Anyone who’s been to Vietnam’s Halong Bay would agree that the landscape is otherworldly.
Towering limestone karsts, covered in verdant jungle, rising up out of chalky turquoise waters – you almost expect to see James Bond swing out of the trees, martini in hand, as Scaramanga waves his golden gun from his secret lair… The story goes that a family of dragons, sent by the Emperor to protect Vietnam against foreign invaders, created the 2000+ islands by spitting jewels into the sea.
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Whether you believe the mythology or not, there’s no disputing that Halong Bay is one of the most beautiful landscapes on earth. And no trip to Vietnam is complete without a visit. While you can stay in Halong City, it’s preferable to spend a night or two on a boat in the bay. Here’s what you should expect.
On a Peregrine small group adventure, you’ll travel by private transport from Hanoi to Halong City (travellers will leave the bulk of their luggage at the hotel in Hanoi – you’ll just need an overnight bag). Halong itself doesn’t offer much in the way of activities or culture; the city is undergoing a massive redevelopment, with hundreds of hotels and shopping complexes popping up all over the place. It’s interesting to see it from the window of your van, but you’ll likely be happy not to stop for a look around!
From Halong City, it’s a short drive to the marina. There are several market stalls and a small supermarket here, if you need to stock up on snacks, or buy a fan or hat for yourself (a hat will definitely come in handy when you’re out on the water). From the marina, you’ll hop into a small tender and cruise out to your boat.
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Cruising out into the bay
In an attempt to deal with overtourism in the bay, the Vietnamese government has introduced strict regulations to local operators. Boats must follow one of five routes through the bay, and overnight cruises must all drop anchor in the same general area.
What the boats are like
A few years ago, traditional wooden junk boats were a common sight on Halong Bay, however almost all of these have been replaced, as they don’t meet local health and safety regulations. However, the newer boats have been built in a similar style, with staircases curling up each side of the boat, an indoor dining room, and an upstairs deck featuring plenty of spots to sit and while away the afternoon.
Rooms on the boat are comfortable and cosy, and each have their own en suite bathroom and external window. Light sleepers should consider packing ear plugs, as there’ll be a little bit of engine noise, particularly if your room is towards the back of the boat.
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Worried about getting seasick?
Don’t be. As the bay is protected by all those limestone cliffs, the water generally stays calm – also, you’re never out of sight of land. If you’re worried, consider taking some medication with you.
Things to do in Halong Bay
After lunch in the dining room, spend the afternoon exploring the bay – the top deck is definitely the best vantage point for this. The changing landscapes are quite hypnotic – it’s hard to believe there are so many islands out here, and that they’re all so different.
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Swimming in the bay is banned, however there are two beaches where travellers can stop for a dip – we visit both on our itineraries. Both beaches have small kiosks, so you can sip on a fresh coconut (or a Halong lager) if you’d prefer not to get your feet wet.
One of Halong Bay’s best-kept secrets is the Sung Sot (Surprise) cave. You’ll have a fairly steep hike ahead of you to the entrance of the cave – up around 400 or so concrete steps, with a handrail most of the way – however you’ll be rewarded for any strenuous activity as soon as you get inside. Stalactites, stalagmites and impressive bulbous crystal formations are illuminated by a discrete lighting system; move further into the cave, via an elevated boardwalk, and it feels as though you’re on another planet. There are quite a few stairs, and the floor can get slippery, so make sure to wear shoes with good grip.
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If you want to balance out the leg work with some upper-body exercise, take advantage of the optional kayaking activity. After deciding if you want to row in a single or double kayak, donning your lifejacket, and having a quick safety briefing, head out onto the bay with a guide to get a closer look at Halong’s famous karst structures. This is a really fun way to spend a couple of hours; there are a few secret beaches and tucked away caves that are well worth exploring as well – your guide can show you the way.
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Eat & drink
In the evening, after dropping anchor, grab a cold beer or cocktail from the bar and sit up on the roof deck to enjoy the sunset. It’s beautiful watching the lights of the surrounding boats flick on, and hearing laughter on the breeze. Dinner’s usually served up here (if the weather’s nice) or in the dining room, and is a sit-down affair of shared plates – think fresh seafood, stir-fried greens, soups, noodles and rice, followed by dessert and fresh fruit.
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All images by Damien Raggatt.