The sights you see in guidebooks and Travel Channel shows may be the same ones you visit on your vacation, but the experience is usually different–in good ways and bad. While some place may be a UNESCO sight, a “must-see,” a “highly recommended,” when you vacation, you can’t go everywhere, so you have to choose. In that spirit, I bring you “Was it worth it?” a series I will write from time to time in which I explore whether a highly recommended sight is actually worth doing.
I’ll kick off this series with Halong Bay in Northern Vietnam. Halong Bay is a dramatic sight, a place like few others. It is a large bay of hundreds of limestone islands that jut out from the water. Most are forested, and some are hollow with caves on the inside that are filled with stalactites and stalagmites. But it is very popular, and because this is Vietnam, which is incredibly accommodating to tourists, you will not get off the beaten path at Halong Bay unless you spend a good amount of time there a less trafficked areas. So is it worth it? Here’s my experience, with my conclusion at the end…
Most people who visit Halong Bay do as I did and take one of the dozens of boat tours that begin in Halong City. Many people book these at a tour company in Hanoi, as I did, or online. Because Vietnam has such a tourist economy and there seems to be little to limit the proliferation of tour companies, you can book all kinds of tours last minute, including a trip to Halong Bay. If you’re someone who likes feeling, like a Renaissance European explorer, that you discovered a preternaturally beautiful place that has in fact been inhabited by humans for ages, Halong Bay probably isn’t the place for you. I understand the desire to not want to be around other humans when traveling, believe me. But when you are in Vietnam, and in many places for that matter, you have to accept that many of the great sights are not yours alone.
Anyway, the main questions to ask yourself if you are going on the Halong trip are: How much do I want to pay which depends on how fancy do I want this trip to be? How long do I want to stay? And what do I want to do on the tour? I paid around $80 for a mid-range tour—an overnight boat trip that included three meals, a kayak ride, a cave tour, and a Vietnamese spring roll-making class. The boat itself had a deck we could relax on and a dining area with a bar (drinks not included). Like just about everything in Vietnam, this is an incredibly good deal for an American, and I could have gone even one level cheaper. If I had to do it again, I might have gone one night longer and done a more active trip.
Even though the bay was beautiful, my memories are less of the islands jutting out all around me than about the humor and minor irritations of that strange experience.
The trip began at my hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, where a man picked me up and brought me a couple of blocks away to wait for a travel van. When the (large) van arrived, a group of three–a guy and two women in their 20s who I later learned were from Mexico–were sprawled in the back, each taking up their own half row. The bus made its way through the narrow streets of the Old Quarter, where I had spent the day before peering into shops, puzzling over my map, and trying to cross streets without getting hit by a moto. As one might imagine, it took awhile to navigate these narrow streets in a car, and I was continuously impressed we didn’t knock over a bike rider or ride up on the sidewalk. The van stooped at several more area hotels to pick up the people who would be my future boatmates. The Mexican tourists soon had to give up their half-rows and sit packed next to each other. Meanwhile, every time we stopped at another hotel, a guy who I would later learn was from the Catalan region of Spain descended from the bus to the curb where he would light up a cigarette. He would only get to smoke about half of it before the bus packed in the next group of people and got ready to take off. And yet he got out and lit up just about every time we stopped at a hotel. It turned out this guy was the only person beside me on our boat who was traveling alone.
The drive took us past farms and through towns. A couple of hours in, we stopped at a rest stop that had a lot of ceramics and also sold food and stayed there for what seemed like an inordinately long time – perhaps enough time to come away with a few ceramic goods.
The rest stop
When about 4 hours after leaving Hanoi we entered Halong City, I was struck by its bleakness. There were boxy buildings, many of them hotels, that looked like they were built recently and yet already appeared dated.The van let us off in a parking lot, and we walked to an area where a bunch of boats were docked and dozens of people just like us were setting off on their trips. These small boats took us to our larger junk boats anchored in the bay. A junk boat is a type of sailboat that originated in China. Those sailing in Halong Bay pretty much all are for these cruises, and they have bedrooms, a dining area, kitchen, and outdoor deck.
The boats that took us out the the junk boats
My room in the junk boat was surprisingly nice and quiet. Our guide, a Vietnamese man who told us to call him Kevin, joked to me and the Spanish guy about the fact that he could have put us in the same room but didn’t. Thanks?
My room, with choice of bed
We had some time to relax and check out the boat, and I must have gone up to the deck at some point and enjoyed the view of the bay as we began to near what almost felt like a forest of islands and islets. The sky was grey with some sun trying to peak through at various points during the afternoon. Because it was winter, north Vietnam was “cold”—in the high 50s/low 60s. It wasn’t the kind of weather where you could laze around on the deck in your swimsuit, but it was the kind of weather where you still felt far from New York City in January.
After some time, the number of islands proliferated. We arrived at one of the most famous caves in the area, which I believe is called Sung Sot Cave. We got off the boat, viewed a sign about the Bay being a Heritage Site, ascended stairs and took pictures of a gorgeous view from a lookout point before entering. The cave was huge, with several chambers, able to fit the many other tours moving through. As Kevin walked us through the chambers, he pointed to various formations, telling us what they looked like–a couple in the throes of love, a dragon, an old woman, a young woman. He kept on promising that he would soon show us something that makes a woman very happy. When we got to that sight, we either laughed or groaned.
Climbing to the cave
Inside the cave
Once our cave tour was over, we were taken to a dock where we were given kayaks. We had to ride in two-person kayaks, and Kevin seemed to take a lot of glee in pairing me with the Spanish guy. I took less glee in it, especially because the Spanish guy wanted to row away from the others in our group, and I kept on worrying we would get back later than when we wee supposed to, and then I would be stranded in a sea of karsts with this guy. At least he didn’t light up.
We were the last ones to make it back, and I began to worry everyone thought we had fallen madly in love and could barely be bothered to come back. Then I reminded myself I was on vacation, and I’ll never see any of these people again. We had some time to get settled and come up to the dining room for a family style dinner and drinks. Some of us passengers, including a Norwegian father and daughter and a Danish husband and Thai wife, and I talked for awhile around the table after dinner about where else we had been in the region. The Norwegian father highly endorsed Phu Quoc, an island off of South Vietnam. The Spanish guy kept ordering Red Bull vodkas even though there was no evidence that the dining room was going to turn into a club. I learned that all of them were traveling for at least a month and that this was pretty normal if you’re not from America (I was taking 3 weeks from work at a job I had been at for four years. In the U.S. taking this much time off provokes either the reaction: “Wow, I could never do that, but GOOD FOR YOU,” or “Wow, I didn’t even know people could do that.” In Europe, Australia, and South America, 3 weeks in a far away region like Southeast Asia is pretty short).
Getting ready to kayak
At some point I went out to our deck and saw the many other boats docked not far from ours, and I imagined people from all corners of the world in each boat, talking about their Southeast Asia experiences over Halong beers and maybe even Red Bull and vodkas.
Other junk boats light up the bay
The next morning, the sky was clearing, and we had time after breakfast to relax on the deck. I was finally able to enjoy the warmth of the sun and read. At some point, there was some kind of a boat switch, so that the passengers on our boat who were doing the two night trip were transferred to another boat. Meanwhile, several passengers who had been at sea for two nights got onto our boat, which was heading back to shore. Some new people came up on the deck and claimed some chairs, while a nice couple who I had spoken with the night before left the deck to switch boats. I realized how much coordination must be going on behind the scenes for these trips to work.
In the late morning, Kevin tried to gather people into the dining room to make spring rolls, which wasn’t the draw I would have expected. Making spring rolls turn out to be more difficult then one might expect, particularly wetting the delicate rice sheet and rolling it around the sliced cucumber, carrots, and pork, but when they fried them up and gave them to us at lunch, the rolls did end up being tasty.
Spring roll triumph
After the class, I went to the deck and saw that there were fewer limestone islands. Soon we were on shore, waiting for our bus at a café and souvenir stop. Because of some kind of delay, we had to wait for over an hour. When we got on the bus, we were again packed in next to each other. There were even seats that folded into the aisle, so getting up to go anywhere on the 3.5 hour ride back to Hanoi was not really an option.
Giving new meaning to the aisle seat?
Behind me, four Americans in their 20s were discussing what city one of the guys should live in and debating whether Detroit was cool or “too hood.” Then they had a long conversation with their guide about how best to arrange picking up in Hanoi the bikes they planned to ride to Hue. There is something about traveling in this region that can and probably should make a person from the West feel uncomfortably privileged, and this conversation seemed to evoke that for me.
In front of me, a family from Taiwan were quietly engaged in their devices.
We drove through miles and miles and miles of city outskirts before arriving in the Old City and getting dropped off at hotels. About an hour later, a man from my hotel was driving me by moto to the train station in Hanoi, where I boarded an overnight train to Hue for my next adventure.
Was it worth it? Do I think Halong Bay was worth it? I’m not sure. The landscape was stunning and unlike nothing I had ever seen, but it put me pretty face to face with the reality that I was part of some strange tourist economy that made the experience all feel a bit staged. That being said, the experience itself was interesting. I maybe didn’t get as many photos as I would have liked of a panoramic emerald bay with forested islands all around—there were too many other boats nearby to get that many clear shots—but I did get an experience. And if you’re a tourist in this region, you simply have to accept the fact that it will often be crowded and that the idea of getting off the beaten path to claim your own space is as fraught as the heavy development of resorts and hotels that you’ll see up and down the coast of Vietnam.
If you do this trip, I suggest staying 2 nights so you can get farther out and going to Cat Ba Island where you can do more outdoor activities. Definitely don’t do a day trip. Maybe do an overnight trip like I did, but don’t fret if you can’t make it this time around. Aim for the dryer and warmer part of the year.