Ha Long Bay Vietnam has been recognized as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, I can see why! We spent 3 days and two nights on a small cruise ship among the islands and then stayed 5 nights at an Airbnb in Ha Long City itself. This is one of the most memorable places we have seen in our travels.
Ha Long Bay is in the South China Sea off the coast of northern Vietnam. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, it is a popular tourist destination about a four-hour drive from Hanoi. The main attractions of Ha Long Bay are the calm, emerald waters and the unique landscape of thousands of steep limestone islands topped by thick jungles.
A popular way to see Ha Long Bay is to take a cruise in one of the hundreds of cruise ships that ply the bay. As far as cruise ships go, these are small ships. The one we took had 17 cabins and is on the middle to larger end of the size range. I believe the largest ships would have no more than 30 cabins. In addition to the overnight ships, there are many day cruises available.
We were very happy with our three-day two night cruise. The number of available cruise ships, price ranges, and options can make choosing a cruise overwhelming. Prices on the internet seem to range from about $100 USD per day, per person on up. Walking around the Old Quarter of Hanoi we saw ads for cruises as low as $45 USD per day, per person. We are not sure if those $45 USD per day prices included everything or what quality they were. Anyway, we had already booked our cruise. We splurged (for us) on a three day, two-night cruise and paid $510 USD for the package. We upgraded slightly to a deluxe balcony room. It came with a private bath, mini-fridge stocked daily with bottled water, a welcome fruit plate and the bed was covered with rose petals. Pretty fancy! The price included our Vietnam visa application letter ($19 each value), transportation from our hotel to the cruise, three lunches, two dinners, two breakfasts and all activities and entertainment.
We were picked up at our hotel in Hanoi at around 7:00 AM. The trip to the Ha Long Bay cruise terminal is only 144 km (90 miles) but it takes about four hours to get there. The route has small patches of highway, but much of the trip is two lane road and passes through several small towns. It was interesting looking at the rice fields and small villages along the way.
Arriving at the Tuan Chau terminal, we could see dozens of cruise ships and waiting facilities along the shore. I knew we were not going to be the only ship out there, but I was a little surprised at how many there were. They varied a little in size, but in some ways looked very similar. Most of the boats are wooden, they are all painted white (I understand that is a regulation), and most had small sails on the top. I believe the sails are for decoration and advertising – to let you know the name of the cruise line. Our ship only put up the sails when docked or moored.
Once on the ship, we stowed our suitcases in our room and headed up for lunch. The ship left the dock shortly after we were all on board, they didn’t waste any time. Our ship, the Stellar, had four levels, the bottom two are sleeping cabins, the third level is the dining room and kitchen and the top level is an open deck. All meals are served to everyone at the same time in the dining room. The food was great and there was plenty of it. Our fellow passengers were from the USA, Canada, UK, Australia, Philippines, France and Denmark.
We cruised for a couple of hours and admired the scenery. We were fortunate to have fantastic weather for the trip. Mid-February weather can be cooler, foggy, and rainy. However, we didn’t get any rain and had clear skies.
Towed behind the cruise ship is an 18-passenger boat that is used to shuttle people from the main cruise ship to various other activities. After cruising for a few hours, we anchored in a bay and the shuttle boat took us to Surprise Cave. The cave is large and quite interesting.
After the cave, we returned to the main ship and then sailed to the swimming area. The water is not very warm this time of year and only a few crazy people decided to go swimming. I was one of those people. I guess I felt that I might never have the opportunity again. The cruise director told us that most of the Westerners visit in the November to April time frame, partly because of western vacation times around Christmas and partly because of the cooler temperatures. It can get quite hot, humid and sticky in the summer. The Vietnamese tourists come in the May to October time frame and can’t figure out why people would go out in February when it is so cold. The Vietnamese tourists go to escape the heat and cool off by swimming in the water.
After swimming, there was a sunset party with music, drinks and light snacks on the top deck.
Before dinner, those who wanted to could try their luck at squid fishing off the back of the boat. I say “fishing” but it is really squid jigging. You use a pole with a short line and a six-pronged hook and try and snag a squid as they swim by attracted to the light.
Dinner was great. They serve nine courses one after another including fresh fish, shrimp, chicken, pork, rice, vegetables. The food was very good.
After dinner, we enjoyed a magic show performed by the bartender. I love magic and I must say that he was pretty good for an amateur magician.
At 6:00 AM the next morning there was an optional Tai Chi class on the top deck. I am the early riser, so I took part in the class. It was nice and peaceful to be doing Tai Chi on the open deck of the cruise ship and enjoy the beautiful scenery. The morning Tai Chi class must be an option on most cruises because we saw many other Tai Chi classes going on atop nearby ships.
After breakfast, we split into different groups. For those doing only a one night cruise, they were taken to a fishing village and then boarded the main cruise ship and headed back to the terminal. Those doing the two-night cruise boarded a day boat and went for a day of kayaking and a visit to the beach and a pearl farm.
As it happened, there was only one other couple, Bugsy and Stella, from the UK that was doing the two-night cruise. We had a great time with the day boat for just the four of us plus our guide. The kayaking was awesome! With the small group we had a lot more flexibility with our trip as far as where to go, and the pace of paddling. Altogether we spent a couple hours kayaking. We got to go through some caves and lagoons. It was very enjoyable.
After a great lunch, we went to a pearl farm. It was quite interesting, but I am sure a major part of taking you there is to try and get you to buy some pearls. We did not buy anything, although we were tempted by a couple of mother of pearl teaspoons that were a couple of bucks each. We admired the $10,000 pearl necklace, but way out of our price range.
We learned that natural pearls are never round. In the wild, a pearl is formed by an irritant like a grain of sand getting in the oyster. Cultured pearls are made by inserting a small, round piece of oyster shell in the live oyster. That is how the pearl gets the round shape. It can take up to six years to produce a pearl and only about 30% of the oysters implanted will produce a pearl.
Later in the day, we rejoined the main cruise ship and another set of one-night cruisers were already on board. For dinner, they specifically served the four of us two-nighters a few different dishes than what everyone else was eating to ensure we didn’t get duplicates from the night before. I really wouldn’t have minded getting what we had the night before, but appreciated the gesture.
I went to Tai Chi in the morning again. After breakfast, we went to a fishing village. You have the choice to either kayak around the village or get rowed around in a small boat. We chose to get rowed around since we had already done kayaking the day before.
The occupants of the fishing village live very simple lives. They make their living by fishing off small boats and now make a little money from the tourists that come through to observe their village. Most of the people live in small houses on stilts in the bay. Those too poor to afford a house live on their fishing boats. There is a small school where children go to school three days a week. The guide explained that they just learn basic reading and writing skills and some basic math. Their education is not very extensive and occupants of the village never go on to higher education.
One interesting thing about the row boat is that they row the opposite way that I am used to seeing. They row standing up and row facing the direction of travel. I guess that helps with being able to see where you are going as you row and you must develop a lot of chest and triceps strength versus back and bicep strength as you would in rowing facing the opposite direction of travel. Fishermen out alone will row with their feet so that their hands are free to manage their nets and lines.
After returning to the main boat, we began our journey back to the cruise terminal. There was a Vietnamese cooking class in the main dining room. However, I learned that there would be no actual cooking involved. It was a demonstration of fruit and vegetable carving and you learned how to make a vegetarian spring roll. We figured that we could take a cooking class in a lot of places in Vietnam, but we only had a few more hours in Ha Long Bay so we decided to go to the top deck and enjoy the scenery. It was a magnificent, sunny day.
Once docked at the terminal, we stayed on board in the comfort of the ship until the buses arrived to take people back to Hanoi.
We thoroughly enjoyed the trip and would highly recommend putting a cruise of Ha Long Bay on your bucket list of things to do in your lifetime. We are glad that we opted for the three-day, two night option. Getting up close and personal with the bay for a few hours on a kayak was enjoyable. If we go back again with a group of friends or family it would be great to go on a smaller private ship for a personal charter.