Our last stop in Vietnam was Hanoi, and many people who visit Hanoi do a day or overnight trip to Ha Long Bay located just a few hours drive from the city. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the bay and surrounding area has been drawing increasing numbers of visitors each year.
Ha Long, which means “descending dragon,” consists of a dense group of about 1,600 islands made of limestone. They are covered in thick jungle vegetation with many being hollow and filled with caves.
We were up early for the bus to pick us up from our hotel. There are two ways to get to Ha Long Bay from Hanoi by vehicle, the old highway or the new highway. The new one that is less than two years old so if you book a tour, make sure the tour takes the new highway as it saves a lot of time. Basically a four hour journey becomes a two hour one which gives you more time on the water and less on the road.
Once we arrived at Ha Long Bay we had a brief stop at a pearl farm in Tuan Chau village before getting on the water on a cruising boat and making our way further into the bay.
Our first stop was to Luon Cave and Lake. The lake actually located within an island called Bo Hon Island. The lake is surrounded by low mountains that circle the island, and so the only way into the lake is by going under the mountain through a narrow opening in the rock. The opening is the “cave” part. Getting to the lake also depends on the time of day as the opening can fill up during high tide.
The boat docked a short distance from the cave entrance. We were given a choice of going by a smaller traditional boat with a driver doing the rowing or doing individual canoes and rowing ourselves. We choice the smaller boat and didn’t regret it, as taking photos was much easier this way.
The lake is known for its orchids and fig trees, but it is also home to some monkeys who sometimes go near the water while looking for something to eat. We were fortunate to see one while we were there.
Once we were out the boat travelled for a short distance before making our second stop. This stop was to visit Hang Sung Sot (Cave of Surprises) which was located in the same group of islands as the previous stop.
We were lucky to have much less boat and foot traffic in Ha Long Bay when we were there. According to our guide, the huge drop in tourism was largely due to the absence of Chinese tour groups. Vietnam is a very popular destination for Chinese people, and Ha Long Bay is particularly popular because it is near the border and visa restrictions are minimal. However, because of the situation in Wuhan, Vietnam stopped issuing visa to Chinese nationals at the end of January. and we were there in the middle of February.
For us, it meant that things were very quiet during our tour. There were few boats in the hidden cove, the cave wasn’t overcrowded and best of all, the bay wasn’t full of tour boats. It made for a very peaceful trip back, and an even more enjoyable one when the captain announced happy hour.
Once back on land we headed to the minibus for a two hour drive back to the hotel. We were back in Hanoi by early evening with a last chance to see the city before heading to Laos the next day. We were happy to have visited Ha Long Bay and fortunate to see it when the crowds were down.