Arriving in a new country is always exciting. Even the airport and its advertisements can give you a sense of what’s to come in this new country. I always look out for a couple of things; firstly the national beer, and secondly, what the country is famous for. Arriving in Hanoi airport, you are bombarded with the same images of the same place. Vietnam’s jewel in its crown, Halong Bay.halong baySometimes when researching a destination, you can read too much about it. Much like when we were organising our Happy Gringo cruise in the Galapagos islands, we’d spent a lot of time looking at Halong Bay to work out the best option for us, and heard many contrasting opinions before we arrived, many negative. ‘It’s packed full of tourists’, ‘you can’t move for boats’, ‘there a big party boats of loud music and boozing people’. It didn’t fill us with much confidence, and coupled with stories of rat infested, over packed ships, we approached our trip with trepidation.

All of this however, doesn’t resonate with us at all. We had a wonderful time on Halong Bay and thought it was incredible, but as with our cruise to Antarctica, it seems you get what you pay for at Halong Bay.halong bayHalong Bay Cruises

There are a few options for Halong Bay, but most will choose either the one night or two night option. If you pick a cheap one night option, you get a fleeting glimpse of the magnificent limestone karsts, as you battle it out with hundreds of other one nighters before leaving the next morning, your view tainted by the whole episode. A one night option will set sail at lunchtime, with a few hours sailing amongst other boats before sunset. The next morning you sail straight back to the port and disembark late in the morning. Not at all what we wanted, and with the benefit of having more time on our trip, we opted for the two night option.

We made a rule that for some of the popular, famous attractions (read Machu Picchu, Halong Bay, Angkor Wat) we would break the budget to do them properly, and scrimp and save elsewhere on the trip – we didn’t want to be disappointed by Halong Bay. So we booked a luxury two night cruise with Indochina Junk tours, with a beautiful boat, double room, banquets for breakfast, lunch and dinner and a small group of equally minded people.

The route took us on an alternative journey through the bay, separate from all the other boats – on our first day after leaving port we didn’t see another boat until we docked for the evening.halong bayIt’s impossible for us to explain the vast bay in words, so we’re going to let the photos do the talking. Needless to say, we were in awe of the piercing limestones karsts as they rose majestically out of the bay.halong bayHalong Bay sunsetDinner on our second night was a magical experience.  We were taken on a small boat to the bottom of one of the karsts, where we ascended a stairway carved into the rock.  Halfway up we entered a small opening in the wall, which opened up to reveal our dining venue for the evening! Wow. It made a welcome change from our candlelight caving experience in Guatemala!halong bayAfter a ten course BBQ banquet, our cave experience was over and we took a small boat back to our boat.  We grabbed a couple of drinks and headed up to the top deck to watch the stars as hundreds of limestone karsts passed us in the darkness.  It was so quiet, and we felt very lucky to be experiencing the bay as we imagined it.

The following day (after the usual banquet of food) we visited a floating village where the community goes about its daily lives on the bay.  It was a serene and tranquil place, with whole communities and their associated services (shops, schools) all floating alongside them.halong bayhalong bayAfter all of the delicious food we’d eaten, we were keen for a bit of exercise!  So we took a kayak out onto the bay and got up close and personal with the limestone karsts, giving us an even better view of the bay.halong bayAnd so as quickly as it had arrived, it was time for us to leave the bay and head back to Hanoi. Halong Bay is a beautiful place, and we feel lucky to have experienced it at its best.  The boat, its crew, the route and the weather all combined to give us a unique view of one of the worlds most incredible sites. We would highly recommend it to anyone considering visiting Vietnam!

Looking for more Vietnam inspiration? Click here. Or considering exploring the similarly beautiful limestone karsts of El Nido in the Philippines? Check out our experience and tips on El Nido Tours here.