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Halong Bay
Vietnam, Dec 17, 2004

ha long bay & cat ba island

Near the end of our stay in Hanoi, we decided to take an overnight trip to Halong Bay. This is a pretty standard thing to do, so there are 8 million little travel shops in Hanoi that will book it for you. After some research, we settled on an Australian-run shop (Kangaroo Cafe) that was quite popular. It turned out that this was a very high-class joint and the price was outrageous (over $100 each) not to mention fully booked, so we decided to check some other shops. We found one that seemed as good as any (Kim's Cafe - which there are several), with reasonable prices (about $20 each), so we signed up.

lots of boats ready to set off into the bay

The next morning, a mini-van picked us up, crammed us in with about 7 other people, and we zipped off towards Halong Bay. The journey takes about 4 hours although it feels much longer when you’re sleepy, a little carsick, and trying to magically shrink a few sizes in order to not squish too much into the stranger next to you. Fortunately, the drive itself is somewhat redeemed by some of the gorgeous farmland and rice patty scenery on the way. Eventually we arrived in Halong, were re-shuffled a few times with a bunch of other mini-van and bus passengers, and finally herded onto a big boat – “junks” they’re called. We were certainly surprised at how many boats there were – maybe 50 or so in all, though fortunately not all leaving the dock at the same time.

So we set off into the mist of Halong Bay. All the pictures you see advertising the trips show a misty view with small islands peppering the water and layering off into the distance. It really does look exactly like that, and seeing it from the boat, and in all directions, is a very memorable experience. Our guide spent some time explaining the folklore associated with Halong Bay (see sidebar).

After a couple hours of cruising through islands we made a stop at a place called the Surprising Amazing Cave. It was amazing, but it wasn’t really very surprising. Our theory is that the name is just a translation that went wrong somewhere, but stuck anyway. Our guide claimed that the surprise is actually a large stalactite that juts out upward from the side of a wall in the shape of a large male reproductive organ and is lit up by a dim red light. We did take a picture of it, but we’re not posting it to spare our mothers the embarrassment (send us an email if you’d like us to send it to you). Near the island was a floating village. We’re not sure if it sometimes floats somewhere else, but in any case, we felt lucky to get a good view of the houses and people (and even their pets!) that live exclusively on the water.

this is where we spent most of our time

Other than that one stop, we just slowly meandered through the islands. We simply sat on deck, traded stories and travel plans with the other passengers and took it all in.

Our first day ended at Cat Ba Island. We had elected to sleep onshore instead of on the boat (due mostly to Grace’s high susceptibility to sea sickness, but also because we thought it might be neat to explore the island). Upon arrival at the dock, we were unceremoniously plopped onto the backs of a couple mopeds (something we had fearfully avoided for our entire stay in Hanoi) and after a fairly harrowing ride, arrived at our hotel. The hotel was rather bleak, but fine for one night. We dumped our stuff and happily strolled through the tiny island village before dinner. It is a simple place, and quite enjoyable. Fishing seems to be the default way to make a living, and there are a smattering of small hotels and restaurants for the tourists that don’t stay on the boats.

In the morning we were whisked away on mopeds again to re-join our boat for another half-day of lazily wandering amongst the islands. No stops, no explanations from the guide, just hundreds of tiny islands. For something that seems like it might be quite boring, it was really quite nice - very relaxing and beautiful. We didn’t tire of staring out at the misty islands and watching the occasional boat go by. The views were unlike any we had seen before. Too soon, we arrived back at the mainland dock and were herded back into our mini-van for the long ride home.

© 2004-2012 susan & grace, all rights reserved

-- comments from readers --


I enjoyed reading your writing on Vietnam. We are planning our second trip there next month. We visited Saigon in November, and now it's off to Hanoi. I teach in Korea, and we try to get out and travel around the Pacific each break. Vietnam (and Bali) are by far my two favorites.

I commend you both for excellent writing and a great website layout. Your description of Halong Bay was the final straw we needed to include it in our itinerary.

--Ron (Korea); Mar 11, 2006


This is really interesting, thanks for writing your memories. I am going with my husband and 3 kids in Aug next year,2006. Am really looking forward to it, more so because of your great write up.

Do you think kids ages 14yrs, 11yrs and 8 yrs would get bored on the Halong trip??? I could relax floating about for a while but my 2 boys will be restless after 5 minutes?!

--Suzanne H. (United Kingdom); Nov 21, 2005

Well, I'm sure it depends on the boys, but I'm guessing that it would be an interesting trip for them. The boat itself is kinda' neat, and the view does change a fair amount as you go. It certainly would be a lot more interesting than your average car, boat, or plane ride, so I think you'll probably be okay.

--Grace; Nov 22, 2005


I’d love to see the Surprising ‘part’ (stalactite) of the Surprising Amazing Cave in Vietnam… :)

Keep up the great work. I’m still catching up on your journey. Dreaming my lunch hours away on your site and then waking up to the drudge that is my job…

Happy Travels and thank you! One hour a day of peeping into your world is a real treat and will have to suffice….for now.

--Vicky P.; Aug 2, 2005

Okay, okay... here's a

Sorry it took so long to reply; we had to dig it out of the archives. But seeing it again was worth it!

--Susan & Grace; Sep 2, 2005


Why didn't you go to Sapa? I hear it is wonderful and you seem to be up for adventure.

--Marina; Aug 11, 2005

Thanks for reading the website and writing in.

Well, we would have loved to go to Sapa, and also to Hue and Mekong Delta and Laos and all kinds of places in that area, but unfortunately we just didn't have time to go everywhere. We also were enjoying really getting to know the places we did visit, so staying for a longer time was nice. BUT, we plan to go back and visit a lot of the places we missed previously. One thing about traveling: it just makes you realize how many more places there are to visit and learn about!

--Susan; Aug 13, 2005