Halong Bay Is How You’ve Always Imagined Asia To Be

In a three-and-a-half hour drive from Hanoi, in the north of Vietnam, we visited one of the most magical places on our tour of Southeast Asia–and what’s considered one of the seven “New Natural Wonders of the World“: Halong Bay. An archipelago of more than 1,600 limestone islands. These steep cliffs rising out of the sea formed as tectonic plates crashed into each other hundreds of thousands of years ago and merged upwards. This was what I had always imagined of the natural beauty of Southeast Asia.

islands at Halong Bay, Vietnam

The best way to see Halong Bay is by boat, and there are countless one- to two-night boat tours to/from Hanoi. We booked ours, with AClass Cruises, through our hotel (likely for a bit of a premium, but we felt we could count more on the quality of what we’d get–and we weren’t disappointed), but you can also find them through local travel shops on Hanoi city streets. Most cost somewhere in the range of $100-$150 per night per person, transport to the bay, meals and a room on the boat included.

Because the cliffs are so steep they’re nearly uninhabited, though there are fishing villages along the way–colorful shacks on stilts squatting above the water, local men and women on their boats fishing (…or selling snacks to to tourists).

villagers in fishing village, Halong Bay, Vietnam

That doesn’t mean tourism hasn’t otherwise affected the area. In fact when we went, Halong Bay was swamped with other tourist boats just like ours.

boats at Halong Bay, Vietnam

Sadly, this has left the water polluted–so much that many spots aren’t fit for swimming. When we went canoeing, we got a closer glimpse of quite a bit of trash (bottles, a stray shoe, chip bags) floating on the water. (I couldn’t help but feel we were contributing to the problem, though I was hopeful at least we were bringing money to the area.)

Our itinerary (pretty much standard for the few companies we checked out):

  • Transport to Halong Bay: Pick up at the hotel around 8am; drive with a van of strangers to Halong Bay. Stop for a (very long) half hour for a potty break at a halfway point selling overpriced tourist junk (yikes! an arrangement between the companies…we just opted for a coffee)
  • Lunch: Arrive at noon, eat on the boat
  • Kayak: Sail to a secluded(ish) fishing village to kayak between the islands (and awkwardly snap photos of the local fishermen) for an hour
  • Take a dip: Sail to another spot where the water is cleaner and jump in for half an hour or so (if you dare…the water’s still a bit cloudy and we saw a couple of jellyfish…but the water’s warm!)
  • Sunset drinks: Sail to another spot to watch the sun set over the islands. STUNNING.
  • Dinner: Several courses of traditional Vietnamese food (meats/shrimp in sauce, rice, nems, fruit)–after which you could choose to go night fishing (we skipped)
  • Breakfast: Toast, bananas, yogurt, coffee at 7am the next morning
  • Cave visit: Sail to one of the many caves in the area–hollowed out space under the crest of the island, where there was a crack on the side of the mountain as it was forming underwater; water seeped in and carved out the space that became a cavern as the limestone rose above water level. It was much bigger than we expected, and the path was paved and well-lit… so it was easy navigable, but also quite full of other tourists just like us
  • Lunch: Noodles, nems, etc. at 10:30am
  • Back to Hanoi: With, of course, a stop at a nearly identical tourist spot on the way, arriving back between 4-5pm

Overall, despite some of my issues with the green-ness of these travel companies, I felt extremely lucky to see Halong Bay and would recommend it as my favorite spot to anyone visiting Vietnam. A few of our top shots:

island at Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam sunset

cave in the side of the mountain at Halong Bay, Vietnam

Cave in the side of the mountain at Halong Bay

inside cave at Halong Bay, Vietnam

Inside of the cave at Halong Bay

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