Halong Bay is certainly one of the big tourist destinations in Southeast Asia and one of the top destinations for Liz and I on this trip. A UNESCO site and home to awe inspiring geography/geology. We opted to take a three day/two night ‘cruise’ through the bay with the hopes of getting a little farther out from the route the party boats ply. The scenery was absolutely stunning, we got to watch some incredible lightning storms over the bay (one directly over the boat our first night) and saw a few fish and jellies.
I was certainly happy that the costs weren’t higher personally for the trip, but at the same time seeing the amount of fuel/oil on the surface of the water and trash floating through the bay and collecting in inlets I couldn’t help thinking that the amount of people coming through the bay and the poorly maintained ‘cruise ships’ that take all those tourists out are doing more harm than good. While swimming the first evening on the bay the area was crowded with boats and the water had a sheen of fuel and oil residue on the surface that smelled dizzyingly strong. It was a shame to see so much pollution in such a beautiful place.
So, hopefully at some point more is done to limit the ecological damage being done, whether that is in requiring cleaner engines or limited the number of tourists/boats or some combination of the two. Currently, it is sad to see the amount of damage being caused to such a beautiful place.
Our three day itinerary:
The bus leaving for the bay was pretty early, picking us up at about 7am. The drive was not very scenic, got in a bit of reading along the way. We arrived at the terminal around noon. From the tourist terminal (it was a zoo with people) we got through and onto the boat pretty quickly. We were assigned to a room almost directly over the engine-room, got bags dropped and had lunch onboard along with the first run-downs of what we could expect onboard the boat. I was upset when I realized that my expectation that “food and drinks included” meant a cup of coffee or tea each morning for breakfast but that all other beverages must be purchased, including drinking water. They were, not shockingly, priced about 10x higher than back
on shore. By the time we finished up lunch, we were getting close to arriving at the first cave (Technicolor Cave). The cave itself was really impressive and beautiful, but it was bizarrely lit with colored lights and had water fountains added which seemed strange. It was fun to take pictures. Liz and I figured out that the water prices were about half what they were on our boat so we bought a couple of bottles here. After the cave we did a bit of a meet and greet with the other people on the boat while we continued on through the bay. There happened to be three people named Chris on the boat, one a med student about to become a doctor who was from soon to be famous Reuneon Island. The other (aside from me) was from Manchester; he drank a $4 can of beer in 3 seconds. The boat dropped anchor next to Cat Island. The plan here was that we would have a bit of time for swimming followed by a sunset happy hour and then dinner and more drinking time. We weren’t on the booze-cruise, but it was beginning to feel like that. It was fun getting to jump from the top of the boat, the lacking cleanliness of the water was pretty sad though. The Happy Hour included a free sip of wine and then the beginning of the rotating specials that seemed to change every 45 minutes. The thunder and lightning rolled in right after starting the happy
hour, so the party moved inside. We had dinner after a bit and it was quite good, We spent a good portion of the evening watching the Chinese guy teach one of the French guys how to play Chinese Chess.
The next morning breakfast was bright and early, followed by a quick round of kayaking around the area the boat was anchored. The kayaks were rented out by the local fishing families, so our boat had to wait for its turn to get kayaks after the other boats anchored in the same area. After kayaking the boat moved over to the nearby pier to drop off a couple that were staying on the island for the second night. The rest of us waited. Next on the agenda for Liz and I and the French med students was waiting until another boat could meet with ours so we could be transferred to another boat for the second night. We had lunch about 2pm, and until that point had spent most of the day waiting to transfer people from one place to another. We got to do more kayaking, this time in a much more scenic part of Halong Bay and to a completely unlit cave. We also stopped at a Pearl Farm, where we might have eavesdropped on another boat’s tour, before buying more water at half the cost of on the boat.
We got to the boat we would spend the second night on about 5:30 or 6pm. It was larger and more lively than the one we had been on the previous night. But, our room was nicer and the whole boat seemed in better repair. There was the same 1oz of free wine Happy Hour, followed by swimming back in the same place at the previous night, we were in fact anchored next to the boat we had been on the previous night. No Chinese chess on this boat, but there was karaoke.
Our third day itinerary was breakfast early, kayaking in the area where the boat was anchored followed by making spring rolls as a group while we made our way back to port. We were back at the Halong port by about 11am and on a bus heading back to Hanoi about 1-1:30pm.
The bay was certainly beautiful, but the cruise experience and pollution left a lot to be desired. Still really happy we got to see The Bay and spend a bit longer out there, here is to hoping that more is done to help maintain it going forward.