Ha Long Bay was a huge disappointment and is probably top of the list of places I wish I hadn’t visited while travelling South East Asia.
The pictures look phenomenal and so a day trip from Hanoi, in which you’re promised an afternoon of cruising through the islands on a boat, having lunch and visiting a few sites, was on the top of my list of things to do.
Where is Ha Long Bay and how do you get there?
Ha Long Bay is off the north east coast of Vietnam. Most people pre-arrange a tour from Hanoi, which will include a coach or minibus to take you there. Depending on traffic, it can take around three hours, but most tours will stop along the way, making it four hours each way.
It cost me $50, so between the budget being shared between Nash and I that was $100 wasted.
We had haggled the cost down as we paid for another trip to Sa Pa (which I loved) as well and so they gave us a combined discount – we had tried to get more but they refused. While on the boat we made friends with two girls and a couple (coincidentally all German). One of the pairs had paid $45, the other $40. So our $50 loss became even more annoying.
Anyway enough about money; let me explain…
We arrived in Ha Long Bay just before midday and had lunch immediately upon boarding the boat. After finding out seats we were then separated! Nash had requested vegetarian food and was told he had to sit with another three vegetarians on another table.
All of the food was cold and not very nice. Drinks were not included and cost three times as much as they ought to, due to the fact you had no choice unless you had brought your own.
After quickly eating and reuniting we went upstairs to the top of the boat. It was nice up there with fake grass and benches to sit on. We looked out at the islands and yes it was lovely, but one nice sight doesn’t make a day’s worth of fun. There was no music on the boat, no atmosphere… we just silently sailed.
Actually wait that’s not quite true, at one point a slightly odd man who had come alone took off his short, knelt down and began playing a wooden flute.
The activities of the day were quite interesting. The first stop was a massive natural cave formation that took around half an hour to walk through. Ti Top Island was next. The island was named after Russian cosmonaut Gherman Titov, who visited President Ho Chi Minh there in 1962, and so is also called Titiv Island by many.
You can see panoramic views of Ha Long Bay by walking more than 400 steps to the island’s summit, and this was definitely worth it. Although if you want to take a photo of yourself here, you will have to grab your chance as there will be many tourists trying to do the same and shamelessly getting in your way.
Despite enjoying the views from the top of Ti Top Island, the enjoyment was short lived due to the fact many Asian tourists were taking photos of Nash and of us together, because we are a mixed-race couple. Of course etiquette varies around the world, but to us this is infuriating and invasive and so we left pretty quickly – as quickly as we could because people tried to stop us to take photos on our way down.
Throughout our trip we often tried to visit the tourist hotspots as early in the day as possible to avoid this, but of course on an organised trip it is out of our hands.
Last on the itinerary was kayaking. This was probably my favourite part of the day, because the small lagoon we went to had monkeys all around, but was also full of larger boats with tourists who sailed as if they would drive straight into you if you didn’t move your kayak out of the way in time (and everyone on board also took photos of us).
Finally, we sailed back to the harbour to get the bus back to Hanoi. The itinerary for the day had promised red wine and cakes for this last part, as it was over an hour to sail back. What we got was half a glass of wine and a few crackers with sugar sprinkled on them…
Now, I know it sounds like I have unlucky and had a bad experience, but many people I have spoken to said the same thing.
In fact, many people who booked directly with a tourist office found that they didn’t get what they paid for and so had even worse experiences. When you book through a hotel as we did, even if it is disappointing you do get what was detailed, hotels wouldn’t risk affiliating themselves with bad service for fear of bad reviews.
Is Ha Long Bay worth it?
Perhaps if you stay in Ha Long Bay and charter a private boat you will enjoy yourself more as you can structure your day. Similarly, those who opt for a two-day trip spend the night on Cat Ba Island, with loads of time to explore. We chose not to do this because when we visited, in March, northern Vietnam was rather cold and so we didn’t fancy spending time on an island when it would be too cold to swim and do island things. I also think going in a group would definitely have been more fun (especially if you take a few drinks to have).
Additionally, it was perhaps due to the fact the weather was a little grey and foggy that made our experience less fun. Perhaps on a bright sunny day, Ha Long Bay is more impressive and boat trips more enjoyable, I don’t know.
Another disclaimer I must mention is the fact we had already visited Thailand and El Nido in the Philippines where limestone islands adorn the horizon. Perhaps if we hadn’t seen similar, if not superior views, in those countries we may have been more impressed with Ha Long Bay.