Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the “New 7 Wonders of Nature,” and without a doubt one of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen in my life. The Bay’s emerald waters are dotted with thousands of tiny, rainforest covered limestone islands formed over 500 million years. The islands rise dramatically up from the water like towers, creating a spectacular, almost otherworldly seascape. It’s a stunning sight and a geological marvel. Ha Long Bay was at the top of my Vietnam sightseeing list, and it did not disappoint.
We went on a two-day, one-night cruise of the bay. Ha Long Bay is one of the most popular tourist spots in Vietnam, so there are hundreds of different cruises, from bare bones to luxury. It can be difficult to tell what is legitimate, and to get the best price when choosing a cruise. We opted for Apricot Cruise, a low-to-mid range cruise that offered all the essentials with none of the frills. I was satisfied, but definitely wouldn’t have wanted to go any cheaper. The boat was basic and the organization of the cruise was a bit of a shitshow, but in a hilarious way that didn’t really bother me. The point was just to enjoy the beauty of the bay.
Ha Long Bay is a four-hour bus ride from Hanoi, where we were picked up by our guide. Our fearless bus driver navigated the crazy traffic with no concern, speeding and driving on the wrong side of, and off the road. The “highway” wasn’t much of a highway – it alternated between bumpy pavement and dirt, and with lots of construction. We passed by small towns, entire communities of half-built, abandoned houses, and miles of green countryside. Halfway there, they dropped us off at a massive tourist shopping mall for a bathroom break.
We arrived at the harbor early in the afternoon and boarded our boat. We were served lunch and became acquainted with our boat-mates. It was an interesting cast of characters aboard the Apricot Cruise. There was a really nice German/Brazilian couple who we befriended, a young lesbian couple from the UK, two boisterous lawyer friends from Brazil, a quiet Malaysian couple, two sisters from India who were reunited in Vietnam for the first time in a decade, and two Iranian couples who did nothing but get wasted and take endless selfies from the moment they stepped aboard.
After lunch we set sail, cruising out slowly into the emerald waters. We sat up on the sundeck to take it all in. The sun was shining, the wind was blowing, and the view was magnificent. We cruised for a few hours and dropped anchor when we reached the heart of the bay. We took a small boat out to one of the islands, to visit a limestone cave. The aptly named “Surprise Cave,” had three chambers, each one larger and more impressive than the last. The third chamber was enormous – it felt like we were on an alien planet.
Next we went to Ti Top Island, a famous island with a beach and a staircase leading up to a viewpoint. I thought that my infected, mucus-filled lungs were going to give out on me as we climbed up, but somehow I made it to the top. And it was worth it. The panoramic view of the bay was one of the most stunning sights I’ve ever seen. It was simply breathtaking. The sun was setting as we descended the staircase, making the view more gorgeous by the minute.
We returned from the island and had a relaxing night aboard the boat. We ate a delicious dinner of fresh seafood, rice, and vegetables. After dinner, our guide “taught us how to squid fish” – AKA the crew guys handed us one broken fish rod to share between twelve people, offering no instructions or explanation. Suffice to say, none of us caught any squid. I was still really sick at this point, unable to stop coughing for more than a few seconds, and it got my spirits down. I was disappointed to be in such a magical place, that I was looking forward to so much, and be unable to enjoy it fully due to my sickness. But, even so, I could still appreciate extraordinary setting. Ha Long Bay is a special place in the world, and I was happy to be there.
Waking up on the boat the next morning was incredibly peaceful. I opened the door to our cabin and could see nothing but the uninhabited islands and other boats, bobbing gently on the water. It was cloudy and tranquil and I felt at ease. The morning Tai Chi that was advertised didn’t actually happen, so we just enjoyed our breakfast and our last few hours on the bay. We went out on the small boat to visit a pearl farm, which was basically just a giant floating tourist trap. On our way back to the harbor, the sun came out in earnest, illuminating the islands and dancing on the blue-green water. We all went up to the sundeck and relaxed in the gorgeous sunshine.
That was one of my favorite moments on the whole trip – lying in the warm sunshine, hearing nothing but the gentle hum of the boat’s motor, and watching island after island go by.