CRUISING HA LONG BAY
By Ian Robert Knight
If you ask people what image comes to mind when they think of Vietnam, it’s likely they would mention beautiful Ha Long Bay first. This spectacular location, filled with almost 2000 towering limestone karst peaks, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. And no visit to the country would be complete without spending a few nights on a boat in the bay. But there is much to know about the area, so here is our guide to cruising Ha Long Bay.
A Geography Lesson
Just to set it up properly, let’s talk first about where this phenomenon is located. Ha Long Bay (sometimes spelled Halong Bay) is located in northeastern Vietnam, about 4 hours away from the capital city of Hanoi. The nearest cities are Ha Long and Hai Phong. When we speak about Ha Long bay, in reality it is only one of three bays in the area. The other two are Bai Tu Long Bay and Lan Ha bay. But collectively, they are commonly referred to as Ha Long Bay.
It’s relatively easy to reach Ha Long Bay. Most people would arrive from Hanoi, either by minivan, bus or private car. It takes about 3.5 – 4 hours, depending on traffic. More often than not, the transfer to the Bay is provided along with your cruise fare.
You can also fly to the Bay, on a small seaplane that flies out of the Hanoi airport. The flight is about 45 minutes long, and includes some pretty incredible scenery along the way. You can even get a flight that includes a flyover the Bay itself for about 15 minutes extra. This will give you a birds-eye view of what you’re about to experience on your cruise.
Choosing the Cruise Length
There are three basic types of cruises in Ha Long Bay. First are the short Day Cruises. These cater to the traveller who simply doesn’t have enough time to spend a night on a boat. You won’t see too much, but you will get a taste of the area, and it will probably make you plan a second trip in the future.
The other two types of cruises are 2-day/1-night, and 3-day/2-nights. These are pretty similar, and involve spending your overnights on the boats. On some cruise brands, you actually spend your night in a cabin on an island. But regardless, you’re staying overnight like you would in a hotel.
The general wisdom is that the 3D/2N version will allow you to travel further and experience more in the area. You’ll be able to participate in more activities and have more time to relax onboard, if you are spending two nights.
Choosing a Boat
In Vietnam, the boats that ply Ha Long Bay are usually referred to as a ‘Junk’. This is a term that’s been used for centuries to describe large flat-bottomed boats with a high stern and sails. It’s by no means “junky”. Most Junks in the Bay are quite luxurious.
There are about 200 different Junks in the Bay at any one time, so there are plenty to choose from. They vary considerably from brand to brand. Some of the larger companies will maintain a dozen Junks or more. You can choose from small Junks that have only one cabin — yours — for a very private journey. Or you can embark on a larger Junk with space for as much as 30 people. The choices are many, so everyone will find something they like.
Unless you’re looking for a private adventure, opting for a larger vessel will provide you with some additional fun and entertainment, much like a traditional cruise ship. With a larger Junk, you can expect more activities, larger menus, and some entertainment at night.
Where To Go
As stated already, the Bays can get crowded with so many Junks afloat. But in reality, its mostly just the Ha Long Bay area that is crowded. Since many of the day cruises and 2N/1D cruises can’t travel too far, they tend to congregate in this Bay, as it’s closest to the port.
But if you venture further afield to Bai Tu Long Bay, you’ll find it far more secluded with very few Junks in the area around you. You can even swim in what may feel like a private beach. So if this is a concern for you, look for a cruise that includes travel to this area of the region.
What To Do
Many ships have a full slate of activities available for those who are keen to experience the area. One of the most popular activities is kayaking. Paddling in the still waters of a secluded inlet, with the pillars towering over you can make you seem so small. Even if you feel incapable of piloting a kayak, it’s worth trying.
You can also tour around some small inlets in a wooden boat powered by a local woman (usually). For a small fee, she’ll row you around some of the islands, and even under some of them.
Most ships also provide some morning activities like Tai Chi or Yoga, usually on the top decks of the Junk. Starting your day with a nice relaxing group exercise, under the shadows of tall karsts peaks is a wonderful experience.