I searched Google for nearby travel agents and found a list on TripAdvisor. In the 40 degrees celsius heat, we ventured out from our AirBnB on the outskirts of Hanoi’s old quarter to find Lily’s Travel Agency.
We found it on Ngo Nguyen Street, in amongst back-to-back budget accommodation and travel agencies. Lily hadn’t yet arrived so we sat on the plastic seats inside the shopfront and drank cold water and ate fresh pineapple given to us by one of Lily’s employees.
Lily was only a few minutes away and we soon got down to business. We wanted to book a tour for the following day to see Halong Bay. She gave us three options:
- cheap: US$25, with up to 45 people on an old bus with no guarantee of air-conditioning.
- medium: US$35, with between 25 to 35 people on a better bus.
- best quality: US$44, with up to 20 people on a modern bus and guaranteed air-conditioning.
She was also an official vendor for the more expensive online tour operators but hinted that we could pay less and get the same quality. At the end of the day, she said, all the tour operators pretty much offered the same thing. There was no time to hunt for an eco-friendly one-day tour so we went with the ‘best quality’.
Around 7am the following day, we returned to Lily’s Travel Agency. From here, we were taken to the bus for our tour to Halong Bay: 4 x hours on the tour bus there + 4 x hours on a boat + 4 x hours on the tour bus back to Hanoi.
The world-heritage-listed location is over 180kms from Vietnam’s capital city. The weather was just as hot as the day before and we were thankful for the air-conditioned bus. There were 18 people in our group, from nine different countries (mainly Asian) and we were later joined by another ten people on board the boat.
“The bridge over there is popular with young Vietnamese men,” said our guide as we drove parallel to Long Biên Bridge (aka ‘the Love Bridge’). It was built by the French between 1899 and 1903, and, at the time, was one of the longest bridges in Asia (1.68kms).
“In Vietnamese relationships, the men pay for everything,” he continued. “So, on the first date, the man takes his girlfriend for a coffee and he pays. On the second date, he takes her to the cinema and he pays. On the third date, he takes her for dinner and he pays. By the fourth date, he has no money left, so he takes her Long Biên Bridge.”
“There is nothing there to purchase,” he said, roaring with laughter. Khong, our guide, was quite gregarious and developed an obsession throughout the day with our hair. It was hilarious to him that I should have a shaved head while my partner should have long hair down to his shoulders. At one point, he said that I was the husband and my partner was the wife.
He also made sure that everyone on board the bus knew how to pronounce his name. If your tone went down, then you were pronouncing it properly. If your tone went up, then you were saying he had no money.
According to him, unlike neighbouring countries that have kept their written language, the Vietnamese officially adopted and adapted the Roman alphabet during French colonial times. Portuguese Jesuits and then the French starting transcribing the existing Khmer and Chinese character-based language into Latin style as far back as the 1600s. In the 19th century, the French enforced the Roman alphabet, hoping to break links with traditions and expose locals to French logic.
After two hours we stopped at a giant souvenirs centre. We were told to exit the bus and make our way through the centre. The bus would collect us from the other side in 30 minutes. The souvenir centre was packed with tourists from the multitude of Halong Bay tour operators, buying jewellery, paintings, clothing and more.
Back on the bus, everyone was quiet. I fell asleep and awoke just as we were passing through huge, modern tollgates on the motorway. We arrived at the boat terminal at 12:30pm and were herded through the hoards of tourists and past the water puppet performance to our boat wedged between the other boats.
Before we set off, we were fed an enormous meal, most of which was left uneaten purely because of the quantity of it all. Then we pulled out, along with all the other boats, in one massive puff of engine smoke.
We motored out to the towering limestone karsts and islets. Halong Bay, located within the Gulf of Tonkin, boasts around 2,000 islets, many of which are somehow topped by forest. It was spectacular, no doubt about it – yet equally disheartening thanks to the magnitude of tourists swarming in and their visible environmental impact.
We passed Halong Bay’s ‘Kissing Rocks’ and stopped at a pier. We had the choice of either kayaking or being rowed around in a five-seater bamboo boat. My partner and I chose to kayak, while my dad opted for the bamboo boat. The kayak seats were sizzling in the heat and we paddled fast to the shaded water underneath a karst.
We kayaked through a gateway into an islet that had hollowed in the middle. Once we made it through the exiting traffic, we took in the awe and magnificence of what we were witnessing. I had never seen anything like it. How I craved to float there in silence and let the beauty of nature sink into my every pore.
More bamboo boats were entering through the gateway so we left and kayaked in the sun until we reached another gateway and hollowed islet. We were the only ones inside this time. We kayaked right out into the centre but instantly regretted being so exposed to the sun. Plus the clock was ticking.
Back on the boat, we were taken to see ‘Heaven’s Cave’ – a large limestone cave (full of tourists). My dad’s shirt was drenched in sweat after climbing the stairs to the entrance to the cave. Even other tourists pointed at him with wonder. Inside, the cave was equally magical but it was a fight to get scenic photos without one or five selfie takers in the way.
Khong told us that locals in the 1200s used the cave to store and prepare wooden spikes from tree trunks. They would then submerge the spikes in the waterways to thwart the Mongolian naval invaders. After that point, we lost our guide amongst the crowd and satisfied ourselves with walking through the cave without commentary.
Back on the boat again, we stationed our hot bodies at our booth table and enjoyed a cold drink. The boat refuelled mid-waters at a rusty, moored fuel station boat just outside the karsts. Then it was a quick trip back to the boat terminal and onto the bus. At the two-hour mark along the motorway, we stopped at another souvenirs centre. We bought ice creams and waited in the air-conditioning for our bus to return while others shopped.
We got off the bus before entering the Old Quarter in Hanoi. The night markets were blocking the streets and the diverted vehicles added to the already chaotic traffic. It was faster to walk.
We arrived back at our AirBnB at around 10pm. It was worth visiting Halong Bay, even if it was just for the day. I only hope the site is preserved and protected so that future generations also have the opportunity to see this wonder of the world.
Halong Bay tour: we booked our day trip the day before from Lily’s Travel Agency. The tour, unfortunately, was not eco-friendly but included lunch and kayak or bamboo boat ride. It also included souvenir shopping to and from Halong Bay. Overall, we would recommend Lily’s services.
There are loads of travel agencies in town, especially on Ngo Nguyen Street. We’re glad we didn’t book online beforehand, as the tours were more expensive online and we ended up touring alongside their boats the whole day anyway.
Travel advice: it doesn’t matter which tour operator you go with. They all leave at the same time from the same destination and return at the same time to the same destination. So in essence, you’ll be touring for the day with hundreds of other tourists.
Photo: Kissing Rocks at Halong Bay in Vietnam.