Situated in Northeastern Vietnam, HaLong Bay is one of the world’s great seascapes with more than 1,600 densely concentrated stone islands of various shapes and sizes rising from the emerald green waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. It is an unforgettable landscape of limestone and schist islands of various shapes and sizes, their slopes so steep and uninhabitable that most remain virtually untouched except for the waves that shape their precipitous slopes. The tiny islands are dotted with beaches, grottoes, arches and caves, also created by the wind and waves that so long ago created this magical and mystical place. And whether you choose to explore this natural wonder on the boats that ply its water or (if you’re lucky) from the sky above, it is not difficult to imagine the many myths and legends that surround this unforgettable place.
In 1994, HaLong Bay was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and today it remains one of the most popular tourist attractions in all of Vietnam. Tourists arriving in Hanoi will find themselves bombarded by tour agencies on every corner offering trips to HaLong Bay. Twice I have arrived in the city and made arrangements for visiting the bay, once on my own and, more recently, with my fiance. My first experience in HaLong Bay was disappointing, to say the least, and the second time I was determined not to make the same mistakes.
Vietnam is a wonderful country full of beautiful people and mystical landscapes, but as a tourist arriving in Hanoi, your first encounters will more likely be with the con men offering you a ride to your hotel. My first time in the country I was clueless and when the driver told me that my hotel was full (before we even arrived), I naively agreed to go to his friend’s hotel. This is a common scam so no matter what your driver says, insist to be taken to your hotel. If indeed it is full, there are plenty of others within walking distance. Then, when the tour agency located inside his friend’s hotel offered to book me on a trip to HaLong Bay the next day, like an idiot, I agreed without checking any other options. Two days later, I would find myself in the middle of HaLong Bay on a dirty boat with bad food having paid almost five times as much as everyone else. When I returned to the hotel and demanded my money back, they blamed the employee who booked my trip and fired him after he returned the difference I was owed- just another in a long list of scams that are becoming all too commonplace for travelers in Vietnam. So, like many visitors to HaLong Bay, I left the first time impressed by the beauty and disgusted with the tourism that is destroying the bay.
Five years later I returned to Vietnam with my fiance and we were both thrilled for her first visit to HaLong Bay. This time I was determined to avoid my previous mistakes and find us a comfortable and enjoyable HaLong Bay experience for a fair and reasonable price. Like everyone, we read our Lonely Planet and scoured online reviews, making lists of reliable tour operators in Hanoi. We recorded their addresses, marked them on our map, and set out into Hanoi to find the best HaLong Bay tour.
Immediately, upon arriving at our first “address”, we were hit with this grim realization. Vietnam is not subject to the same laws of commerce to which we are accustomed. So when Lonely Planet or Trip Advisor gives a Vietnamese tour agency a glowing review, every tour agency in town changes their name to the same name. On every block you will find tour agencies with identical names and most likely the one you are trying to find has long moved to a new destination and changed its name. So save yourself some time and don’t obsess over the countless tour agencies and operators. We were soon to find it mattered little anyhow.
Back on the street with a list of pointless agency names and addresses, we realized we were surrounded by countless generic tour agencies operated out of hotels, restaurants, internet cafes, alleyways and even the back of people’s homes. Basically, anybody can and will book you a trip to HaLong Bay and after visiting more than a dozen different agencies, we realized that they were all offering basically the same thing. The drill is that you walk in and sit down, they hand you a book with pictures and describe your trip, then give you the price options at the end. It didn’t take long to realize that even the pictures in the books were identical at most of the places. We copied every detail we were told and compared more than a dozen agencies. I searched for new and interesting ways to explore the bay and studied all the options available on the streets of Hanoi. In the end, I found that all the tour agencies are basically a go-between for tourists and the hundreds of boats going out each day and doing basically the same circuit.
It seems the ‘tour agencies’ in Hanoi all buy the same HaLong Bay tour book and then charge an inflated rate to place tourists on the countless daily boats. At the back of the book are a list of prices for tours of different classes which you are expected to bargain down to a reasonable rate for you both. After speaking with more than a dozen tour agencies, we were able to find a sweet woman who I felt was being very honest and forthright about the details of our trip. When we tried to purchase the cheapest tour, she admitted that the food was bad and the transportation was uncomfortable. So we chose to spend one night on the boat with air-conditioning and better food for $75 each.
Each morning transportation companies zip around Hanoi picking up passengers at the various hotels for the 4-hour trip to HaLong Bay. It is a scene, in itself, and your transport will be your first indication of how things will go. Often, the vans are late and they are usually packed, but they try to keep tourists comfortable on the first leg of the journey. There is the usual halfway stop at a shopping center and then tourists arrive at HaLong Bay’s hectic harbor scene. Countless boats, called junks, line the harbor and it is here that van-fulls of tourists are shuttled from one transportation device (bus) to another (boat). It is somewhere in this process that your fate will be determined and you will be loaded onto a boat that, most likely, will not be the same one you saw in the photograph. Nevertheless, we found that our boat perfectly matched the description provided with a comfortable air-conditioned room and decent food.
Meanwhile, on the top deck, three young, sweet Canadian girls sat sullen and angry, having been appointed to two rooms that not only lacked toilets and air-conditioning, but appeared to be currently inhabited by staff members. Clothes hung in their closets and a tattered porn magazine sat on the floor. It could have been worse, I was thinking, just when I overheard the girls say they paid $200 dollars each for their tour of HaLong Bay. They explained that they had made the arrangements through a fancy hotel and together paid almost $1000 dollars for a trip we were doing for a quarter the cost. I shared my own story of having made the same mistake and tried to suggest ways they might receive some refund.
We set out shortly thereafter along with countless other boats, so many that it seemed we might be an invading fleet. But alas, we were just some of the thousands of other tourists who had paid an indiscriminate price to be carried through a natural wonderland upon junks of varying conditions which left a wake of pollution in this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Together we followed the same route that I had five years prior into a small bay so littered with boats that our schedule had to be adjusted. One of the few activities offered on the boats is a short kayaking trip and we would be making ours early while we waited for the traffic jam in the bay to subside. Unfortunately, there is little time to explore and with our bay so crowded in boats, we did a big circle around a few of the limestone islands then returned to deck to watch inexperienced kayakers dodge large, dangerous boats in yet another Vietnamese tourist fiasco.
When at last we reached the usual stop at Surprise Cave, there were still so many people that we could hardly make it up the stairs. Inside the cave a traffic jam filled the narrow walkways and people clambered and fought to get around one another. There was a general feeling of annoyance and far too many distractions from the beauty that exists within this incredibly large cave. Even on the boat, I had sensed that HaLong Bay had grown far too overcrowded, but now packed inside the cave with both local and foreign tourists, it was evident that something needs to be done to keep the rampant tourism in check and preserve this incredible natural wonder.
When we returned to the harbor the following day, we saw the vans pulling up and unloading the day’s fresh crop of HaLong Bay tourists. We would fill the vans they left and they would board the boats we just departed, and the cycle would continue day after day. Some tourists would leave the bay and exclaim at the wonders of a natural world which can be found in so few places; others would leave angry and disgusted with an overpriced and misrepresented tour, for which no tour agency or boat operator will take responsibility and each will ultimately blame the other. In the end, it is not about providing a satisfactory tour or even preserving one of the world’s natural wonders. It is about exploiting one of Vietnam’s greatest attractions for the sole purpose of making money. Can I blame them? Of course not. But ultimately, I hope that the magical and mythical wonders of HaLong Bay will be preserved for many generations and not squandered on those of us so lucky as to experience it today.