After the more than 3 hr. van ride from Hanoi Old Quarter (we stayed at a deceivingly cramped but comfortable hotel –Hanoi Guest House– along Mã Mây Road)- my initial impression of the place was, “here we go again, just another tourist-packed place hyped-up by all those travel magazines.”
The van ride ended at a bland, squat, white-washed terminal building (Tuan Chau International Marina) whose design seemed a bit out of place and where our guide instructed us to wait until we were handed out 2 tickets.
It was not until we went past the visitors’ building, saw the open waters as we followed the throng of tourists form a queue for their boat rides, that my biased, unimpressive opinion about the whole trip slowly gave way to both astonishment and awe.
For US$72 or less (depends on what tour company you booked with) that included stops for lunch (not free) & some shopping along the way as well as the included simple lunch during the boat ride in the bay, it was an okay deal as you’re visiting a UNESCO world heritage spot.
Whether you’re part of a big group or hired a special boat all for yourself, Halong Bay is sure to offer that special connection with nature and reinforce the fact that traveling is the best form of education. One’s romantic notion of a place as seen on those glossy magazines and books will now depend on your own perception while you’re actually there —you can now paint your own picture.
Our Halong tour had the option to either explore some of the islands in detail either by a smaller boat (max of 4-5 persons) or by kayak (max of 2). It also included a longish stop at an island where you’ll hike up a steep bluff to explore the caves — this alone really sweetened the deal.
If would be a good idea to spend a night or two -depends on your budget- and explore the other areas of the bay where you can actually walk along its shores and take a swim while having a nice view of everything.
In the nearby areas surrounding where most of the tourist buses parked, we just did not see activities like swimming or any other water sports.
At the end of the day, on that return trip back to your hotel, you’ll have that smile on your face that you had finally visited that “famous, picturesque place in Vietnam.”