Going to Hanoi was kind of a spontaneous decision. I was dealing with a flight package to New Zealand and I had to choose another Southeast Asian destination. As I recently visited Siem Reap, Yogyakarta, Port Jackson, and Bohol and I heard some amazing things about Halong Bay. So why not?
Halong Bay is a Unesco World Heritage near Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, and travelers from all over the world came here for the breathtaking and unique landscape. Before I went, I thought Halong Bay is just one “spot”. From the photos that I’ve seen on the internet, they all seem to be taken from the same angle from a hilltop. In fact, the entire area covers approximately 1,500 square kilometers and there are lots to explore. That’s why I ended up joining a 2-day cruise at Halong Bay to have a full experience of the beauty and serenity of the site has to offer.
It is common to visit Halong Bay from Hanoi in 1 day. A typical day trip usually departs from Hanoi really early in the morning and it takes about 6 hours driving both ways. Visitors would have around 4 hours at Halong Bay for a short boat trip or a short hike to the hilltop viewpoint. Honestly, I don’t think that’s enough time to appreciate the site at a different time of the day. To truly experience the unique beauty of the area, you should go on a traditional junk boat tour that allows you to experience the best of Ha Long Bay, and see the sceneries at different times of the day. The light hit the rocks and the views change dramatically at dawn, dust, and the afternoon. Besides, you can get close and admire the size of the giant rocks!
There are two types of overnight boat tour in Ha Long Bay, you could either stay in a Junk, and traditional Chinese boat, or a modern cruise, there are a number of operators online, and they usually show photos and detailed itinerary for you to choose the type that suits you best. While I say that the junk is “traditional”, they are actually upgraded with modern equipment, so no need to worry if you want to have a luxurious travel experience with a junk, you will find such option is available.
Day 1 – 8 am. The Departure
We selected Bhaya Cruise out of a few tour operators. Hopping on a comfortable van we departed from our Hotel in Hanoi and arrived at Tuan Chau Pier by lunch, and there we saw a line of Bhaya Cruise in different styles and sizes, and the one we stayed is a medium-sized cruise with 3 levels and 24 guest rooms. As we were boarding the cruise, we were welcomed by a flower petal shower at the entrance and our 24-hour boat trip began. 🙂
There are a few pit-stop from Hanoi to Halong if you have more time. Like the Pha Lai Thermal power plant which is about 1.5 hours away. The plant is one of the largest power plants in Vietnam. It has a generating capacity of 440 MW and produces around 1.5 billion kWh per year. Most of the electricity produced in Vietnam is generated by hydropower (45%) then by gas tribute (34%). Coal-fired power represents only 15%.
Then Dong Trieu Ceramic and Pottery Village. It is easily recognized thanks to its numerous artisan workshops and shops displaying ceramics and pottery of all kinds, this little town is famous in Vietnam for ceramics.
Lastly, Mao Khe Coal Mines, 120 km away from Hanoi; and the mine is the largest mining complex in the country and has the biggest coal production output in Vietnam. The mine here produces much of Vietnam’s 50 million tons of coal annually. About one-fifth is reserved for export, mostly to China.
We had a very nice en-suite. Large windows, bathtub, and a private balcony at the front of the boat; as the boat is sailing out to the tranquil seawater we had already a magnificent view of Halong Bay. We got our drinks ready and soon we would have lunch ~
Route: Tuan Chau Pier > Fighting Cocks, Surprise Grotto, Dark, and Bright Cave, Staying overnight at Drum Cave > Titov Island > return to Tuan Chaiu Pier
1 pm. Lunch and Surprise Cave
Lunch was served at the third-floor restaurant and the food was nice. After an orientation of the crew, we had a good taste of some Vietnamese dishes, cheerful drinks and an amazing view of rugged islands. Guests wasted no time after lunch and sunbathing on the roof-top decks before our afternoon activity started. The program included two options: The “Surprise Cave” or “Ban Chan Beach”. It was supposed to be one out of two but we ended up doing both with a small surcharge as time permitted.
About Halong Bay
Halong Bay is a marvelous natural wonder in the world where thousands of islands in various dramatic forms are standing in groups or scattered in the blue sea. From a distance, Halong Bay looks like a stone wall, separating the sea and mainland; up close, the landscape looks like a multitude of islands, poking out from the sea here and there.
“Halong” means “a descending dragon”. Legend has it, the father dragon came down to earth and formed Vietnam, and its dragon babies followed him and stayed at Halong Bay as dramatic rock formations. As a matter of fact, Halong Bay’s unique feature was the end result of complex, 500 million-year geological processes ranging from earth’s movements, sea recession, tectonic down-warping, to sea transgression. These processes sculpted and chiseled thousands of limestone islands emerging from the sea. These limestones are sedimentary deposits that contain the remains of flora and fauna from the ancient past in different forms, including those of plants and animals that have become extinct. Many of Halong Bay’s limestone caves such as Thien Cung Dau Go, Sung Sot, Tam Cung, and Me Chung have been 11,000 to 700,000 years in the making. These caves are the result of water seeping into cracks and slowly eroding the limestones.
Halong Bay is also a bio-diverse environment. Eco-systems like tropical rainforests, mangrove forests, tidal mudflats, mudflats (without mangroves), sandy tidal flats, seagrasses, coral reefs, caves, and lagoons exist in the site and to date, scientists have listed over 435 species of plant life in the bay and it provides a great variety of natural environment for some unique and beautiful species.
Culturally, Halong Bay is home to the ancient Vietnamese in prehistoric times. There have been three continuous cultures, dating from 18,000 to 3,500 years ago. It was an ancient international trade port for Vietnam in the 12th century and is the place of many glorious victories of the nation from the 10th century to the 20th century. Halong Bay is also the home of fishing communities, where the traditional culture is well-preserved.
3 pm. “Surprise Cave”: The viewpoint overlooks the Halong Bay
It was not surprising to see fishermen or hawking boats around Halong Bay. I was surprised by my little detour to the Surprise cave (Hang Sung Sot).
Hang Sung Sot is one of the best caves in Ha Long Bay. There are two giant caves with beautiful stalactites and stalagmites. Once we arrived at the so-called “Surprise Cave” by the connecting boat, I thought it would be quite usual. The first few minutes were quite “ordinary” – we were seeing stalagmites and stalactites, things that I have seen. But then we were walking and my friend kept calling it a “Magic Cave”, “Secret Cave” or “Wonder Cave”, and just when I was trying to figure out what was the right name of the cave walking through a narrow passage, I gasped and wow-ed (literally) as I got out the passage and entered a colossal cave and the guide (a.k.a. manager of the boat”) asked, “are you surprised?”
Yeah, it was my “surprise!” moment. So, it’s called the “Surprise Cave” for a reason and it caught me by surprise, and it was fun to walk through as the guide pointed out funny-shaped rocks and named them like an animal. Towards the end of the tour, we walked up to a high point in the cave where we could overlook the nearby area.
4:30 pm. “Ban Chan Beach”: Swimming!
We had some time left before dinner and a big group on the cruise requested to go to the beach. Luckily, the manager said okay but we have to pay the entrance fee ourselves. “Sure!” we thought. Ban Chan Beach was actually small and crowded, but it was quite an “experience” swimming among the cruises and rocks.
There are a few beaches around Ha Long and another wonderful beach is the Dao Ti Top on Titov Island. It was called Titov because the Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov visited this island in 1962.
6 pm. Happy Hour, Cooking Demonstration & Sunset
All refreshed and cleaned up from the beach, it was time for the cooking demonstration. I was told Halong Bay’s beauty varies according to one’s location, the time of day, and one’s emotions. I think it was right. As the sun went down the water and the sky changed color and the view was amazing. We mingled and chatted at the deck before the cooking demonstration. Then we were taught to make Vietnamese rice paper rolls (you know, the wrapping works) and we made our own snacks~ Plus, it was happy hour, buy 1 get 1 free. 🙂
8 pm. Squid Fishing & Star Gazing
Soon there was dinner and it was a fun night with lots of music, entertainment, and celebrations. We had honeymooners, birthday celebrators, proposal makers, and college travelers. At night we tried squid fishing, but since it was not exactly the right season, we only spotted one or two squids floating around to the light but had no luck. So, we lied down and look at the infinite stars instead.
The Morning Glory
Day 2 – 6 am. Spa & Tai Chi Session
I saw a different side of Halong Bay, yet again, waking up to the absolute tranquility as the boat was floating through the islands. The environment was so quiet that I could see the reflections of each island and each boat from the water. It was just refreshing and… what an amazing way to start the day with this positive energy?
8 am. Kayaking & Vung Vieng Fishing Village
Although I skipped the 6 am Tai chi Session, I definitely would not miss the kayaking fun in the fishing village (especially it’s included in our en-suite package). It was quite hot that day but we enjoyed a great deal of sunshine and scenery paddling through the fishing villages and islands. I went canoeing so it was easy for me. It should be quite easy for first-timers, too. Afterward, we took a quick shower and freshen up before checking out and heading back to Hanoi.
All in all, the idea of spending a night on a boat decorated in a traditional wooden style was amazing. I was glad that I went for a 2-day cruise and saw many sides of Halong Bay at different times of the day.