TRAVELOGUE  »  A Visit to the Iconic Halong Bay

“No way,” was all we heard as a familiar face came running up to us at the bus stop in Hanoi where we were waiting for our tour bus to pick us up and take us to Halong Bay. It was Tony, who we had met five months earlier at Sadhana Forest in India and not seen since.

After a lengthy argument with the people in charge of assigning passengers to their boats, Carrie managed to get all three of us aboard the Dream Voyage for a two day/one night boat tour through Halong Bay: the most iconic destination in Vietnam.


Sunset over Halong Bay in Vietnam
Sunset over Halong Bay in Vietnam


Me and Carrie with our friend Tony
Me and Carrie with our friend Tony

What is Halong Bay?

According to the Lonely Planet Website:

Towering limestone pillars and tiny islets topped by forest rise from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin.

Halong translates as ‘where the dragon descends into the sea’ and legend tells that this mystical seascape was created when a great mountain dragon charged towards the coast, its flailing tail gouging out valleys and crevasses. As the creature plunged into the sea, the area filled with water leaving only the pinnacles visible.

The geological explanation of karst erosion may be more prosaic, but doesn’t make this seascape any less poetic. Designated a World Heritage site in 1994, Halong Bay’s spectacular scatter of islands, dotted with wind- and wave-eroded grottoes, is a vision of ethereal beauty and, unsurprisingly, northern Vietnam’s number one tourism hub.


Tourism in Halong Bay, Vietnam
Views from outside the Hang Da Gu cave in Halong Bay…every single one of these boats was filled with at least 16 tourists

Visiting Halong Bay

As the most iconic destination in the country, it is also one of the most visited. Our boat left at the same time as dozens of others: each carrying up to 16 passengers. When we made our first stop at the Hang Da Gu cave to view the amazing stalactites and stalagmites, we joined hundreds of other tourists in being ushered through the place as fast as possible. However, that is where the annoyance of the other boats ended. On the open sea one could not hear the noise coming from the other ships and they just became a part of the landscape.

Halong Bay’s main feature is a series of giant crags sticking out of the water for as far as the eye can see. Our boat stopped a few times in some of the most beautiful spots where were were surrounded by these crags as well as local floating villages.

During one stop in the bay we got into kayaks and paddled around. In the middle of kayaking, monsoon rains began to pour down on our heads in a moment I can only compare to when Tim Robbins escapes from the sewage pipe in The Shawshank Redemption and thrusts his hands into the air. Truly amazing and unforgettable.


Inside the Dua Go Cave in Halong Bay, Vietnam
Inside the Dua Go Cave in Halong Bay, Vietnam


A tourist boat in Halong Bay, Vietnam
A tourist boat in Halong Bay, Vietnam

An Overnight Boat Trip Through Halong Bay

That night on the boat, we were treated to a traditional music demonstration by our tour guide before joining hands in a circle with our boat-mates to do a series of traditional dances together.

Boat vendor in Halong Bay, Vietnam
Women in boats filled with snacks, drinks and other items for sale float from ship to ship in Halong Bay selling their wares

When we spoke to people from our bus who got on the boat we would have been on had we not seen Tony and demanded a change, they said they had no such performance and just had a tour guide who yelled at them all day. Whew.

A few other highlights from the Halong Bay boat trip were jumping off of the top of the boat into jellyfish infested waters and local women rowing boats full of cookies, snacks and drinks came to the side of our boat to sell us stuff.

Pirating was also the theme of the night, both when Carrie and Tony swam across the bay and boarded a boat that had music playing to look for a party (there was none) and later that night when a different boat docked right next to us and Tony jumped from our roof to theirs.

Of course, the boats quickly started to separate, leaving Tony atop the other boat with no choice other than to toss his wallet and playing cards across the span (the cards exploded upon hitting our boat and all landed in the water), jump into the water and swim back to our boat. Classic.


Limestone karsts tourism halong bay vietnam
Limestone karsts tower above floating houses and boats


A snack boat in Halong Bay, Viet Nam
A snack boat in Halong Bay, Viet Nam