There's a lot of debate over whether Halong Bay is a beautiful wonder of the world, or if it has become an overrun tourist trap where party boats and garbage litter the bay. The answer is not a simple one.
Before you book a trip, here are some things to consider.
The unique beauty of the bay, with its towering limestone karsts, make this a natural wonder worthy of a UNESCO World Heritage listing.
There are more than 1,600 islets in the bay, their limestone worn down by 500 million years of tropical downpours, and topped by thick jungle growth. Some of the islands are hollow, and visitors can take guided tours inside to explore majestic caves. Some of the larger islands even have their own lakes.
At the center of the bay there are 775 formations in an area of just 127mi² (330km²) – and this is where travelers onboard a traditional Vietnamese junk boat can explore the bay's islands, caves, and floating villages.
On the downside, there is now a well-worn path that leads from the hostels of Hanoi straight to Halong Bay.
What were once quintessential, sleepy fishing villages are now transport hubs for hundreds of vessels that ply the waters. The Irish backpacker you met at Siem Reap is likely in the queue to buy a ticket, and the last free berth has just been sold to a honeymoon couple from Pittsburgh.
Regulation and safety haven't always kept pace with the popularity of the destination and the rapid expansion of services to meet demand. So, should you go? Or has it been loved to death?
Halong Bay is a magnet for tourists from all over the world. However, some things are popular for a reason, and Halong Bay is definitely one of them. No one can deny the unique beauty of the bay, and depending on which cruise you choose, it is possible to have a relaxing and memorable experience that isn't ruined by a bucket-load of tourists.
While I am often in favor of independent travel over organized tours, Halong Bay is one of those places that cannot be experienced without booking some kind of group tour. (Unless you have your own sailboat, that is!) It's important to know that the tour you choose will greatly affect the type of experience that you have – so choose wisely. If you don't want to end up singing karaoke at 4am on a boat decked out with neon lights and a disco ball, then be sure to do your research.
Budget backpackers may consider getting themselves to the island of Cat Ba from Hanoi (via bus and ferry), and booking a day tour of Lan Ha Bay and Halong Bay from there. The tours that can be booked from Cat Ba Island can be much cheaper, sometimes even 1/10 of the price! Plus, you get the added bonus of getting to spend more time on Cat Ba Island itself, where there is a lot to explore. You can go hiking in Cat Ba National Park, visit the abandoned Hospital Cave, or relax on one of Cat Ba's lovely beaches. A motorbike is a great way to get around the island. Tours can be booked from travel agencies or backpacker hostels, and start at around US $20 per day.
Lan Ha is a neighboring bay to Halong that's equally as stunning, but for some reason receives a fraction of the crowds, You can book a two or three day tour to Lan Ha Bay from Hanoi (around US $300 for a luxury tour), or you can arrange a cheaper day tour from Cat Ba Island. We recommend booking a two or three night tour where you spend one night on the boat in the middle of Lan Ha Bay, and one night in a homestay on one of the small beautiful islands in the bay.
As well as being less crowded than Halong Bay, Lan Ha Bay is less polluted, as fewer tourist boats make it here. This means that you have a better chance of spotting wildlife – birds and mammals such as the highly endangered Cat Ba langur that is native to this area. There are also loads of adventure activities to do in Lan Ha Bay, from kayaking into caves and even rock climbing and hiking on some of the islands located in Lan Ha Bay. (Cat Ba Island itself is actually located in Lan Ha Bay.)
Some travelers have reported seeing a lot of trash around Halong Bay, or felt that some tour operators didn't seem concerned about waste or conservation. There's some truth to that.
Unfortunately, we have heard reports from members of the South East Asia Backpacker Community of operators dumping waste off the boats into Halong Bay. Especially by the harbor, it's possible to see a lot of trash in the water, a sight that is sadly common throughout Vietnam. However, as you get out into the bay (and in particular, Lan Ha Bay), the waters become cleaner and are safe for swimming.
While many tour operators claim to be eco-friendly and have concerns for the environment, it's important to do your research. We advise that you ask the tour operator several important questions before booking their tour in Halong Bay. What environmental practices do they have in place on board? What do they do with the plastic on board? Do they recycle? etc. A good tour company who cares about the local area will be more than happy to answer your questions.
A great way to travel Vietnam is by train. The trains are comfortable and clean, and you can watch the landscape of Vietnam change out of the window. The train network runs all the way from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. If you prefer to travel by night and save money on accommodation, the sleeper trains are actually very comfortable and you can get a good night's sleep while covering a great distance. (We do not recommend taking night buses in Vietnam as there have been many accidents caused by drivers that are overtired.)
The jumping-off point for Halong Bay is Hanoi. From the capital, you can get a bus three hours to Hai Phong Harbor and then set sail to Halong Bay from there. Most tour operators include transport to and from Hanoi in the price of their trip.
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