A (Group) Tour of Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was our second destination in Vietnam. The bay is full of thousands of picturesque tiny limestone islands that abruptly pop out of the ocean. The area is strange and otherworldly. So much so that local legend says a dragon spit jade bullets into the ocean, which sprouted these islands in front of enemy ships. Seems logical enough, right?

 Unwordly spectacularness. And yes, those are made up words. 

Unwordly spectacularness. And yes, those are made up words. 

When researching how best to explore the bay, we found only one way possible—by overnight cruise. We booked a private room with a balcony on a luxury boat and accepted the fact that the next two days might be rather touristy. And they were, but they were also two beautiful and relaxing days.

The thing about group tour experiences is that they tend to create a barrier between the tourists and the place they are visiting. Instead of experiencing the lifestyle, people, and culture the group is only really allowed to observe. But sometimes this barrier is necessary for preservation, as was the case with (the rightfully protected) Ha Long Bay. Regulations govern everything about these tours including which islands tourists can hike on, which floating village can be visited, and even that all the tourist boats on the bay must be painted white.

 Our properly painted boat. 

Our properly painted boat. 

While we normally try to avoid overly-structured tours like this, in retrospect, it turned out to be a much-needed break from decision making. It felt good to be served a set menu, told what time to wake up, and given a schedule of activities (including rest times) for two days, especially after our difficult day in Hanoi

Our schedule was simple. After boarding and stowing our luggage in our cabin, day one included a lunch of seafood, a guided kayak trip through one of the famous floating villages, then a few hours of rest, and seabass for dinner. Day two started with coffee and pastries, an early morning walk on one of the beautiful islands in the bay, and then finished with a long delicious brunch complete with an omelet station and three types of cake. Apparently, food is always a big deal on a cruise, no matter the country.

 I apologize for Andrew's mess. But look at that view!

I apologize for Andrew's mess. But look at that view!

Between meals and excursions, we spent most of our free hours lounging on our private balcony watching the tiny limestone islands of Ha Long slowly pass by. We even splurged on a bottle of wine to enjoy while watching the sunset one night.

Exciting stories rarely come from these types of tours but they certainly allow for a relaxing experience. And some decent photos.