Cruising Halong Bay

Our latest guest blogger Maya writes about cruising Vietnam’s exquisite Halong Bay with her husband:

Halong Bay Tour

Halong Bay cruises don’t look like this anymore; all are now painted white as required by local government

I’ve made wonderful memories touring many beautiful coastal locations all over the world. But one in particular stands out: Vietnam’s Halong Bay. My husband and I finally got the chance to go on a famed Halong Bay cruise. We’ve read about it, heard many things about it, seen bazillion pictures of it before we visited, but none of that compared to seeing this mystic UNESCO world heritage site with our own eyes.

We were driven to Halong from Hanoi, which took about four hours. It may not have been the most luxurious experience, but we got to see the beautiful Vietnamese countryside and many roadside stalls on the way. We arrived mid-morning, right on time to board our two-night cruise. There are ginormous amounts of information available online about Halong Bay cruises, but it’s difficult to know how much of it is reliable. This is where a good travel agent comes into play. Ours strongly insisted that we choose a two-night cruise, because we won’t be spending as much time on the Bay on an overnight one. (They leave around noon, anchor overnight and return in the afternoon the following day.)  My husband and I decided to dish out some cash for our Halong Bay experience. Not too much for an uber-luxurious cruise mind you, but enough for a small vessel with spacious suites and great food. After all, if you are overly frugal you might end up being stuck on a crumbling boat with mediocre food, or worse, a backpacker party cruise.

Cruising Halong Bay

The amazing stalactites of Surprise Cave

At the dock, we were directed to an ivory-colored junk with a dragon-shaped head at the bow. We were a bit put off because we booked a beautiful traditional wooden junk. A crew member explained to us that the provincial authorities have ordered all the boats on the Bay painted Mediterranean white. No one really knew why. Well, Halong Bay is stunning either way. We hastily checked into our suite, which was beautiful in earthy tones, and rushed to the upper deck to watch the shore disappear behind us.  Bye bye modern world and hello dazzling emerald waters of Halong Bay.

Halong Bay Tour Package

Do your research before getting on a Halong Bay cruise

Sipping on our welcoming drink, we marveled at Halong’s signature feature, the ethereal limestone formations that emerge out of the water like stone giants. They were all over the Bay and the ones in the distance were enchantingly cloaked in mist (or smog drifting down from China, according to my cynical husband). As the evening set in, the shades of green that overwhelms the Bay gave way to golden hues of the fading sunlight. A crew member told my husband that Halong Bay literally means the “descending dragon bay.” Once upon a time, a colossal dragon flew towards the ocean. As it did so, the dragon’s flailing tail created massive fissures on the earth.  Then the dragon dove into the ocean submerging the entire area in seawater, except for the karst peaks that we see today.

The next day, we woke up early to watch the famous sunrise over the Bay. After a filling breakfast of Vietnamese seafood rice crêpes, we went cave exploring. Yes, the charm of Halong Bay isn’t restricted to karst hills. Our cruise anchored and we took a small boat ride to the Sung Sot Grotto, sometimes called the Surprise Cave. We had to climb up some stairs and then descend into the cave, which had surprisingly expansive chambers (hence the English name, probably). The cave was lit by artificial lights, which my husband complained about, but I thought the lights well illuminated the wavy ceiling and other remarkable features of the cave.

About to go sea kayaking in Halong Bay

About to go sea kayaking in Halong Bay

We returned to our junk and went swimming. That means we had too much insouciant fun jumping into the water straight from the upper deck. After a buffet lunch, we went kayaking. I thought this would be boring, but kayaking in Halong Bay is quite special. We went with a guide and he took us to remote places of the Bay to explore more caves darker and grittier than Surprise Cave. We kayaked some more through impressively narrow gaps between limestone formations before returning to our “mother ship.” That evening we participated in a Vietnamese cooking class hosted by the cruise’s chef. First, he let us watch as he prepared several exotic Vietnamese dishes, and then told us to try an easy one on our own. Rolling delicate Vietnamese spring rolls into shape is much harder than it looks. The crew fried our variously shaped rolls and served them back to us with dinner.

On our final day of the cruise, the crew arranged for us to visit a nearby floating village. We were gently rowed there on lovely bamboo boats. The floating village was remote, but with all the tourists venturing there, is not as isolated as it once probably was. The village—with its square houses on stilts, little kids playing on mini-wharfs and even pet dogs—is endlessly fascinating. We even stopped by a pearl farm, where a local woman demonstrated how pearls are extracted from oysters and prepared as jewelry. A giant information board in English explained the appropriate pearl sizes for various traditional Vietnamese occasions.

We spent the last few hours of our incredible Halong Bay cruise sipping cocktails and watching the scenery. I felt really sad when we finally returned to the pier. I certainly could have spent the rest of my life drifting amidst the magnificent hills of Halong Bay!