Ups and downs of Halong Bay

Halong Bay is a UNESCO World heritage Site. The bay features thousands of limestone karsts and isles in various sizes and shapes. Local legend has it that long ago, when the Vietnamese were fighting Chinese invaders, the gods sent a family of dragons to help defend the land. This family of dragons began spitting out jewels and jade. These jewels turned into the islands and islets dotting the bay, linking together to form a great wall against the invaders.

Halong bay boat tours are undoubtedly one of the most popular activities in North Vietnam. Most of the tours range between one night or two night tours staying on an old wooden junk or one night on the junk and one night on Cat Ba island which is located in the bay.

We signed up for the latter option at the Whole Earth Cafe in Hanoi and paid about 45 USD which included an AC cabin, all food and activities (kayaking, trekking on Cat Ba island and swimming amidst the massive karsts.) This was one of the biggest activities that we had planned for Vietnam and were so torn of whether or not to go with the more expensive boat tour led out of Kangaroo Cafe.

We figured that, at the very least, we would be surrounded by other backpackers and people our own age if we took the cheaper tour. We were dead wrong about choosing the cheap tour. We boarded the boat which looked nothing like the picture and had lunch which was surprisingly OK.

our first whole fried fish

We thought “This will be just fine.” Nope. The people on board were brilliant and interesting, but the staff were horrific. Our tour leader constantly made a face that could best be described as “someone scared while taking a shit.” He never had any answers to our questions and just made his special face and walked away. His name was Hiep and I hated him. Again though, I could overlook the ugly boat and Hiep. The staff wouldn’t let us in our room and insisted we leave our stuff on board while visiting the caves and while swimming (which we didn’t get to do until sunset). We put our money belt in the computer bag since we were in our swim suits and money belts don’t really look so sexy in a bikini. We came back on board after kayaking around sunset which was gorgeous. We checked on our money which was still there. We then continued to have a pretty huge party with the other 15 backpackers on board. At this point, all of our stuff was locked safely in our cabin. We came downstairs and the door to our room was unlocked. I totally thought maybe I didn’t lock it well.

The next morning, we awoke and Hiep informed us our tour was canceled due to an incoming monsoon. Fine. Better safe than sorry. Also, some girl had had a rat eat through her backpack to get a baguette in her bag. We didn’t really want to stay on the boat any longer. Hiep assured us we could get a refund from the various hotels and organizations we booked with. I didn’t really believe the monsoon story because all of the other backpacker junks were still heading to Cat Ba island. I should have known then that the next day, I would take the money out of the money belt and half of it would be missing with a loss of 180 USD. I should have known then that Hiep said he was going to come to our Cafe with us to get our refund. He said he was parking the bus and then just never came back. The Cafe argued with us for 2 hours before finally giving us only 12 USD back. Hanoi may have cheap beer, good food and lots of good photo opportunities but what it doesn’t have is fair business owners.

Halong Bay is absolutely not to be missed, but you MUST pay more for the experience if you want to go on your tour stress-free. The budget tour would have been fine if we had locked all of our bags, both in our cabin and out of it. Two really good tours that are getting solid praise from travelers are Kangaroo Cafe (the real one) and Hanoi Backpackers. Both tours are Western-run and you get really good food, good sun chairs and fancier cabins. They’ll run you about 115 USD minimum, but it’s worth it because to kayak at sunset amidst these larger than life formations jutting straight out the water, is one of the best experiences on Earth.

In the end, we did get some amazing photos out of the deal. Take a look.

In the caves:

super touristy

super touristy

They say it is a fertility rock, and you rub it for good luck. It just looks like a giant boob.



1 Response to “Ups and downs of Halong Bay”

  1. 1 wandering lass June 24, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    Nice photos… I wish there was already kayaking activities in Halong bay 3 years ago 🙂

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