Backpacking VietNam HaLongBay

Backpacking Viet Nam: Ha Long Bay

Forest covered limestone karsts scattered across a turquoise Gulf of Tonkin make for stunningly surreal views. A World Heritage Site, Ha Long Bay evokes awe. Abhijeet Deshpande writes a second of the three part series from this inspiring country.

Tuần Châu marina, an island pier in northern Viet Nam (see map above), had a busy feel to it. Many popular cruise companies have made it their base. Unlike Mt. Fansipan in Sa Pa, we had made advance reservations here for a cruise in the waters of Ha Long bay. After a rainy week in the hills, it was a delightful turn of weather. The relatively clear morning promised an uninterrupted, packed itinerary ahead.

Junk Boats

When traveling on a budget, shopping for a junk boat tour can be agonizing. The price points, range of choices, and conflicting reviews on popular sites can be perplexing. Fellow backpackers we met later in Hoi Ann (central Viet Nam) narrated how they scurried in the middle of a frightful night, when their junk developed a snag and started to sink, to a rescue boat that arrived in the nick of time. In hindsight, the extra dollar we paid (over the cheapest junk boat) had gifted us a peaceful sleep, instead of a potential disaster in the South China Sea.

The name, junk, for boats can be misleading for someone (like us) unfamiliar with the shipping terminology. More so, given how the modern popular usage of the word is associated with worthless items or alternately with fast food. While these vessels with stretched sails trace their origin to China, India, and South East Asia, the name is allegedly a jarring European distortion of an Indonesian (Javanese) or the Malay Bahasa word jong. Ha Long bay is dotted with colorful sails, carrying company logos or names, and make for quite a scene to hold.

From the Tuần Châu marina pier, travelers don bright orange life jackets and hop on to a small ferry to get to their main junk boat anchored in deeper waters. By noon, the captain and staff of Aclass Opera Cruise welcomed us on board, and everyone checked-in to their cabins. We were on the surface level with an ocean view window. The thing with such a tour is that it is all planned by the company and there’s little you need to do besides following instructions and keeping to the schedule.

Inside a Karst – Surprise!

Our first halt was for Bo Hon island. The vessel anchored, a ferry was lowered, and the tour guide made a head-count as we stepped on to it. Bo Hon is a popular islet to view the karsts from the inside in a series of limestone caves. The formation of such caves is characterized by dissolution of limestone, followed by the more frequently occurring natural phenomenon of erosion by water current. The cave that we were led to had a narrow entrance – something you would easily overlook once the scenes inside consume your imagination. Well-lit stalactites and stalagmites dazzle the visitors. In case you do not remember – stalactites suspend from the roofs of the cave, while stalagmites rise from its ground. Pointed dripstones, few with water droplets, or otherwise dramatic formations in a series of cave system had left us spellbound. These Hang Sửng Sốt caves are aptly anglicized as ‘surprise caves’.

Titov Island

Named after a Soviet cosmonaut, Ghermann Titov, the island today is popularly spelled as Titop (not Titov) island. Perhaps, it is one of the most generous tribute to a visiting dignitary. The Vietnamese offered an island from where Ha Long bay showcases itself as a picture-postcard. The panoramic views of the towering karsts scattered across turquoise waters would etch in your memory. Forever. If you search the Internet for Ha Long Bay, chances are you will come across views from here.

The weather and tide conditions change rapidly in Ha Long Bay. Safety considerations can force the boat captain to make changes to the itinerary. As we dropped anchor, clouds threatened the afternoon. Our guide belted instructions for everyone to return within 90 minutes or so. From the landing point, we noticed a bunch of teenagers engrossed in a game of beach volleyball on the cool sands. We then crossed a few outlets selling drinks before hitting a winding staircase, with 300-400 steps, leading up. The 90-minute restriction had quickened our pace through the green cover to the top of Titov island.

Hang Luồn

On the second day, the junk boat anchored near the famous Hang Luồn grotto. Tall karst towers surround the caves and calm the ocean waters in to a giant lake. A string of stilt houses line up the vertical mountain walls. The area had arrangements for visitors on a longer cruise tour to sleep overnight. Meanwhile, we were here to navigate the caving system.

In a two-seater tandem kayak, the person in the front is expected to set the rhythm, while the one in the stern follows her, sets direction and, as required, makes course correction. Even though the guide explains everything before pushing you into open water, chances of accidents remain. As we crossed over to the calmer lake, another couple was on their way out and, as luck would have, headed directly at us. Both teams were busy gazing at the scenery before realizing the impending impact. It was too late for us to turn sideways, while they could not apply ‘emergency brakes’ – a not-so-easy kayaking-maneuver for novices. Their bow hit our right edge. Luckily, it was a minor bump and none toppled over. Few anxious moments, hearty laughs, and high-fives later, we paddled on.

The Cruise Life

Social Deck

On day 1, after hopping two islands, the staff had arranged a social on the top deck until sun down. With a menu of diced dragon fruits and red wine until stock lasts, travelers get busy from the word go. Though not allowed to bring personal food or drinks, few people are known to sneak in alcohol. This alleged behavior is inspired by prohibitive pricing at the junk boat bar!

Squid Fishing

Later in the evening, while most got busy drinking, the tour guide led those interested for a round of fishing. Squid fishing, to be precise. Squid are known to look for food at night and are attracted to light. The tour guide switched on the light bulb on the surface-level deck and then kept flashing a torch just below the railing as we swung the reel with lures into the water.

Tai Chi Demonstration

Sometimes, slow travel gets slower. An early morning instructor-led Tai Chi program underlined the health benefits of easy, graceful hand and body movements. With a focus on breathing, this slo-mo art is just as spiritual as it is martial.

Food

After breakfast, interested guests were invited to a demonstration of local cooking to prepare the day’s lunch menu. Vietnamese food, including seafood, was the mainstay for one breakfast, one dinner, and the two lunch meals. Including the fruit and wine menu for a social evening, here’s what boat food looked like. (PS: if you want to buy cookies or other snacks, a Vietnamese rowing-lady is always nearby your junk, with packed food to sell for a premium).

Getting In and Out

From Hanoi, the boat company’s minibus picks you up at 08:00 am and after a 4-hour ride takes you to Tuần Châu marina pier. Likewise, on the following afternoon, after your boat anchors back. You’d reach your hostel by 04:00 pm. The rides include one comfort break each.

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Have you been to Ha Long Bay? Night skies on a junk boat can be magical. How was your experience? We would love to hear from you (please scroll below to leave a comment).

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43 thoughts on “Backpacking Viet Nam: Ha Long Bay

  1. Oh, I just got back from Vietnam too… with numerous failed attempts at squid fishing! haha.. Hope you had fun. Cheers!! 🙂

    1. Thanks for stopping by CLARA on the road! Yeah. .and I wish you the best to get there! Sooner than later! Cheers 🙂

  2. Nice narration very detailed. Love the junk boat, the cruise life everything in an island. I’m really convinced that Vietnam is in demand for travellers nowadays!!!

    1. Thank you for stopping by, @scenethat. Happy that you enjoyed it. Please feel free to share if you like 🙂

  3. If you visit Vietnam, Halong is must-see destination. I’m from Vietnam, so if anyone need to consult, feel free to ask.

    1. Thank you so much Hong. We are delighted to meet you. We truly loved our time in Viet Nam and we hope to come back one day.

    1. Thank you Shona. Totally agree with you. Halong Bay experience is so unique and should definitely be experienced once in a lifetime. Its very important to get the right junk boat.

  4. This is an awesome comprehensive guide. I went to Ha Long Bay a few years back and loved the scenery; it’s so stunning. However, our boat was a bit dingy and the food was rather meh. Your room looks nice though, wish i would have splashed out for something like this!

    1. Thanks Katie. Yes, getting the right cruise is a big challenge. We did a lot of research and waited for the one that felt right from facilities, quality and cost wise. The research was worth it. We met some other travellers in Hanoi too who were not to happy with their operators.

  5. I’m so sad I didn’t make it Halong Bay when I visited Vietnam. It looks stunning, and I would have liked to ride on one of those junk boats! I never knew anything about them, and would probably visit the bar for a beer too!

    1. Thank you for stopping by. Now you have a reason to go back to Vietnam. Halong Bay experience is truly unique and we would recommend it for sure!! Happy travels.

  6. I find this to be very rewarding. I’ve always wanted to go backpacking but never knew where to begin.

    1. Thank you for stopping by Brianna. Yes, backpacking is a very rewarding experience. We hope you get started soon. Feel free to look up our post – Tips for First Time Backpackers. Happy travels.

  7. Thanks for sharing this wonderful post about Vietnam. I have not visited this place earlier and this surely peaks my interest to visit it soon. The boat, the cruise, the rooms everything looks so nice.A ride on the junk boat looks like a winner. I would definitely love to go for local cooking classes post breakfast.

    1. Thank you Hetal. Halong Bay Cruise will offer so much to suit the choices of different travellers. We were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the rooms as well as the itinerary. We tried so many things for the first time such as Kayaking or Tai Chi or Squid Fishing. Its very important to get the right service provider.

  8. What an amazing experience! Vietnam is super high on my list of places to visit. I love the squid photo, how cool to see them so close up. Adding Ha Long Bay to my list!

  9. I’ve been on junk boats in Hong Kong but never in Vietnam! The other backpackers’ experience with junk boats definitely has me thinking I will research them carefully if I do end up taking one in Vietnam. Did you get to eat the squid after? 🙂

    1. Yes Teresa. Its important to choose the junk boat carefully to have a good experience. Our cruise had a very good sea food spread. Squid were more a catch-and-release educational experience.

  10. I was in Vietnam a year ago and it caught my imagination ever since I tasted my first Pho. Would like to explore more of the beautiful country especially the Tai Chi Demonstration as you suggest.

    1. Pho is definitely tasty and we loved it too! We bought a t-shirt with a caption “i-pho”. Haha. Hope you get to explore more of Vietnam soon!

  11. We had booked a 2night 3 day cruise in Ha Long Bay but unfortunately it was cancelled due to an impending monsoon ! we were so disappointed but we did still go out for the day so we did get a taste of this magical place. But jeez…. its busy huh? Junk boats everywhere. They did say the further you go out the less traffic. The karst caves were amazing. I enjoyed that thoroughly.

    1. You are right Amy. It gets overwhelming seeing so many boats at first but we felt there was a rhythm to all junk boats once they are further in. The views were spectacular at Halong Bay. Caves were special indeed!

  12. Great post, I did this a few years ago, it was one of our many highlights in our tour of Vietnam. Glad we didn’t wake up in the night to discover we were sinking, that must have been terrifying for those backpackers. I particularly enjoyed doing the morning taichi, I vowed to continue doing that when I returned home, of course I haven’t though!

    1. Yes Sarah. Its important to choose the junk boat carefully. Tai Chi impressed us too.. we hope to learn it better one day. That memory of Halong Bay is still fresh!

  13. Looks like a fantastic thing to do. I love all the activities they have on offer that karst cave looks fascinating. I also never know that’s where the term Junk boats came from so, now i know! Thanks for sharing.

    1. We are glad you liked the post. It amazing how they craft the itinerary for those 2 days at Halong Bay tour, each activity being so special.

  14. Ha Long Bay is definitely a must-visit place when visiting Vietnam. Squid Fishing looks so fun! Although I’m a Vietnamese, I’ve never tried Squid Fishing haha. The seafood looks yummy too. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  15. I would really love to do cruising along Halong Bay. The whole sail is truly beautiful with those rugged rocks from the ocean and hopping on different beautiful islands. Also, the stay inside the cruise is very comfortable and spacious too. At first glance, I thought it was a hotel room. To view the demonstration of Tai Chi personally, which is a mix of spiritual and martial art must be interesting. Thanks for sharing perfect guide of Halong Bay!

    1. Thank you Yukti. Yes, we were super excited to see the room as well. And with a window, you would never miss seeing those beautiful rocks out there. Hope you get on you go cruising Halong Bay soon. Cheers.

  16. This is one of the famous destination every summer especially for the junk boat season. It is an amazing adventure and enjoying the whole view! Its magical, no wonder it is always featured in many destination films.

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