Exploring the limestone karsts of Ha Long Bay
There is no doubt Ha Long Bay is one of the most incredible destinations in Vietnam. With 1,969 limestone karsts scattered along the 120km long Bai Chay coastline, this area is begging to be explored. Recognised by UNESCO for the ‘exceptional beauty’ and ‘great biological interest’ of the area, it was an easy decision for us to visit Ha Long Bay.
Vietnamese folk tales explain Ha Long Bay was formed by a dragon, sent from the heavens to form a natural fortress to help protect the locals from invaders. More logically, the landscape is an example of mature karsts, a result of the warm, wet, tropical environment found in Ha Long Bay. What we see today is the consequence of years of erosion. Not only are there hundreds of conical peaks and towers, the progressive erosion from the ocean has undercut into most of the islands and has even created arches and caves in some places.
With Lunar New Year falling around the time we wanted to travel to Ha Long Bay, we opted to travel to Hanoi and organised a return tour from the capital city. This worked quite nicely for us, we both enjoyed the opportunity to have everything organised for us. In the end, we did a three-day, two-night tour with one night on the boat and one night on an island. The only negative was the price, which was more expensive over the holiday period.
Embarking on our journey I was pretty excited, being in a boat on the water is one of my favourite things. Add in a traditional Chinese junk boat and Ha Long Bay and I could barely contain myself. Arriving on board the boat we quickly dropped our gear in our quarters before exploring the upper deck. Greeted by a misty Ha Long Bay, we were in awe of the impressive limestone cliffs soaring above the water. I was surprised and shocked to see the water is incredibly dirty and littered with rubbish. It’s a shame such a beautiful place is potentially being ruined by all the waste.
We opted for the 2.5 star Imperial Classic Cruise, booking through Travel Agent Hanoi who we found really helpful and relatively reasonably priced. In reality, it seems most the boats are quite similar, unless you opt for the much more expensive 5 star options. We were happy with our room and thankful for the heater, which we had blaring all night to fight off the cold.
Our second day and night was spent at Nam Cat Resort; an amazing tiny resort tucked away on a small beach on one of the Ha Long islands. We were really pleased with our lovely bungalow right on the waters edge. We thought it was interesting people on the 4 and 5 star cruises also ended up at Nam Cat Resort, staying in the same bungalows but no doubt paying much more than we were.
We were warned by the tour agency that the main difference between the 2.5 star boat and the higher rated boats was the food quality. With this in mind, we weren’t expecting the greatness and found most of the food was fine. Breakfast, however, was average at best. Once we arrived at Nam Cat Resort, the quality of the food improved considerably and we really enjoyed the buffet style menu. We lucked in on our last day and were upgraded to the higher rated boat, which had notably better food. While we always enjoy good food, we went away on the boat to experience Ha Long Bay and saw the food as an added bonus rather than a focal point of the trip.
ACTIVITIES & ATTRACTIONS
For me, the main activity was the cruise through the islands of Ha Long Bay. It was incredible to be dwarfed time and time again by sheer cliffs rising high above sea level. We spent several hours weaving our way through the islands, which was amazing. When we arrived to the designated sleeping area at the end of day one, we were given the opportunity to kayak the bay. A bit disappointed by dirty water we opted to wait until the following day before we ventured out in a kayak. A great decision, the area around Nam Cat Resort was beautiful and we had a great time exploring. We did have a minor issue in the kayak; I was initially in the front, however, Jimmy was incapable of following my lead and we quickly swapped to prevent further complications.
PEOPLE & CULTURE
For us, it was all about the people we met on the boat. It was great to have the opportunity to meet like-minded travellers and spend some time getting to know them. After months of travel it is nice to chat to others on similar trips to see what they enjoyed and can recommend. We have found most guesthouses in Vietnam have no common areas, making it difficult to spark conversation with new people. It’s also interesting to be thrown into such a restricted environment with different people. It really throws light on cultural differences quite quickly, which can be interesting to say the least.
WHAT WE LEARNT
After discussing the Ha Long Bay cruise options with several tour agencies, we were pretty confused by what kind of boat we were on and what was included. One couple on our boat were quite upset, they thought they were supposed to be on a better boat with better activities. We were at an advantage in this regard, we were unsure what was included so were quite happy with everything we got. I think it’s important to go with the flow, this is something that I probably need to work on. In reality, the star of the show in this case is Ha Long Bay itself and the trip will be incredible regardless of whether you do Tai Chi at sunrise or not.
Yet another incredible experience that blew the budget, but another one we thoroughly enjoyed. We were quite thrifty, managing to avoid the extremely overpriced drinks by taking several bottles of water with us. We are still trying to make the little bits count even though we have blown the budget massively!
Back to Hanoi for two nights before we head to Sapa. As it’s winter, we have decided to head for Sapa and decide what we want to do once we get there. With exceptionally cold weather, we’re not sure what to expect.