Ha Long Bay Highs and Lows
The undeniable beauty of Ha Long Bay was almost spoilt by the sad truth of its mismanagement.
hot take: Undoubtedly a natural wonder with bucket list potential, the real-life journey to see it left us disappointed. (3.0 stars)
pro tip: Lower your expectations so you can appreciate the experience for what it is, instead of what you wish it could be.
Meeting a legend often leaves you walking away disappointed (example: seeing the Mona Lisa). As the biggest ‘MUST SEE’ of our Vietnam travels, it is no exaggeration to say that we had enormous expectations about Ha Long Bay. We knew that Ha Long Bay would be the most expensive thing we did in Vietnam (by a huge margin), but we were excited to see a UNESCO World Heritage site that we thought would remind us of the islands of Thailand…only better.
With these grand illusions, we booked a 2 day/1 night cruise of the bay aboard the Rosa Boutique Cruise. A small, mid-range boat (“the top rated 3.5 star boat in Ha Long Bay”) that cost us $264.59 (which was all inclusive (aside for drinks) and included transportation to/from downtown Hanoi), the Rosa Boutique Cruise attracted mostly Westerners with a healthy mix of singles, couples, and families in the group of 20 people that set sail with us. (note: some of the passengers had booked the 3 day/2 night cruise were mixed with us and had the same experience twice albeit with a different day trip the second day…our advice is to just book the 1 night)
1. Natural Splendor
Ha Long Bay really is a natural masterpiece. The sheer vertical islands of limestone topped with dense green foliage seem sprouted out of the water. In the morning especially, the effect of the smoke rising off the water gives these looming monoliths an entirely magical quality. Being on a kayak in the Bay was especially delightful as we were able to paddle off to a quiet corner and soak in the ambiance. As it was overcast the entire time we were there, our pictures do not do justice to the beauty or the mystical patina of the place.
2. Hidden Treasures
Hidden in one of the larger islands is a massive series of caves called the Sung Sot Caves. These caves are amongst some of the more impressive natural caves that we have seen (despite the steady snake of tourists through the site).
3. Instructive Lessons
For all their flaws, the tours of Ha Long Bay certainly leave visitors with a deeper understanding of the world around them. Part of most tours includes a stop at a working pearl farm (it was quite cool to watch pearl starters being inserted) as well as a chance to fish for squid (which was certainly not something we grew up fishing for). While not an intended lesson, seeing the effects of manmade pollutants (especially single use plastics) on a natural wonder was also an instructive reinforcement of our planet’s need to reduce, reuse, and recycle.
1. Crowds and Pollution
With something like 800+ boats licensed to operate in Ha Long Bay, the experience of nature was tortured by constant crowds. Our boat was never more than a football field length away from another one (and sometimes MUCH closer than that) as all the boats basically take the same path to see the same highlights. While the compliment about our boat itself was nice and small, everything around us was chaos (which dramatically diminished the ‘wow’ factor of being in a natural wonder). Crowds, of course, lead to pollution (of which the diesel slicks and ubiquitous plastic refuse were the most disappointing). Even in the caves, lax protections and many, many hands have led to significant degradation of the natural sparkle of the stalagmites.
2. Communist Touring
As regular readers will know, we are not usually fans of long, overnight tours because we like to control our own schedules and Kelly trongly dislikes being told what to do with her free time. (So we were never really going to be ideal candidates for the tightly choreographed itineraries that virtually all these trips feature). Secondly, open questioning and/or dissent are not behaviors with a long history of tolerance in Communist Vietnam (especially in the North of the country which tends to be more ideological about most matters). When two ideological extremes collide (in this case freedom and compliance), a whole experience can be negatively colored. Without going through a play by play of the tour, the example that best stands out is the tour guide chaperone banging on our door at 7:00a and yelling “You eat breakfast now!” twice before marching off to harass other visitors.
3. Many Miscues
Despite the seemingly tight controls, we quickly realized that the tour was a series of ‘hurry up, then wait’ episodes where long stretches of relative boredom were punctuated by seemingly urgent requirements to quickly perform actions without much instruction (and we were told by other travelers that this was even worse on the cheaper boats). From the lunacy of the life preserver enforcement to the time spent waiting for the next activity to begin, the tour was more an experience in queuing than of nature. To top it all off, we were even left at the harbor by our tour after Kelly asked permission to go use the restroom (we ended up scoring an alternative ride back to Hanoi after many "Engrish" phone calls and much hand gesturing).
While it is hard to call our time in Ha Long Bay a total success, it is certainly something that we will remember for a long time. Since our year abroad is about forming lasting memories, we guess that Ha Long Bay scores pretty high…we’re just a bit disappointed with the time, effort, and money it took to make it happen, (unlike say Macchu Pichu or the Great Wall of China where we have zero regrets). We do hope that the government improves and regulates the trash that is dumped in the bay to better preserve the natural beauty for future generations and to continue to simulate the site as a tourist destination.