No trip to Hanoi is complete without a trip to the magnificent Halong Bay. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994, Halong Bay is busy every day with tourists flocking to this part of Quang Ninh Province to admire the beauty of the bay. Halong literally means descending dragon and got its name from folklore. Legend has it that Halong Bay is formed when the gods send dragons to assist the Vietnamese to fight against their invaders. The family of dragons spit out jewels that turned into islands dotting the bay to form a wall against the invaders. After winning the battle, the dragons liked the peace in the area and decided to live in this bay. Halong Bay consists of 1969 islands and only half of them have been named.
Journey to Halong Bay
At the time of planning, my friend and I were not interested in staying overnight for the sunset or sunrise in the bay. I figured a day trip to Halong Bay is sufficient. We booked our trip to Halong Bay from Klook. The tour company organised a bus to pick us from our hotel at 8.30am, with our guide named Thann. Before setting off from Hanoi, Thann notified the group that we will stop by a pearl farm for 30 mins then head to a nearby marina to board our cruise around Halong Bay. Along the way, Thann gave us some background to the sights we drive by. The drive to Halong Bay took three hours, which my friend and I used to catch up some rest.
After travelling for close to 3 hours, we were woken up by Thann who explained Halong Bay used to be populated with floating villages. These floating villages’ main livelihood is pearl farming. Most of these villages have since been shifted to land thanks to new methods of pearl farming. Shortly after, we arrived at one of the pearl farms – Halong Pearl. Thann handed the group over to a guide who explained to us the different types of pearl and their grades. We were given a live demonstration by one of the staffs in Halong Pearl on the intricate methods of cultivating pearls in the oysters. The staff also showed us how they harvest these pearls while explaining the oysters once being harvested, the meat will go on to be made into delicacies and the shell into artworks. After the short demonstration, we were led to a showroom where products of pearls are being sold. This visit to Halong Pearl feels like one of those typical tourist traps that are in every guided tour trips. However, the difference is this company make it feels like something to do so that they can put a tick in the box. With merely 30 mins set aside for this visit, 10 mins of which is used for the explanation of pearl farming, and 20 mins for us to roam around. Needless to say, practically all of the people in the group did not visit the showroom. All of us were just standing outdoors, looking out at Halong Bay in the far distance and eager to sail out to the bay. After the visit to the farm, the tour bus swung by and picked us up. Thann briefed the group that we will be heading to Tuan Chau island in Halong Bay, barely 10 mins drive from Halong Pearl to board our cruise to Halong Bay.
First stop: Sung Sot (Surprise) Cave
The two-deck cruise boat wasted no time and set sail into Halong Bay as soon as the group completed boarding. The lower deck of the cruise boat resembles a restaurant where we were sited at the table, in groups of four. The upper deck, accessible via the stairs in front of the boat is an open deck for tourists to get a better view of the surroundings in Halong Bay. As the boat is pulling away from the marina, Thann told us the three places that we will be visiting around Halong Bay today. As the boat was sailing out to our first stop, Sung Sot Cave, lunch was served course by course. Lunching with the view of the numerous limestone islands in Halong Bay popping out and disappearing before our eyes is absolutely fantastic. These limestone islands stood majestically from the waters in Halong Bay like mushrooms sprouting on the ground after a rain. Some of these islands with tall pillar-like shape are untouched by humans. These numerous limestone islands were formed some 300 million years ago, and if they can talk I would imagine the interesting stories they will tell. Thann would have some stories to share on some of these islands that we are sailing past. In between courses, my friend and I would occasionally head up to the upper deck to take some pictures of the surroundings in Halong Bay. Not all the islands are the same, some islands are tall and slander which seems to make a landing on them impossible. There are islands that have gentle gradients with fields of greeneries that looks like meadows grown on them. Yet there are some that looked bare with their stony and tall cliffs with trees growing on the top of these islands. The waters in the bay are very calm, making sailing onboard through the bay relaxing.
After sailing for almost 1 hour, and having finished our dessert, Thann announced to the group that we have arrived at Bo Hon Island, where the famous Sung Sot Cave is situated. Sung Sot Cave is one of the largest cave in Halong Bay. Thann cautioned that the way to the cave involves a 100 steps climb to the entrance, but we will be rewarded with great views of this part of Halong Bay and the magnificent cave structure. For me, I just want to get away from this Vietnamese summer heat. The stairs case towards Sung Sot Cave is rather narrow, allowing only one person to climb at a time. How right is Thann, as we reached the mid-point of the climb, a viewpoint allows us to see this part of the bay. From this viewpoint, a handful of limestone islands draped with greeneries sitting in the emerald waters coupled with the clear blue sky, the view is stunning.
We only stayed at the viewpoint momentarily and continued our climb to the entrance of the cave. It did not take us long to reach the entrance of the cave, the road narrows and we even have to bend at some parts as we go further into the cave. The further we go into Sung Sot Cave, the cave seems to get bigger and bigger. It is difficult to imagine how a small hole in the mountains can grow to such a massive size. The ceiling of the cave is decorated with stalactites like chandeliers. There is a designated one-way path for us to walk in Sung Sot Cave. Not far from the entrance in Sung Sot Cave, Thann gathered our group and brought our attention to a carving on one of the stones in the cave. This is one of those “I have been here” imprint left by visitors to the cave, except that this engraving is left by the French who discovered this cave in 1901. As we walked in the cave, Thann pointed out some rock formations that the locals resemble things they are familiar with in their daily lives. A 15 mins walk inside Sung Sot Cave we came across a cannon, a tortoise (which Thann mentioned we will get good luck by touching its head and I did win the lottery that night after touching the head of the tortoise. Coincidence much?) Romeo and Juliet, a dinosaur head, a giant snakehead amongst other things. At the exit of the cave, we were rewarded with another stunning view of Halong Bay before we descend the stairways towards the pier and boarded our boat to the next stop.
Next Stop: “Bamboo” Boat Ride to Luon Cave and Lake
The next stop wasn’t far from Sung Sot Cave. It took us 10 mins to sail from Sung Sot Cave to a floating platform where we had the option of either kayaking or take a so-called “Bamboo” boat. We did not want to get wet, hence my friend and I opted for the “Bamboo” boat ride. Our cruise boat came alongside a floating platform which faces a huge limestone cliff that has vegetations grown only towards the top of the island. This is part of Bo Hon Island. After disembarking at the floating platform, we headed to grab a life vest and headed for the “Bamboo” boat ride. The so-called “Bamboo” boat is not made of bamboo, rather it is made of metal capable of carrying up to 12 passengers. The boat is manually paddled by a staff member. I guess the former incarnation of this boat ride was made of bamboo and the tour operators might have figured replacing it with the metal boat not only saves maintenance cost, but it is also safer for passengers. They did retain the manual paddling of the boat which might be the only link between now and then.
The “Bamboo” boat was quickly filled up with passengers from our cruise. We were lucky to snag the front row seats on the boat as these seats gave us great views of the surroundings and are also best for photo taking. The paddler started to paddler the boat towards the huge cliff in front of us. Below the cliff, there is an opening roughly around 2m or so, sufficient for the paddler to do his job standing up. This opening is Luon Cave. It is an amazing feeling passing through the underside of the cliff that stood like a pillar holding up the sky. In Luon Cave, we can see the formation of limestones that seem to drip into the emerald waters below. The limestone formations in Luon Cave is not as impressive as that we saw in Sung Sot Cave. In Luon Cave, we were able to see limestone that stood the erosions throughout the millions of years since these karsts were formed. At some parts, it seems that a thin piece of limestone is holding up the entire cliff. I can’t help but wonder what will happen if the limestones give way while we were paddling under the cave.
Luon Cave is not a huge cave. It took the paddler 5 mins to paddle to the other side of the cave. At the end of the cave tunnel, the scenery opens up to a body of water. This is the Luon Lake. Luon Lake is surrounded by a range of limestone mountains on this part of the island and it seems the only way to gain access to this lake is through Luon Cave. Here the waters are calmer and there is a chance that we might see some monkeys which lived on this park of Bo Hon Island. But the monkeys do not seem to be at home at the time we visited. The air in Luon Lake is still with no wind, our paddler was wise to paddle the boat to a shady area, away from the hot summer sun. Here we are, sitting in the boat and not making headway enjoying what would otherwise be a peaceful scenery not for the singing of two boats filled with Chinese tourists. Luckily they left moments after our arrival, thus returning the peace to this area. The tranquillity coupled with the dangerous rocky mountain ranges, each covered with thick vegetation, making this spot a very relaxing spot. We enjoy watching the kayakers on their kayaks, some struggling to keep their kayak on a straight course, others having water warfare with their fellow kayakers. We stayed here for another 10 mins before our paddler made a U-turn and paddled the boat back to the floating platform through Luon Cave.
Final Stop: Ti Top Island
We boarded our cruise boat once again and sailed pass the islands of Halong Bay for another 20 mins to our next destination – Ti Top Island. Thann came on his portable PA system and informed the group that our next and final stop of this day trip around Halong Bay would be Ti Top Island. We were given 30 mins on the island to either swim on the beach or to climb up to the top of the island. My friend and I looked at each other and exclaimed: “we will do the climb”. As we approached Ti Top Island, we saw the number of people swimming in the small beach of Ti Top Island, my friend and I was glad that we took the option of climbing to the top of the island. After landing on Ti Top Island, we headed to the stairs for the climb to the top of the island, passing the small beach for those who want to swim in the sea. The beach is very small and was overcrowded with visitors. There is barely any space for anyone do to decent swim or to relax by the beach.
The climb took us 15 mins to reach the top of the island. Halfway up the long and narrow stairs to the top of the island, we came across a viewpoint which offered yet another stunning view of Halong Bay. Here we saw Islands surrounding the waters around Ti Top Island with dozens of cruise boats anchoring off the island. After taking some pictures, we headed up to the top of the island. After another 7 mins climb, we reached the top of Ti Top Island. A pavilion sits with a commanding view of the view of Halong Bay at the top of the hill. There is a small crowd at the pavilion. From the pavilion, we were able to get a stunning 360° view of Halong Bay. The view here is breathtaking! If not for the number of people up here, the pavilion can be a perfect spot to enjoy the tranquil in Halong Bay. There are two views at the pavilion. On the more crowded side, numerous limestone islands resting in the calm emerald waters of Halong Bay nearer to Ti Top Island can be seen. One can even see the islands that spread in Halong Bay over the horizon. The view here is perfect for photo taking. I find the other view at the pavilion to be less scenic perhaps partly due to vegetation next to the pavilion and partly due to the bright sun. Nonetheless, this side of the pavilion provides a great spot for a sunset viewing of Halong Bay.
After spending a good 5 mins at the pavilion, it is time for us to descend from the hilltop and get to the rendezvous point with the rest of the group. We boarded the boat as soon as Thann has accounted for all the people in the group. The cruise boat sailed back to the marina once everyone has boarded. On the way back, we sailed past the islands that we saw on our way out. At this point, the scenery felt a little repetitive. It took us another 45 mins to reach the marina.
Back to Hanoi
We were ferried back to Hanoi on the 3-hour bus ride after disembarking from the cruise boat. The air conditioner on the bus is a huge relief to the hot weather. As we would reach Hanoi at around 8 or 9pm, we requested Thann to drop us at the walking street so that we can grab dinner before heading back to the hotel to rest. We alighted near the walking street and made our way to one of the restaurants on the north of Hoan Kiem Lake. We spotted this restaurant the night before. Cau Go restaurant sits on top of the building that was able to provide us with a great view of the entire area at night. Tonight there seems to be some outdoor concert going on. The street is crowded with people, especially near to the stage where the concert is held. After dinner, we headed to the Trang Tien Plaza for a short walk. Trang Tien Plaza mainly sells branded goods such as LV, Gucci to name a few. There did not seem to be people shopping in these shops, the plaza is still crowded with shoppers, who like us, were here for the air conditioning. We headed back to the hotel to rest for the night. After all, we still have an early day for our trip to Tam Coc the next day.