Before I ventured out into the world as a full-fledged backpacker, there’s always been one nation that has always illuded me. Ever since I was a teenager, there was one country that has found itself placed firmly at number 1 on my must-see list – Vietnam.
Now that where I currently reside – Taiwan – had FINALLY relaxed its COVID regulations, it gave me a golden opportunity to travel to some of the nearby countries. So where better to start than my dream destination? So, let’s get started.
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Table of Contents
A Bit of Backstory
My discovery of Vietnam began the same way as any other red-blooded Western boy – through Vietnam War movies. Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now and We Were Soldiers all played a part in my early obsession. Though naturally the horrific murdering and napalm strikes weren’t really the driving force. It was the stunning landscapes, the chaotic energy of the streets, and that all-important spine-tingling soundtrack that has become synonymous with the war itself (shoutout Hendrix and the Stones).
From when I first began daydreaming of backpacking, Vietnam was at the tippy top of the list. Though sadly, each time I found myself on the road, something got in the way of that all-important visit.
Back in late 2019, when I began my next “round-the-world” trip, I found myself in Taiwan with a one-way ticket booked to Ho Chi Minh. However, nobody would predict that a fucking worldwide pandemic will bring the entire world to a close. That combined with a wonderful new relationship led me to set up a new life in Taiwan with travelling put on hiatus.
That ticket always haunted me. I was so close, yet so far. I could almost smell the aromatic pho teasing me from across the ocean. Now, almost 3 years later, it was time to make my dreams finally come true.
A Shaky Start
There’s an old curse which always seems to plague my travels. Usually, the places I look forward to visiting the most turn out to be the biggest disappointments. That happened with Bali, Okinawa and Jeju Island. Though they were all glorious in their own way, they just didn’t live up to my expectations. On our first day in Hanoi, it looked like it would follow the same fate.
Having arrived late, we dropped our bags in the homestay and headed out into the city to grab some food. What do we see? Tourists…many many tourists. It’s always been a personal pet peeve of mine that never seems to relent. I don’t want to see other tourists; I would prefer to feel as if I had this extraordinary experience to myself.
Alas, we had found ourselves right in the heart of Beer Street during the World Cup Third Place Play-off, so running into crowds full of energized, alcohol-fuelled travellers was inevitable.
Next, we immediately got scammed, like the dumb pair of tourists we were. We were tired, hungry, and just needed something quick to eat. Having passed a bunch of roadside setups with plastic furniture, we bit the bullet and sat down in whichever one was closest.
Predictably, it was a place which served pho, Vietnam’s iconic national dish. The problem was…how much does something like that cost? We had just been introduced to the mind-bending large figures of the Vietnamese Dong, which usually runs into the hundreds of thousands. So, when we were told 2 bowls of pho cost 200,000 dong…we didn’t know what kind of deal that was. The site of two locals laughing behind us as we paid the old woman confirmed that we made a terrible mistake.
Yet Another Bumpy Start
Still pissed about falling for a rookie scam on the first attempt, we woke up to even worse news. I spent about two months researching the best Halong Bay cruise. It was a tricky decision! We had to consider the quality of the ship, the sites it visited, what was included, every last detail.
All my research culminated in finding the perfect tour which covered everything we needed. Sadly, all that work was in vain once I got a message that morning telling us that our cruise conveniently had some mechanical fault which meant we had to switch to another one of their cruise ships. I was fucking pissed.
Our suspicion was that there just weren’t enough people on the cruise we had booked, and they just decided to congregate all their passengers onto one ship. It was the most likely reason, as our cruise ended up having less than 20 passengers in total.
Yet another disappointment was finding out that this cruise technically wouldn’t be visiting Halong Bay – the entire reason we were there in the first place! Rather we’d be visiting another bay that’s effectively in the same area. All the spots we had painstakingly made sure that our cruise would be visiting would all be missed out. Needless to say, our first day in Hanoi got off to a rough start.
All’s Well That Ends Well
With that disappointment out of the way, the only way was up. Our group stepped on a small transport boat and was told that rather than having the mid-sized cruise that we booked, we’d be upgraded to their most luxurious craft, which happened to be the 2nd biggest in all of Halong Bay. Our rooms would also be upgraded as a small apology for their change in plans.
We travelled deep into the limestone cliffs and arrived at the sound of beating drums and our crew gleefully (though forcibly) waving to the arriving passengers. We boarded the super luxury cruise and hastily made our way to our 3rd-floor cabin which had its own private balcony overlooking the bay. From then on, we were content with the changes.
Living the Life of Luxury
Though I had initially hoped for a more activity-driven experience on the boat, it turned into more of a luxurious meander. I pictured myself as a white-linen-suited Victorian explorer making their way down the River Nile on a paddle steamer boat. Every few hours a luxurious spread was provided for us as crew members treated us like royalty. All the while we could sit back and enjoy the majestic structures of the bay pass us by.
Never before had I had the luxury of being able to say, “can you put that on my room please?” It was a luxury that I wasn’t quite used to, and one I’d take full advantage of.
Wooden Boats and Deadly Caves
One of the best activities Halong Bay has to offer is the opportunity to explore the immense cave systems that have formed amongst the limestone rocks. We had our heart set on visiting Surprise Cave (Sung Sot), which happened to be the biggest (and from what I can tell, the best.) However, due to our new itinerary, that dream was dashed. Thankfully, this cruise had its own share of caves to offer.
We stepped onto our transport boat, which was constantly tugged beside the cruise for when we needed it, and made our way into one of the more secluded bays. Awaiting us were a few floating docks and a myriad of boats, of which there were two types – sampan (traditional bamboo boats) and kayaks.
We were given the choice beforehand; get taken around by a guide on a sampan or go solo on a kayak. Tough choice. I would have loved to have stepped away from the tour group and freely explore, yet photos and jaw-dropping videos have always been a priority, so the sampan it was. Plus, that’s the more authentic way to do it, right?
We delved deeper into the bay and headed towards the rock faces which had wide slit cut through them by the constant erosion from the waves. It was just about high enough to graze my head as we carefully passed through to marvel at the creations of nature.
Second Thoughts About the Sea
As we headed back to the boat, we were told that we had time to swim in the ocean surrounding the boat if we so wanted. As it was quite cold (surprisingly so actually, I always assumed Vietnam maintained a toasty climate), nobody took up the offer. Except of course for one stubborn Welshman.
I thought it would be a shame if I came all this way without experiencing the ocean itself, so in I went. Ball-freezingly cold doesn’t come close to describing it, but that wasn’t the real issue. The waters were so murky and silt ridden, you couldn’t see a single thing! I couldn’t see the boat I had just jumped from and barely saw my hand flapping before me. The added feeling of not knowing what creature lurked beneath the deep brought that expedition to a swift end before it really started.
Mercifully, there was yet another body of water that might give me some more pleasure. On the back of the cruise in a mock greenhouse structure was a megalithic jacuzzi which had my name written on it. It overlooked the bay we had just dropped anchor in and made for a wonderful little interval as we made our way to our next spot for the evening.
A Master Roller
Another feature which some cruises offered was the opportunity for an onboard cooking lesson. Being in Vietnam, it was only natural that they would be traditional spring rolls. The handful of guests silently watched as the chef effortlessly crafted the perfect dish and rolled it with the same expertise as Snoop Dogg himself. Now it was our turn.
Having done this a few times at home, I was keen to show off my own rolling prowess. A bit of carrot, cucumbers, a handful of lettuce and a healthy dose of prawns made for a beautiful concoction. It took everything in my power not to lift it up, lick the ends and twist the top.
One element of the itinerary that was thankfully still in place was the opportunity to fish for some squid. I’d never done that before and it was one of the activities practically all ships in Halong Bay offered. Unfortunately, the cruise’s South African concierge (or whatever the fuck he was) informed us that we were actually outside of the squid season, so it was very unlikely we would catch anything, other than a cold. That’s the way it seemed…until.
I had been bobbing my lure away for a solid hour or so determined to at least see one, and there he was. Out of the murky green water, a ghostly figure with opaque skin glistened off the boat’s floodlights as it cautiously approached. After a brief investigation, it dashed in with a vigour of a true hunter. I jerked the rod as fast and viciously as I could, even bringing the slippery little bastard above the surface of the water for a brief second enough to see its pearl skin bloom into a dark maroon colour. And with a powerful burst of ink across the surface of the water, he was gone, never to be seen again.
That night, I was the only one to even see a squid, let alone almost catch it. That one that got away will haunt me to the end of time.
One Sport to Rule Them All
We found ourselves on the tour at a very precarious time. That night was the World Cup final, Argentina vs France. I’d brushed it off as something I’d have to miss given the circumstances, but to my surprise, that night the upper deck was reserved just for us eager sports fans to enjoy some international competition.
It really was a wonderful representation of the power of sports. That evening, a man from Wales, Greece, Malaysia, India and a few workers from Vietnam sat to watch two teams which they had no association with. The staff joined us, for once allowing them to feel like regular people rather than people who were there to serve us (a feeling I’m always very uncomfortable with). Who knew it would end up being one of the greatest games of all time?
Don’t Rock the Cat Ba
Early morning. Due to the late-night heart-wrenching final, getting up at 6 am for a spot of Tai Chi on the upper deck wasn’t in the cards. That might have been a shame, but there was still one more spot to check out before we made our way to the harbour. It was yet another set of limestone caves, though these ones were placed firmly on land.
We were headed to Cat Ba Island to explore the Trung Trang Cave. It was pretty much a smaller-scale version of the Surprise Cave which we had our hopes set on, but beggars can’t be choosers. Either way, the formations inside the cave were still pretty impressive!
Following years of dripping water and complete solitude, the cave had created some megalithic formations. Each cave led into another, more fascinating than the next.
Once I’d let the rest of the tour group meander onwards, I had the cave all to myself. Complete and total silence, to the point it actually got eerie! The warmth radiated from within with only the flapping of bats to keep you company. Pure awesomeness.
Overall, the trip to Halong Bay wasn’t what we had planned, not in the slightest. Yet that disappointment was quickly replaced by a feeling of wonder. In the end, everything worked out better than we had hoped. It was a wonderful warm-up for what was to come next.
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