The magic of Ha Long Bay- my first encounter with Vietnam

Ha Long Bay literally translates into the bay of descending dragons. The first time I read about Ha Long Bay was about 6 years ago. I saw a picture of the unearthly limestone karsts blasting out of the emerald green water and I knew this has to go on my bucket list.

Fast forward to 2018, I woke up one day and decided, this is the year I start ticking off items from my bucket list, rather than lengthening the list. Of course, I was aware of my hectic schedule that allows only two weeks of annual leave but I would not let that deter me. I searched through my calendar for a suitable time, applied for leave and booked my flight to Hanoi, from where I would go to Ha Long Bay.

Choosing a cruise for Ha Long Bay is the ultimate nightmare

I decided that with my time constraints, I could do a 2D 1N cruise on Ha Long Bay. The day trips were way too short for my taste and I did not have enough time to do the 3D trip. However, I also read that Ha Long Bay is terribly overcrowded and there is a quieter alternative- Bai Tu Long Bay.

Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay, although crowded, is the UNESCO heritage site that is known to be the most beautiful one but Bai Tu Long Bay is the more secluded and peaceful one. Thus began my search for the perfect cruise which would hopefully cover both the bays. When I searched online, I was greeted with a number of tour operators who offer different itineraries and belong to separate price range.

From my research, here is what I learnt: if you can afford it, go for a mid-range cruise. My all-inclusive package of Vega tours for 2D1N cost me 120 USD. Make sure you read the itinerary carefully, many cruises are party cruises which will blast music throughout the evening. If you want your peace and quiet, choose one accordingly. Not many cruises go to Bai Tu Long Bay. If you want to visit it, make sure the itinerary explicitly mentions it. I found Vega cruises to one of the rare options that do cover both Bai Tu Long Bay and Ha Long Bay. After a few emails back and forth, I booked my tour and anxiously waited for the date to arrive.

Hanoi to Ha Long Bay

I’m not going to go into details of my arrival at Hanoi since that deserves a separate chapter altogether but instead, let’s start with my first day of the Ha Long Bay tour. A van from Vega Tour picked me up from the hostel around 7.30-8am and about 13 other people joined us.

Ha Long Bay cruise

Small boats to transfer to our big boat

We travelled for about 3-4 hours before reaching the Ha Long Bay harbour and boarding our cruise/ Chinese junk. Our guide was an extremely friendly Vietnamese man who introduced himself as well encouraged us to mingle among ourselves.

Day 1: Welcome to Bai Tu Long Bay

We sat down for lunch and our guide announced: “Most boats take the turn towards Ha Long Bay but we will continue our journey to the quieter part of Bai Tu Long Bay where we can later go kayaking.”

As the first limestone karst came into my sight, I could barely contain my excitement. I got up from my lunch table and peeked through the window, with the fork still in my hand. Here I was, finally, after 5 years of daydreaming about this place.

Bai Tu Long Bay

After our lunch, we were transferred to a smaller boat which took us along the thousands of islets and dropped us of at the entrance of a cave. Like many caves in Vietnam, this cave was filled with shiny white stalagmites, some of which also make a musical sound if you hit it with a stick at certain angles! We finally got out of the cave and transferred to kayaks.

Limestone caves in Ha Long Bay

Limestone caves

Sunset over Bai Tu Long Bay

We were on a 2 person kayak and I was with my friend and travel buddy, Lisa. The next hour was almost comical as we kept trying to find our coordinated rhythm and I kept splashing a lot of water on her in the process! Nevertheless, as we paddled over the emerald water and crossed the giant limestone karsts at every turn, I almost couldn’t help but wonder how these surreal islets could have been naturally created without any human intervention.

Busy in my thoughts, I almost didn’t notice it was time for sunset. Once I did, we paddled to an area that has an unobstructed view to the sunset and simply laid down our paddles.

Sunset over Bai Tu Long Bay

Sunset over Bai Tu Long Bay

I stared in dismay as the golden ball slowly started descending over the conical peaks and towers of the islets. The sky changed colours and it was truly a magical moment. The fact that we were sitting on a thin kayak, right on top of the same water that reflected the sunset colours, somehow made the moment more special.

These are the moments that take our breath away and transport us to a different world. These are the moments that make us believe in magic. These are the moments that make life worth living.

As the sun fully descended behind the peaks, we slowly paddled back along a floating village and onwards to our boat to rest for the evening.

A failed attempt at making Vietnamese spring rolls

Before we proceeded to dinner, our tour guide organized a quick cooking lesson for us, just what I always dreaded! As much as I love food, I dread the process of making it. Nevertheless, I put on my gloves and stood there trying to imitate his moves. Turns out, I wasn’t the only one.

Vietnamese spring roll making class

Vietnamese spring roll making class

Another member of our group asked, “Is this our dinner?” and when I responded in negative, he was relieved!

Although they had given us all the ingredients and we only had to wrap everything together and make a spring roll, I failed, of course! My spring rolls were all over the place but I ate them anyway and they were absolutely fresh and delicious. Vietnamese food, after all, is one of the best cuisines in the world.

Dinner is a lengthy affair

I’m convinced that all the money we paid was for our meals. There were endless dishes, each more delicious than the next. We sat across a lovely French couple and enjoyed a lengthy dinner coupled with good conversation, laughter, and even some magic tricks organized by our tour guide.

We were to wake up at 6 am the following day and hence we decided to call it a night. I couldn’t help but wonder what the moon looks like from this part of the world. I snuck out to the top deck of our cruise to enjoy a few moments in solitude.

It would have been pitch dark had it not been for the full moon shining it’s bright white light all over the bay. I enjoyed the pin-drop silence and gazed at the moon that had conveniently found a gap in the peak of an islet and lay exactly in that gap. Indeed, nature offers endless beauty, if you take out a minute to notice it.

Day 2: Ha Long Bay and Surprise Cave

I had a blissful sleep and even after I opened my eyes, I lay in bed admiring the gorgeous structures all around me. The feeling of waking up to the magic of Ha Long Bay can not be described in words. If not for anything else, just for this feeling alone, you should book an overnight trip to Ha Long Bay.

Waking up in Ha Long Bay

Waking up in Ha Long Bay

Finally, I got up and clicked a few pictures before we were transferred to the smaller boat to visit Song Sut (Surprise) cave. Song Sut cave is one of the largest caves of Ha Long Bay and has been commercialized quite a bit for the tourists. However, it still remains a sight worth a visit.

On top of the world in Titop island

Most cruises don’t cover Titop island but this may just be the best part of Ha Long Bay. A tiny island with a small beach, Titop is known for the short hike that provides a spectacular 360-degree view of all the three bays- Ha Long Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay, and Lan Ha Bay.

With my never-to-recover ankle injury, I wondered if I would be able to climb the 340 odd steps without damaging my ankle too much but it was easier than I expected as there are well-built steps throughout. The peak is crowded for sure but the view is worth everything. The pictures speak for themselves.

Here is a suggestion, if your itinerary does not include Titop island, choose another tour!

Goodbyes and pictures

Titop island was our last stop in Ha Long Bay. For the next hour or so, we cruised along the most scenic routes of Ha Long Bay to witness the famous formations like the fighting cocks, the dog stone and many more. Some of the areas truly seem to be out of a Hollywood movie set and despite the hundred other boats, there is a strange serenity here.

Finally, we settled down for our last meal and I waved goodbye to this place that will always hold a special place in my heart. We clicked a few group pictures as the boat reached the harbour, thus marking the end of this beautiful journey.

Group picture!

I had successfully ticked off this item from my bucket list and Ha Long Bay was everything I dreamt it would be and so much more.

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