Since the start of planning our trip to Vietnam, Ha Long bay was number 1 on our list of things to see, as it is for almost anyone who visits the country. This UNESCO World Heritage site is situated in the northeast of Vietnam, 170km from Hanoi. For the few who don’t know, Ha Long Bay holds a collection of thousands of limestone islands of various shapes and sizes topped by rainforests, which are scattered across an area of over 1500km2, giving one of the most unique and beautiful landscapes on earth. No wonder so many films have included the ‘other-worldly’ landscape. It is no surprise then, that it is estimated an average of 50,000 tourists visit this site per day in the high seasons…
Unfortunately, the reality of this situation is that this many people visiting per day inevitably leads to a massive saturation of ‘boat tours’ which all navigate a near identical route, hitting the famous spots at the exact same time. What is even more alarming, is the toll this overpopulation has taken on the very landscape you come to see… but we will get into that later.
We arrived in Hanoi and decided to spend a few days shopping around for the best and cheapest way to get to Ha Long Bay. We initially decided that making our way there ourselves, staying in a hostel in Bãi Cháy (along with Hong Gai are known collectively as Hai Long city) and getting a local tour would be the best way to see the bay. However, this quickly became a difficult and increasingly pricy option for us as prices started at $6 USD each way for a shuttle bus and there was also a severe lack of hostels in Bai Chay. We decided to hedge our bets and get a tour to Ha Long Bay as we were on a very tight schedule and did not have time for thorough research.
We spend our first day in Hanoi traipsing around the literal hundreds of tour shops advertising the best deals for Ha Long Bay trips, most of which claimed to be the most well known and trusted tour provider ‘The Sinh Tourist’ (formerly The Sinh Café). Be warned, there are only 2 legitimate Sinh Tourist shops in Hanoi, all others are fake companies luring tourists in under the disguise of this trusted brand so be VERY wary when booking the ‘The Sinh Tourist’ as we had read of horror stories about the actual tours these jarg companies provide!
After hours of wandering around trying (and failing) to work out who was legit, what was the best deal and what each tour would provide we retreated back to our hostel weary and exhausted. We resigned ourselves to asking our hostel about the tours they provided, knowing full well that this is rule 101 of things not to do if you’re on a cheap budget as more often than not, hostels will provide tours on commission irrespective of how good they are. But we had no time left and so asked anyway. We were provided with 2 options; ‘The Party One’ or ‘The Quiet One’ we replied with ‘The Cheapest One’. This ended up being ‘The Quiet One’ but we didn’t really care, we weren’t up for a big sesh anyway.
We chose the Golden Star Cruise company. It cost us $100 each for a one night, two-day trip with food included. A good deal we thought. Our hostel (City Backpackers) also let us keep our large bags at the hostel and gave us a free nights stay when we returned which we found very helpful.
We got picked up at around 8am from our hostel and driven to Ha Long bay, which took around 5 hours. We then hopped on our (slights worn looking) Cruise ship that would be our home for the night. Our room was actually pretty nice, clean and well kept. We spent the next few hours sailing to our first stop, Sung Sot Cave. It was then we realized that around 50 other cruise ships where doing the exact same thing.
The views were spectacular, but any way you turned there was always at least a dozen ships in view. Matters only got worse when we arrived at the Sung Sot cave… along with at least a thousand other people. The Cave was chaotic, congested and at times frantic as we felt we were cows in a cattle mart being paraded around the one-way trail. We were in and out before we really had any time to sit and take in this breathtaking natural wonder. I suppose this was because of the sheer volume of visitors that needed to get through before the days end.
View from Sung Sot Cave
We then made our way to Ti Top island to watch the sunset. The top of the island had a viewing platform to watch the sun go down, and as it was a clear day, we raced up to catch the pink and orange skies. Unfortunately, so did everyone else… Don’t get us wrong, the view was outstanding and the sunset was one of the best we have ever seen, but when you are 6 rows of people deep, all with every type of camera equipment imaginable held up high in the air, its hard to really take in the moment. We didn’t particularly want to see this once in a lifetime event through a strangers iPhone… So, we raced back down to the bottom and had a moment there, and what a moment it was. The skies turned amber, then pink with the haze of a thousand islands in the distance, it really did feel like we were on another planet. It was one of those moments you’ll talk about for the rest of your life.
Once night had fallen we got back on the boat and had a so called ‘cooking class’ which was basically rolling up fresh spring rolls, but we’re not complaining, they tasted good and there was a mountain of them! In fact all the food provided to us was great and came in hefty quantities and it was all included in the deal. What wasn’t included was the alcohol, which was outrageously priced ($2 per can of beer) and was pushed on you expectantly. We found ourselves constantly having to refuse the beer that had been placed in front of us. Even if you’re not on a budget the price of this tour can very quickly escalate to an outrageous amount, something that became sobering clear to the group of Finnish men who spend over $100 on beer in less than 24 hours. However, they were having Long Island Ice Tea’s with breakfast at 7am so this actually may not have been so much of a shock to them!
The next morning, we woke early and had a very quick tour of a pearl farm that operates in the bay (according the the Fin’s this is an occasion for a beer…. or 5). We then spent around 45 minutes kayaking, this was one of the highlights of our trip, so definitely make sure this is included in the tour when you’re booking!
We then had lunch and made our way back to the port. On the way back the realities of what effect 50 cruise ship tours had on the environment really became apparent. There was a visible layer of oil on the top of the water and rubbish floating everywhere in sight, it was an eye opening reminder of our impact on our surroundings and the damaging effects we can have on the beauty of a place. How our desire to witness something beautiful can be the cause of its downfall, which in this case, is the sad reality of the situation.
The Unfortunate Reality….
People will never stop visiting Ha Long Bay and with the tourism industry booming in Vietnam, it is understandably difficult to prevent the pollution that occurs from this. But perhaps with time stricter regulations will be put into place to reduce the damage these tours are causing to the environment, but only time will tell.
For now, all we can say is be aware of the heavy tourism before you visit, be prepared for the heavy traffic, overcrowding and pollution and hopefully this will only slightly decrease the overall sense of wander and amazement you should get from visiting this unique and special place.
If you are not prepared to endure the congestion of Hai Long Bay, we have been told that Cat Ba Island tours are much less overcrowded, MUCH cheaper (some tours are as little as $20 dollars) and less polluted. If we had known, then what we know now we would definitely have chosen one of these tours!
We hope this will give you a realistic insight into the Ha Long Bay trip!