This was the place. THE major factor for visiting Vietnam. After looking up flight prices from Thailand, visa requirements, and Ha Long Bay cruise prices we went back and forth on whether to save Vietnam for a trip years from now or bite the bullet and do it now. We knew our “year-off” budget would take a hit but we were already in the Eastern Hemisphere.
We decided to do it. We could skimp somewhere else.
After recommendations from Dan’s siblings who visited Ha Long last year (thanks Pat and Lu!) and negotiating with multiple travel agencies, we decided to book a 3 day/2 night cruise with Swan Cruises of Bai Tu Long Bay – the quieter and less traveled part of Ha Long Bay. We tend to lean towards DIY travel over organized tours but it was SO nice to pay one price and have everything (transportation, activities, accommodations, food) handled. No thinking or planning involved. So a breakdown of our trip, with pictures of course:
A passenger van picked us up from our hotel in Hanoi at 8 AM. Turns out, we ALMOST got on the wrong bus minutes before. There are hundreds of other tour buses driving around Hanoi’s Old Quarter picking people up for their Ha Long Bay cruise. Good thing we checked with the driver first before sitting down. The drive to the harbor (Hon Gai Harbor) takes about 4 hours.
A smaller boat took us to our 16 passenger live-aboard cruise ship. We explored the boat, had lunch, and enjoyed our first views of Bai Tu Long Bay.
After lunch, a small boat took us to “kayak island” – a floating platform with hundreds of kayaks tied off to it for passengers from various cruises to use. Our guide didn’t really give us any instructions on where to go or what to see and he also didn’t tell us to follow him so Dan and I went off on our own for a little bit and found a small beach. After days of clouds we were lucky to have a 45 minute window of (partially) blue skies!
After kayaking, we returned to the main boat, showered up, read a little, joined the evening “happy hour” on the top deck, and had more delicious food for dinner. We were served tons of fresh seafood (squid, shrimp, crabs, fish) which was a welcome treat after weeks of backpacker budget meals. We tried our luck at bamboo squid fishing after dinner but didn’t catch anything. Ha Long Bay at night is something else.
After breakfast we went onto a different cruise boat and were taken out for more activities. We went kayaking again and this time we brought our portable speakers to play some tunes along the way. We needed a soundtrack to these views! We tried to keep up with our guide – a challenging task at the speed he was going. It was a bit windy and rainy this day unfortunately. Our guide for the day, Long, grew up on Ha Long Bay ON a fishing boat. He and his family rarely came to shore and spent almost 100% of their time on-board their fishing vessel/home. So you can imagine, keeping up with him on a kayak was a work-out. He took us to Thay Cave.
The neat thing about this cave was that it’s the first cave we’d ever been to that wasn’t illuminated by man made lights. The further we walked into it, the darker it got. Dan and I let our entire group go ahead of us as we stayed back in this massive “room” in the cave. The two of us switched off our flashlights (everyone else calls them torches!) and stood in the darkness for just a moment. It was an eerie and exhilarating feeling to be in (almost) complete darkness in this huge cave. Despite being deep into the cave, we could see a VERY faint glow coming from the entrance. Crazy how light works.
After the cave we had lunch on the boat and then were brought to the Vung Vieng fishing village where we went on a slow and peaceful paddle boat ride through the village. The boat ride ended at a pearl farm where oysters are grown and harvested for their pearls. Of course, pearl necklaces are for sale at the end of the tour. It was amazing to see the size (and prices) of some of these pearls! I liked the lavender ones.
Then it was back to the main boat for happy hour, a cooking demo, dinner, and card tricks. We tried our luck at squid fishing again. I caught one! They cooked it up for me the next day for lunch!
We visited the ultra-touristy Thien Canh Son cave. It was a beautiful but a short cave and they had us packed in there like sardines. It was like a conveyor belt of people going in and coming out. The nice part was gaining some elevation and being able to see the limestone karst from a different vantage point. Dan and I spent the majority of our time debating on whether or not we had seen Shane from one of our favorite TV shows Naked and Afraid. It wasn’t him though. We took in some of our last views of the bay before returning to our boat for lunch as we returned to the harbor where we go on the bus for the 4 hour journey back to Hanoi.
We’re happy we stopped in Ha Long. But now that we’ve done it – I don’t think we’ll be back. Once was enough. When we returned to Hanoi, we gave ourselves a day with a WiFi connection to figure out what would be next. We thought to ourselves – wherever we go next, we better make it count. This would be likely be the last stop of our South East Asia adventures. It was almost time to come home.