Halong Bay is a must-see if you find yourself in northern Vietnam. There’s a good reason why it’s the country’s number one attraction; it’s truly enchanting.
At just over a three and a half hour’s drive from Hanoi, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is made up of somewhere between 1,000 – 2,000 small islands (depending which guide book you read). These tall, looming, limestone islands are dotted close together forming a maze of waterways through the Gulf of Tonkin.
Sailing through the Halong Bay seas
The best way to see the islands is to float by on one of the junk boat tours, which are usually overnight packages. Surrounded by these majestic mountains, you’ll get a great, up-close view of the beautiful natural scenery.
The only problem is that there are almost as many tour companies to choose from as there are islands in Halong Bay. This can make the process of booking yourself onto one of these trips a little confusing. It’s an experience of a lifetime, so you want to get it right!
After some deliberation, we opted for Ethnic Travel. They offer a great, reasonably-priced trip, with a choice of two or three days gently gliding along on their friendly fleet of modestly-sized junk boats.
Simple yet comfortable accommodation brightened with colourful woven textiles are coupled with a large roof deck decorated with tropical plants. Guests are also treated to delicious Vietnamese home cooking, including vegetarian options if you tell them at the time of booking. Kayaks are on hand if you fancy a paddle and the English-speaking tour guide will show you secret caves and recount the myths and legends surrounding them.
How to choose a Halong Bay boat tour
There are lots of different tours to choose from, all offering a slightly different experience. Here are a few things to consider before booking your trip.
- Your budget
Let’s face it, budget is often an important deciding factor when picking a tour. The good thing is that there are plenty of options to suit a wide range of budgets, so this can be a good first step in narrowing down your search. Prices generally range from £40 for a budget day trip to around £85 for the average 2-day 1-night experience, or around £200 for a luxury stay.
- The vibe
Next, it’s time to think about what kind of experience you’re after. Do you want to party the night away on a deserted beach and play on water trampolines? Then, the Oasis Bay Party Cruise, which anchors up at Freedom Island, might be for you. Or would you be happier relaxing on a luxury cruise instead? If so, you could try a Paradise Cruise which focus more on fine dining, pampering and modern comforts. There are plenty of options in between too, mostly on smaller, more traditional junk boats with local tour guides.
- Number of days
Boat trips generally include either one, two or three nights sleeping on the boat, with almost a whole day on either side. If you’re short on time, you can still get the full experience in the shorter one-night trips, and this might be enough for you if you’re eager to explore the rest of the country (there’s a lot to fit into the two-week free visa allowance!). But if you want to spend as much time as possible immersed in the beautiful scenery then go for longer.
- Kayak route
Most tours include complimentary kayak adventures, often to the popular caves, such as Sung Sot Cave (Amazing Cave). Although beautiful, the large crowds and colourful lighting remind you that it’s a busy tourist attraction. There are other sights to see though, including routes that take you past more natural caves and interesting rock formations. If that’s more your scene, then look out for this when checking the itinerary on the tour websites.
The boats come with onboard chefs who prepare all meals for the group. Expect delicious local dishes for the most part but be sure to contact the tour operator to ensure they can cater for any specific dietary requirements before you book.
Halong Bay’s best kept secret
Litter. Unfortunately, it’s everywhere.
I had dreams of diving into crystal clear waters and swimming amid the dreamy islands of limestone. But, when I got there, I soon realised that that wasn’t really advisable. Even our very laid-back tour guide recommended we didn’t go in the water. Aside from the murky brown colour, the sea had a strange film and foam floating on the surface, as well as whole streams of litter weaving its way through the islands.
It’s not surprising, considering the number of boats passing through the area everyday, leaving a mixture of petrol and discarded rubbish trailing behind them. Ethnic Travel detail their commitment to protecting the environment on their website, but other companies may not be as considerate.
Shocked at the state of paradise up-close, I asked our tour guide why it was so polluted and if he ever sees boats throw their rubbish bags overboard instead of disposing of them responsibly. He told me that some might do that, but that some tourists, and even locals, will eat a packet of crisps or drink something out of a plastic bottle and then just chuck the packaging to the side when they’re done. Currents carry the waste into the maze of mountains in Halong Bay and it all gets trapped there.
Since my trip, several documentaries have come to light. Such as Sky News’ A Plastic Tide and the BBC’s Blue Planet II, highlighting the heartbreaking state of the world’s oceans, peppered with plastic that’s killing off wildlife, and the dramatic changes that need to happen to avoid this destruction.
Responsible tourism plays a huge part in this. Visiting natural wonders with good intentions and a respect for Mother Earth can still cause unintentional damage as a result. By visiting places like Halong Bay to admire its awe-inspiring beauty, are we in fact adding to its demise? Does this mean we shouldn’t visit at all? Hopefully not.
The good news is that both tourists and tour operators are becoming more aware of these dangers and, slowly but surely, eco-tourism is becoming more prominent around the world. For countries that depend on tourists travelling to their lands, like Vietnam, responsible tourism could be the only way to protect their livelihoods as well as their captivating landscapes.
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