Vietnam - Ha Long Bay
"Where the dragon descends into the sea", oh Ha Long Bay, how unique and beautiful you are. This was the main reason we wanted to visit Vietnam (apart from the food!) A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ha Long Bay is an intricate maze of over 1600 island and islets spanning the North East coat of Vietnam. There are so many islands made of limestone, that you could literally get lost for days sailing around. It reminds me of what would happen if you dropped a handful of rice into water and watched each grain settle, some floating above the waterline more than others, in all shapes and sizes.
We spent a lot of time reading tips and reviews on how to visit Ha Long Bay, as every man and his auntie have a tour company in Hanoi which promises to give you the best trip. The popular view is to take a junk boat tour through the islands, staying overnight. The issue is that it's really overwhelming finding a decent tour company, and many people complain about being ripped off. The other issue is that all the tour buses get stuck in traffic, going to the same bay, and you end up being out among hundreds of other junk boats, which can feel really staged. There is some good travel advice here on picking a good cruise.
Tip - Go to Cat Ba Island
After several weeks of research, we realised that it's better to actually get to Hanoi before booking a tour. Additionally, even there, we decided to follow other tips and make our way to Cat Ba Island, which we used as a base, taking day tours out onto the water. See this article for tips on how to get to Cat Ba Island. For us, this proved useful, as there were many more restaurants to choose from on Cat Ba, although the accommodation was still a bit dodgy (keep an eye on your belongings, even in your room!) We opted to just show up and find a hotel, as there are a lot of fake reviews on trip advisor for Cat Ba (or there were anyway). This was good as some of the hotels were awful! We found one that was fine and booked for about $15 USD a night. There is also a lovely beach you can walk to on Cat Ba, which we enjoyed over cool beers one afternoon.
We are so glad we opted to stay on Cat Ba, and here's why: Asia Outdoors (formally Slo Pony Adventure Tours). These guys are fabulous - we booked a one-day rock climbing tour, even though Ryan was keen and LA had no real interest in scrambling up one of the many islets. But, the boat was great, included food, and went out to a remote area of the bay with not another boat in sight! You start off going through a floating fishing village, then continue out into the serene, quiet waters.
What to do - Ha Long Bay Cruise, Kayaking and Rock Climbing
We spent the day trying rock climbing, but you could also relax on the beach, swim, kayak, and sun tan on the roof of the boat. We took a kayak out for 2 hours at lunch, and ended up going under this small passage into a secluded bay in-between one of the islands. It was the most serene experience, as there was no a soul around, except monkeys in the trees. This secluded bay was massive, and the water was a beautiful turquoise. You return at sunset, feeling like you've had a really special day that isn't full of tourists and people trying to rip you off.
With Asia Outdoors there are options for more adventurous folk as well, using top of the line equipment, with excellent trained guides. Considering we'd both never tried it, it was much easier than expected, and really, really fun. Tip - don't get your nails done the day before going (duh!) Regardless, a perfect option for families, or couples!
We spent 3 nights on Cat Ba, and really enjoyed Ha Long Bay. Personally, we feel this option was better than sleeping on a potentially **over-priced or poor-quality** boat, but it's really up to you! If you had a good experience, please share!