Oh Ha Long Bay, so flooded with tourists that you can’t remember what country you’re in, and you suspect that you’re in a huge, floating, raucous college bar. The most popular way to see Ha Long Bay is on a junk boat tour booked from Hanoi. I had read terrible things about it, and if I had had more time, I would’ve done it on my own. But, with only a few days to spare the tour was the best option. We actually booked our tour while in Hue because we were taking an overnight bus to Hanoi and wanted the tour to pick us up that morning and continue on to Ha Long Bay. The tours are cheap. You can get them for as little as $25 for one night. We paid about $40 for a 3-day/ 2-night trip. It included the park entrance fee, transport to and from Hanoi, a night on Cat Ba Island, a night on the junk boat in the bay, kayaking, hiking (which we didn’t do because of the rain), and all meals.
We were picked up in Hanoi and welcomed with rain. It was about a three-hour ride on a minibus to get to Ha Long Bay. We boarded our junk boat about an hour later, had lunch, and made our first stop at a couple of caves. Whoa, talk about tourists. Loads of junk boats were parked outside of these caves and Chinese tourists who came with organized tour groups were pushing their way constantly to get around. It didn’t matter if they had stopped for photos and you passed by them; they easily threw an elbow or two and literally shoved to get back with their group. Frustration time numero uno. I think this is why I’m so cynical about tour groups; all too often there is that type of person on them. The caves were pretty but would have been nicer if there weren’t multi-colored neon lights set throughout or Disney-like music blasting over the speakers. We got back on the boat wondering if all three days were going to be like this. We sailed on to Cat Ba Island, and although we were supposed to spend our first night on the boat, we were asked to stay on Cat Ba because the boat was overbooked. It didn’t make any difference to us, so we got off and boarded a bus for a 30 minute ride into town. The drive was really scenic, and I kept having flashbacks of Jurassic Park because of the remote jungle feel on the island.
Cat Ba Island
Once on Cat Ba, we arrived in time for dinner at the hotel. We walked around down by the water that evening, but nothing too exciting was going on. The following morning we were supposed to go for a muddy hike in the park on Cat Ba, but it was raining so we had the morning free. After lunch we were told that a bus would pick us up at 3pm to take us back to the dock to get back on the junk boat. The bus picked us up, along with a few other people and a tour guide. When we got to the dock, we followed the tour guide and group onto the junk boat. The tour guide said we weren’t part of his group and kicked us off. No other boats were at the dock. It was us and another couple, and we had no clue what was going on. In all the millions of boats passing through Ha Long Bay, we also wondered who had our passports, since we had to fork them over at the start of the trip. We waited two hours for a boat to show up. It was a different guide so we refused to get on until he showed us our passports. He had ours, but not the German couple’s because he was picking them up to transfer them to another boat. It’s so confusing, and I have no idea how they manage to stay organized. It ended up being fine except for the fact that the first guide failed to tell us we would be waiting hours until a boat would come to get us.
Spending the night on Ha Long Bay
Our night on the junk boat was fun. We docked for the night in the Bay with many other boats, and it was quite beautiful. We went for a night swim with the moonlight dancing across the water, huge karsts in the background, and music streaming from multiple boats. It was fantastic. Our room on the boat was tiny and claustrophobic. At the advice of a fellow traveler we met earlier in Vietnam, we slept up on the roof of the boat. I got up just after 5am to see the sun rise in the bay. It was cloudy so I didn’t see much at all. We went kayaking that morning then cruised around the bay and had lunch before heading back to Hanoi.
At Your Own Risk…
The junk boat tours in Ha Long Bay are chaotic, crowded, and geared towards the college party crowd. If you have the money, you can of course book a much nicer tour. You get what you pay for, so for the price, I can’t complain. I got to see the bay in the short amount of time that I had and it worked out relatively well compared to the horror stories I had read. You really have to be laid-back about it and expect the worst. The German couple that was stuck at the dock with us on Cat Ba were outraged and would not stop huffing and puffing about it. While legitimate considering the circumstances, we went in knowing what to expect. Another couple stormed off the boat when it docked on Cat Ba because they refused to hand over their passports to the boat. It’s standard procedure but they just wouldn’t hear of it. It was their choice to get off, but the scene that they made while doing it was not the classiest. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ha Long Bay is stunning, and it’s obvious why it draws hoards of tourists to it every year. If you choose to go on a tour, go with caution and be prepared for anything!