From the moment we began planning our trip to Northern Vietnam I had a cruise through Halong Bay on my to do list. This was non-negotiable I told my family. Furthermore, I enthusiastically informed them, “We are all going to love it!”
Well, I must admit that there were parts of Halong Bay that I really enjoyed, but the overall experience was disappointing. My goal is not to dissuade you from visiting Halong Bay, but I do hope to share the pros and cons in order to help you make a better informed decision than I did.
The Highlights of Halong Bay–What I Loved
The vistas of Halong Bay are simply beautiful. The green carpeted limestone karsts jutting out of the water are unlike anything I’d seen before, and I could not take enough pictures. It’s believed that throughout the entire bay there are almost 1,600 of these karsts which have taken millions of years to form. Some are quite large and are filled with beaches for sunbathing and caves for exploring. Others are nothing more than a large boulder. In 1994, Halong Bay was first listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The most commonly offered cruise in the area is one night. A typical trip begins in Hanoi with bus transportation provided by your cruise provider. Upon arriving in Halong everyone boards a tender which transports the passengers onto the larger cruise ship. Then the ship sails deep into the bay. Each company has some variation to the itinerary, but typically there are some activities offered in the later afternoon and again the next morning. Most ships return the next afternoon and all passengers are transported back to their hotels. The prices for these cruises vary depending on your preferred level of luxury, but overall this is a reasonable excursion considering it includes all transportation, meals and activities.
The first activity of the afternoon was kayaking from our ship to a nearby island and back. It took less than two hours including time to explore the small island. I love to kayak, so it’s rare that I pass up an opportunity to hop in and paddle. I thoroughly enjoyed this kayaking experience and would definitely recommend it. My only regret is that it wasn’t longer.
Next we had the opportunity to visit Titop Island and hike the steep staircase to the viewpoint. This was where we took our favorite photos. From this vantage point we could see hundreds of karsts and dozens of waiting cruise ships making for postcard perfect scenes.
The next day we were offered one final activity which was by far my favorite--visiting Sung Sot Cave located on Bo Hon Island. Inside were thousands of stalactites and stalagmites along a 500 meter paved path. The cave is well enough lit to proceed safely. Colored lights placed strategically added a dramatic touch. Since there are dozens of large tour groups in the cave at any time, progress along the path was slow. However, I didn’t mind the slow pace since it gave me an opportunity to appreciate this impressive cave.
Disappointments of Halong Bay–What I Hated
I begin my list of disappointments with the tour company we selected, Halong Phoenix Cruiser. Everything was just okay, but nothing stood out as exceptional. The staff were clearly following a strict timeline and when they spoke it sounded as if they were following a script. The food was the most disappointing we had during our stay in Vietnam. Unlike all the other highly flavorful meals in Vietnam, these were bland and over cooked. But most disappointing of all was the “tour guide” who accompanied us on the excursions. His insights during the cave tour consisted of asking us to guess what animals we saw when looking at the stalactites and stalagmites.
My next disappointment came at night when I realized that the hundreds of cruise ships anchored in the bay were emitting overwhelming fumes from their diesel engines The view from the top deck at night was lovely as long as I could tolerate the awful smell. So I quickly retreated to our room and opted to read my book. My personal distaste aside, I am concerned about the environment in the bay that is exposed every evening to these noxious smells. This is definitely harmful to the plant and animal life of the area.
Finally, my greatest disappointment was the significant overcrowding in Halong Bay. The glorious photos shown in brochures seem to capture the bay with a few bright and shiny ships, but this is simply not the day to day reality. Thousands of cruise ship passengers arrive every hour and board hundreds of ships, many looking run down and poorly maintained. In turn, every ship and tender is operated by diesel fuel enveloping the bay with its smell. One of Vietnam’s greatest natural treasures is being destroyed by the combination of too many tourists and non-existent environmental regulations. This issue is by no means unique to Vietnam, but in all my travels, this was the most glaring example of the disastrous effects of unregulated tourism.
So what would I recommend? Consider a cruise to Halong Bay carefully. Northern Vietnam is a treasure trove of natural wonders, and if you choose to skip Halong Bay, there will be many other beautiful sites to see. For an overview of our trip and some other options, click here.
If you do choose to go, select your cruise provider carefully. I personally value TripAdvisor reviews and regret that I didn’t turn to this website to plan this cruise. In my recent research I discovered that there are cruise companies that claim to be eco-friendly. Since there is no third party to verify this I suppose it’s buyer beware. Finally, consider a longer cruise which gives visitors an opportunity to get beyond the most crowded sections of the bay.
The lesson I learned from this experience is to critically assess “must see” sites in a new destination. We have at our fingertips a wealth of worldwide travel information available to us through blogs, vlogs and other travel publications. Sometimes a bit of research and a critical review of “must see” sites can result in attractive, lesser known and more enjoyable alternatives.