One of the New 7 Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ha Long Bay had a big reputation to uphold and we had really high expectations. With over 2000 massive limestone mountains rising from the emerald sea waters, a cruise was the only way to explore the bay.
Legend says that Ha Long Bay (“bay of the descending dragon”) was created by dragons that descended from the skies to help defend the bay against enemies. As the dragons flew into the coast, their tails cracked the ground open, thus forming the mountains. When the dragons finally landed, the area was flooded with water from the ocean.
Legends aside, the first step for us was to find a reliable cruise to enjoy Ha Long Bay to the max. We had no choice but to visit a few of the scammy travel agents in Hanoi to explore our options.
Booking a Tour
We spent a good part of a day just to learn about all of our options by scouting out different travel agencies. They all claimed to be selling exclusive tours, and we often heard: “if anybody else sells you this tour, they are selling our tour”. When in fact, very few companies operate the cruises in Ha Long Bay, so chances are you will end up on the same boat, not matter who you book with originally.
For us, Ha Long Bay was THE thing in Vietnam so we decided to splurge and do it right. We ended up going with the V’Spirit cruise for 3 days / 2 nights offered by our hotel for $240 per person (cha-ching!!!!!). Definitely one of the nicer cruise options in Ha Long Bay, we knew we were paying more to have a better experience, without any surprises along the way (like day travelers crowding the boat or sudden changes in the itinerary). We are glad we did so and do not regret spending the extra buck.
The day started off with an early pick-up from our hotel at 8am for the drive to Ha Long City. We did quick introductions on the bus and found a lot of Australians in the group, which has been quite normal in Vietnam. After the 3 hour drive, we could already see a few of the pinnacles in the distance and we finally got to the harbour where our boat was waiting for us.
Aboard the cruise, after settling down in our cabin, we sat down for lunch among the surrounding limestones. Usually I love food to the point where I’m a ferocious predator eating its prey while I’m eating, but it was quite hard to focus with the view from the deck. The scattered wind and water-eroded limestone islets with steep forested slopes were absolutely beautiful.
After a multi-coursed lunch, we arrived at the first exploration point in Ha Long Bay, the Surprise Cave. Its name was derived from tourists’ first impressions when entering the third section of the cave. At first, Surprise Cave looked like an ordinary narrow cave, but as we started moving from the first to the second to the third and last sections of the cave, it transformed itself into a spectacularly giant underground chamber. Unbelievable.
In the cave, several stalactites and stalagmites, each thousands of years old, made for a colorful and unique sight.
The cave ends at an opening with a breathtaking panoramic view of one part of Ha Long Bay.
Next in the itinerary was kayaking in the Luon Cave area. Our boat took us to the area and we boarded our kayak, rowing towards the short rocky cave. The light at the end of the cave slowly revealed a hidden lagoon in the middle of the limestone mountains filled with birdsong.
As I was admiring the view (and doing most of the rowing), I saw a few trees moving nearby. So of course we paddled closer to take a closer look – and found ourselves right next to some monkeys!
We returned to the boat for a sunset party and a 10-course dinner (yum, we were starving!). There was also a vodka shrimp cooking demonstration that was full of fire and very entertaining. Squid fishing was one of the after-dinner activities we were most excited to try out; however, we quickly realized that it was just a “filler” item on the itinerary that sounds cool but is probably not really feasible. Considering how many boats crowded the area where our boat was docked for the night, there was no way any squid was hanging out to bite our baitless fishing rods.
It was a long day coming from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay, exploring caves and kayaking, but yet it passed by so quickly! We went to bed early knowing the early start to tomorrow but so psyched to be sleeping in Ha Long Bay. It’s moments like this that we are reminded of just how cool our trip is – we would have never imagined that we’d be here a year ago.
Since most of tourists cruise for only 2 days / 1 night, Day 2 was our chance to really immerse ourselves in Ha Long Bay off the regular tourists’ trail. Continue reading Cruisin’ Ha Long Bay: Part II!