This place will definitely go in our top 5 for SE Asia. Really stunning place, but we helped our experience here a lot by splurging to go on a luxury boat. All travellers to this part of the world come to Halong Bay, and there are backpacker boats which get a bit crowded, and then there are the nicer boats which come with an amount of luxuries depending on what you pay. In this place you definitely get what you pay for, but as per usual in Asia, you pay a little more, and you get excellent value.
It also helped poor ill Nancy - still got the heavy cold, as this was the perfect treat to relax while recovering.
We went out for one night only on to the bay, which is all you need to take it in. Started just in time for lunch and ended with lunch the next day back in the harbour of Halong City, in the Gulf of Tonkin.
First our boat, it only had two rooms, and was smaller than the bigger boats taking the bigger groups, but the rooms were fabulous and very comfortable. First class shall we say!! And the food served was fantastic. All four meals had massive lots of seafood - crab, prawns, squid, fish, and we also came across some crustacean that we had never seen before. Looked like a praying mantis from the sea, but tasted fine. Our only slight problem with our boat was that the other french couple on board were a bit aloof, but this did not matter too much as there was plenty of room on board to make it feel like we had the trip to ourselves and plenty of friendly staff. The top deck had a sun lounger each to relax and watch the amazing scenery go by.
Second, the scenery is out of this world. Halong Bay has over 3,000 karst mountains sticking out of the ocean. The photos best describe it, but it is pretty surreal and really a must see for Vietnam, despite the number of tourists who come here (guess they all come for a good reason). And after leaving hectic Hanoi, we were very quickly chilled out, drinking beers on the deck after a swim and a kayak in the middle of the Bay. Then some Dalat wine to wash down the fine evening meal. Not a great sunset, but out on deck after supper, saw an amazing moon rise over the mountains and the moored lit up Junks (traditional Vietnamese sailboats - now tourist boats) is something that will always live with us. In fact, given the weather usually found around here at this time of year ie typhoons!, we were incredibly lucky to have the weather we had. Overcast, but no rain, and cool enough that we could sit outside all day.
On first afternoon, we landed at one of the mountain islands, and went into a cave system called Hang Sung Sot. This was a pretty impressive cave. Three very large chambers separated by narrow walkways. It again is very touristed but very well lit up and had easy walkways. The last massive chamber was one of the best caves we have been in (see photo)
Later, Nancy and I did the above Kayak around one of the mountains, and finished with a swim to cool off. Just jumped in the bay. Great fun. The French couple said they did not kayak and did not want to swim in water after seeing some of the rubbish earlier that day. They missed out. However, the one big downside here is the amount of rubbish left behind, and the problem is only going to get much worse. There also is literally some crap left behind where all the boats moor up overnight - not very pleasant, as I discovered the next morning when I kayaked by myself. Nancy did not want to get wet again with her cold, so I went alone. Fantastic fun kayaking across smooth water past gigantic mountains, and into a bay where there was another cave system with lots of boats moored. Our boat followed me, and then they came into the cave by rowing boat behind me. The scene through the tunnel was like something out of the movie 'The Beach". Really amazing, but unfortunately this is also where a lot of the crap ended up. I had a thorough shower back on the boat!! Still have to say this is one of the best experiences we have had. The combination of kayaking in amongst the mountains, caves and the Vietnamese junks was amazing.
Then we finished our trip, by very slowly cruising back the 12kms or so to Halong City via a different route, but with very few other boats around this time, and plenty more amazing scenery. Definitely one of our big highlights overall.
Finished with long day - back to Hanoi in late afternoon, and then overnight sleeper train to northern highlands, Great train journey along Red River lit up by full moon. And really comfortable to sleep on, comfy bunks and A/C again.