What not to do when booking a trip to Ha Long Bay
Updated: Aug 28
Ha Long Bay is one of the most popular places for tourists to visit in Vietnam. The bay consists of of close to 2000 limestone formations on individual islands, and is a visual spectacle! It is a UNESCO World heritage site of which only 40 are inhabited. The fishing villages here are home to approximately 1600 people who live here on floating houses, and sustain themselves on fishing & marine aquaculture.
Day trip from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay- Pros & Cons
Whilst on the boat around the bay, the tour guide will point out the different islands that were named based on the locals’ interpretation of its unusual shapes. It might be difficult for tourists to even make out those shapes! (It was for me!) Some of the names are Fighting cock, Elephant, Monkey, Finger, & Incense burner islands!
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I took a day trip from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay, which was extremely tiring as the trip started at 7.45AM from the Old Quarter. We went around the Old Quarter stopping at various hotels to pick up the others who had booked for the same trip.
Distance covered-Is it really a full day trip to Ha Long Bay?
The trip covers a distance of 156km which should be covered in 2hours and 15 minutes, instead the tour operators stop at a couple of shops/ rest stops that they probably get a commission from and the one way journey takes 4 hours!
The same goes for the return journey, so don’t be fooled when the itinerary says it is a full day trip to Ha Long Bay- 8 hours you are spending on a bus, and are kind of forced to browse through random shops on the highway.
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Once we reach Ha Long City, we get into a boat and set sail for the infamous limestone cliffs of Ha Long Bay.
We are served lunch on the boat, a rather delicious seafood spread, of prawns, steamed fish, vegetables, and seafood spring rolls. Drinks will be served at an additional cost.
The limestone monoliths are stunning just as in the pictures, and make the hassle of the tour seem worth it. The guide points out the differently shaped cliffs/islands as we approach them, and also tells stories of how the funny names came about.
Choose between Kayaking & Bamboo Boat ride
We dock at an island where we are asked to choose between kayaking and a bamboo boat ride by a local fisherman. Since I didn’t go prepared for the kayaking, I chose to ride with three others in a bamboo boat around the islets. The ride was peaceful for the most part, and the view spectacular. But one of my co-passengers decided it would be funny to try shaking the boat, which really got on everyone’s nerves! After which the rower of the boat, started playing loud music thinking we would like it, but ‘Gangnam Style’ blaring was not the ideal background music for the scenic ride it otherwise was.
So, if you are on this kind of a trip to Ha Long Bay, come prepared to kayak, because that certainly is the better option! If you have a travel partner it will be ideal, else, you can find someone on the trip to kayak with.
Thien Cung Cave ( Heavenly palace grotto) is a limestone cave with majestic stalactites and stalagmites, and is a beautiful stop on the trip. The most entertaining part of visiting the caves is the hilarious descriptions of local legends of the formation of the cave, and of previous incidents within the cave, that the guide enthusiastically regales.
Unfortunately, I didn’t write any of them down, which is a pity, because they really were worth retelling! So if and when you do visit the caves, stay close to your guide, to hear his stories!
After a quick tour of the caves, we head back to shore in the boat, but now no-one is crowding the deck of the boat. I guess everyone has had their fill of limestone cliffs for the day.
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We pile back into the bus, and ride back to Hanoi, but the tour operators are in no hurry, as they make a couple of stops for us to browse through souvenirs, and buy food-which we all do, so they have got their commission! We finally get back to Hanoi by 8.30PM, exhausted and hungry!
So why did I choose this trip?
It was the cheapest one available on trip advisor! I would never do this again, but if I had to, I hope I can afford a private tour- which is in a private car that gets you straight to Ha Long City, onto a boat, and to Ha Long Bay. Though this tour takes all day as well, you are spending more time, kayaking and swimming at one of the islands on the bay, versus the 8 hour to & from journey on a bus!
So when choosing a tour, if you are on a tight budget like I was, go ahead, and book this kind of a tour- but be prepared for what is coming your way. Else, go for the private one day tour.
There are other tours that last 2-4 days, all of which you can browse online, and decide.
Whichever tour you choose, Ha Long Bay is beautiful, so enjoy your trip!
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