What you see on social media is true; the bay is a beautiful feat of nature. Large mountainous rocks jutting from the ocean have made this landscape a must-see for tourists and locals alike, but what no one tells you about this UNESCO site: the bay is overcrowded and full of trash. Surprised? So are most tourists who come here, and I understand why. Most vlogs are very misleading, and it’s often hard to take off our rose-colored glasses when we think about a place.
The truth is Ha Long Bay and Vietnam is no longer off-the-beaten-path destination; in fact, it is a prime vacation destination for many countries in Asia. No matter how far from home Vietnam seems, it is a popular destination for backpackers and luxury-seeking tourists alike. I found places like Ninh Binh, which many influencers called hidden gems, packed full of tourists. Ha Long Bay is one of the busiest areas in Vietnam, with hundreds of ships mooring in two different bays that flow into eachother Ha long Bay and Lan Ha Bay for most of their cruises. Although the bay is large, you are never truly alone in this paradise.
Another truth is that we have destroyed our oceans with plastic and trash; no place is safe from our human footprint. In addition, it’s easy to forget that Halong bay is a major port, It has fishing villages that have been here for a hundred years, and it is home to massive pearl farms. All three of these industries add to the trash in the bay. If you have never lived near a port or an area with a lot of fishing, let me tell you the number of fishing nets, lines, styrofoam, traps, and bodies that get swept to shore is intense.
I had a bit of rose-colored glasses on when I booked my trip to Ha Long Bay. Overall the experience was different from what I was expecting. My first mistake was booking through a website rather than with a local travel agent. I was intimidated to walk into one of the many travel agents lining the streets in Hanoi. I was worried that I would get scammed and that the language barrier would be too much. In reality, I would have known more about what to expect from my trip than I was.
I booked my trip to Ha Long bay, choosing the Lan Ha route instead of the Ha Long route. The two have very similar activities, and although Ha Long is a UNESCO world heritage site, they both look the same and blend into one another. Ha Long had more beach hiking and cave opportunities than Lan Ha, which had more Kayaking opportunities and was less crowded overall, which is why I chose it.
I woke up early on the morning of my trip for a hotel pick-up, which was well worth the price. I thought everyone in the van and I were going on the same cruise when we had only booked through the same online agent. From Hanoi, we went to Ha Long Bay, stopping off at a pearl showroom which was a massive tourist trap. It was interesting to see how pearls are taken out of clams, but it was a waste of time overall, with all of the jewelry on display costing way more than I had budgeted per day on my trip. From the oyster farm, we made our way to the port.
People who booked with the larger, more expensive ships were dropped off at grad reception halls, while others were dropped off at smaller ones with mostly outdoor seating. At first, I was dropped off at one of these only to be wicked away 20 min later in a van packed with little room for my luggage to be escorted with six other people to a dock 10 minutes away, where we made our way to a small speed boat which would take us to where the ship is. This speedboat was less than glamorous, and it took quite a while before we made it onto the ship.
The reception onto the ship was nice though getting off the speed boat was challenging. They had wet towels and tea ready for us to freshen up with while we went over the itinerary. After a quick meeting, we headed upstairs to unpack, change, and explore the ship. The room and ship were nicely decorated with comfort in mind, though older, as are most of the vessels you will be on in the bay. After an exhausting week and a half in Vietnam moving from hostel to hostel, I was more than ready for a bit of luxury and downtime to relax before returning to work.
I wandered around the ship, relaxing before lunch while the boat made its way to the portage for the night. I was surprised we did not have a sunset cruise on the bay. In fact, I noticed all the boats do a lot less cruising around the bay than I expected. Once there, lunch was served; let me tell you, it was a delicious assortment of Vietnamese food. Ok, so it wasn’t as good as some of the food I had on the trip, but that is normal when it comes to cruises (this is my first one, so at least in my mind).
After lunch, we had about an hour before we took off on our first excursion riding bamboo boats through caves. When I initially booked this, I thought it would be swimming, or we had the option to Kayak through the caves ourselves; however, that was the case. The itineraries you book will change slightly based on how busy each excursion location is. The excursion was beautiful and relaxing nonetheless. We got to see monkeys in the trees, which was exciting, and learn more about our captain, who had grown up in one of the small fishing villages in the bay. Yes, I said in.
There are several remote villages that are made up of a mooring of small family-owned fishing boats in the bay. Each boat has multiple generations (up to 10 people) living aboard. Some of these villages are over 3 hours from the mainland. They do not have any infrastructure like schools or doctors. Our captain explained how the government tried to remove the fishing villages offering a hefty sum of money for people to move to the mainland. People did take it; however, many ended up moving back onto the bay. These lifelong sailors found city life’s noise, pollution, and chaos overwhelming. They missed the peacefulness of the ocean and the independent lifestyle they lead despite the lack of access to everyday things. He also told us how he is part of an initiative to get teachers out to these villages but can only get people to stay there for 2-3 months for obvious reasons. Most children born in these villages don’t go to school or learn to read and write. He said he was lucky that his parents sent him and his siblings to the mainland for school, but he chose his job as a cruise captain because he could not leave the bay behind. Living on the ocean is as much a part of him as breathing.
My captain and staff on the cruise were charming, as were the other guest. I got fortunate and befriended a lovely couple from Spain (the Canary islands, to be exact). They invited me to eat with them for the rest of the trip, and we had some of the best conversations about their travels and Spain. This whole trip, I had been bombarded with people asking in a demeaning way why Americans don’t travel more, and I came to find out in my conversation that it’s not common for ALL Europeans to travel a lot. They told me that Spain is one of the poorer European countries, so traveling is less common for them. I said, ‘oh, so it’s only the rich and privileged who travel that have this mindset.’ They laughed and said yes, it must be the same with some Americans. Of course, I agreed. We spent the rest of the trip talking about traveling, including how choosing travel over children was an easy decision for us to make. It was great connecting with like-minded people who came from a different cultures.
After our first excursion, we had a few hours before dinner where we got to relax, make spring rolls (well, two people did the cooking area was a small cart), and enjoy cocktails as the sun set over the ocean. Dinner did not disappoint; with several courses and fruit for dessert, each dish was flavourful, leaving me full. Exhausted, I turned it in early for the evening, hoping to watch a tv show; however, I ended up reading. The internet connection was excruciatingly slow, and much of the bay is in a no-cell phone service zone.
I woke up early for a quick dip in the pool before packing my things and heading to breakfast. Breakfast was the least exciting meal of the trip, and I really should have gone for Pho instead of the eggs, but I’m a sucker for American breakfast since it’s my favorite meal of the day, and I often have breakfast for dinner on days when I’m too tired and can’t be bothered to cook. Besides living in Korea, I only get a chance to have it if I make it with one pan in my tiny kitchen.
After breakfast, we hopped on our excursion boat to go Kayaking and swimming. The area was pretty, but the swimming was less than ideal since there was no beach and the shoreline had fishing trash. Plus, we only had 20 min to jump off the side of the raft that held the fishing village turned tourist site together. It wasn’t the white sandy beach I had in mind.
Overall the exertions in Ha Long/ Cat Ba Bay are overrated. Though my trip was mainly in Cat Ba, I’ve seen videos of the busy short trips in Ha Long, and these cruses seem to have a similar experience. With only an hour or hour and a half to explore off the boat mixed in with 4-5 other cruise ships (or more in the caves and on the beaches), the excursions could have been more exciting.
My honest review of Ha Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay is that it’s a cruise great way to end the trip if you’re looking for a beautiful place to recharge with a comfortable bed and good food. If you go into it looking for a sense of adventure to meet people (especially if you are solo), you will be very disappointed in your experience. I hate to say it, but Ha Long bay is overrated depending on your expectations and is a place to skip if you are unsure if you want to go.
Nonetheless, I am ok with my decision to do Ha Long bay; I only regret not having enough time to stay longer in Vietnam and explore more places like Sapa, the Meet Kong Delta, Da Lat, A Hill, and the Hi Gang Loop. Those places will have to wait for another trip, hopefully when I can rent a motorcycle and spend a month or longer in the country.
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