Halong Bay is one of the iconic images of Vietnam, comprising almost two thousand jagged limestone islands topped with dense vegetation all rising sharply from the water. This spectacular setting has been a tourist attraction for hundreds of years, and today there are numerous options to visit Halong Bay ranging from a day trip on a public boat to multiday adventures including overnight stays on a boat or onshore hamlets. It’s at risk of becoming overrun, I fear, but at this time of year at least the hordes are few. It’s got to the point that some tours focus instead on neighbouring Lan Ha or Bai Tu Long bays, using their relative unpopularity as a selling point. I am not normally a fan of organised tours, preferring instead to find my own way around, but I recognise that for specific purposes they can be good. I followed the guidebook’s advice and checked out a specialist tour operator that offered slightly different tours and has a reputation for quality, and was pleased to find a 3-day/2-night package that took in both Halong and Lan Ha bays, with some desirable adventure activities too. Best of all it offered two nights accomodation in waterfront bungalows on a private island on the edge of Lan Ha Bay and the price was affordable, so I signed up. It was a good decision: every part of the tour from the activities to the connections to the bungalows were well-chosen and seamlessly integrated. It really made for a great couple of days, despite the cold and grey weather!
After a long minibus ride from Hanoi to Halong City we were quickly shuttled through the crowds to our boat for the cruise through Halong Bay and lunch. Like most of the boats on the bay this was a large wooden affair, but of high standard and large enough for forty people to have a sit-down meal. However there were only fourteen of us so there was plenty of space, and the set meal was surprisingly good including fresh prawns, spring rolls, stir-fried pork and veges, grilled fish and rice. We headed into the bay and got to know each other a little as the islands floated past, and after an hour we pulled into a secluded section for the kayaking. The kayaks are tended by another boat and drawn up to us, so there were no other groups around as we spent an hour paddling through a low cave-like tunnel to a hidden lake surrounded by high karst cliffs. The acoustics were sensational, you could hear the flap of a hand in the water from the other side of the lake and it was eerily quiet with not even a bird to be heard. After an hour we headed back to the boat, and I noted a couple of other vessels waiting their turn to use the kayaks. Continuing through Halong Bay and around the edge of Lan Ha bay to our island digs, we arrived just after dark to unpack and have a very welcome warming shower before dinner.
The bungalows were fantastic: best described as comfortably rustic, they are constructed entirely of bamboo and located quite literally on the edge of the water, with little more than a double bed and a bathroom inside and a balcony out front. But the beds are soft with electric blankets included (a godsend!), the bathrooms are modern and clean and the water gloriously hot. There’s a mosquito net over the bed to but no mozzies at this time of year, however our guide said we should use them anyway just in case rats come down from the mountain behind the resort. We were dubious and asked if he was joking, he chuckled heartily and then said “no” with a firm voice. Everyone used their mosquito nets that night. It turned out to be a very late one for some of us, and I went to sleep to the gentle sound of waves lapping on the beach below.
Of the fourteen people who arrived only nine of us were staying two nights, and we were all extremely glad of it. It would have been a shame to leave after just one evening, but the others were on different (shorter) tours and most were heading back to Hanoi that day. We had better things to do: after breakfast another boat took us through Lan Ha Bay for almost two hours to a wharf on the other side of Cat Ba Island, where we disembarked for an easy hour’s walk to a local village. Then the focus of the day: a hike up to the top of one of the highest hills on the island where you can see Halong Bay on one side, and turn your head and see Lan Ha on the other. It was a very tough scramble up a barely visible rocky path – impossible to do without a guide and often involving hands as well as feet. But worth the effort, even though the grey haze made it hard to see very far. Then down again for a simple but filling lunch at the village, then back to the boat for the return to the island. Lan Ha is in some ways prettier than Halong Bay, as the islands are much closer together and you really get immersed in the landscape. I sat on top of the boat and read when I’d had my fill of the view, but it was hard not to look around and just revel in the scenery.
Our final day promised more action, though happily it was not as strenous as the trek! Some of the nine who’d stayed two nights were going straight back to Halong City for a bus connection to Hanoi, and were facing an entire day of travelling by slow boat and road. The five of us doing the adventure tour instead stopped at Cat Ba town for a while to have a look around, then were driven to the Hospital Cave. Built with Chinese help during the 1960s, it comprises nearly two dozen concrete rooms built inside a large natural cave that served as a bombproof wartime hospital and refuge for leaders of the anti-American forces. It was interesting enough, but would have been much better if the rooms were furnished with examples of what each room was used for; bare concrete cells did not convey much at all. Afterwards we mounted bikes for an exhilarating 14-kilometre ride to the coast, with a couple of tough hills but also lots of fun downhills to hurtle down. Finally a good lunch at a pretty waterside restaurant, then a fast hydrofoil ride to Haiphong before transferring to a minibus for the trip back to Hanoi. Well organised at every step and good value for what was offered, I can heartily recommend Ocean Tours if you want to visit this part of Vietnam.