Travel Report: Halong Bay Cruise, Vietnam.
Halong Bay Cruise, Vietnam.
Cat Ba Island had served up an amazing four days of adventure. In fact, with its pretty harbour and beach, World War II Cannon Fort, Vietnam War Hospital Cave and stunning national park, I’d been left nonplussed by how few people actually bother to go there.
Now, at the end of my stay, I was ready for what I’d been told is of Vietnam’s definitive highlights. Indeed all you have to do is take a cursory glance at the so-called Best of Vietnam, and you’ll immediately see the towering limestone monoliths of Halong Bay.
Back in 2018 there was a host of tour operators claiming to offer “the best” Halong Bay cruise. However, the scene was positively riddled with cowboy companies. Some had shoddy boats barely fit for purpose. Others lied about the length of the cruise and even skipped over the bay’s highlights. Shameful but predictable stuff for anyone who’s been around the circuit in Asia.
After much consideration I booked my tour through Green Trail Travel, based in Cat Ba Town. These guys had a glowing online footprint and seemed friendly and genuine when I walked into their office one afternoon. Hence I went with my gut and paid the $20 for a spot on one of their midweek cruises.
Halong Bay Cruise.
In truth I’ve always hated group tours. You know, where they stuff as many people in as they can. When you’re on somebody’s else’s timetable: “Now we go here… you’ve got five minutes here…. this is what we’re eating” etc.
I had looked into private cruises but the costs were exorbitant. So I bit the bullet and resolved to try and get into the spirit of things. To cross my fingers and trust that Green Trail Travel were as conscientious about their service as everyone said.
Our guide that day was a talkative young Vietnamese man called Thang. With the boat already chugging away from Cat Ba Island’s little harbour, he wasted no time in apologising for the weather.
“You know, Halong Bay one of most beautiful place in the world” he said, addressing the group. “But unfortunately this place don’t have best weather in world ha ha. In Vietnam we have a saying. If you come to Halong and see blue skies and sun, you will have the best of luck for 50 years!”
Thang followed his apology with something of a revelation. “Everyone know about Halong Bay right?” But actually not many people know Lan Ha Bay, this is where we go now”.
Lan Ha Bay turned out to be a Green Trail Travel masterstroke. It is every bit as beautiful as Halong Bay, but further from the mainland, away from the well-trodden tourist route. “Less boats and more clean waters” smiled Thang. “You can much more enjoy!”
Lan Ha Bay.
Located to the east of Ca Ba Island, Lan Ha Bay stands as Halong Bay’s elongated tail. Home to over 300 karst islands and dozens of floating villages, Lan Ha Bay is every bit as stunning as its famous sister, but delightfully under-the-radar.
It wasn’t long before we were passing some of the floating villages. According to Thang, fishing families have been living in and around these waters for around 20000 years. “They are still traditional people” explained Thang. “Their life is almost same now as then. Only difference is WIFI ha ha”.
Moreover, from what I could see, some homes even had satellite dishes! “This is for football” laughed Thang. “Vietnam men and boys love the English Premier League… Manchester!” Which got me thinking, if traditional fisherfolk were getting live Premier League football zapped straight into the bay, they must be doing well from the fishing business.
“Oh yes, they making good money” confirmed Thang, nodding seriously. “So much money that Vietnam government decided too many families come here to try the fishing life”.
Consequently, the authorities decided to enforce a ban on individuals and families who have no hereditary link to the area. This, they insisted, was necessary to help control the bay’s human population and prevent overfishing.
We were also interested to see how many of the families had a dog. “Man’s best friend!” Thang assured. “But not bird’s best friend. Dogs are perfect for keeping those birds away from their fish”.
Adventures in Vietnam.
Lan Ha boasts a number of pretty, isolated beaches. This one, known locally as Temple Beach, houses a shrine to the fishermen who’ve lost their lives at sea. The region is vulnerable to severe storms, so much so that Thang reckons just about every family here has lost at least one person to bad weather. Some locals make weekly visits to the temple to pray for safe passage before long voyages out to sea.
“I don’t want talking all the time!” announced Thang suddenly. “I think for the next part we can relax and just enjoy landscape until we reach Halong”. What an excellent idea, I thought, as people began dispersing to various quiet corners around the boat.
Climbing up to the top deck, I found myself a wonderful view point. And as I settled down it seemed as if the sky had just gone even darker. As if the bay might somehow swallow us up altogether. Luckily things soon brightened up as the boat drifted gracefully around a corner between two gorgeous limestone peaks.
“Cup of coffee?” asked Thang with a wide smile. “Oh, yes please”. It wasn’t the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had, but definitely a case of it’s the thought that counts.
Halong Bay Cruise.
“Haaaaaalong Bay!” called Thang, “let’s gather downstairs”. At last we were approaching the presumed main act. Amusingly, as if to rubber stamp its touristy reputation, a lone boat appeared and began cutting a determined path towards us.
With the boat fast approaching, I realised it was a local woman and her floating snack store. Sadly for her, drinks and munchies were included in our tour, thus there were no takers. “Don’t worry” laughed Thang, “she’ll find some customers”.
When I said the two bays are identical, I wasn’t kidding. If Thang hadn’t told us we would never have known that we’d exited Lan Ha and entered Halong. What we did notice though was that the waters were getting busier. More vessels, more noise and a distinct increase in floating garbage. Ah, people…
Nevertheless, I wasn’t going to let anything spoil the undeniable appeal of Halong Bay’s ethereal beauty. “In Vietnam we call this Bay of Descending Dragons” cried Thang dramatically. “Legend says Vietnam people descend from Dragons. And that in ancient times Mother dragon god and her children helped the people defeat hostile invaders”.
“These formations are 500 million years old!” he continued. “Sculpted by tectonic movement and home to first commercial port of Vietnam in 12 century”.
We also learned how the country’s great kings have sailed through here, such as King Le Thanh Tong in 1468. He was so charmed by Halong Bay’s beauty that he wrote a poem about it and carved it onto Bai Tho, one of the area’s prettiest mountains. How I wish I’d managed to get up there for a look.
In modern times Halong Bay has caught the attention of international filmmakers. Take Jordan Vogt-Roberts, for example, who set up camp here in late 2015 to shoot scenes for his movie Kong: Skull Island.
Adventures in Vietnam.
Following our history lesson, Thang stopped the boat and encouraged us to take a swim in the bay. I’d been really looking forward to this and, with around half a dozen others, wasted no time in jumping into Halong’s warm green water.
When we clambered back onboard there was a giant feast awaiting us, spread across the tables of the lower deck. The food certainly surpassed my low expectations. There were chunks of herby omelette, fried spring rolls and peppery slices of potato. A delectable beef stir-fry, fresh salad and chilled prawns. Not bad at all.
It’s crazy to think that I’d never been kayaking before. If truth be told I’ve never been into water sports. But I took the Green Trail Travel tour as an opportunity to test myself a bit and try something different. In the name of safety, we all got paired up and I found myself buddied with a friendly, laid-back dude called Samuel from Switzerland.
I needn’t have been so concerned. Kayaking turned out to be a breeze and I loved exploring the bay at water level. Forming a snake-like squadron, we spent an hour twisting and turning around a stunning section of the bay.
The highlight was undoubtedly passing through the “Death Tunnel” (Thang’s words), where the intense current does its best to suck you back the way you came. Happily, we managed to execute our oaring just as he described in order to avoid capsizing.
Halong Bay Cruise.
Back on the boat we began the long return cruise to Cat Ba Island through both bays. Along the way we stopped at Monkey Island for an hour. Just enough time, as it turns out, to enjoy a short hike and meet a few of its famous residents.
The island is tiny, with a singular idyllic beach home to a basic bar and restaurant. They also have a cluster of bungalows for those wanting to stay awhile. Strolling down the lovely golden sands, we watched as dozens of long-tailed macaque monkeys darted around looking for mischief.
Others, like this gruesome looking fella, gorged on fruit up in the trees. Thang, ever wary of our safety, urged us not to get too close to them. “They will bite!” he warned. “And trust me, you are not wanting that”. So, rather than risking rabies, we set off on the short but challenging scramble up the rocks to a lovely viewpoint over the island and Lan Ha Bay.
Oh how I wish I’d worn proper footwear that day. The climb up had been arduous in my sandals, and if anything it was even trickier on the way down. Truly I was lucky I didn’t slip and injure myself on either if not both legs.
Halong Bay Cruise.
It didn’t take us long to get back to Cat Ba Harbour from Monkey Island. I don’t remember much about that last part of the cruise. For me the moment that marked the end of the tour was a fellow group member taking my picture on a large beach rock on Monkey Island.
I was feeling tired but happy that I’d given the group tour a chance. It hadn’t been so bad and I’d got to see one of the most beautiful places on Earth for a mere $20. For that, I’ll always wholeheartedly recommend Thang and the good folk at Green Trail Travel.
Like this? Then why not have a leaf through my many articles from across Vietnam.
I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.