Halong Bay (also spelled Ha Long Bay) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the Gulf of Tonkin on the coast of northeast Vietnam. This huge bay covers about 434 square kilometers and has more than 1600 islands and islets, although most of them are uninhabited. It is known for its distinct limestone landforms dot the bay, towering out of the water. Halong Bay is what is known as a karst landscape. According to the University of Texas, karst is “landscape formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks including limestone, dolomite and gypsum. It is characterized by sinkholes, caves, and underground drainage systems.” While I’m not totally sure what that actually means, I do know that it looks really cool. This area has been inhabited for thousands of years and is also an important archeological site. However, after a big storm that killed several people and increasing pollution levels in the bay, many of the people living in the floating villages were moved inland.
Since we were running low on time, we decided to just do a one-day trip out to Halong Bay (it’s about 170 kilometers east of Hanoi). We ended up booking through the Sinh Tourist, the same company we used for the long-distance bus through Vietnam – mostly because one of their ticket offices was next door to the apartment we rented. When we booked our tour, the salesperson warned us that by booking the cheapest option (US $25), everything would be budget: budget boat, budget food, and budget tours (which was fine by us).
We were picked up on time at 8:15 at our apartment. We then drove around for another 45 minutes picking up other people around the Old Quarter. Since the air conditioning in our minibus was not working, we then had to change minibuses and we finally ended up leaving Hanoi about 9:20. We drove through the Vietnamese countryside, over rivers, past rice paddies, and farms, and on bumpy roads before arriving at the wharf at Halong Bay about 1:30.
After some initial confusion, we were all loaded onto a boat and we headed out across the bay. Lunch was included with our tour and consisted of a fish, some rice, peanuts, cabbage, and eggs. After lunch everyone scattered to check out the scenery. The limestone formations are really cool, and along the way our guide pointed out some formations with special stories or interesting shapes. We stopped after about an hour or so for an optional boat or kayak ride. We had paid for the kayaking ahead of time so we choose to do this, despite strong urging from the guide to take the boat ride with some of the local people.
These local people are mostly people who traditionally lived in floating villages in the bay. After a big storm and increasing pollution levels in the bay, many of the people living in the floating villages were moved to inland areas. Some still return for fishing or other work, including paddling tourists around. We kayaked around a bit, checking out the limestone and trying not to get too wet.
After our kayaking excursion, we got back on the boat and floated around some more. We headed towards Thien Cung Cave (Heavenly Cave) This cave is really cool (literally and figuratively), well-lit by colored lights. Our guide pointed out several interesting stalagmite and stalactite formations, including some that resemble animals and some that are more phallic in resemblance. After exploring the cave, we loaded up into the boat and headed back to the port, and then it was time to head back to Hanoi.
The trip back to Hanoi was fairly uneventful, except for when we got lost in the city and had to cross the same bridge three or four times. Overall, it was a long day, but I’m glad that I got the chance to go out and see this beautiful place, even if was just for a few hours.