After Bret’s thorough research on trips to Ha Long Bay, we decided on a two-day, three night organized tour from Hanoi. We saw this is a once in a lifetime experience and we had read horror stories of the backpacker style trips to the bay. Where they cram 30 people into a boat designed to hold 15. Not exactly a recipe for a successful experience. Our selection wasn’t quite luxury, but it was a decent step up from our usual traveler standards.
The tour began with an early pick-up from the guest house and a four-hour drive to Bay Chay Port where we were transferred to our boat. After a welcome drink we checked into our room and had some time to relax and explore the boat while we cruised out to the bay.
As with most organized tours, we had a full itinerary. The first afternoon we were taken to the beautiful beach of Tree Top Island where we climbed 425 steps to reach a stunning viewpoint. We were given a few minutes to relax on the beach before re-boarding the boat and moving on. Next up was a sunset kayak around the emerald waters to a small cave before returning to the boat for sundowners.
Back on board we indulged in a few cocktails while waiting for our pre-dinner cooking class which demonstrated how to make spring rolls. During dinner we had a chance to get to know our fellow travelers. We were accompanied by three French couples, a couple from the US who were on a holiday from teaching English in Korea and a lovely and legendary couple from Germany, Tina and Jorge. They were less than a week into a six month trip, travelling with their six-year-old twin boys and nine-year-old girl. Showing us that if there is a will to travel extensively with family, there is a way. We all took full advantage of the boat’s happy hour of buy one get one free cocktails and had a great night chatting to the American’s and German’s.
Unfortunately we had very little sleep in our cabin due to a family of rats living in the ceiling above our heads scampering around non-stop during the night. Unable to enjoy a sleep in, we were up early and managed to get a quick workout in on the top deck with a gorgeous view of Ha Long Bay (and the copious amounts of other tour boats).
Our first activity of our second day was a walk up the mountain to Sung Sot Cave (Cave of Surprises). What would have been a quick five-minute walk up 100 or so steps was dragged out to at least a 40 minutes due to the number of tour boats on the exact same schedule. Although the cave was pretty amazing, the huge crowds put a damper on the experience.
Back on the boat we had time to get organized before transferring to a day boat that would take us further into the surrounds of Ha Long Bay. We cruised along for another forty or so minutes before reaching a beautiful bay isolated from the rest of the boats. We did some more kayaking around the bay, taking the time to enjoy our peaceful surroundings.
After a BBQ Seafood lunch we relaxed on the boat, chatting to Jorge, Tina and a French couple from Leon. We managed to sneak in a nap on the sun deck before continuing our cruise through a local fishing village and eventually arriving at a pearl farm. Here we had a brief tour to learn how the locals do the pearl farming. Which is a long and difficult process, with only about 10% of the pearls farmed making it sale quality. The rest are turned into powder and used in beauty products.
Arriving back at our main boat, we freshened up and treated ourselves to happy hour once again! It was sundowners on the top deck before another cooking class. This time the class covered how to make fresh spring rolls. After the sleepless night before, Bret and I crashed out not long after dinner, unable to keep our eyes open. We had mentioned the rat problem to the tour manager and he assured us it would be taken care of while we were out for the day. But the confirmation that he did nothing was brought to our attention as soon as our heads hit the pillow. Yet another sleepless night of rats running around above our head.
The trip to Ha Long Bay was a success. We were both very happy with the tour we chose. They had a good mix of activities and relaxation. However, the large number of tour boats operating in the area made us feel a little claustrophobic at times but with a site as stunning as Ha Long Bay, it’s to be expected. One sad thing that stood out to us was the amount of rubbish present in the water and on the beaches. It is almost impossible to look out over the water without spotting floating bits of trash in every direction.