Asia / Vietnam

Halong Bay. Where are the dragons?

Halong Bay is definitely one of the most famous and most visited sites on a tourist map of Vietnam. It’s stunning. Postcard-perfect. Visiting Vietnam and not going to pay even a short visit to the dragons of Halong is like going to Peru and not including Machu Picchu in your travel itinerary. You are right, the world won’t end if you skip it, but…

There is nothing wrong with staying “on the beaten track” and following the crowd from time to time. Especially, if we are talking about places like Halong Bay. Believe me, I know how annoying other tourists can be. I also know they won’t bite you! And even if they do… I am pretty sure that the things you are going to experience, will pay you back with interest. Forget the “I’m not a tourist” thing (as we all know, we ARE tourists) brace yourself and go Halong Bay!

So what is so special about Halong Bay? Everything. I’m far from exaggerating. From the geological point of view the bay contains around 2,000 islets, most of which are limestone. The limestone in this bay has gone through 500 million years of formation in different conditions and environments. The evolution of the karst in this bay has taken 20 million years under the impact of the tropical wet climate. If it doesn’t sound fascinating enough combine geology with the legends. Halong Bay – the bay of descending dragon – the sacred animal. Do you remember another dragon-related story from my previous post about educational system in Vietnam. If you haven’t read it yet, make sure to catch up on it. You can find it here.

Legend has it that at the beginning era of this country, the Vietnamese had to face fierce invasion from another country coming from the North through the sea. In order to help the people fight against invaders, the Emperor Jade sent a mother dragon down together with her children to stop the enemy’s ships. As the ships advancing into Vietnam’s ocean, the dragons spat fire at them. At the same time, they were spitting out pearls and jade which turned into islands and islets dotting the emerald waters and linking together to form a great wall preventing outsiders’ intrusion. After the invaders were defeated, the dragon fell in love with the peaceful seascape and decided to make their home in the bay.

I would like to believe in that legend but it seems the dragons remained only in the name of the bay (in Vietnamese, ‘Long’ means ‘dragon’). I am not surprised, seeing how many people is coming to bother me at my home each day, I would run away as fast as I could. And I’m just a simple human being.

All the roads lead to Halong Bay – you have to see its beauty with your own eyes.  

During last couple of year a lot of things have changed in the way the Vietnamese are handling tourists coming to their country. It’s a good change.

Gone are the days you had to go to a dodgy travel agent to book your cruise. Gone are the days you had booked a boat and after arriving to Halong it turned out that they put you on a completely different one. I have to admit listening to the stories of people who visited Halong years ago makes me think “damn it, that would be another perfect tale for my blog!”. The Viets quickly realized that scamming the tourists won’t take them anywhere. They learnt the importance of sustainability in business and now you can see them handling the visitors like a real PRO. 

I was honestly surprised how well-organized everything in Vietnam is. Halong Bay is incredibly busy with hundreds of people visiting every single day. It seems a total chaos but, in fact it’s quite the opposite! Vietnam doesn’t cease to surprise me in a good way. Of course you can still get scammed at some point but this is the cost and the beauty of traveling.

How to train your Vietnamese dragon (and don’t go crazy at the same time)?

You can “do” Halong Bay in three different ways – depending on how much time you have, how crazy you are about beautiful places and last but not least, your budget. If you aren’t on a tight budget I strongly advise against going on all sort of one day trips. They are a nightmare. Getting to Halong City from Hanoi takes more or less 4 hours by bus. Then, it’s around three hours of cruising (it won’t take you far into less crowded bits of the bay). Then top up your day with 4 hours back to the capital. Sounds more like a torture than a vacation to me. Going for 2 days/1 night option is better, but again, that one night you will spend on a boat in a small bay where all the other boats go. You will hardly see the local life – fish farms, seaman or fishermen as they work much farther in the bay. We decided to go for 3 days/2 nights. It worked out really well as we could enjoy the beauty of Halong Bay as well as relax. We booked our cruise through this website.

On the day, punctually like a Swiss clock, we are waiting for our tour guide. It’s an hour past the pick up time and everyone else is now long gone. It’s just the two of us waiting at the reception and looking pretty sheepish. I beg the receptionist to call the agency we booked our cruise with. It turns out there’s been a delay and we shall “set our mind at ease” and keep on waiting. It’s our second day in Vietnam so we haven’t reached that level of relaxed attitude yet. I feel like a jerk from Europe now. After another half an hour of waiting the bus finally arrives and off we go to Halong Bay! On the way, we obviously stop at a local souvenir shop… This is Asia! Or I should rather say – this is what you get when you are on an organized tour. When we get to Halong City, we are pointed in the direction of our boat. They all look the same to me. Moreover, ours has like three different names on it. I can’t swear blind it’s the one I’ve booked. Perhaps I was too optimistic saying that a lot had changed in terms of customer service in Vietnam. 🙂

Our boat was a mid range one, something between budget and luxurious. We paid around 287 dollars for 3 days/2 nights. 
Our bedroom was small (this pic was taken from the outside) but cozy with a great bathroom.

As we left the town of Halong, I climbed to the topmost deck of our boat and gazed ahead towards the jagged horizon. Soon enough, the colossal limestone karsts came into view. WOW! The landscape of Halong Bay is jaw-dropping. It was a bit misty at first,but the mist was giving it that incredible eerie feel. This is not real. It can’t be real – I thought. 

Our travel guide decides that the beautiful views are not enough – he wants to keep us entertained so we have to take part in several “mind blowing” activities such as (in random order): visiting the beach and the viewing point on Titop island at the same time as all other excursions – instead of a picture of the bay you have a picture of a carpet of boats covering the water (and guess what – this is where we stay for a night!), visiting caves – they are beautiful but again we barely can move because there is so many people (the Viets should definitely do something about it!) and the best of all… attention please… KARAOKE. 

I was really excited about renting a kayak and exploring a bit of the bay on our own but apparently the government banned this activity from the 1st of April due to some accidents involving tourists. This is not even shocking. This is shocking:

Holidaymakers were forced to jump for their lives after their wooden cruise ship burst into flames in Vietnam.More than forty people are believed to have been on the Aphrodite Cruise ship when it caught fire. Apparently the crew was the first to leave the boat. Health and Safety a la Vietnam. 🙂

I should warn you of drinking too much when you are on a boat but in this case, I don’t feel I have to, as the drinks aren’t included in the price of the tour. It seems to bother one Australian couple so much, they decide to buy a bottle of wine from a local water-vendor selling their stuff (mostly junk food, cigarettes and alcohol) from their boats. It’s like a street vendor but on the water. 🙂 The Aussies aren’t very lucky today – they’ve been caught red handed by the crew and now have to pay A TAX (it looks more like a bribe to me) to the crew for bringing alcohol to the boat. That was hell of an expensive bottle of wine and now they drown their sorrows during very loud karaoke. I refuse to accept violating the serenity of this place so I escape to the back of the ship for a few me-moments before the sunset. Halong Bay looks very romantic in the moonlight, when the lights of the other ships are twinkling in the darkness.

This picture we took from the viewing point at Titop island. This is how busy Halong can get. Just to cheer you up – it does look worse than it really is.
When you cruise around Halong Bay, you could easily spot villagers driving boats full of supplies such as waters, snacks, fruits etc to sell to tourists.
Halong Bay – ships cruising around the karsts – beautiful!
Less than half of the islands in the bay have been named, most of the names are based on the islands shape.
One of the infamous one day trips – the boats have no bedrooms. I bet those tourists already regret coming here for just couple of hours. I would! 
Kayak rental place on Halong Bay. 

On the second day we get a ferry-looking-boat which takes us into the wilderness of Lan Ha Bay. We will spend a night in bungalows on Cat Ba island. When we get there it turns out it’s not Cat Ba but a much smaller island. There is not much to do but finally no big boats around! The silence is serene. You can still do kayaking in this part of the bay so we rent them (for free) and spend the rest of the day kayaking among the karsts discovering small caves and desert beaches. Last day is all about getting back to Hanoi. We are on a different boat again and yet again our tour guide tries hard to keep us happy. It’s time for the culinary show! Then he shows us how to roll a spring roll. I am laughing at it but… I did buy some rice paper. It’s waiting patiently for my Vietnam inspired cooking day (will probably never happen but hey, we all buy stuff we don’t really need when we travel!).

Halong Bay – what an incredible place! I travel quite often but I was immediately enchanted by its beauty. I would love to come back one day but not as a part of an organized tour. I will share with you two better ways to find the dragons: self-organized trip from Haipong (you can fly there) to Cat Ba or a longer cruise to Bai Tu Long (I guess this option is more expensive). I don’t mind being a tourist if it means enjoying such incredible and dramatic views in an easy, hassle-free way. Our boat was nice, the bedroom clean and cozy, the food was good. It’s just the “additional attractions” leave a lot to be desired. At the end of the day I haven’t traveled so far for a karaoke! For me the best moments were when I was sitting outside simply observing the landscape. The nature that hypnotizes. When I close my eyes I can still see it, but dear reader, please keep yours wide open and don’t be ashamed of screaming Oh my God when you see the below pictures. Halong Bay is indeed, one of God’s greatest creations.

Most of the islands and rock formations in Halong Bay are uninhabitable, due to the very high and steep nature of the islands, although the largest island in the bay, Cat Ba Island.
Some of the local people are make a living on the floating villages; others sell fresh seafood just caught from the sea. Seeing them at work was an incredible experience.
This is how the local people live – air bnb or couchsurfing here – that would be something!
Halong Bay was inscribed to the UNESCO world heritage list in 1994, UNESCO world heritage committee in 2012, and it was included in the New Seven Natural Wonders of the World in 2012.
If you were wondering whether to spend second night on a boat or in bungalows – just see the above location and you will think no more. Fantasy made real. 
Who run the world? Girls! And this is the true colour of the water – incredible . 🙂
Local fish factory in Halong Bay. Next time you do your shopping check where do those shrimps come from – surprisingly most of them you can get in the UK are from Vietnam.
Seamen, floating villagers and islanders often have hardened features but generous smiles and an air of openness about them that must have come from spending their whole life in touch with nature.
We’ve taken around 300 picture during our 3 days in Halong Bay – it was extremely difficult to choose the best ones for the blog. Even though you probably think they are amazing, the greatest of them all are kept in our imagination. 
All of the pics you can find here were taken by Mario. I hope you add Halong Bay to your travel bucket list – it’s worth it!