By Katy Holliday
Arriving in the thick of Hanoi, it’s hard to believe that just hours away there’s peace, relaxation and awe-inspiring natural beauty to be found. As the horns from hoards of scooters, buses and cars blast in unison, an adventure into the enchanting rural beauty of Vietnam is a welcome thought.
Whether you prefer “off the beaten path” travel or the epitome of luxury while abroad, Vietnam attracts visitors thirsting for all sorts of experiences. The food, the culture and the friendly people puts this country on the “must do” list.
The north of Vietnam is famous for its geographical beauty, and the impressive coastal and inland limestone karsts do not disappoint.
Choose Luxury When Visiting Halong Bay
Over 1,600 dramatic limestone islands, teaming with lush jungle, dominate the landscape of Halong Bay, drawing in 10 million visitors each year. An increasingly popular UNESCO World Heritage site, many tourists pile into backpacker-style junk boats of questionable safety that play hard during the day, and party even harder at night.
If you really want to witness the striking beauty of the region without the masses and noise then booking a reputable luxury cruise in advance is well worth it. With alternative routes available, and more secluded spots for mooring in the evening, you can truly appreciate the surroundings without the large flotilla.
Another benefit to a good luxury cruise is that spots are chosen where the water is cleaner with less rubbish floating around and fewer tourists. Take the chance to kayak and get up close to the karsts, witnessing another perspective of their towering and rugged presence. Paddling the emerald waters through caves and alongside karsts is a unique opportunity.
Water tends to pool in the kayaks so make sure you wear swimmers, which will also come in handy if you decide to take a dip. Appropriate footwear is a must too. If you happen to set foot on the karsts, they are very sharp and will easily cut your feet.
Other activities to enjoy are cycling through fishing villages, relaxing on stunning beaches tucked between the towering peaks, and trips into the hollows of islands to explore their stunning caverns.
Halong Bay, which means descending dragon, is steeped in a rich and colourful history – from its dragon mythology to tales of evading foreign invasions, and the establishment of floating villages that were once home to local pearling and fishing communities that now rely heavily on tourism to make their way.
Perhaps, the best experience is simply soaking up the views onboard, preferably from your own private balcony, while enjoying a sundowner as the sun sets over Halong Bay.
We enjoyed a Vietnamese-style banquet on the top deck of the boat, under twinkling lights with the shadows of the rugged landscape looming in the background. For those interested, Vietnamese cooking classes or squid fishing are additions to the evening itinerary.
Private transfers from Hanoi are much quicker since the opening of the new expressway in 2018, which has sliced travel time in half. It’s now possible to visit Halong Bay on a day trip. We prefer the option of the overnight cruise, though.
A night in Halong Bay aboard a luxury cruise will be enough, however, we recommend at least two nights to truly immerse yourself in the beauty and culture of the region.
The Inland Halong Bay – Trang An
For those without sea legs, a journey just south of Hanoi will bring you to the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage site and ecotourism complex of Trang An, located near the town of Ninh Binh.
It’s sister site Tam Coc is much more popular and well-known, but with more spectacular views of the karsts and no aggressive touting and demands for tips, selecting Trang An for your day out of Hanoi is a perfect choice.
Filled with ancient temples, pagodas, grottos, paddy-fields and home to a set from the Kong: Skull Island movie, a boat ride along the green waterways is a serene way to enjoy the dramatic limestone outcrops.
Despite a queue of other travellers waiting to board, once you set off, the boats disperse into three different directions and the river does not feel crowded but tranquil and enchanting. Interestingly, the boats are guided by local women, although we did see a few male rowers at the end of the tour.
Trang An is home to 50 different cross-water caves and we were escorted through a number of these, and instructed to duck right down to avoid hitting our heads. In some spots, we had to sit on the bottom of the boat.
We suggest taking a hat, sunscreen and comfortable walking shoes with you. It does get very hot and humid. There are umbrellas available for purchase at the kiosk before departure. Also, don’t forget to pack water, although there are places along the way to stop and get ice cold beverages.
The route option that we chose, stopped at various temples and pagodas where we could get out and explore. One of the last stops was at the film location for Kong: Skull Island, where local actors from the film were dressed up to take pictures outside of thatched teepees, and the boat from the film was there too.
Paddling along, you’ll notice local villagers going about their usual business, still relying on the waterways for their livelihood. It’s an unmissable day trip from Hanoi, and you could easily spend the night in Ninh Binh and explore Tam Coc the next day.
We recommend booking a private, air-conditioned van in advance. At less than $15 per person for the transfer, it is a much more comfortable and an easier option than a train or local bus. Tickets into the site, including the three hour boat ride are 200,000 VND, which equates to roughly $13. For the length of the tour, including all the stops at temples and pagodas plus a film location, it’s really good value.
Although it’s not mandatory to tip, the ladies that row the boats have a tough job and are often cleaning the site on days off to maintain its beauty and purity, and will surely appreciate your kindness.