Ha Long Bay is a fantasy landscape of jutting rock spires, color shifting seas, and twisting, dripping limestone caves.
When the mist blows in things get downright eerie and extra cinematic. It doesn't take much work to pretend you're the lead in some exotic, old time pirate epic.
But once you resign yourself to the fact that you're going to be on a package tour, that the itineraries are almost carbon copies, the food is mediocre, and everything is overpriced, it's surprisingly easy to still get lost in the magic of the place.
We booked a two day, one night trip with our hotel in Hanoi. Everyone from the strolling pineapple lady to the t-shirt guy on the corner will sell you a trip, but since we really liked the folks over at Hanoi Guesthouse (87 Ma May St) we went with their suggestion. My best advice is that if your hotel is good, the operators that they've vetted will most likely be good too. It worked for us.
Our company was called Oriental Sails. They picked us up early in the morning and we headed out on the surprisingly scenic 3 1/2 hour drive to the Bay.
This country grows A LOT of rice!
It was quite rainy when we arrived and the authorities had put a hold on anyone departing. Our guide kept us entertained with some stories (that Rachel translated for me, and then I translated for some Germans) until the storm broke and we were on our way.
Our boat was one of the nicer ones we saw setting sail. Almost everything in the Bay that floats is modeled to look more or less like an old Chinese junk, but we had the added bonus that ours looked like it would stay afloat.
Ha Long Bay is in the Gulf of Tonkin and the trip takes a meandering course through some of the 1,600+/- islands and islets that dot the landscape.
Let's drop a little science for all my geology homies, courtesy of UNESCO:
The geomorphology of Ha Long Bay is known as a drowned karst due to the exceptional combination of its limestone karst features which have been subject to repeated regression and transgression of the sea over geological time.
I'd like to repeatedly regress and transgress on sumpthin' if you know what I mean.
The limestones of Ha Long Bay have been eroded into a mature landscape of fengcong (clusters of conical peaks) and fenglin (isolated tower features) karst features, modified by sea invasion at a later stage.
There's nothing like watching the sea invade a mature landscape to really spice up an afternoon.
Besides the stunning scenery, there are some quite picturesque fishing villages (that your tour will assuredly stop by). The seafood on offer was some of the most diverse and colorful we've seen anywhere.
We didn't get to eat anything particularly unusual on board, but they did earn bonus points for extreme presentation.
Several things were also set on fire.
The whole first day our guide kept talking about Fighting Cock Island. "If you haven't seen Fighting Cock, you haven't truly visited Ha Long," he was fond of repeating.
In the afternoon of Day 2, while me and Rachel were chillin' on deck, he came shuffling up the stairs.
"Hey. You guys see Fighting Cock Island? There it goes."
Thanks buddy. He really knew how to bring on the goosebumps I tell ya. It was magical.
We also toured Dau Go, one of the many caves in the area. It's not bad, maybe a little over paved, but some nice formations never the less.
My favorite part was the trash cans though. I kept seeing these open mouth porpoises painted black and white.
"What's this?," I asked our trusty guide.
"It's a penguin?"
"Why? Does Vietnam have a lot of penguins?"
"No. No pengins. Pengin e rubbin."
"Pengin e rubbin. Pengin e rubbin. Pengin e rubbin."
"Penguins eat rubbish?"
"Yes. It's very important."
Well that clears that up then.
There may be ways to avoid the tourist scene (though how I'm not quite sure), but even on the well worn routes it's easy to lose sight of other boats and people and feel you have the whole place to yourself. It really is one of the most enchanting landscapes I can imagine. If you find yourself in the area, I wouldn't miss it.