Cruise tour in Ha Long Bay

Taste of Vietnam - Part 3: Ha Long Bay

March 12, 2015

This is the continuation of Taste of Vietnam - Part 2: Da Nang and Hoi An.

Finally, we were on our way to Ha Long Bay, a wonderland of over 1600 islands and limestone karsts; this had always been the highlight of the cruise (for me) and I was really looking forward to spending two days in the bay. It takes the ship several hours to negotiate its way deep into the Bay; how a ship this size manages to find a pathway though the islands is incredible, and nearly everyone was up on the various decks to photograph the amazing and unique seascape as we inched towards our stopping point, which we reached around 11.30 am.

Day 1 - Ha Long Bay (Cloudy Day)

Junk cruising around Ha Long Bay
Even the poor visibility did not distract from the spectacle – Ha Long Bay is beautiful.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature did not feel like playing along that morning and we sailed through deep mist and motley rain. What the guide books do not tell you, is that these conditions are the norm, rather than the exception. It was disappointing not to see the brilliant turquoise waters of the photos, and we were all pleased that we would be in the bay for two days – surely the sun would shine tomorrow? However, even the poor visibility did not distract from the spectacle – Ha Long Bay is beautiful. The legend goes that a dragon, sent by the Jade Emperor, descended from heaven into this corner of the sea and sprayed a thousand (1600 to be exact) pearls from its mouth, which formed the shaggy limestone stacks you see today. Many of these contain incredible caves which you can explore on foot. The area is vast, and many people choose to explore it by cruising around the Bay on a Junk, for 1, 2 or 3 nights. If you are travelling through the mainland of Vietnam you can do this excursion from Hanoi.

The port of Ha Long is too shallow to accommodate a ship the size of Millennium, so we anchored a little way offshore; the lifeboats are deployed and used to ferry passengers back and forth to the port all day long. The trip takes about 5 minutes and the crew is so organised that there was never more than a few minutes wait to go ashore.

Floating villages in Ha Long Bay
Our boat tour past entire floating villages and dozens of the islands and rock formations.

Our afternoon boat tour was great and we spent several hours gliding along, past entire floating villages and dozens of the islands and rock formations. We visited the Dong Thien Cung cave which was pretty spectacular; amazingly it was only discovered quite recently and completely by chance when a local fisherman drifted into it.

What was rather worrying is that all these floating villages just discharge their waste directly into the sea, which means that there is a significant degree of pollution; surely that must have a detrimental effect on this beautiful environment. Anyone fancy a swim?

Some of the passengers went into Ha Long town for dinner, but we decided to stay on board and explore the next day.

Day 2 - Ha Long Town

Many people grabbed the opportunity to visit Hanoi on this last day in Ha Long Bay, but since this would entail a very early start and nearly 8 hours on a coach (4hours each way with just 4 hours to see the city). There were also a couple of short excursions into the countryside, which could have been quite interesting, but we decided to explore Ha Long Town, which was a bit disappointing. There was not much to see aside from the craft market, but it was interesting roaming the streets and observing life.

Crabs and other seafood in water tanks
All along the main street people had live fish and other seafood in tanks.

All along the main street people had live fish and other seafood in tanks – choose yours and enjoy it super fresh in minutes. There was also a shop selling the most intricately decorated cakes which looked marvellous, as well as some other food stands that were not quite so appetizing, such as a whole roasted baby piglet – it did smell absolutely wonderful though – full of superb Asian spicy fragrances.

I have just read that you can now also do an aerial tour of Ha Long Baythat was introduced in October 2014, so was not available when I was there. I think it would be a wonderful way to see this incredible part of the world.

Someone missed the ship

Our last bit of excitement happened when we were slowly leaving Ha Long Bay at around 10pm; from our balcony we saw a small boat chasing after the ship and frantically trying to gain the attention of the crew. Two passengers had been delayed and were trying to catch up with the ship. Unfortunately, it was too late for them and we later saw them re-boarding the ship a day later in Hong Kong. This type of thing is one of the pitfalls of trying to do your own excursions in a strange country with erratic public transport.

My suggestions

In conclusion, I have to say that my small taste of Vietnam was excellent and exceeded my expectations; it has certainly whetted my appetite for another visit. Touring by cruise ship was not the ideal way to see this diverse country, as we wasted a great deal of time travelling the long distances from the ports to the cities and other attractions. My advice would be to find the perfect land-based tour to give you an in-depth look at lovely Vietnam. Don’t miss the Mekong Delta – those who went said it was the highlight for them, and if possible you could also try to include fabulous Siem Riep in Cambodia – it is really spectacular and is close enough to Vietnam to be included in your itinerary. Happy Travels!

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