Most travelers that head to Vietnam at least consider a stop to the UNESCO world heritage site of Halong Bay. You see the Bay in pictures and travel magazines, but is a trek out to it worth your time and money?
There’s a growing number of travelers (and travel bloggers) that have become “too cool” to be tourists. You know the type–suddenly the sites that have always been deemed “must see” are now not far enough off the beaten path and have been deemed “tourist traps” that “real travelers” would never actually visit.
Is Halong Bay one of those destinations?
For the unfamiliar, you’ll find Halong Bay just a few hours drive from Hanoi. The bay consists of thousands of limestone formations which create a mystical destination for an overnight junk boat cruise. Although your options for cruise operators are plentiful, one of the most well-known companies is Indochina Junk. The company offers trips on junk boats varying in length from day tours to several nights in various budgets and levels of luxury.
I’m writing this post from my own personal experience regarding my trip to Vietnam and Halong Bay last year. My girlfriends and I ultimately decided to book with Indochina because of the company’s solid reputation. I had read several articles indicating that some companies fail to fully restore their boats after typhoon season, yet continue to set sail with vessels that may not be safe.
We chose to book cabins on the Dragon’s Pearl Junk, a moderately priced junk boat. Our two-day one night cruise with double rooms cost approximately $330.00 USD for the night, or $165.00 per person. This price also included our meals while on the boat and transportation to/from our hotel in Hanoi.
Since we traveled to Vietnam in November, the weather was fairly cool and dreary upon our arrival to the bay.
I couldn’t help but worry about the possibility of rain ruining our quick trip. Luckily, in a few hours the sun came out and burned most of the haze away.
We boarded the boat and grabbed some cocktails as the junk set sail for Bai Tu Long Bay. Once there, we docked and had several hours of free time on Hon Co Island. While on the island, we were given a tour of a limestone cave, ThienCanh Son, and had the opportunity to swim or kayak.
Although several of the guests on our ship chose to take a dip or partake in some kayaking, the water was a bit too chilly for this (transplanted) Southern girl!
Indochina’s website touts that taking the route to Bai Tu Long Bay (as their fleet does) is preferable, since it is off the beaten path and not crowded with other junk boats. Since this was my first time visiting the bay, I can’t comment definitely on whether the company’s statement is correct, but I can say we were never on top of other boats.
After a filling, multicourse seafood dinner, a glass or two of wine, and some conversation with our fellow shipmates, we retired to our cabin in anticipation of an early morning. My insomnia is typically an unfortunate experience for me (and those traveling with me), since I realistically need close to eight hours of sleep not to be curmudgeonly, but on this night, I turned my inability to sleep into a benefit and stumbled out to the ship’s top deck for sunrise to take some photos of the bay.
I was the only one out on the top deck of the boat watching mother nature “do her thing” for at least a half hour before a few other travelers made their way outside. Not only was this short amount of solitary time relaxing, it also allowed me to catch some fantastic shots.
After breakfast, we were transported in pairs by small row boats to Vung Vieng floating village. Now, this is the part where our experience turned into a quasi-tourist trap…the rowboats took us to the village where we “met the local people,” toured the floating school and the fish farms… oh, and the gift shop… Then, we were taken by row boat to the oyster farms where we were shown how the locals culture pearls (before being taken to yet another gift shop, of course).
I suppose I could have stayed on the ship, but then I would have missed the colorful floating village and vivid shots like these:
Quite honestly, the “tourist trap” didn’t really bother me. I didn’t feel pressured and my surroundings were so beautiful I was hardly listening to their pitch because I was too busy snapping photos.
After lunch, we arrived back into port. I would have been all smiles after my one night, two day Halong Bay cruise with Indochina had it not been for the damn water puppet show that we were taken to on the way back to Hanoi.
We were tired (or maybe that was just me, since I was the one awake before the sun came up), we were cold from the damp, cool weather and we just wanted to get back to Hanoi to prepare for yet another day of travel (our flight to Hoi An).
We were forced to watch what we were told was a traditional Vietnamese water puppet show.
If I was eight years old (and if shows like “Disney on Ice” didn’t exist), I may have found the water puppet show entertaining. But, I am not. Judging by the amount of photographs taken, some of my fellow travelers certainly may have disagreed with me. But personally, I felt like I was stuck inside of the “It’s a Small World” ride for way too long.
So, what’s my verdict? Is Halong Bay a tourist trap you should skip?
NO. Hands down, do NOT miss out on this natural beauty.
Did I hate the puppet show? Yes. It was right up there in terms of tourist trap cheesiness as my visit to the Karen “Long Neck” Hill Tribe in Chiang Mai (who only spoke to you to try and convince you to buy souvenirs) or the Uros Indian’s Floating Islands on Lake Titicaca (I mean, do these people really live on reed islands ALL year round)?
Halong Bay is popular with tourists for a reason. It’s gorgeous and everyone wants to see it! We had a fantastic time, and I couldn’t even imagine how amazing the trip would have been with warmer weather allowing us to comfortably swim and kayak in the bay’s teal waters.
The natural beauty of Halong Bay is undeniable. And quite honestly, you would be missing out if you traveled to Vietnam without a visit to the Bay.
Bottom Line: Go to Halong Bay. (But, skip the water puppet show if you can).
What do you think? Is Halong Bay a tourist trap you should skip?
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I can only personally vouch for my experience with Indochina, but if you can read about Karolina Patrick’s experience with Princess Cruises here.
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