A Pedacito of Vietnam's Hạ Long Bay
On the last leg of a Southeast Asia trip in December of 2018, I stopped in Hanoi, Vietnam. I didn't know anything about Vietnam before visiting (except that I loved the food!!!) so I did a couple of quick Google searches to help make sure I could actually go and what to expect. We take for granted sometimes that our United States citizenship gets us into so many countries without needing a tourist visa in advance...
Vietnam is not one of those places and you must get a visa before being let into the country. I recommend that you do what I did and email the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, D.C. before your visit and they will hopefully hook you up as they did for me.
Someone was holding a sign with my name and had my travel docs mostly ready. If you don't opt for this, prepare to bring passport photos with you (it costs to take them there) and wait in very long lines.
I'll share more about my time in Hanoi in another post, but I am eager to share with you my experience with taking an overnight cruise in nearby Ha Long Bay. I was a bit unsure where I would specifically go in Vietnam on my first visit; I was torn between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
It came recommended to me by many that I should do an overnight cruise if I decided to go to Hanoi, which pretty much helped me settle in Hanoi. I'm sure I'll get a chance to see more of Vietnam on another occasion.
There are lots, and I mean LOTS, of options for overnight cruises in Ha Long Bay. If you've been reading the blog, or if you know me personally, you know I like to strike a balance between value and comfort. I found a relatively inexpensive cruise that included roundtrip transportation from my hotel in Hanoi. If you are looking for a super budget or higher-end, there are certainly options for you as well, so don't let this destination slip past.
I was picked up from my hotel, the Golden Lotus Boutique Hotel, in the morning in a small van. There is actually a lot more to the story about how I finally made it onto the van, but that's a better story over some drinks. The drive should have been pleasant but there was literally a protest on the way that closed one of the roads on the route.
If I recall correctly, the protest was related to the government wanting to add a toll to the road we were on... Once we arrived at the small dock, we were joined by another van (maybe it was a couple of vans...) to board our cruise. Now, I've been on lots of cruises, but this was not like that. This was a simple floating hotel that provided all of the necessities without a lot of the fluff.
I ended up with a room intended to be shared, so I had to pay a little extra, but that is a typical consequence of a solo traveler. This cruise included all of the food and coffee, tea, juices, etc., but not alcohol - but when has that ever stopped me?! As soon as I could I grabbed a local brew. The crew very quickly prepared us a nice lunch to enjoy as we set off into the misty Ha Long Bay.
The bay was absolutely gorgeous! Although lots of the photos I saw online typically show a clear sunny sky, there was something quite intriguing about a grey mist kinda hanging above the waterline - it added more drama as the peaks of the rock formations appeared.
I had one of those moments I talk a lot about, where you just feel so humbled and so small in comparison to the world, it was beautiful. One of my favorite parts of being on a boat is the wind that hits you as it passes mostly unobstructed over the water... It was a windy day on the bay and it just added to the experience for me.
Day one included a trip to an amazing cave that is so cavernous it appears to defy gravity. I was very excited to get to our first stop. Sung Sot literally translates to Surprise Cave because as you venture further into the cave you see more voluminous spaces.
This place was truly stunning and one you cannot miss if you are in the area. Admission to this wonderful cave system appears to be included on many of the cruises here (it certainly was on mine).
After enjoying the Surprise Cave, we continued on our cruise making another stop on one of the only islands in the area, Hòn Ti Tốp. Most of the rock formations don't have a beach, so this one was special in that we could get off the boat and walk around. It included a really really really long staircase that challenged most people; although I did see a couple of grandmas make the trek too.
The view from the top of the small mountain was beautiful. You can see many vessels in the bay surrounded by the famous rock formations and the beach below where a few locals decided to play a round of soccer.
That evening we spent time getting to know one another over a beautiful meal that the cruise cook prepared for us followed by many drinks. I had some super funny videos of us taking shots and dancing and singing, but my phone died... Maybe that was for the best, haha.
This is always one of my favorite parts about traveling - getting to know people. I met a couple from Australia (India and Lozza), a couple from Germany (Paul and Julia), a guy from Taiwan (Jacky), one from Argentina, a girl from Singapore, and a few others. It's always fun to learn about others, why they are traveling, where they've been, etcetera.
Regardless of where you go in the world, you meet others who are inspired by traveling and have the same takeaway as you. The takeaway that I always conclude is that we are all the same. We all want the same things out of life and traveling provides a way to acknowledge that and help make you a better human.
After crashing into my bed that night, I woke up needing a serious cup of coffee. It was a chilly morning and it was still foggy. We had a couple of activities planned for the day and I was ready to see more of the bay. The first stop was to an oyster farm where they harvest pearls.