By far one of the most beautiful landscapes on Earth can be savored while sitting on the deck of a boat in “Descending Dragon Bay,” otherwise known as Halong Bay, off the coast of North Vietnam. A beautiful ocean landscape, Halong Bay is riddled with the kind of limestone karsts you find jutting out of the waters in Krabi, Thailand – only it is said to be even more dramatic and otherworldly.
You float along on boats designed to replicate ancient Chinese junks, gaping at the looming towers of jungle-covered rock, and I must admit it is one of the more humbling experiences of a lifetime.
But traveling in Halong Bay can be a jading travel experience due to the extreme commercialism going on there. It has become one of the major stops on the southeast Asian backpacking trail – couple that with the often “money-grubbing” attitude of many tourist-industry locals towards foreigners and you’ve got a situation where people are herded through like cattle with little thought to whether they are enjoying themselves or having a good time.
So is this monumental landscape still worth the trouble then? It can be if you follow these tips to maintain your sanity en-route.
1. Know what to expect
First off, the treatment of tourists in Halong Bay comes served at its most sour when you don’t realize what you’re getting yourself into. Your tour guides back in the big city will likely pump you up by selling you a vision of a peaceful bay tour with people waiting on you hand and foot, but that’s not how things really go down.
So visit the place because the scenery is out of this world, but realize that there will be challenges involved. Prepare yourself mentally.
2. Do your research and pay extra
As in many places in Vietnam, I uncharacteristically urge you to pay a premium price and go with a more luxurious tour. In Vietnam, and indeed Halong Bay, the old adage that you get what you pay for rings truer than ever.
Add in that it has become second nature for tour companies to scam you and lie to you in Hanoi, thinking they’ll never see you again, and doing your research ahead of time is crucial.
Talk to other tourists about their trips, post on forums like the one mentioned above to ask for referrals, and find a boat company that is setting themselves apart by offering world class tours to people who are willing to pay more.
I saw some Asian tourists on other boats who had done this and were riding lavish indeed, and best of all, you’ll get real customer service rather than the cheap Halong Bay variety.
3. Start at Cat Ba Island
Another way to get the most out of Halong Bay is to avoid the bus/boat combo tickets and shoot straight to Cat Ba. From there, you can get to know the people at your hotel and book day tickets off of the island, circumventing the scammers who often come from Hanoi. Cat Ba also offers great trips trekking across the island or kayaking through karsts in the smaller, more unspoiled Lan Ha Bay.
4. Pay attention to the season
Any trip to Halong Bay will be a little more sane if you go in the off season from around late September to June. Not to mention that if you decide to stay on Cat Ba Island, the hotel rooms will go for a fraction of the price during off season – I had an ocean-view room for a mere $10 a night with one of the most amazing sunsets I’ve seen in all my travels.
5. Advoid it completely
You don’t have to go to Halong Bay to see the scenery it has become famous for. As noted in The Lonely Planet, the limestone-studded waters continue all the way up to Southern China, and the view is just as breath-taking. Ask around about Bai Tu Long Bay to get a sense of what Halong Bay was like before the tourists arrived.
The waters there are largely untouched and don’t have the crowds or water pollution you find in Halong. It’s definitely off the beaten track, but with a little extra effort, you can make it happen. People are starting to get word about these other places but still largely avoid them because the lack of tourist infrastructure.