Halong Bay is a surprise.
Leaving the bustling, noisy, historical capital of Hanoi and driving through small villages, along lush paddy fields and towards the coast, you start believing that you know what Vietnam is all about.
It’s conical hats, round Chinese lanterns and cylindrical rice paper rolls. It’s pagodas in lakes and lakes in water puppet theatres. It’s sticky rice steamed in pandan leaves and spinach leaves stir-fried in garlic oil.
There. You have it all nailed. Vietnam is sweet, charming, interesting, chaotic and tasty, tasty.
And then you suddenly come upon Halong Bay and there are no adjectives left.
Because, as your motor boat roars you up from the mainland to the waiting Chinese junk boat for your one-night-two- day Cruise, it maneuvers through a narrow tunnel between two cliffs and suddenly, there it is. The most unbelievable landscape in the world. A green lagoon, gently rocking the cruise boat at its centre. And surrounded by steep outcrops of craggy hillocks. Like some setting from a sci-fi movie. As you look around, the hilltops seem to be carved into recognisable shapes…a lion head here, a man’s profile there. I wonder what these hills would look like at night, by the light of the stars, and shiver.
I was right. At night, we look out of our wide cabin windows and it is a silent, unreal world outside, the hillocks now dark silhouettes surrounding the bay like giant sea monsters. We go up on the deck, and thankfully, there is a Vietnamese cooking class in full swing, followed by wine and music and fun. And somehow, it’s like being on the Titanic at night with the dark glaciers all around. What a cheerful thought, must be the party spirit!
In the morning, the boat cruises gently in and out of lagoons and finally stops for our Cave visit. One small entrance to a massive hillock, and ten thousand square metres of cavernous caves, one into the other. Caves with limestone formations, fresh water ponds (in the middle of a bay?) with tunnels and gorges. In the golden bemused lighting, the stalagmites and stalagcites resemble the funkiest creatures doing the strangest things. A whole Universal Studio in there!
You come out blinking in the sunlight, and catch your breath at yet another view of the Halong Bay outside. Green, serene, a Lake of Serenity…who would believe what secrets it holds?
- Best time to travel: Weather plays a big role in travel to Halong Bay. Typhoon season is typically August to October, and may also come again in December, so steer clear of these months.
- Travel Route: All connections to Halong Bay are from Hanoi. It’s a four hour road trip from Hanoi with possibly one restroom break. Food options are limited so expect average Pho or Banh Mi if you’re hungry along the way.
- Places to stay:
- If you have only Halong Bay on your itinerary, then the options are simple. All junk boats in Halong Bay make you a package deal which includes staying a night or two in Hanoi, with pick up and drop service to Halong Bay. You can trust most of the top cruise operators (do a quick check). We were on the Bhaya Cruise. I’ve heard Glory Cruises is pretty decent as well.
- Ideal Duration:
- Ideal Budget: During the time of our travel, it cost us INR 20,000 per night which included all meals, boat rides, etc. I don’t believe that has changed much.