Forest covered limestone karsts scattered across a turquoise Gulf of Tonkin make for stunningly surreal views. A World Heritage Site, Halong Bay evokes awe. Abhijeet Deshpande shares this backpacker’s guide to Ha Long Bay, Viet Nam – an inspiring country.
Tuần Châu marina, an island pier in northern Vietnam, had a busy feel to it. Many popular cruise companies have made it their base. Unlike Mt. Fansipan in Sa Pa, we had made advance reservations here for a cruise in the waters of Ha Long bay. After a rainy week in the hills, it was a delightful turn of weather. The relatively clear morning promised an uninterrupted, packed itinerary ahead.
What places do you visit on Ha Long Bay cruise when backpacking Vietnam?
Inside Karst Caves, Bo Hon Islet
Our first halt was for Bo Hon island. The vessel anchored, a ferry was lowered, and the tour guide made a head-count as we stepped on to it. Bo Hon is a popular islet to view the karsts from the inside in a series of limestone caves. The formation of such caves is characterized by dissolution of limestone, followed by the more frequently occurring natural phenomenon of erosion by water current.
The cave that we were led to had a narrow entrance – something you would easily overlook once the scenes inside consume your imagination. Well-lit stalactites and stalagmites dazzle the visitors. In case you do not remember – stalactites suspend from the roofs of the cave, while stalagmites rise from its ground. Pointed dripstones, few with water droplets, or otherwise dramatic formations in a series of cave system had left us spellbound. These Hang Sửng Sốt caves are aptly anglicized as ‘surprise caves’.
Named after a Soviet cosmonaut, Ghermann Titov, the island today is popularly spelled as Titop (not Titov) island. Perhaps, it is one of the most generous tribute to a visiting dignitary. The Vietnamese offered an island from where Ha Long bay showcases itself as a picture-postcard. The panoramic views of the towering karsts scattered across turquoise waters would etch in your memory. Forever. If you search the Internet for Ha Long Bay, chances are you will come across views from here.
The weather and tide conditions change rapidly in Ha Long Bay. Safety considerations can force the boat captain to make changes to the itinerary. As we dropped anchor, clouds threatened the afternoon. Our guide belted instructions for everyone to return within 90 minutes or so. From the landing point, we noticed a bunch of teenagers engrossed in a game of beach volleyball on the cool sands. We then crossed a few outlets selling drinks before hitting a winding staircase, with 300-400 steps, leading up. The 90-minute restriction had quickened our pace through the green cover to the top of Titov island.
On the second day, the junk boat anchored near the famous Hang Luồn grotto. Tall karst towers surround the caves and calm the ocean waters in to a giant lake. A string of stilt houses line up the vertical mountain walls. The area had arrangements for visitors on a longer cruise tour to sleep overnight. Meanwhile, we were here to navigate the caving system.
In a two-seater tandem kayak, the person in the front is expected to set the rhythm, while the one in the stern follows her, sets direction and, as required, makes course correction. Even though the guide explains everything before pushing you into open water, chances of accidents remain. As we crossed over to the calmer lake, another couple was on their way out and, as luck would have, headed directly at us.
Both teams were busy gazing at the scenery before realizing the impending impact. It was too late for us to turn sideways, while they could not apply ‘emergency brakes’ – a not-so-easy kayaking-maneuver for novices. Their bow hit our right edge. Luckily, it was a minor bump and none toppled over. Few anxious moments, hearty laughs, and high-fives later, we paddled on.
What are the things to do on a Ha Long Bay cruise when backpacking Vietnam?
Social Deck, the cruise life
On day 1, after hopping two islands, the staff had arranged a social on the top deck until sun down. With a menu of diced dragon fruits and red wine until stock lasts, travelers get busy from the word go. Though not allowed to bring personal food or drinks, few people are known to sneak in alcohol. This alleged behavior is inspired by prohibitive pricing at the junk boat bar!
Later in the evening, while most got busy drinking, the tour guide led those interested for a round of fishing. Squid fishing, to be precise. Squid are known to look for food at night and are attracted to light. The tour guide switched on the light bulb on the surface-level deck and then kept flashing a torch just below the railing as we swung the reel with lures into the water. Oh, and the night skies on a junk boat can be magical.
Tai Chi lessons
Sometimes, slow travel gets slower. An early morning instructor-led Tai Chi program underlined the health benefits of easy, graceful hand and body movements. With a focus on breathing, this slo-mo art is just as spiritual as it is martial.
Halong Bay food
After breakfast, interested guests were invited to a demonstration of local cooking to prepare the day’s lunch menu. Vietnamese food, including seafood, was the mainstay for one breakfast, one dinner, and the two lunch meals. Including the fruit and wine menu for a social evening, here’s what boat food looked like. (PS: if you want to buy cookies or other snacks, a Vietnamese rowing-lady is always nearby your junk, with packed food to sell for a premium. Knowing few Vietnamese language words and phrases can always be helpful to negotiate).
How to plan your junk boat tour to Halong Bay?
Choosing the right junk boat
The name, junk, for boats can be misleading for someone (like us) unfamiliar with the shipping terminology. More so, given how the modern popular usage of the word is associated with worthless items or alternately with fast food. While these vessels with stretched sails trace their origin to China, India, and South East Asia, the name is allegedly a jarring European distortion of an Indonesian (Javanese) or the Malay Bahasa word jong. Ha Long bay is dotted with colorful sails, carrying company logos or names, and make for quite a scene to hold.
When traveling on a budget, shopping for a junk boat tour can be agonizing. The price points, range of choices, and conflicting reviews on popular sites can be perplexing. Fellow backpackers we met later in Hoi Ann (central Viet Nam) narrated how they scurried in the middle of a frightful night, when their junk developed a snag and started to sink, to a rescue boat that arrived in the nick of time. In hindsight, the extra dollar we paid (over the cheapest junk boat) had gifted us a peaceful sleep, instead of a potential disaster in the South China Sea.
From the Tuần Châu marina pier, travelers don bright orange life jackets and hop on to a small ferry to get to their main junk boat anchored in deeper waters. By noon, the captain and staff of Aclass Opera Cruise welcomed us on board, and everyone checked-in to their cabins. We were on the surface level with an ocean view window. The thing with such a tour is that it is all planned by the company and there’s little you need to do besides following instructions and keeping to the schedule.
Getting to Ha Long Bay
From Hanoi, the boat company’s minibus picks you up at 08:00 am and after a 4-hour ride takes you to Tuần Châu marina pier. Likewise, on the following afternoon, after your boat anchors back. You’d reach your hostel by 04:00 pm. The rides include one comfort break each.
Have you been to Ha Long Bay in Viet Nam? How was your experience? We would love to hear from you.
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