Bay of the Descending Dragon

Halong Bay Travel Blog

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ANDREI - We'd heard mixed reports of trips to Halong Bay!  So we booked our 2 day, 1 night trip with trepidation!  We'd read that the activities offered (kayaking, swimming in the sea, visit to a beach, visit to the Hang Sung Sot caves) were all too brief and people felt they had not received value for money.

5 classes of boat were on offer, since it's our honeymoon we opted for the 3rd level ("Superior class") and paid $69 each.  We had a fine 3 hour journey by mini bus East and slightly North to Halong Bay City, including a break at a souvenir warehouse (a common tactic amongst big city tour operators!).  There's still no sign of the Sun since we reached Vietnam - it's been solidly overcast!  No sign of it on this tour, despite the trip to the coast!

Once we reached the port, we handed our passports over to Teun, our English-speaking guide, from APT Travel (a comapny panned in reviews we've seen!).

  In the drizzle, we waited amongst the low season herds of tourists as photocopies were made, boats were assigned and for Teun to hold on to our passports.  We got on the boat at 12:30pm and it was indeed a good vessel.  A sundeck on top, a restaurant/bar area below that plus 2 cabins, then 6 more cabins and the kitchen below that.

The 7 of us tucked into a nice lunch - Kyle (US-Vietnamese) & Tiffany (Vietnamese), Gustav (French-Vietnamese), and Justin & Jules (Australia) - then we set off into the bay, with many islands plainly visible from the shore.  We sailed out of the coastal drizzle within 20 minutes and took in the wonderful sights around us.  The sea was dead calm, and the islands in the distance were shrouded in an evocative mist of drizzle.

The tower karst islands are what's left of limestone mountains that existed before the last Ice Age.  The big thaw led to the area flooding leaving the mountaintops poking out of the sea.  The mythical stories, however, are a bit more poetic.  One states that the bay was created when a Dragon careered into the ocean, cutting the fantastic bay as it thrashed its way into the depths.  Another states that the islands are Dragons sent by the gods to impede the progress of invading fleets.  Take your pick!

We sailed on to the sizeable Caba Island, where we were to pick up a French party of 10 and drop off Gustav since he was on an alternative trip (we picked him up the next day and he said there was absolutely nothing to do!).

  We waited for 2 hours before the French arrived - they were on the 2nd day of a 3 day trip.  Instead of staying a night on the island (which I think is more expensive) they asked to stay on the boat.  They were not happy when the boat sailed on to the kayaking area (which they had done the day before)!

We got 40 minutes kayaking around a few islands.  I didn't think this was enough and was a little annoyed that we had wasted so much time waiting for the French.  On the positive side, we did get plenty of time to relax on the boat, but it was far more interesting getting close to the islands under our own steam.

We did a spot of swimming in one of the deeper areas between islands, avoiding the odd jellyfish.  The sea was nice and warm, but, again, we didn't have much time before it got dark!

Justin and Jules shared a bottle of gin with Kerry and I, so we had a good evening swapping travelling stories.

  These 2 have REALLY had some great experiences in SE Asia!  They've been invited in to local weddings in Thailand and Cambodia randomly, taken Easyrider trips off the beaten track in South Vietnam, and been treated to a free boozy dinner by some Vietnamese businessman (the latter two saw them trying lots of REAL local food like dog, dog offal, cooked duck egg foetuses in the egg, etc).  Our trip pales into insignificance!  Unfortunately, we don't really have time to get off the tourist trail, especially since it's our honeymoon and we have some must-see things still to see.  Our list of places to return to has increased!

Due to the upset French, and our subsequent converstaions in French with them, Teun saw fit to show us a little paper trick (which I can't be bothered to describe) as we chatted that night.

Halong Bay: Hang Sung Sot caves.
  The gist of it was that he hoped we would not lose any generosity towards him (in terms of a tip to him) beause of the perceived problems of the French!  To be honest, we weren't that dissatisfied, but that little episode disuaded me from tipping him!  I thought it was a bit cheeky!  I also noticed a tip box on the boat for the crew!  They spent most of the dead time watching TV and chatting away.  There seemed to be far too many of them for the low season, and there service was not over and above what I expected.  So no tips at all for these guys!

The next day, we went to the well developed Hang Sung Sot caves - good paths and effective lighting.  Got some nice photos.  Teun also had a few interesting points to share with us.

Halong Bay: Hang Sung Sot caves.
  After that, we headed back to port, were driven to a hotel 30 minutes away for lunch, then back to Hanoi by 4:30pm.  The French guys tried to refuse to pay their bar bill in protest but were threatened with the non-return of their passports!

Personally, I kept finding myself comparing this trip with our Galapagos Islands tour.  That had been fantastic.  A knowledgeable and organised guide, a hardworking crew, and fantastic sights.  This Halong Bay tour seemed to be a bit messier.  They should not have mixed a 2-day tour group with a 3-day tour group (thus diluting both tours).  Kyle had been on this tour 5 years ago and said the organisation of the place and the development of the port area had not changed since then.

Halong Bay: Hang Sung Sot caves.
  Where is all their money going?  I can't imagine what it would be like in high season!

Overall, it was a pleasant, relaxing trip, even with out the sunshine!  However, 2 days would be the maximum you should take on this tour, unless you go with a reliable tour operator or are part of a bigger tour group who will probably block book boats to themselves. Perhaps even a 1 day tour would be enough, if you don't want to just chill out on the boat?

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Halong Bay: Hang Sung Sot caves.
Halong Bay: Hang Sung Sot caves.
Halong Bay: Hang Sung Sot caves.
Halong Bay: Hang Sung Sot caves.
Halong Bay: Hang Sung Sot caves.
Halong Bay: Hang Sung Sot caves.
Halong Bay: Hang Sung Sot caves.
Halong Bay: Hang Sung Sot caves.
Halong Bay: Hang Sung Sot caves.  …
Halong Bay: Hang Sung Sot caves. …
Halong Bay: Hang Sung Sot caves.
Halong Bay: Hang Sung Sot caves.
Halong Bay: Outside the Hang Sung …
Halong Bay: Outside the Hang Sung…
Halong Bay