Halong Bay - a victim of its own success?

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Asia » Vietnam » Red River Delta » Hai Phong
December 19th 2016
Published: March 12th 2017
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On the road to Halong Bay - so many scooters.On the road to Halong Bay - so many scooters.On the road to Halong Bay - so many scooters.

One of the few times we saw rain
Day 3 Halong Bay

We woke early to pack and eat breakfast at the hotel prior to an early pick-up for the 4 hour drive to Halong Bay for our two day / one night cruise.

I wish I could say the drive to Halong was uneventful, but it wasn’t. We had the driver from hell… he spoke very little English, which in normal circumstances would have been OK, but this wasn’t a normal drive. Early on it was easy to see this guy was suffering from a hard night of drinking and partying, the way he kept guzzling bottles of water, stretching his arms and propping his head and eyes up were comical – if it was not for the fact that I was in the van with this guy. The situation was further complicated by the local road rules of should I say lack of road rules… bikes, cars, trucks, busses all showed no apparent concern for life or limb as they would pass slower vehicles with oncoming traffic coming at speed. It was amazing to see how the drivers could turn a rutted two lane road into a six lane freeway. The driver 3.5 hours in had enough he pulled over and disappeared into a doorway behind a petrol stations… when he came out he was buzzing – I’m not sure what he took, but it sure worked fast in waking him up J

The drive actually wasn’t really all that bad, we saw lots of great things and met some cool people on the drive – Nicky and Lily (a mother/daughter duo from the UK). For me the most amazing thing was that for nearly three of the four hours there was a nonstop row of shops/homes on at least one side of the road; and the shops all seemed to sell the same things (I couldn’t make sense of how anyone could compete and make money in this saturated market).

We arrived in Halong Bay safely to find a mix of tourist accommodations and attractions at various stages of operation – a number of buildings slowly being built up by two/three man teams, modern operating hotels, hotels and amusement parks that had already passed there 4 or 5 years of life/popularity and were closed – leaving the location feeling a weird mix of boom/bust and growth/decline.

Within the harbor there were
tour bus tourist trap....tour bus tourist trap....tour bus tourist trap....

30 minute forced shopping stop.
at least a hundred small cruise ships (10 to 40 guests per boat) of varying quality lined up along the waterfront. Our boat was one of the better looking – though there were a few that appeared to be very exclusive and expensive.

After waiting for an hour or so we boarded the boat and found our cabin – room 205 with a private deck and a complimentary bottle of Vietnamese wine… yep you heard me correct Vietnamese wine (it was not very nice and tasted of a corked merlot).

With all on board we set off for the hour or so cruise to get to the main set of limestone crasts/islands. It was amazing the number of boats that were all heading out to the same location.

Once we anchored we took a smaller boat to our first sight – a cave with monkeys (where we saw a massive jelly fish (perhaps 1.5m across). Our next sight was an island with 425 steep steps up to the top of the island – a hot and humid hike.

Back on the boat we had a cooking class, an evening dinner of local food and nonstop happy hour (buy one get one drink free).

Thank goodness we brought our medical bag of magical pills as I woke up in the night wishing that the contents of my stomach were anywhere but inside my stomach. An hour after taking the pills I was out of the danger zone, but I did feel out of it for the next few days.

Day 4 Halong Bay:

Julia went up to the upper deck for Tai Chi at 6:15am; while I rested on the cabin deck’s chair and read a book while trying to take in the scenery through the cloudy haze that hung over the bay. We discovered while looking over the edge of the boat that at least some of the cause of garbage floating on the water was from our cruise ship and the other ships as we saw it discharge the tanks into the bay – was that a tooth bush? Toilet paper? Plastic bag? Yep, yep, yep L

After breakfast we went for a hike in the Cave of Secrets – where I spent the whole time feeling clammy and sweaty (not from the humidity).

Back on the boat we were served at early lunch (10:30am or so) as we headed back to the cruise terminal where a 4 hour ride back to Hanoi awaited us. Fortunately, the drive back was in a much more spacious bus and the driver and co-driver were very friendly and competent.

My feedback on Halong was that I expected a lot, but left feeling disappointed. In hindsight I think I would have enjoyed it a bit more had the weather been better (blue sky/sun) and I hadn’t been sick; but I have to think the real cause of my disappointment was the overcrowding with cruise ships as far as the eye could see and the amount of waste/garbage that was in the water. Unfortunately, Halong Bay is a victim of its own beauty and success and it may now be ruined forever – or at least until they can get a better handle on the management of tourist access to the area and implement better environmental controls .

Additional photos below
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13th March 2017

Thanks for your honesty!
Thank you for an insightful and honest account of your experience here. Halong Bay has been on my travel list for quite some time, and after reading what you wrote I am rethinking it! Not that I don't think it isn't an incredible place, but most of the things you mentioned are things that would have bothered me too. Overcrowding, trash, a little bit of sickness... I wish it had been a tad better for ya'll! Wishing you safe and happy future travels ~Jennifer
14th March 2017

Halong Bay
I heard that there are a few cruises that have access further out into the next bay north of Halong, you may find this less spoiled. If you do go to Halong i would recommend only doing one night rather than the optional two. Happy Travels.

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