“You have seen famous sites of Vietnam, but they say, if you haven't seen Halong Bay, you haven't seen Vietnam,” said a Vietnamese woman asking me where I'd been. Halong Bay gets a lot of hype, and it seems to be the country's number one must-see for tourists. If tourists must see it, then it follows that you must see tourists when you go there. Every travel agency and every hotel in the central and northern radius sell cruises, from high end luxury to the Rock Long Rock Hard backpacker tour. There are a lot of visitors, and a lot of complaints. One thing a lot of tourists don't like to see is a lot of other tourists. I heard that overnight on the water it turns into a techno dance party, with boats lined up in the same harbour, karaoke and loud music blaring into the wee hours. In addition to lots of drunk Russians, there are other passengers to worry about on the boats – namely ones with long tails that like to visit after dark. Rats take to the waters to enjoy the floating food parades on offer, and that means they are often frequent visitors in the cabin rooms.
But is it still worth the trip, you ask? Well, I had the same question. While images of Halong Bay are apparently synonymous with Vietnam, I hadn't been aware of it before arriving in the country – my mental image of Vietnam was largely made up of people wearing conical hats and movie clips featuring the Vietnam War. I hadn't started out with much on my travel list and hadn't gone beyond Hanoi and Sapa in almost 1.5 months in the country, but that didn't mean I was willing to join the tourist parade. So it came down to some research, which I did my usual way – I asked around. In Sapa the views skewed negative – in 9 years I've never been there, said Jerre. Too many tourists. Ms Hanh, who is from Hanoi said, that is so touristy, don't even go – why aren't you going to Ninh Binh, you should go to Ninh Binh! Lyn and John liked their visit, they went to a more remote part of the bay the second night on the water where there were less tourists, but that was two years ago, and the scene changes fast in Vietnam. Finally, on a high speed ride through the mountains from Sapa to Lao Cai, I was reminded by a Quebecois accountant that if so many people are going, it's probably because there is something to see.
As much as I dislike the tourist hordes, I also hate missing out on things. The day I got back into Hanoi from Sapa I booked a two night trip covering three different bays – one night in Bai Tu Long Bay (off the main tourist route) and one night in more secluded part of Halong Bay, and a visit to Lan Ha Bay floating village. Our group of 7 plus our 'very single' guide Kun headed out on a small wooden boat to Bai Tu Long Bay for the first day. The weather was beautiful, the scenery was impressive, with large karst limestone cliffs abruptly jutting out of the blue water, and there wasn't another tourist boat in sight. We kayaked and went swimming in the afternoon before sailing into the sunset, lying about on deck with some cheap Hanoi beer. We pulled into Quan Lan island for the night for our 'homestay' – the guide in the office had admitted to me beforehand this was more of a 'one-star hotel' than a real family visit. Possibly second after Halong Bay in tour promotion is the 'authentic Vietnamese (or ethnic minority) homestay', which it seems you can do almost anywhere outside the big cities – “see first hand how people really live” in homes that are designed to accommodate tourists. Our visit included cooking, which consisted of stuffing spring rolls for dinner. While not a challenging task, our guide Kun kept telling me I was doing it wrong and mine were too fat.
The next morning we had a real taste of the island sights, bicycling across the (very small) island to swim at a deserted beach before meeting up again with the boat. We passed conical hat-clad crab-pickers on a long flat expanse of beach and watched miniature crabs scurry out of tiny holes in the sand.
Back on the boat the trip was drawing to a close for everyone but me and a German couple who had also booked for two nights. Although Bai Tu Long Bay merges with Halong Bay, we disembarked and drove for an hour to meet up with a new crowd of younger backpackers on the Halong Bay leg of the tour. Here it was, more party-oriented tourists, a night on the boat to spend worrying about rats, and it had started to rain. The boat was bigger and not as charming as our first one, and the scenery was similar but crowded with more traffic.
The weather picked up as we moved away from the harbour and passed by more dramatic rock islands protruding through the waves. We took rowboats to Lan Ha floating village, where a whole community of landless people have congregated in makeshift homes on the water. The number one industry is fishing, but tourism is quickly catching up – the bay was filled with a procession of boats carrying life-jacketed tourists, all with cameras at the ready.
We anchored for the night soon afterwards in a bay not that far from shore, and not as far as I would have liked from the nearby floodlit party grotto. But it wasn't quite as loud and obnoxious as I was expecting, my room was clean and rat-free (though I still had a hard time drifting off, listening for any suspicious rustling) and the scenery was more crowded with islands than other boats.
I got back earlier than expected the next afternoon, the only one on the bus back to Hanoi. While the Bai Tu Long experience was the more idyllic of the trip, all in all I agreed with my CIDA friend in Hanoi Julie's summary of a visit to Halong – it wasn't the most amazing thing I've ever seen, but I'm glad I made the trip.