Halong Bay Photostory

Ryan at Halong Bay

My personal eye candy at Halong Bay

Halong bay is perhaps the most famous tourist attraction in Vietnam. And in some ways it’s a victim of its own success: there are such a dizzying array of tours and boats to choose from that many tourists give up being able to make a comparison and just pick the one their hotel offers them.

Halong Bay is not far from Hanoi. Most of visitors taking an organized cruise tours combined with transportation from Hanoi. Very easy, as soon as you reach old Hanoi, the pretty and touristy part of Hanoi, you’ll be offered tours every direction you turn. Usually for a day trip, 1 night, or 2 nights. From budget prices, to rather luxurious ones.

We decided we wanted to have extra time by ourselves in Halong Bay that didn’t involve a tour group, so we ended up going to Catba Island, the biggest island in Halong Bay, by ourselves. Taking a bus-boat-van combo ticket from Hanoi (Hoang Long bus, $10, from Luong Yen bus station), and choosing our own accommodation in Catba. We planned to spend a day taking a cruise of Halong Bay from this island, and another day to explore the island.

The day Halong Bay cruise from Catba cost us $17 each. Like everything in Vietnam, bargain hard and never accept the first, second, or third offer.

Wooden dock in Catba

Wooden dock in Catba

The dock was the first thing to grab my attention. The boards were so small, uneven, and loose. I was not sure the nails were loose, or if things  were not nailed down at all. They were swaying as you walked by. And there was nowhere your hands could hold onto to keep your balance. No fence whatsoever. And unfortunately for the last 4 people in the group, the little row boat that took us to the cruise boat from the dock didn’t fit everyone, so they had to be left behind, balancing on the rocking wood planks.

Our cruise boat was quite nice. There was a sleeping cabin with bunk beds and dining room with bench chairs in the bottom floor, and upper deck has roof top as well as roofless area.

Floating village near Catba

Floating village near Catba

After seeing a lot of foggy photos of Halong Bay from our friends that went earlier this year, and expected to a foggy day for us too, I was pleasantly surprised that the sky was nice and clear. Some argue with us that the best view of Halong Bay is when it’s foggy a little bit, adding a mystical flare to the dramatic background, but we really enjoyed the sunny day. Everybody (except for me somehow) slathered themselves with  sunscreen.

Sunscreen party

Sunscreen party

The cruise was scheduled from 8 to 5, but we wasted 2 hours right at the start of the day. An hour for the late pick up, and another hour for… changing the boat, since our first boat’s machine broke down completely, just a half an hour after we left the dock!


Dead in the water

But at least the tour went ahead despite all the delay. Four of the people were already nervous about it. This was the second day they allocated for the cruise. Just yesterday, all trips were canceled due to high winds and waves.  And they had to leave tomorrow because they have a flight to catch in Hanoi so this was their last chance.

Floating market

Floating market passing by

After a long wait, they transferred us to a smaller and crappier boat. Maybe I should not call this a cruise anymore. The upper deck was pretty much only a roof, with random old cast-off furniture. There was one long wooden bench, and some fake leather sofas. The leathery sofas were dark green, absorbing the heat from the sun really well creating a scorching surface. My sofa’s back rest was broken, and it was leaning against the roof’s railing.

Our boat

Our replacement boat

The roof railing has a similar story. It make you feel safer, without actually make you safer, I think. It was probably only 30 cm (12 inches) tall, and it was broken too. You can’t really lean on it or it’d break off. It was actually held up by string to give the illusion of being firmly attached.

Crappy boat

Crappy boat

It didn’t matter really, the poor quality boat. Just a bit annoyed because it looked like we got less than what we paid for. Oh well. With the beautiful weather we got we could forgive the crummy boat!

Halong Bay

We cruised through the dramatic landscape.


Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Just as we started to feel the dehydrating effects of the sun, the captain called us for lunch.

The lunch was 5-courses-meal with a can of beer accompanying the food. The beer was warm, no refrigeration at all. I really would rather have regular water than hot beer on a hot day. By 5-course-meal, they meant there are 5 different kinds of food. And we were all eating them at the same time. I was really hungry and they were delicious.

Lunch: 5 course meal

At this point, I realized the guys beside me had more than 10 thread bracelets in their left arms. I had 2, both from monks. And these guys didn’t look like temple kind of guys. So I asked, and his answer surprised me: “Vang Vieng!”

Vang Vieng is the wildest backpacker spot for Laos, if not for the whole South East Asia. The landscape is gorgeous, people said, but it’s not why Vang Vieng is famous. It’s famous for river tubing, where along the river is full with bars offering alcoholic drinks and drugs in various shape. There are also crazy swinging rope to the water, where occasionally drunk tourists fall to the rocks in shallow water and pretty much ended their life there.

“We got 1 bracelet each shot!”

So we now can count how many shots he was drinking!



There were 3 caves we supposed to visit that day, but due to the all delays, we only got the chance to see 1. I guess we saw the most attractive one. The Surprise Cave (Sung Sot Cave) was huge, with many cave decorations such as stalactites and stalagmites, illuminated with colorful spotlights. It looked quite magical inside.

Sung Sot Cave - Surprise Cave

Sung Sot Cave - Surprise Cave

The cave has some stop signs to direct the tourists inside. As big as that! And it also has many garbage bins. The intriguing part is, the garbage bins are in the shape of penguins! Why penguins? Why?!?

The cave is beautiful inside and outside. Here’s the outside view:

Halong Bay, view from Sung Sot/Surprise Cave

Halong Bay, view from Sung Sot/Surprise Cave

A toilet horror happened to me afterward. This is the first time I had to use public female toilet without separation between the stalls. I must looked so confused, a lady “invited” me to use the sit toilet beside her. Hmm… group activity? I was concerned because there was no toilet paper in my sight, and stupidly, I forgot to bring my own. I asked her, “toilet paper”? She nodded in ensuring manner, patting her gigantic purse.

As if as comfortable as having a cup of tea in a cafe, the woman dropped her pants. Her undies seemed to be prepared for such an occasion – going toilet together – embroided with colourful flowers. I’m not talking about sexy lingerie. These were thick old lady undies. With embroidery similar to the souvenir purses from the minority ethnicity. I didn’t even know this kind of undies existed!

Anyway, I read her wrong. After I did my business and looking for the toilet paper, I found out that she didn’t have any. In fact, she just stood up and left. HUH?!?!

Have I said, there’s no running water either? Okay, I’ll let your imagination fill in the rest.

Floating house in Halong Bay

Floating house in Halong Bay

The next stop was the swimming stop! Favorite activity includes jumping from the roof top to the water. With the stunning background. Until, the boat started to leak oil covering the surrounding water with a disgusting slick. Back in the boat!

Halong Bay jump


I loved seeing the floating houses drifting by.

Floating house

Floating house?

Last stop, kayaking!

Kayak in Halong Bay

Kayak in Halong Bay

Such a gorgeous place to kayak, around the floating fishing village. Just don’t fall into the water, it’s not very clean there!

Fishing village

Fishing village

Mussel farm?

Floating Mussle Farms in Halong Bay

Floating Mussel Farms

Ryan taking this picture, meaning I was rowing all by myself:

Kayaking in Halong Bay


The sunset…



On the way back, our boat bumped into floating house. Anchored and immobile, but somehow our boatman didn’t see it. It was rather silly, but not the only silliness he did.



Beer scam! He tried to collect money from us for the warm beer he distributed during the included lunch, without ever telling that the beer is not included. None of us was willing to pay. He stopped the motor and sat awhile, threatening us that the boat would not move unless we paid. It was not about the money, really. But after being in Vietnam for a while, having so many scammers tried to rip each of us off, we’d all had enough. We were ready to jump off the boat and swim to the floating village nearby.

Beer scam

Beer scam

We sat awhile, neither side willing to budge, until finally he started up and brought us back to port. No friendly goodbye, but a glowering look as we hustled off the ship.

Back in town, everybody complain to their tour agents about the 2 hours of lateness. So we all got compensation. For us, a free motorbike for tomorrow. For the rest, $3 refund.

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

 See more Halong Bay photos

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

12 Responses to “Halong Bay Photostory”

  1. Mary R
    24 May 2012 at 12:42 pm #

    I love Halong Bay! And it looks like you were there during the best time of year to get that crystal green water! When I went, it was December, so it was a little overcast. It was still dreamy, but I’d love to go back during spring or summer!
    Mary R´s last post…Philadelphia Escape

    • Dina
      24 May 2012 at 2:48 pm #

      Yes, it was a perfect day! Well, could be better if I applied some sunscreen to myself, lol.

  2. Dani | Globetrottergirls
    26 May 2012 at 11:51 am #

    Well, it seems even though the boat and the guide weren’t perfect you made the best of it and still had an amazing day :) Halong Bay looks beautiful, it’s just a shame that it is so polluted…
    Dani | Globetrottergirls´s last post…A taste of Cambodia… our first impressions

    • Dina
      3 June 2012 at 5:58 pm #

      The guide was trying so hard to squeeze some extra $$ of our pocket…

  3. Jaime
    1 June 2012 at 2:55 pm #

    Oh this is something I would love to do. I am glad you made the most of it… a few days away from everything is always nice.
    Jaime´s last post…15 months on the road & this is what’s in my backpack!

    • Dina
      3 June 2012 at 5:58 pm #

      (not away from scammers though, lol)

  4. Jeremy Branham
    1 June 2012 at 9:22 pm #

    I’ve read a number of stories about Halong Bay and I am not impressed at all. The boats don’t seem safe, numerous stories about deaths and accidents, scams, unprofessional guides, dirty water. I know the views are great but it is a tourist trap where people are looking for a place to party.

    It’s one thing to have a beautiful area. It’s another to be taken advantage of and have a crappy tour. This seems to happen more and more.
    Jeremy Branham´s last post…A taste of Paris, Lebanon, and why you should eat at McDonalds when traveling

    • Dina
      3 June 2012 at 5:54 pm #

      You are right about the tourist trap part. Going there independently like us, you really have to put your guard up against the scammers. The view is gorgeous, but we wished it to be more natural. The cave seems like “modified” to make it convenient for people coming in. The water is dirty indeed, but that’s probably because of the floating villages around. To be honest, I like a floating village a lot, because (well I think) those are real functioning villages.
      It’s more for “seeing” here than for “feeling”, if you know what I mean.
      I can’t help comparing this to El Nido in the Philippines that has similar natural phenomenon. It’s still quite pristine and natural there, you should go there instead. A big different in the island hopping tour, in El Nido, they make you plunged yourself in the sea water waist deep, right in the start of the day, just to get you inside the boat. Natural touch! And don’t be surprised if you have to crawl into a tiny hole, just to get into inside a cave. Expect to be very wet!

      • Paul Ouano
        8 February 2013 at 11:43 am #

        I agree with your comment on El Nido, Philippines. I was there last August 2012. It was absolutely stunning! I went to Halong Bay a month later, and to be honest, I wasn’t very impressed.

  5. Christy @ Technosyncratic
    3 June 2012 at 3:37 pm #

    Wow, these are gorgeous photos!! Sadly we went when the weather was freezing (much like Jack and Jill), so everything was overcast and we couldn’t get in the water. I’m really bummed we didn’t get the chance to kayak!
    Christy @ Technosyncratic´s last post…Thien Cung Grotto: the Gaudiest Limestone Cave in Vietnam

    • Dina
      3 June 2012 at 5:56 pm #

      That’s too bad! But that also means you guys didn’t get splashed by the dirty Halong water like me while kayaking :)

  6. Mumun
    7 April 2013 at 2:24 am #

    Hayayayay! What a trip hey? We’re heading there real soon and seems like we have to book a credible cruise as opposed to just wing it :P
    Mumun´s last post…Surabaya, East Java – Parklife

Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge