat Ba itself wasn’t particularly picturesque so I won’t bore you with photos of that city. However, the lovely 40 minute drive from the pier to the town of Cat Ba is quite pretty. Unfortunately, it’s tough to capture that through a bus window.
I’ll leave you with a shot of the famous rock featured on one of the Vietnamese Dong notes: