With its beautiful, turquoise waters and stunning limestone islands, it is easy to see how Ha Long Bay is a top destination for anyone going to Vietnam. There is no shortage of options, as countless tours cruise along the bay daily. This, however, can be where the difficulties come in. With so many cruise options and itineraries, all at varying prices, how can you even begin to choose?
When my friend and I went to Hanoi, we ultimately, decided to go on a 3 day/ 2 night tour with Golden Bay Cruises. This included 1 night on the boat, and another night with a stay on Cat Ba Island.
After a 3.5 hour drive, we arrived at the harbor at around 1 o’clock. As we boarded the boat, our guide directed us to the dining room where we would be given our room assignments. Upon receiving our key, my friend Cat, and I took our bags to our room.
There isn’t much to be said of the accommodations. Though the layers of several weeks’ worth of dust, the broken floorboard that was one misstep away from falling through, and the empty beer bottles that littered the floor behind the bed post were real selling points. I wonder why they didn’t put that in the brochure? In any case, since we were relatively confident that the boat would stay afloat, we figured we could handle it for a night. At least we weren’t greeted by any unwanted roommates (cockroaches), like a couple of the other guests had been.
After we unloaded our things, we made our way up to the upper deck for our first view of the bay.
It was absolutely breathtaking. It was easy to imagine what it must have looked like long ago, untouched by modern society and the tourist industry. As I stood out on the deck, taking pictures of the islands that came into view, I remembered the story that Ryan told us about Ha Long Bay on the drive up. Ha Long means “the place where the dragon descends into the sea”, and legends say that the God’s sent dragons down to protect the Vietnamese people. Rather than returning back to heaven after their enemies were conquered, the dragons stayed and lived in the bay to continue to protect the people.
After lunch, we prepared for our first excursion: a tour of the caves, followed by a couple of hours of kayaking. The tour of the cave, literally called, “Surprising Cave” was interesting, though not quite as interesting as the name had led us to believe. Most of the tour consisted of Ryan pointing out obscure shapes in the rocks that no one else could see. Midway through our tour of the cave, he pointed out this very phallic looking structure. This time, we could all definitely see the shape he was talking about. Ryan then proceeded to tell us about an emperor who had over 100 children; none of which the emperor could name, apparently.
By the time we left the caves and got everyone organized for kayaking, we unfortunately only had about 45 minutes of the allotted 2 hours to go out. Since my friend wasn’t into kayaking, I ended up getting paired with a Ukrainian girl who spent more time taking selfies than actually helping me row. We didn’t really go very far, but it was a peaceful way to watch the sunset, nonetheless.
After dinner, most people went out onto the deck and visited with each other. I made friends with a European couple and a girl from Canada. The on board activities that the brochure promised, such as squid fishing and karaoke, didn’t end up happening. According to Ryan, since it was Tet, the squid needed to stay home with their families. In other words, the staff didn’t feel like readying the boats. One of the passengers tried to set up the karaoke, but the machine was out of commission. Since the only thing left for people to do on the boat was drink, drink they did. Cat and I turned in pretty early, but we heard plenty of stories and bore witness to a few telltale hangovers the next morning.
Overall, the first night of the cruise was enjoyable. Though the boat itself was not quite in the condition we were led to believe, the food was good, I still got a decent night’s sleep, and the staff ran most things according to the itinerary. I had read many horror stories of half-assed tours, run down boats, and untrustworthy staff; so as far as I was concerned, it certainly could have been worse. The natural beauty of the islands and the bay were bigger selling point than any cruise could have been, anyway.
Stick around for my next post where I will recap my second day on the cruise, and my stay on Cat Ba Island.