Vietnam is not about world-famous attractions! Speak to any expat and they all agree it is the unknown small things that make Vietnam such an amazing place to visit. But one place, Ha Long Bay (Vịnh Hạ Long), just east of Hanoi, bucks that theory with world-class wonder and beauty.
Having used every excuse to avoid this international tourist attraction, fortune offered me the chance to spend a day doing the tourist thing and I took a tour from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay in Quang Ninh Province.
Tours are run by operators for one to three days, with the multi-day trips having you staying on a boat that is a floating hotel.
Prices for tours were reasonable and the whole operation from Hanoi and the return trip were well managed.
|A boat takes tourists around Ha Long Bay in Quang Ninh Province, northern Vietnam. Photo: Ray Kuschert / Tuoi Tre News|
I took the one-day tour where we left our hotel in Hanoi around 8:00 am and returned about 9:00 pm at night.
Tours can be booked from your hotel or any tour shop in the Old Quarter in Hanoi.
Ha Long Bay is 155 kilometers from Hanoi.
Connected to the city of Ha Long, the bay extends more than 1,500 square kilometers and has up to 2,000 small islands (islets) in a unique geographical arrangement.
The bay has been recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage precinct because of the beauty of the area, and there are extensive works in progress to rejuvenate and protect the area for generations in the future.
|A photo taken in Ha Long Bay, Quang Ninh Province, northern Vietnam. Photo: Ray Kuschert / Tuoi Tre News|
The beginning of all tours at Ha Long Bay is at the boat terminal.
This multi-million dollar facility operates like clockwork and each visitor is required to purchase an entry ticket, which is done by your tour operator.
The wharf area is littered with boats all preparing to leave for a day tour or overnight experiences in the bay.
It is a hive of activity and it is here that bag checks are done to ensure nobody takes plastic bottles into the region due to issues from the past.
Looking back, Ha Long Bay had developed a reputation of being somewhat dirty and disappointing.
Tourists and locals discarded rubbish in the waterways and over time this had collected on the islets causing an environmental challenge for those overseeing this wonderful area.
Now, rubbish is carefully managed and tour operators are leading the way with responsible environmental management.
Local residents are also playing a major role in the cleanup of the bay with many changes to the region to allow the pristine nature of the bay to return, and it is progressing well.
|A photo taken in Ha Long Bay, Quang Ninh province, northern Vietnam. Photo: Ray Kuschert / Tuoi Tre News|
Our day tour began with lunch on our boat.
As we sailed out into the bay, with the city of Ha Long on our left, the glistening blue water and mild wind lit up the day from our window inside the boat.
The food was acceptable and was included in the tour price.
All drinks onboard were purchased over the price of your ticket and, whilst not being the same price as a local restaurant, were not overly expensive.
The first stop on the tour was to a swimming spot on an island about 10 kilometers from Ha Long City.
The water on a summer's day was magical.
Warm and clean water welcomed us as we had the opportunity to take a swim in this unique area.
We collected a few shells in the sand and I even had a small fish take a moment to nibble at my foot as I lay in the still water.
It was a sensational feeling to be able to swim in the bay and our time there went way too fast.
Our next stop was more adventurous. The speedboat tour lasted about 45 minutes, for an extra charge, and took you further out into the bay to see some unique rock formations.
Words cannot describe how individual and beautiful each islet appears as you sit some 20 kilometers out in the bay.
The adventure continued with free kayaks that tourists can row under a rock cave and into this small open air cavern that is surrounded, totally, by 50-meter-high rock formations.
You were able to sit quietly in the middle of this amazing natural structure and take in the feeling of these ancient rock formations.
Bamboo boats were also available to those unable to swim or sit in a small kayak.
You just did not want to leave this place when you were watching the sun beam overhead whilst sitting in the shade of the high rock structures surrounding you.
|Tourists are seen kayaking in Ha Long Bay, Quang Ninh Province, northern Vietnam. Photo: Ray Kuschert / Tuoi Tre News|
The last stop on the tour took us into a large cave. We traversed around 100 meters into the entrance of the cave from the water level, then followed a dimly lit pathway to see geographical wonders having to be seen to be believed.
The walk took around an hour and was totally worth the time and effort because it was just so beautiful to see.
|Inside a cave in Ha Long Bay, Quang Ninh Province, northern Vietnam. Photo: Ray Kuschert / Tuoi Tre News|
The two-hour journey back to Ha Long Terminal was structured to take in the sunset. It was time to put on some dry clothes, grab your camera and a drink, and capture a moment of world heritage perfection from the rooftop of your boat.
As the sun set slowly over the rock formations, colors changed almost by the minute and just before sunset you got to see the rock formation that was printed on the VND200,000 banknote.
There seemed to be a 'wow' moment every few minutes for the entire journey.
|Sunset in Ha Long Bay, Quang Ninh Province, northern Vietnam. Photo: Ray Kuschert / Tuoi Tre News|
By the time we jumped off the boat, the sun had set and it was time to take the bus back to Hanoi.
The trip took two and a half to three hours depending on weather and traffic and this got us back to our hotel about 9:00 pm. The tours were expertly run and were supportive of both Vietnamese and foreign tourists.
I woke up on the morning of my tour to Ha Long Bay with the feeling that “I will just do it for my family," but I returned that evening thinking it was one of the most amazing things I have experienced anywhere in the world.
Ha Long Bay is a true wonder and, even though it is a tourist mecca, it is a must-see part of Vietnam.
This attraction is not about the culture or spirit of Vietnam, it is more about the wonder of our world and the beauty that beholds it when we go looking.
I loved my day out in Ha Long Bay and I now include it in the places that show Vietnam for its timeless charm.