If you have ever dreamed of visiting Vietnam and wistfully googled photos or thumbed through guidebooks, chances are you’ve probably seen photos of ethereal Ha Long Bay. Home to almost 2,000 limestone pillars and tiny islands, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a natural wonder unlike anything else – and a must on a visit to Vietnam.
Ha Long Bay was one of the first items on my must-do list on a fairly short visit to Vietnam, of just nine days. Ha Long Bay was so much the top priority that everything else was planned around it. It took some time for us to figure out the best solution for this adventure, as there are many options. One of the most popular choices is to take an overnight cruise on one of the so-called Junk boats, departing straight from Ha Long City or including bus transfer from Hanoi.
Of course, if you are on a tour you will have none of the calculation headaches we did attempting to figure out the most economical and simultaneously efficient option to maximise our time in the bay. In the end, we settled on a local bus departing Hanoi early one rainy morning; weather just perfect for enjoying some spicy beef pho sitting on a tiny plastic stool in a grubby convenience store. The bus ride took roughly two hours, with odd stops that were not included on any itinerary we looked at, but seemed to be well-known parts of the route for locals boarding with their groceries and the like.
Rather than take a cruise from Ha Long City, we decided to stay on Cat Ba Island, and do a boat trip of just one day while using the rest of our time to explore the island with jungle that makes you certain you are about to come face-to-face with King Kong. From the bus, we were transferred to a bumpy ferry, from which I was certain my unsecured suitcase would be flung into the water. Another bus of around 40 minutes took us to picturesque Cat Ba Town, and it was there we arranged our one-day Junk boat cruise.
We were picked up by a minibus from directly in front of our hotel, joining a group of about 10 other travellers, then drove to a much smaller bay from where our boat departed. Sitting on the open rooftop on the overcast day, hungrily taking in the incredible scenery – jagged limestone pillars rising majestically from the water, topped with lush jungle greenery; deep blue water; and quiet floating fishing villages where dogs followed our progress curiously – was absolutely perfect.
We cruised around the islands for a couple of hours before reaching an inlet where the boat dropped anchor and we readied ourselves for our chosen activities. There were two options for our cruise: to visit a cave and to go kayaking, or to choose only kayaking. For the sake of budget travelling we had chosen only kayaking, which is always fun but also mildly stressful if you’re not amazing at it – which we were not.
I refused to leave my camera behind for such an adventure and it perched precariously on my lap as we explored the inlet and inexpertly passed through narrow natural tunnels. After we returned to the boat, those who had also chosen to visit the cave took their turn to kayak, before we were served a delicious and extensive lunch featuring various dishes.
After lunch the cruise continued on to a Dao Cat Dua, known as Monkey Island. It was immediately clear why the island was christened as such. We had to contend with rather confident monkeys as we strolled the beach and headed toward a hiking track that led to a rocky viewpoint high above the bay. We were given free reign to explore, so some preferred to stay on the beach swimming or taking pictures while we hiked the steep path in our thongs (or flip flops, jandals or whatever version of the word you use for these essential footwear when travelling southeast Asia).
Our footwear was rather inadequate for the path, but the views were spectacular – though I was nervous taking pictures with the monkeys loitering nearby. They say these cheeky creatures are fond of stealing electronics (why though?), and they certainly seemed interested. Due to the rather inhospitable nature of the viewpoint for those in thongs, with ground that seemed like something taken straight from Mordor, we were forced to turn back when painfully close to the top.
We returned to the boat for our last hours on the boat, still far from bored by the spectacular landscape. I would happily have done the very same tour the very next day, and would certainly consider a longer cruise option for future visits to this corner of the world so far from the daily grind.
Courtney Gahan is a serial expat, traveller and freelance writer who has bartered with Moroccan marketeers, seen the sun rise at Angkor Wat and elbowed her way through crowds on NYE in NYC