I have read many blog posts about visiting Ha Long bay in Northern Vietnam, some recounting positive experiences but many negative. I almost decided not to write about my own experience as I feared it may become a cliche. Some bloggers suggested that other travellers avoid visiting Ha Long Bay at all and that was what made up my mind to write about it. If you are travelling in Vietnam you should go to Ha Long Bay and here’s why.
Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
“The geomorphology of Ha Long Bay is known as a drowned karst landscape due to the exceptional combination of its limestone karst features which have been subject to repeated regression and transgression of the sea over geological time. The limestones of Ha Long Bay have been eroded into a mature landscape of fengcong (clusters of conical peaks) and fenglin (isolated tower features) karst features, modified by sea invasion at a later stage.”
Ha Long Bay has been designated a site of importance because of its outstanding beauty and biological importance. Local legends say that the area was formed by dragons many centuries ago, our guide told us that rampaging dragons fragmented the landscape leaving shards of rock protruding from the water and leaving lakes where their footprints fell. Although I don’t think that this is a viable explanation for the intriguing landscape it is hard not to get swept up in its murky mystique as you sail slowly through the green waters watching the eerie, jungle-covered monolithic islands drifting past. In fact, the more misty and grey the day, the more mysterious and compelling Ha Long Bay becomes.
Equally as fascinating is the local life in the area: four floating villages are home to approximately 1,600 inhabitants who sustain a basic lifestyle, supporting themselves through the centuries by fishing. Their homes consist of small cabins atop a floating platform and they sometimes cater to the tourist trade by rowing small boats out to the large junk vessels heavily laden with fruit, crisps, chocolate, playing cards and souvenirs. Whilst many tourists find this an irritating nuisance on their trip, it should be remembered that it is the tourists and their petrol spewing boats that are threatening the simple and ancient lifestyle of these fishing villages.
There are many ways to organise a trip to Ha Long bay and the most popular are the all-inclusive tours where for as little as $35 you can get transport, one night’s accomodation on the boat (or in a hotel on Cat Ba island), all meals and kayak hire. Naturally these cheap tours mainly attract budget backpackers and often entertain a relatively young crowd eager for an all-night party on the roof of the boat. If you want a quieter cruise it may be best to fork out a bit more; there are cruises to suit all budgets going up to a few hundred dollars for the more-elite tours.
Do your research…
For those who pay the lowest fare, you get what you pay for and the tours can vary wildly. If you are lucky you will have few or no problems. If you are unlucky things can get pretty dire: sometimes boats are deliberately overbooked and guests are asked to share a room, or even a bed, with somebody else on the boat. You may end up with a room next to the throbbing engine of the boat where the petrol fumes make you worry if you will even wake up the next morning. Your room may have serious interior damage (our sink was full of hardened cement). A bad operator will be very unsympathetic towards the complaints of the passengers in this scenario. If you are planning to party all-night anyway these things might not bother you but if you intend to get some sleep you should do some research before you go.
In February of this year a boat sank in Ha Long Bay killing 10 visitors from the United States, Sweden, Russia, Britain, Japan, France and Switzerland. It is true that safety is not a prime concern in Vietnam and the cheaper the tour the morely likely it is that you will be onboard an old boat that has not been regularly serviced and does not comply with even basic safety regulations. You may even have a completely inexperienced crew. Whilst this accident has spurred Vietnamese authorities into investigating safety on these tours it is still best to be cautious when picking your tour. Look for established and reputable travel operators, such as Sinh Cafe in Hanoi (be careful of the numerous imitations that have sprung up) http://www.sinhcafetravel.com.vn and pay more than the cheapest tour on offer.
For your own peace of mind…
I have heard and read many people expressing negative opinions about their tour to Ha Long Bay and many spend a lot of energy complaining about what they cannot change. Before getting onboard the boat there are a few things that you should mentally prepare for:
- You will never get the whole area to yourself. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is visited by millions annually. There will be other boats in your pictures and people standing right in the way of that award-winning photograph that you want to take. They have as much right to be there as you!
- The Vietnamese like neon, therefore the stunning caves and incredible stalagmites and stalactites will be lit up in garish shades of green and pink. Your guide will probably spend more time pointing out phallic formations than informing you of the geographical significance of the cave.
- If you are on a budget tour there will be an all-night party going on on the rooftop. Either be prepared to join in or pay more for your tour.
- It is likely that the generators may not run past 11pm leaving the boat plunged into darkness (and cold if it’s winter) so unless you want to go straight to bed you might want to bring a head-torch and a blanket.
The scenery is stunning and you will have an unforgettable experience if you just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Have you been to Ha Long Bay? What was your experience? Please feel free to leave a comment.