It's one of the wonders of the world, but most Brits have only heard of Halong Bay after seeing it on Top Gear. Experience its beauty on an overnight cruise without Clarkson and co. to annoy you.
Everyone has their own idea of what paradise would look like. But I've seen it – Halong Bay off Vietnam's north east coast.
Thousands of uninhabited limestone islands jut out from the jade water, some with beaches and caves, and most with jungle vegetation on top like spiky green Mohicans. No-one seems to know the exact number of islands, although our tour guide said there are 1969 of them – easy to remember, we were told, as that's the year local hero Ho Chi Minh died.
The best way to experience Halong Bay is to go on an organised tour from Vietnam's capital, Hanoi. After a four and a half hour bus transfer, we boarded the Aloha - our junk for the next two days – at the port of Halong City.
As lovely as mainland Vietnam is, there comes a point when you can't take the constant beeping of scooter horns anymore. We had reached that point, so one of the first things we noticed was the almost total, blissful silence as we cruised slowly between the outcrops known as karsts, being overtaken by butterflies the size of sea-gulls and sea-gulls the size of small planes.
I say almost total silence because, unless my ears were playing tricks on me, I could hear dogs barking. Halong Bay is dotted with tiny floating villages and fish farms, and unbelievably these are protected by guard dogs, prowling around their meagre perimeters to ward off would-be poachers.
When the sun began to set, our tourist boat dropped anchor for the night and we were given a five-course seafood banquet. I am pretty sure I will never taste anything as good as the freshly caught and grilled Halong Bay tuna.
Our tour group of 12 consisted of a good mix of couples and singles of all ages, nationalities and backgrounds. Spending 48 hours in close proximity with a dozen people you've never seen before and will never see again could have been a recipe for disaster, but strangely we experienced a feeling of camaraderie. After listening to the tales of Cecilie - a student backpacker from Copenhagen, Charlie - an eccentric sexagenarian lawyer from Toronto and Tom and Margaret – Londoners who had given up their jobs to see the world for a year, it was time to return to our cabins for a night at sea.
But before doing so, we lay on the sun-loungers on the top deck and stared up at the stars in pitch darkness – there must have been millions of them, leading to Charlie dubbing our junk the hotel under a million stars.
Day two involves more cruising and kayaking between the karsts, the chance to swim to secluded beaches and general relaxation. The second night involves a stay on the biggest island in Halong Bay – Cat Ba Island. The Aloha slows right down as it passes a cluster of floating villages near Cat Ba Island before coming to a stop at the island's main harbour, Cat Ba Town.
Your tour company will transfer you to the 4* Cat Ba Sunrise Resort (Cat Co 3 Beach, Cat Ba Island), a five-minute drive away, which has its own private beach. There's time here for one final dip in the South China Sea (or in the hotel's outdoor pool), before enjoying another seafood banquet (price included in tour) and cocktails at the beach-side bar. Looking out to sea as the sun sets over the karsts, I guarantee you will be thinking surely there is nowhere in the world quite as gorgeous as Halong Bay.
- The best time of year to visit Halong Bay is from October – April, before the rainy season.
- Although meals and snacks on board are included in the price of the trip, soft drinks and booze are not. The prices are steep (twice those of Hanoi), so if you're on a budget keep a note of how much you drink to avoid a hefty bar bill. Take a couple of big bottles of water with you, too.
- Credit cards are not accepted on board the boat, so make sure you stock up on dong (Vietnam's currency) or US dollars.
- You're recommended to take a torch, sun-cream and a wide-brimmed hat for a reason – it's really dark at night and really sunny during the day.
- Remember to remove any rings before jumping off the boat. I lost my wedding ring, and have only just been forgiven.
- If you'd like an extra night on Cat Ba Island, your tour company will be able to arrange this. An extra night in a double room at the Cat Ba Sunrise Resort costs $78 with breakfast.
Make it happen
Have you been inspired to visit Halong Bay? If so, you'll need to arrange a visa before entering Vietnam. Apply for a "visa on arrival" through www.myvietnamvisa.com for $20. They will post you the visa paperwork – you will just need to bring this along with two passport photos, $25 in cash and plenty of patience when you arrive at your chosen border crossing into Vietnam.
All trips to Halong Bay leave from Hanoi. Flights connect to Hanoi from South East Asia's main hub airports Bangkok, Singapore and Hong Kong with the likes of Air Asia, Vietnam Airlines and Hong Kong Airlines.
There are dozens of tour companies who can take you to Halong Bay. We booked on-line months in advance and went with Handspan (78 Pho Ma May, Hanoi; www.handspan.com) on their two night Kayaking and Discovery excursion ($200 per person), although with so many companies going to Halong Bay every day, it's possible to book the day before you want to go.
All trips, including Handspan's, leave around 7am so you'll need to stay the night before in Hanoi. The Hanoi Elegance Emerald (85 Pho Ma May) is ideal as it is just over the road from Handspan's office – great value luxurious junior suites cost $70 and the friendly owner will throw in a packed breakfast if you tell him you'll be leaving early.
Return travel to Hanoi is included in the price of all tours – Handspan's involves a hydrofoil from Cat Ba Town to Haiphong on the mainland, followed by a three-hour coach trip. Expect to be back in Hanoi at 6pm.
A note on safety
There have been several tragedies involving tour boats in Halong Bay, most recently in February 2011 when a boat sank and 12 tourists drowned. In this case, the tour company wasn't licensed, and the captain and engineer were arrested and charged with violating safety regulations. There are some dirt cheap operators offering the Halong Bay experience, charging from as little as $50 for the overnight cruise, food and transfer to Hanoi, so inevitably cut corners. Avoid cheap trips that look too good to be true, and don't be afraid to ask for information on licenses and safety features such as life-jackets and life boats.