Vietnam: Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay is around a four-hour drive from Hanoi (Hanoi blog posts here and here) so it makes sense to head to the UNESCO World Heritage Site once you've ticked off the capital city. Comprised of thousands of limestone rocks topped with lush green vegetation that pop out of the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Tonkin, Ha Long Bay is definitely worth the drive to get there.

The first decision you need to make if you decide to visit Ha Long Bay is how long you want to be there. The most popular options are either a 2 day, 1 night cruise, or a 3 day, 2 night cruise - though you can go for longer, or even just go on a day trip from Hanoi. Next choice is the level of luxury - do you want to be on a budget, comfortable or luxury junk boat? We were after a 2 day, 1 night cruise, on either a comfortable or luxury junk, and I spent hours researching all the various tours and options. Of which there are MANY.

In the end we booked Rosa Cruise, via, and paid £134 (around 4 million Vietnamese dong, which just sounds alarming!). This price included all of our activities, two lunches, dinner and breakfast, but it didn't include drinks (bar a few bottles of water). We spent £41 on drinks for two, which included cocktails, a bottle of wine, beer, extra water and soft drinks - more than you'd pay for drinks in Vietnam, but not outrageous compared to UK prices. I mention this because Vietnam is cheap. Seriously cheap. So, relatively speaking, the cruise is going to seem expensive compared to everything else you'll end up doing. It's worth it though because Ha Long Bay is STUNNING.

We were picked up at 8am from our hotel in Hanoi by our Rosa Eco Bus, aka our "luxury limo", which got us a large comfy individual seat, free WiFi and USB charging points, plus water and a snack. Let's face it, a drive is a drive, and we eventually arrived at Ha Long just before noon. (A return transfer cost us £33 each, and they handily dropped us off at the train station on our return to Hanoi.) Our boat had room for 21 guests, but there were only seven us on this overnight cruise which was excellent. Rooms aren't the biggest, but the beds are comfy, you have your own bathroom (watch out for the roaches), and you're not on the cruise to spend time in your room, anyway.

After a welcome drink and lunch whilst we cruised through the limestone formations, our first activity was a visit to the Oyster Pearl Farm. Unless you're after buying some pearls, it's not the most exciting activity - you get a quick talk about the process before you're pushed into the shop. But, the activity we did afterwards - an hour of kayaking - is a lot more fun. I've never kayaked before but it was wonderful and tranquil to paddle amongst the formations. Do check that kayaking is included in your cruise price. Ours was, but if it's not listed on your itinerary then companies tend to charge $30 per person, which is ridiculous.

Swimming followed kayaking, and then it was time to get ready for dinner and relax on the deck. Whilst our itinerary suggested there would be lots of activities after dinner, such as squid fishing, we ended up having a few drinks before heading to bed. (It was the wrong time of year for squid fishing - and they terrify me - but there were other evening activities listed, like board games and karaoke, that never happened. I'm grateful on the latter, to be honest!) Part of the reason for the early night was because we were tired, but also because the next day began at 6.30am with tai chi on the top deck.

Our tai chi instructor took his morning session very seriously, which is more than we did, and after breakfast it was time to head over to Sung Sôt Cave, also known as the Surprising/Amazing Cave. In the limestone islands of Ha Long Bay, you see, there are caves and grottoes aplenty. Sung Sot Cave is thought to be the largest cave in Ha Long Bay. Our guide told us all about the cave, as well as about the locals who choose to live in the floating villages (some of the 3 day, 2 night cruises visit these) - and it was cool to explore. The cave ceiling reminded me of Gaudí!

Once we were back on the boat, we had a short cooking lesson in which we learned how to make Vietnamese spring rolls. This was followed by an early lunch - yes, that lunch included the spring rolls we had all just made - before it was time to disembark. The food on the boat was plentiful, and whilst it wasn't the most delicious food we had in Vietnam, it was tasty. It's mostly seafood, unsurprisingly, and you may just spot the Ha Long natives pulling up at the side of your junk boat and selling your lunch or dinner to the boat.

Ha Long Bay is a beautiful part of the country, and I'd highly recommend you visit if you can fit a trip into your Vietnam itinerary. Yes, you will have a drive to get there, and you're only on the boat for a mere 24 hours if you do the overnight cruise, but it is peaceful and stunning. I'd also have no qualms about recommending Rosa Cruise though, of course, for us it helped that our boat was only a third full. I have no doubt that we would have a different experience on a full boat, but the staff on our emptier junk boat were attentive and friendly, and we never felt crowded on the boat.

What do you think to Ha Long Bay? x

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