Halong Bay is overrated. Yes it’s beautiful, with countless limestone towers jutting up dramatically from the water. But the hype goes too far. Fodor’s describes it as “mind-blowing.” Lonely Planet calls it “a vision of ethereal beauty.” It’s by far the top tourist draw in northern Vietnam.
I first visited Halong Bay in 2010. It was interesting but felt a little like an assembly line, with tourists shuttled in and out each day to receive a standardized set of pre-packaged experiences. I wasn’t particularly eager to be processed again. But there was plenty of time before my flight to Mongolia, and I wondered if a second try might bring my opinion more in line with the rave reviews. So I booked a two-day/one-night trip through my hotel in Hanoi.
The day before the trip my hotel’s travel guy stopped me in the lobby. “I am so happy!” he said, his smile beaming. Despite the fact that I’d only booked a mid-range tour, he’d been able to upgrade me to a luxury tour at the same price. “I have a friend who works there,” he said conspiratorially.
The travel guy was overwhelmingly nice, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I’d honestly prefer a mid-range tour. Luxury tours were usually full of plodding, stodgy old people who complain a lot. I’d rather be the older guy on a younger boat than the younger guy on an older boat. But the die was cast.
A small bus picked me up at my hotel the next morning. Almost all the other guests were already on board, and I was relieved to see that most of them were relatively young. Some even some looked like backpackers. They were all friendly but generally kept to themselves, and I’d talked so much in Sapa that I didn’t have enough energy to try to get to know anyone.
It takes a little over three hours to drive from Hanoi to Halong City, including an obligatory 30-minute stop at a place that sells just about every tourist trinket Vietnam produces. By early afternoon we were on the Royal Wings Cruise, which – I have to admit – looked like one of the nicest boats on the bay. My room had the most comfortable bed I’d slept on since leaving the US. Maybe luxury tours weren’t so terrible after all.
After a six-course lunch we headed out to kayak around an island. Several times we paddled through large patches of floating trash, prompting a chorus of “Why don’t they clean this up?” mutterings from the other guests.
Back on the boat I drank Tiger beer and tried to capture the sun setting behind what was either a strangely uniform and persistent haze or some pretty bad air pollution. Either way the sky remained flat gray almost all the time, the same as it had been in 2010.
The next morning we set out to visit a cave. I assumed it was Surprise Cave, which I’d really enjoyed during my first visit, despite the fact that I’d foolishly left my big camera back at the boat. This time I was ready with my camera and tripod, but it turned out we were visiting the far smaller and less impressive Thien Canh Son Cave.
“Isn’t there a bigger cave?” I asked.
“Yes, but that cave is on the other side of the bay.” Crap!
At mid-day we returned to Halong City, and after an hour or so of waiting around we boarded the return bus to Hanoi. The boat, food, and service had all been outstanding, but it was a mistake for me to have gone. I should have explored a place that would have been new to me, or just holed up in the hotel and worked on my photos.
Back in Hanoi, the night before my flight to Mongolia, I made my way up to the fifth floor of a building that overlooks a particularly chaotic intersection where the cars, people, and motorcycles weave together from all directions. There are no traffic signals – everyone just goes where they want.
Sapa and Hanoi had been amazing, but I was really excited to get on the plane the next day to meet up with Marie and check out Mongolia for the first time.