Ha Long Bay (or Descending Dragon Bay, as named by the imaginative locals) is just a three hour bus ride east of Hanoi. It’s been one of Vietnam’s high priority tourist destinations since it was named as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1994. The region is made up of nearly 2000 limestone islands, covering an area of over 1550 square kilometres. The cliffs stretch as far as the eye can see and change in formation and shape with every turn.
The bus dropped us off in Ha Long City, and the popularity of this location became apparent immediately. Travel agents and tourist brochures paint the picture of Ha Long Bay as a peaceful, serene location to go to relax and take in the breathtaking scenery. However, in reality, swarms off tourists descended onto the harbour from the busy bus station and flocked towards the fleet of boats which stretched into the distance.
My boat was nice though, and quiet – only 15 of us aboard. Unfortunately, the first day was cloudy, and the water looked dark, almost brown. The striking cliffs were still amazing to see, however, we were all hoping for some good luck with the weather over the next few days.
Our first stop was to see the ‘Heavenly Cave’. After my experiences caving in Vang Vieng, I was really looking forward to this, but I was disappointed on arrival to find out that the original cave had been totally transformed in the recent years into a large, man made cave, specifically for the purpose of tourism. I think our guide had arranged for us to meet there with all the other boats in the harbour, because when we arrived we hardly had enough space to think. My favourite quote from the caves was “the lighting isn’t actually natural”…
I’m making it out to be worse than it was, but I was slightly disappointed and glad to return to the boat and escape the crowds. We travelled a bit further into the heart of the network of islands where we dropped anchor late afternoon to stay for the night. Whilst we still had light we spent time diving off the boat, swimming and kayaking, returning just in time to enjoy the sunset before being treated to a banquet of amazing Vietnamese food (and mostly seafood – my favourite).
We spent the next day on floating bungalows on an island near to Cat Ba – the largest island in Ha Long Bay. This was another paradise day, with golden beaches, blue waters and more amazing food. We were able to kayak around the nearby islands, looking for caves to explore and for small bays to relax in – way out of reach of anyone else. The weather was much improved from the day before making this experience near perfect. I could have easily stayed a few days longer.
But the next day we returned to the mainland via a trip to an oyster farm where we were taught the process of procuring pearls. Even though my first impressions of Ha Long Bay were of disappointment, I returned to Hanoi content that I had seen and experienced everything that I’d hoped for.