Highlights of Northern Vietnam: Halong Bay

2) Halong Bay – Beautiful but not so much a highlight

One of the top places I wanted to see in Southeast Asia is Halong Bay. I really wanted to visit it on my own – no tour – and just rent a kayak and explore the island alone. I realize, from hearing others stories, that this can actually be quite difficult and take even more time and money. Time is an issue for me so, even though I despise tours, I decide to book a cheap overnight, full board tour for $35 – including tax.

Cheap does not describe this tour – it is stingy beyond comprehension! We are herded around – no smiles, the food is rationed – no extras of anything! There is an attitude of complete carelessness. On top of that, Halong Bay itself is the biggest tourist trap I have ever seen! Boats and tourist everywhere – everyone doing the same things.

Yes, the bay is beautiful with giant mountain-cliffs rising straight out of the water, but the charm is totally lost in the quest of tourism. The water is brown and debris ridden and the night on the boat is slept in the middle of Cat Ba island bay amidst all the other boats – neither stars, nor moon, nor sunrise can be much appreciated. I go for a swim at dusk and swim over to one of the floating villages – the people are extremely friendly and invite me, soaking wet up into their house.

The next day we go Kayaking, but even here, they lie to us and tell us that if we want to go into the “caves” – really just tunnels to other coves – that we have to pay more. Once in the Kayak, however, you really can go wherever you want. Both those who paid and those who did not, went through the tunnels. My friend Melissa, from Malaysia, and I break all the rules and paddle away from the “tourist section” and find a peaceful bay with no one but a few local fishermen – this is the Halong I had imagined and I wish that I was not on a tour – free to explore and discover at my own will.

I really cannot recommend Halong Bay – definitely not by tour anyway! I say go to Ninh Binh – the dry Halong. It is so much prettier and far less touristy.

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