Ha Long Bay is a place of stunning beauty in Northern Vietnam, a true natural wonder of the world, and an unmissable entry on anyone's Vietnam travel itinerary. For good reason, it has become very popular, but it really lives up to the hype.
Ha Long Bay is made of around 2,000 islands of various shapes and sizes. The words "Ha Long" mean "descending dragon". According to a local legend, a long time ago in the early days of Vietnam, a family of dragons descended from the skies to protect the Vietnamese from foreign invaders. They spit out giant pieces of jade, emerald and other jewels into the sea, to form a protective barrier against naval attacks, which eventually grew into the islands that form today's Ha Long Bay. Vietnam has many interesting legends like this one and they often involve one of the 4 Sacred Animals of Vietnamese culture (the dragon, the unicorn - sort of, the turtle, and the phoenix). You'll encounter those motifs all across Vietnam, reflected in the architecture of the buildings. Anyway, back to Ha Long Bay...
I'd say the only thing that takes away from the otherwise amazing experience of cruising through the bay is the fact that it can be very crowded (like most nice places these days!). Parts of the bay can be packed with cruise ships, so timing is the key. By taking the right tour, you can see more and at the right time, avoid the crowds and make the most of the experience. Usually, we like to travel by ourselves and at our own pace, but because it's not really possible to see the bay on your own, you would have to join some kind of tour. Given the popularity of the place, the oportunity for scamming tourists is there, so it's always good to check reviews and try to secure a spot on a cruise that actually cares about your trip and is not just after your money.
So Ha Long should you stay in Ha Long? To make the most of the experience, I think 3 days is ideal. You can also get a taste of Ha Long Bay by taking a day trip, or opt for a 2-day trip which allows you to spend a night on the boat. Because most travellers to Ha Long Bay would arrive in Hanoi first, tours starting and ending in Hanoi are really popular. Alternatively, you can go to Ha Long on your own and sort out your tour from there. It's a 3-4h drive between the two cities. A typical tour may include sightseeing, swimming, kayaking, beach time, cave exploring, hiking, cycling, great food, and lots of time to relax on the deck! This is an experience that should not be rushed, if time allows. Spending a night on the sea and waking up to a view of Ha Long Bay from your bed is really something to tick off the bucket-list.
After much research, we decided to go on a 3-day/2-night tour of Ha Long Bay + Cat Ba Island from Hanoi with Vega Travel, and I think we made a great decision. Everything was well planned and the itinerary included lots of fun activities. It's a small group of around 15 people, so you might even get to make some friends. Our guide was very informative and friendly, always looking after you and happy to answer any questions. What I really appreciated about this tour is that there is little overlap with the masses - you see the touristy parts at the right time of day, but also travel off the beaten path. For example, you begin the journey with the less crowded Bai Tu Long Bay and you cruise through the main part of Ha Long Bay on the morning of the 3rd day, before any of the ships have set sail from Ha Long (so it's pretty empty!).
Their 3-day tour is good value for money - just below $200 per person. This includes almost everything you would need - good 3* accommodation, plenty of food and all very tasty, lots of activities, the transfer between Hanoi and Ha Long, the guide, any entrance fees - apart from the 2nd day dinner and the drinks, which you will have to pay yourself, but the prices are reasonable. I still daydream of their passion fruit juice/cocktails and Vietnamese iced coffee served on the deck. The Vega Travel Ha Long Bay tour is recommended by Lonely Planet, which is an added bonus that helped us make our decision on which tour to go for. Prices for a Ha Long Bay cruise in general, with other companies, can vary greatly, starting from around 30$/person for a one-day tour (though you probably get what you pay for!) to a few hundred dollars for an overnight (2 days) cruise on one of those luxury ships with tall and pretty sails that you will easily spot throughout your journey.
Our guide picked us promptly at our hotel at 07:30am. Then after picking up the others in our group, which didn't take long, we made a quick stop at the Vega agency in Hanoi to pay for the trip. We then started our journey towards Ha Long which lasted around 4h. During this time, our guide told us lots of useful information about the upcoming tour and interesting facts about Ha Long Bay and Vietnam in general. Next is a stop at a big hall that sells souvenirs and various other things, a place that is obviously aimed at groups of tourists and thus overpriced - using the toilet is probably the only thing you should do here.
Fast forward to us departing on our ship from Ha Long. We started with lunch while sailing through Bai Tu Long Bay and laying our eves on those iconic limestone rock formations for the first time. Our first stop was in a little gulf where we went kayaking. We never kayaked before, and loved the experience. The tour provided us with waterproof bags so I managed to use the camera - I was a bit worried about this prior to the trip. So a good part of the kayaking was Corina doing the sailing and me taking pictures. Rowing your kayak and marvelling at the wonderful scenery around you is really something to remember. We even saw some monkeys!
The next stop was the Surprising Cave, which we visited near closing time, meaning it was almost empty! This cave is called Surprising Cave for good reason - you wouldn't expect to find a cave this big and well preserved inside one of those rock formations in Ha Long Bay, would you? But some rocks are hollow and hide very large and impressive caves underneath, awaiting to be explored.
After seeing the sunset from the boat, which is a wonderful sight, we spend the rest of the evening on the deck. We took part in a "cooking class" (which was rolling a cold spring roll...), then had an amazing dinner of fresh sea food, fish, and other tasty things. After that we tried squid fishing - this is less exciting than it sounds, it's mainly holding a stick in the water with nothing happening. We multitasked this fun activity with cocktails and great socializing with our other travel companions.
We woke up to a view of Ha Long Bay from our bed - added that to the list of things that are keeping you in bed in the morning. Our rooms on the boat exceeded our expectations and looked like a 3* hotel - we had a large comfortable bed and our own bathroom. We had an early morning start at 6am to climb up one of the small rocky islands before the crowds arrived. Ha Long Bay is one of those places that look best seen from above. Ti Top is probably the only islet where you can climb to the top and is right in the middle of the bay, so you get a panoramic view to all sides. It was still a bit crowded even at that time, but the view was amazing! There is also a nice beach at the foot of the rock, where we spent a little time.
As a sidenote, another famous viewpoint is Bai Tho Mountain - this is actually on the mainland and thus easier to reach, and a great alternative if your tour doesn't include a stop at Ti Top. We didn't go here, but you are probably already familiar with the shots taken from the top of Bai Tho that are all over Instagram.
We set sail towards Cat Ba island. We changed to another ship mid-journey. This is where the journey would end for someone that chose the 2-day tour - they would return back together with the group from the 2nd boat, who are returning from Cat Ba island on their 3rd day. On the way to Cat Ba island, we passed by one of the floating villages of Ha Long Bay - these were once self-contained communities and people would spend their whole lives there in the bay! A few years ago, the 1,600 inhabitants were relocated to the mainland (for better quality of life and education), but they still spend a lot of time in the villages performing daily tasks such as fishing. It's quite fascinating to see such a different lifestyle to what we are used to.
Once on Cat Ba island, we cycled on a very scenic path towards Viet Hai village, a small village in the middle of the jungle. We never cycled at all before booking our tickets to Vietnam. Vietnam is the ultimate cycling destination, and we thought it would be a shame to miss out on that, so used it as a motivation to learn. After buying our first bikes, we practiced in the months leading up to the trip, and managed to complete our cycling activity, though at the back of the pack. The cycling was followed by a not too difficult trek through the jungle and lunch afterwards. In the afternoon, we had free time to swim or kayak - we chose the latter. This time we had more freedom to explore any of the neighbouring islands and plenty of time, which was great.