I didn’t want to go to Ha Long Bay.
I only had three days off from work and I didn’t want to pay $270 USD for my boyfriend and I to join a three-day tour group in what is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Vietnam. I wanted to go somewhere peaceful, tourist-free, and most importantly, less expensive!
I looked into other options. Could we buy one of the cheapo tours? No, according to friends of mine the cheapo tours are abysmal (i.e. cockroaches, trash, and rats…). Could we stay in a hotel on Cat Ba Island and just do day tours around the bay? Possibly, but that seemed like too much effort for a place I didn’t want to go to anyway. Besides, I wouldn’t be saving much money.
So in the end I grudgingly booked a 3-day 2-night tour with Swan Cruises because Ha Long Bay, “…is just one of those places you have to go.” Ugh.
Fine, so I’d booked my tour. And when the day arrived I had to wake up at 7 AM on a Saturday, after working until 10 PM the night before, drag myself out of bed, get a shower, pile enough clothes together for the weekend, and catch an 8 AM bus to Ha Long.
The first part of the journey confirmed my fears. We were squashed in a tiny mini-bus jam-packed with tourists for four hours; there was no room for my legs and I couldn’t sleep. Helpfully, a mosquito decided to make a feast of me, so when I got off the bus four hours later, I was cramped, tired, and mind-blowingly itchy.
We were shown to our boat and I stared at the white junker dubiously as our little boat pulled alongside it. It looked nice enough, but as someone who suffers from motion-sickness, the prospect of a three-day cruise was less than appealing. Why did I spend so much money for this privilege? My grumpy face was probably why none of the other people on our tour group attempted chit-chat with me, while my boyfriend chatted up a storm with another Portuguese man in our group.
It wasn’t until we were all aboard the cruise boat and shown to the dining room that I felt my crabbiness ebb slightly. The dining room was gorgeous with wood floors and walls, and windows on all sides to see the sights as we passed.
When we were shown to our rooms, my fears of motion-sickness faded considerably. The boat had left the dock and I couldn’t feel the motion of the boat at all.
The upper deck was also gorgeous. Who could remain angry in a place like this?
As we floated away from town we began to see the rock formations that Ha Long Bay is famous for, and I must admit that they were imposing, beautiful, and shockingly beautiful. Even in the misty weather that we had for the weekend, the bay seemed like something out of a fantasy book. Maybe it was worth spending all that money after all.
We spent the afternoon peacefully, eating mountains of food for lunch, and chit-chatting above deck with the other passengers as we glided past these huge, Tolkien-like, outcroppings.
I don’t know why I’m always convinced I’ll be happier in a place without other tourists. I avoid tour groups like the plague, but when I do take them, I always seem to have a great time. Chatting with other travelers is amazing. Everyone has such a unique story and it’s so cool to learn why each person is traveling. We met some amazing people in the three days we were on the boat, like some Australians who were working in Hanoi, a Portuguese man on a visa run, and an Italian couple traveling Southeast Asia. I love learning about new places, and adding more countries and cities to my list of places I’d like to travel.
But it wasn’t the tourists, the food, or even the views from the boat that really changed my mind about Ha Long.
It was the kayak ride.
Most Ha Long tours include a kayak ride and a cave tour in their package. Our kayak ride was on the second day. Unfortunately I have very few pictures as we were warned to keep our phones and cameras in our rooms, so they wouldn’t get ruined if we tipped.
So you’ll just have to trust me when I say navigating these waters by yourself amongst the beautiful caves, rocks, and outcroppings is incredible. You’re virtually left up to your own devices so you can explore what you find interesting. One couple on our group explored a cave while most of us headed to a beach. But because there is no set path you can go wherever you like (within reason of course). Paddling on your own in the choppy waters is so freeing and exciting. This experience alone was worth the money I paid for the trip.
Another odd moment about the kayak ride that made me really appreciate Ha Long Bay is the following. After we had kayaked back to the little day-tour boat and before we prepared to go back to the big boat, our tour guide had to retrieve some tourists who’d gone too far off the beaten path. When we found the people and got them aboard, our own little day-tour boat became trapped on a sand bar, and we were all afraid for several minutes that we’d be trapped out here until some of the men got out and pushed. This is bizarre I know, but sometimes tour group experiences go too smoothly, and you miss out on the trial-and-error, negative experiences that come with traveling (i.e. the best travelling stories and sometimes the worst). The fact that this tour wasn’t completely without moments of, “Crap, what are we going to do next?” made me love it even more. Maybe I’m a complete nutcase though.
I tried to hate Ha Long Bay, but failed. Talking to other travelers in our group, eating absolutely incredible meals each time we sat down in the lovely dining room, and of course viewing one of the seven modern wonders of the world with my own eyes, swayed my crabby demeanor. And then a stunning, liberating kayak ride in the bays of Ha Long changed my mind completely.
Ha Long was truly magical and worth it.
I went with Swan Cruises and was extremely pleased with their service and amenities. If you want to book a tour, you can find their information here: http://swancruiseshalong.com/.
Technically Swan Cruises is in Bai Tu Bay, which is part of the same region as Ha Long and if you book a tour here instead of proper Ha Long, you’ll see many of the same sights. The positive aspect of going to Bai Tu Bay instead of Ha Long is that there are far fewer tourists and tour boats, so you have more of the beautiful scenery to yourself.