The blog is not finished! But after the Theft (yes, capital letters), the want/need to update the blog took second fiddle to dealing with the Theft and just finishing the trip sans computer. Since being home, it's been hard to get that motivation to complete it. But I will. Ever so slowly. Please be patient!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Ha Long Bay

Ignoring, for a moment, the justifiable controversy surrounding the selection of the “New 7 Wonders,” Ha Long Bay still stands out as an amazing place. Of the seven places that have been named onto the new list, this one is one of the few that is actually deserving of the title in my opinion. I had already done a one day tour of the UNESCO World Heritage Site with Po and Frank a few days earlier and it’s very apparent that four and a half hours is not nearly enough to really appreciate the beauty of the area. So, with that in mind, I set out to book a three day, two night tour of the bay.

IMG_4890There is no shortage of tour companies vying for your attention, especially for this specific trip. And the combinations are outstanding. 1-, 2-, and 3-day tours are available. And these range from 2 nights on a boat, to 2 nights on Cat Ba island. Or a mix of the two. Or a night on Cat Ba and a night on Monkey Island. Or the boat and Monkey Island. Or. Or. Or.

Prices also vary quite widely and is one of the few times that the more you pay, the more likely it is that you’ll actually get great accommodation. The hostel in Hanoi had one tour that they offered called the “Rock Long, Rock Hard Ha Long Bay Tour.” But looking at the photos and the description basically convinced me that it was more of a booze cruise. And then you look at the majority of the people who are staying at the hostel and I suddenly feel very, very old.

Instead, I wandered and booked it through the same company we had booked the one day tour with. The one day tour was quite laid back with more older people than young whippersnappers(oh dear lord, I am old). It felt more my style.

Lets just skip right on past the three and a half hour drive to Ha Long Bay. That’s pretty boring. At the pier, a small boat awaited us and another mini-bus full of people to take us to our Chinese Junk. When we had climbed aboard and settled into our rooms, we all sat around the tables for some lunch as the boat cruised towards the karsts of the bay.

IMG_4685Most tours will include one trip into a cave. The karsts of Ha Long Bay are all limestone and have been shaped and hollowed out by millennia of wind, rain, and waves. Massive caves can be found on many of the islands. The one that this trip took us to is commonly called Heaven Cave because of the way the sun shines into it in a certain part. The one day tours also come here as it’s not a far cruise away from the mainland. Consequently, this also means that there are hordes of tourists regardless of the time of day.This kind of detracted from the beauty of the cave.

IMG_4680But ignoring the other people, the cave was gorgeous. The lighting they use inside - a mix of reds, blues, and greens – worked wonderfully to give this sense of calm and to bring out many of the odd shapes and shadows the water had carved out. When the guide was pointing out the various animals and other shapes made by the rocks, I always kept thinking how imaginative someone had to be to notice them first as many were unnoticeable until they were pointed out. The human minds ability to discern patterns out of chaos always amazes me.

The last little item of business for that first day was a quick little jaunt on the kayaks around a small island. It didn’t take too long, maybe forty minutes, with twenty minutes to spend jumping into the water while we waited for everyone else. Two crazy mofo’s even took the opportunity to swim the 200 yards or so back to the main boat. I couldn’t do it. I’m lazy.

IMG_4824In Ha Long Bay, there are only two places out inside the bay that ships are legally allowed to lay anchor for the night. Our ship, among with a dozen or so others, were at the area closest to the Cat Ba island pier. A night of good food and attempting some squid fishing before we settled down for the night.

The night before, there were twelve people on the boat. Of those twelve, only four of us had booked two nights on the boat. Us four got a choice which we made after dinner. Either spend the second day on Cat Ba island hiking and then kayaking in the bay, or spend the whole day kayaking. After much discussion, we decided on the full day of kayaking. I think our decision was probably the best. You can hike whenever. When else do you get the opportunity to kayak among limestone islands and caves?

IMG_4842And surprisingly, it was quite relaxing. It took about an hour of cruising on a smaller boat to get to a small floating village to pick up the kayaks. I had my GPS in tow(Click HERE for the Google Maps route), and surprisingly got within 200 meters of a geocache. A little begging convinced our guide to let us kayak around here for an hour so off I went. Silly me forgot both a pen and shoes so I couldn’t search for long. Never did find it, but my feet certainly got a little sliced up from the rocks and shells.

IMG_4878Another hour of sailing brought us to the actual kayak spot and we spent a good amount of time exploring the area, our guide leading us through caves and into small lakes in the middle of these islands. I had an amazing time and it was absolutely relaxing. The only un-relaxing portion of it was when we went into one cave that was completely pitch black. No light at all penetrated inside. To get through, we were battling the current which was quite strong. And in the pitch blackness. We did have flashlights, but I had mine in my mouth so the light was completely all over the place. I would only see the wall right before we hit it. And the walls were not nice. Slimy, gooey.

It was awesome.


I even conquered, briefly, my fear of heights by jumping from the roof of the boat into the water below. TWICE! It still took about five minutes of counting down from three in order to do it. Oh good times.

Spending the “full” day kayaking was a great idea. After eating lunch, we cruised back slowly, stopping for a brief visit at a pearl farm where we got to see the work in action. It’s a fascinating process of slicing small pieces of oyster meat to place in other oysters with a small pearl. The meat would force an immune response and it would create a larger pearl.

CSC_4770We finished the day back on the ship where we relaxed and watched movies on my laptop as we cruised back to our anchor spot. The last day was even more relaxing as the ship cruised back to the Haiphong City pier. I relaxed on the roof of the ship for the entire journey, watching the scenery float by. It was a perfect end to a perfect trip.

I can’t stress enough how much more it’s worth to spend at least one night in Ha Long Bay. A 1 day trip is too rushed and too tiring as there’s very little time to relax and enjoy the scenery. It’s just a matter of hoping you get good weather for your trip. My three day trip, while not sunny, wasn’t raining so it was still pleasant. The clouds and mist in the air obscured a lot of the scenery, but there was still a great beauty to it.

IMG_4967And when guides tell you that you can’t claim you’ve seen Vietnam until you’ve seen Ha Long Bay, I’m completely in agreement. Ha Long Bay is a must see in Vietnam and in South East Asia in general. And I would go back again and again.


  1. "...this one is one of the few that is actually deserving of the title..."

    Having likewise just had the pleasure of experiencing this wondrous site - I couldn't agree more, Corey. Indeed, I'd go a step further and advise going for the 3 day/2 nt. pkg. That extra nt./day was among my most extraordinary travel experiences to date.

    btw Corey, I'm just now coming up for air here (been verily DROWNING in the CELTA) - are you by any chance still here in HCMC???

  2. Hey Dyanne! Thanks for the comment. Sadly I'm no longer in HCMC anymore. I'm now in Siem Reap visiting Ankor Wat. Absolutely stunning. Just you wait for that blog post. . . once I catch up.

  3. I want to kayak through Ha Long Bay. Looks breathtaking. Note to self.....headlamp and water shoes!!!