Who hasn’t heard of Halong Bay? Or who hasn’t seen a picture of Halong Bay? Well, I had, and I had felt fascinated by it, its ghostly waterscapes, so much that I wanted to visit it badly. Having seen amazing pictures on the internet had made my desire grow stronger. I just wanted to take my camera with me and shoot away at the amazing scenery, hoping to have great weather and perfect images, combined with a nice stay in the area.
As it happens the place is a tourist trap and for this and other reasons it was a bit disappointing. The weather wasn’t good at all, with temperatures dropping to a maximum of 13 Celsius precisely the day I was going there, so enjoying Halong Bay in the typical way, standing on the top of a boat while you go around the thousand islands was no longer an attractive option. Also, being it a tourist trap, the place is overcrowded with boats targeting all sorts of tourists, from the party-alcohol-fuelled-goer to the more senior-citizen holiday kind of thing. Water is dirty on many spots due to the large amount of boats leaving diesel residue behind. If you add to it the possibility of drowning on one of these poorly maintained boats, then choosing whether to go or not is no longer a simple question.However, the place is fantastic, and deserves a lot of praise regardless of its shortcomings. So I went!
Upon arriving to the main dock you realise how big this tourist trap is, seeing hundreds of boats coming and go, buses loading and unloading tourists without stop. And, all of this during off-season. I can’t really imagine what this must look during the peak season. Shortly after arriving you aboard a small boat that takes you to the main
pirate boat, one of those that has a resemblance with the typical Chinese junk-style boats (mind you, they are just modern boats).
You usually get to one of these boats using a travel agency in Hanoi who offers you a tour/package in Halong Bay, where you can choose whether to stay one or two nights being the second night on an island or again on the same boat. There are prices for everyone, but everywhere you search on the internet (and on the lonely planet guides) it recommends not being tight with your money as getting one of the $50 dollar-mark tours can very well leave you on a boat infested with rats and cockroaches, and a horrid experience to remember. From there you can go up to more than $400 for just 2 nights although most tourists settle for something around $130, which is fair enough for the amount of staff you get (apart from accommodation, you get food and transport, but not drinks). Some tips to book Halong Bay tours here.
Mine was called Party Boat and despite what our agent had sworn (no party, it’s just the name) there was some party. Mainly because all of these tours are led by a guide who’s not only a guide but also someone responsible of making everyone have fun, which on a boat called party boat involves putting loud music and trying to get everyone to dance and sing all the time. I guess that you know the type.
However, as the weather was not that nice and the bunch of people aboard were closer to 30 than to 20, most of our guide’s efforts were futile. Good. Except there was a fairly large group of young Australians during the first day who were generally nice, but there were two dudes in this group who wanted to make a career at annoying people. They decided they wanted to piss everyone off and so they did put the karaoke system on full power late at night, trying to sing every song in the most ridiculous and stupid way, screaming and yelling and generally trying to keep everyone awake while they were getting high on booze. To make you an idea, they even tried to sing Dido’s Here with me. I was considering the option of making them walk the plank into the
sharks…cold water. I survived that and learnt a couple of card games from fellow travellers!
Anyway, apart from these two, we were a nice group. A couple from the UK who just got married (Amy, Mike and their friend Sally), another couple from England and Germany (Laura and Dennis) and a few other made the group we were in. And we had fun in this group :)
And Jeremy, our tour guide (Jeremy was his chosen western name). He was trying desperately to rock us (come on, party party) while we had cold-stone faces (What are you doing dude?). I think he felt really frustrated that we were not responding.
But hey, it was frikking cold outside and he wanted us to party on the boat, play sports on the beach and get ourselves wet in the freezing water, as if it was summer. No exception ;-) Funny though.
I chose the two nights/three days tour. It’s the right amount of time, methinks. If it were not because I had to use three blankets at night to keep myself warm in bed ;-).
You typically stay on the boat while they wander around taking you to nice spots and cool beaches, mixed with activities like hiking the hill on one of these island, playing beach football or kayaking.
At the same time you are taken to floating villages, caves and pearl farms which makes the experience interesting.
It was a shame that it was very cold, because the colour of the water invites you to jump in, no matter what time in the year it is. Watching the sunset and sunrise was magical nevertheless. Sure I didn’t see the sun (for three weeks) and couldn’t get the amazing colours you see on photos everywhere, but still the light seemed kind of magical. You just fantasize you are in a pirate boat and this is your little empire ;-)
Anyway, Here there are a few photos I took in Halong Bay:
Halong Bay, captivating, relaxing, awe-inspiring despite it being a tourist trap. I worry that the Vietnamese will convert this into a full-scale tourist-exploitation system and break the ecosystem and destroy nature here which is what attracts people here in the very first place.
I have to come again, spring time, or in warmer climates, for sure! :-)