Cruising through Ha Long Bay

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After two nights in Hanoi, Dan and I headed out of the city for one night on a boat in Ha Long Bay — an area famous for its limestone rock formations that jut straight up out of the sea. The bay is absolutely beautiful, but it is not exactly undiscovered by tourists and the one drawback of our visit was the lack of solitude.


The trip to Ha Long Bay from Hanoi takes about three hours by car and gave us a more comprehensive view of the madness that is Vietnamese driving. It is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before, with no real recognition of lights or lanes or right of way. The rules seem to be: bigger vehicle always wins, keep a steady speed when passing, and make ample use of the horn. It is pretty wild, but we made it in one piece and bonded with our fellow tour-group members along the way.

We boarded a “junk” boat along with nine others just before noon and were immediately treated to a delicious seafood lunch that gave us our first taste of how well we would eat on this trip. After lunch, we settled into lounge chairs on the upper deck to enjoy the ride out into the bay. The boats move very slowly and with a quiet engine, so it’s very peaceful to glide through the limestone carsts. There were also several floating villages that we passed along the way that reminded me a bit of Seattle’s houseboat communities.


We were lucky to have a great group of people along with us for the overnight tour, so it was a lot of fun socially as well. After one first lunch at separate tables, we ate all of the rest of our meals at a long communal table and enjoyed discussions about international politics, our respective cities, jobs, and adventures in travel. All of our meals were excellent, with lots of seafood and traditional Vietnamese dishes.


In addition to riding through the bay on our junk boat, we were able to explore some of the smaller lagoons in a motorized bamboo boat that they carried onboard. We also bamboo-boated over to an island that has a viewing spot at its top-top peak, which provided spectacular views of the bay. And the following morning we visited one of the many caves that are hidden within the bay’s islands. The one we visited is called Surprising Cave, and is named for a rock formation (not pictured here) inside that looks like a man who is “very happy,” as our guide put it.


All of these spots were totally beautiful, but I was a bit taken aback by the number of other tour boats in the area and the number of other people in the spots we visited. Dan and I read this morning that 2.3 million people have visited Ha Long Bay already this year and that marks a 49% increase over last year. We couldn’t believe the number of junk boats in the harbor that we left from and were a bit disappointed to moor for the night with at least 20 other boats in sight. But… other than the crowds, it was an magnificent sight and we enjoyed it thoroughly.