Ha Long Bay in Vietnam
Most people traveling to Vietnam have Ha Long Bay as a must see. The area is so beautiful that since 1994 it is part of the UNESCO World Heritage. It consists of more than 1.700 limestones, built up over 500 million years ago, give the place a very special view. Besides all the impressive things about the area, if you are planning a long and expensive trip to Vietnam to check those amazing nature master piece, we recommend you to wait few years. Keep reading to understand why.
In Vietnam, I want beaches!
We arrived in Vietnam with the idea of going through its coast and enjoying a long beach holiday along the entire Vietnamese shore. We left Hanoi in direction to Ha Long Bay full of expectations. We wanted to experience a very “old school” Vietnam, with small tours in traditional local boats. We were expecting paradisiacal beaches like we have never seen before. We were really hoping for some nice fine sand beach, with a turquoise water and the chance to go diving watching the fishes and the sea life.
All we got was a bunch of very expensive tours with big and touristic boats – without any flexibility – and beaches under construction or with an entrance fee to use it. It was a little bit frustrating.
10 years earlier or 10 years later
I like to say that we missed the good Ha Long Bay for 10 years: before or later. Let’s say that 10 years earlier we would have experienced it the exact way we expected. That was even confirmed by our hotel manager. She told us that 5 to 10 years ago all that area was maintained by the locals and all the small boats tour were possible. This scenario is very different from the actual situation. Now, our visit was in April 2017, all the beaches and tours were privatized and they are building up a great paradise around there. Several huge and fancy hotels with their private beaches, theme parks all along the shore and many resorts will transform the area. Because this privatization didn’t happen too long ago, everything is still under construction and might take another 5-10 years to be done. So, if you are planning a trip, wait a little bit more.
The area where you can see the limestones and make the boat tours is in an island called Dao Thuan Chao. The hotels there costed more than we wanted to spend, so we took a hotel at Ha Long, but very near to a beach. Our idea was that we could enjoy the beach for one day, visit the Limestones the next day and on the 3rd day we would leave to enjoy the rest of our travel. What we didn’t know is that the beach was under construction. At our hotel we were informed that there are only two beaches in the area: the one under construction and the other one at the island where you can see the limestones. So, we rented a Scooter and went there. For our surprise, the beach was closed and even if it was opened it was needed to pay a fee to enter it. It was not an expensive Fee (something around 2 or 3 euros), but even if we agree with that (which we definitely don’t), it was close at that moment. This was very frustrating.
We went back to our “under construction” beach and tried to get some luck around there. I can’t deny that the sand area is large and delicious. When that beach is ready, will be amazing to just enjoy the day there. Unfortunately the water was super dirty because of the construction site. No chances to go inside if you want to keep healthy for the travel.
Well, but at least we can enjoy the view a bit and lay in the sand trying to take the best of it, right?! Could have been amazing if it was not the buses after buses filled with Chinese tourists that would come in a horde to the beach (full of clothes and some woman even wearing high heels), making noise, throwing sand on you while walking, talking super loud and spending a messy 15 minutes around making pictures before leaving. Then another horde just like that arrived. It was like an eternal cycle and we decided to leave the area.
So, if you also want to enjoy the beach there, try to wait a few more years and probably your hotel will have a private beach with transparent turquoise water, free of any kind of tourist and you can even have a cocktail while admiring that beautiful scenario.
If you really want to make this tour around the Limestones, you got to get your wallet ready. The cheapest tour costs around 40 euros per person. We didn’t find any option of just taking a boat for two hours around the limestones and coming back. All the tours included having lunch, stopping at some place for bathing, in another one for canoeing, then another going around before going back to the port. You can not participate of some activities to pay less, but you need to wait for the group in the boat. Those tours takes around 5 hours or the entire day. The transfer from your hotel to the port and back are also included in the price.
Many options of boat tours also offer an overnight. You can make an overnight going and back from Ha Long Bay or you can take the boat in Hanoi and overnight on the way to Ha Long Bay. There are even options to spend two nights in the boat. Those packages are a bit more expensive and go around 150 to 300 euros.
In our case this was too far from our financial reality. We were traveling around for already 2 months and we still had one month ahead of us, so we could not afford spend this money there. Even though, the day we rented a scooter, we went until the other side of the bridge (where it is located the huge spinning wheel in the top of a mountain) and there we could appreciate a very nice limestones view in fisherman’s area. It was very beautiful!
At our hotel, since the day we arrived, they offered us several tours. All the time we were telling them that we searched for something more economic and shorter. Something simple and local. They didn’t have anything for us and we ended up not making the tour. Then, on our last day while checking out and talking with the hotel manager, she said that was sad we didn’t make a tour. She asked us why. For the fourth time we explained our expectations and she told us that actually she could have found us a way to do it more local. Ok, too late. We got a bit disappointed with this misinformation, but at the same time we want to share it with you. So, attention for those lines:
If you are traveling to Ha Long Bay and also want to escape the fancy and expensive tours, write your hotel while booking them asking for a local cheaper and quicker tour. Make sure this information will get to the hotel manager. If the hotel understands it quicker than our hotel, your chances to have an amazing local boat trip are bigger. Besides all the privatizations, there are still some hope for more local business, so let’s support them! 😉
Going to Cat Ba Island
There’s even another option if you are searching for beaches and to see the limestones: go to Cat Ba Island. If we had all the knowledge that we have now earlier, we would definitely spend our short time in Ha Long Bay at Cat Ba island. To head there after the second day was too much of an effort for such a short time. So, we decided not to go there. All we know is what we heard people saying: paradisiacal beaches and a nice tour around the limestones to get there and back. It is definitely an amazing option if you can’t put your Vietnam travel to the future.
Maybe another day
So, now that you know that this is not the perfect time to visit Ha Long Bay, don’t forget to keep this post for future plans. If you have no other option, because your tickets to Vietnam are bought anyway, well, now you know you can save some time and money skipping Ha Long Bay for the instance. If even though you want to try the visit, well, don’t expect too much of the beaches and save some money for the tour.
Besides it all, simply enjoy your travel and make the best of it, not mattering which kind of obstacles you find there! 😉