I hate to be negative, but Halong Bay was probably one of the biggest disappointments of our travels, and this was a sentiment we heard echoed time and time again from other backpackers we met, and I would advise some thorough research before deciding whether you want to go (especially if you’re considering an expensive tour!)
Firstly, one big caveat: we were in the North during Vietnamese winter, which is known for being bitterly cold. Although it wasn’t exactly freezing, it was pretty cold, and the wintery sky cast a greyness onto the bay that was pretty uninspiring, and it was probably too cold to do the activities that make tours on the bay fun, like swimming or kayaking. However, we’d heard from others that the bay had been pretty grey and misty for them too (at different times of year), and some suspect it’s an effect of all the pollution that you now get on the bay.
It’s really obvious that the bay is far too over-touristed now, from the fact you have half empty tour boats struggling to make a buck; to the fact that even freight liners are now allowed to cross the bay. There are depressing booze cruises with only a few people; there are overpriced international tour boats with sub-par food; and the views are just cluttered with boats and liners and tourist traps like ‘floating villages’ where you stop to buy tourist tat.
And now, to our personal experience… So we decided against doing a tour, and instead wanted to travel to Cat Ba Island (recommended as a less touristy alternative, accessing Lan Ha Bay), but we actually ended up getting a day tour as part of our transport! The ‘transport’ basically meant a bus, then the first day of a boat tour, ended in Cat Ba. So although we just paid for the travel, we ended up cruising around Halong Bay for a day and enjoying the views while the sun lasted – the only difference being we didn’t get lunch or free drinks, but could still lounge on the deck, and waited whilst the tour stopped off to explore caves etc.
We were pretty happy we’d managed to cruise the bay for a day, pretty much free! Even more happily, we avoided the drama which ensued when the tour ended up being completely shit, and a few tourists started challenging the staff on why they hadn’t had lunch (they’d been moved from another boat); and about how the food was rubbish, the booze expensive, and the trip massively oversold.
We left the tour as they were just being told they were to spent a night in Cat Ba (instead of on the boat as they’d been promised, to catch the sunrise!) and we were pretty happy to be detaching ourselves! We looked into taking a day tour from Cat Ba, but at $25 or more for the day, we couldn’t justify all that money just for some kayaking on a misty, polluted bay. Instead we booked into a hotel with a view looking out to the bay, and spent a day relaxing at coffee shops and pho restaurants on the bay, taking in the view (whilst warming ourselves up!)
Frankly speaking, after seeing the incredible beauty of karst landscapes elsewhere – namely in the El Nido / Coron in the Philippines, or Railay in Thailand – Halong Bay just looked a bit shit! And if you’ve already been to/are planning to go to these places, I’d say skip Halong.
Feeling increasingly underwhelmed by the North, we took a bus/boat/bus combo off the island, in search of some city living to raise our spirits, and luckily we found it, in the buzzy capital Hanoi!