Hạ Long, Vietnam

Sunday, June 9, 2024


Halong Bay's one of those places where you'd go in with expectations. It's just tough not to. After all, it's built up a pretty solid reputation as a must-visit destination both for its history and breathtaking views, and one would expect it to look postcard-perfect, to marvel at its emerald-clear waters, and to catch a glimpse of what life in the past was like. 

And from a picturesque point of view, it definitely lived up to the expectations. The beauty of Halong Bay is undeniable, but the palpable air of heavy tourism muted the overall experience. No actual statistics to back me up here, but I'd hazard a guess that travel-related spending contributes the most to the income for locals in the area, especially coupled by the dwindling of the fishing villages. 

Attempting to immerse and "live like a local" was not going to happen here, and the sooner you embrace the role of a tourist in the overall ecosystem, the more fun you'll probably have. 

Day 3 | 8 December

As a continuation of our Vietnam trip, we booked a tour bus that would pick us up from our hotel in Hanoi in the early morning and get us to Halong Bay. In between, we had stopovers for snacks, bio breaks, and even a mini excursion to a pearl farm. 

We then boarded our little ferry, where we could explore the deck and soak in the views. Lunch was also served onboard, where we got to dine family-style with strangers. We were sitting with a couple of Singaporeans, and made friends with a lovely family and two girls around our age traveling together. Singapore is tiny, and of course we had mutual friends with the son of the family; and even ended up keeping in contact and spending some time together back in Hanoi the following day. 

After a good amount spent at sea, everyone disembarked and explored the Sung Sot cave by foot, the biggest limestone cave in Halong Bay. It was breathtaking to be within a natural structure like this, but the way we were all marching along the tiny man-made walkway single-file in our tourist clusters was amusing. Akin to ants scurrying around within their organized network of tunnels, except what we were doing was a lot less productive in comparison.  

It was then time for one of the highlights of the day's itinerary–kayaking in Halong Bay, particularly through the Luon Cave. As someone not into water sports, this activity was surprisingly pleasant and enjoyable. 

Monkey see, monkey do, a phrase perhaps more aptly coined for humans. 

There were tons of us. 

Afterwards, we docked at Ti Top Island where we were given time to explore the coastal area and take an easy hike up to the peak to get the best view of the bay. Yes, that's where the cover/ first photo for this post was taken. There wasn't anything else to do though, and we spent time chatting with the Singaporeans we were acquainted with. 

It was also at this point that JX and I realised we were one of the only few that were staying overnight at Hạ Long, specifically in a hotel in Bai Chay. Everyone else only booked the day trip and were heading back to Hanoi.

Bai Chay, despite being described as a "lively resort area", turned out to be an absolute ghost town while we were there. It was actually confusing, like we were in some sort of glitch in the matrix. The hotel was arranged by the tour operator, and they provided a home-cooked dinner as there weren't any restaurants open/ available in the vicinity. Lovely in theory, but not when one's a bit of a fussy eater. 

JX and I decided to take a stroll along the empty Bai Chay beach at night, where we found an an open beach bar called the Chill Beach Bar Ha Long. And real chill it was–we were the only customers, and I'm not sure if the bartenders were even expecting anybody. No complains here though, as I had a decent ramos gin fizz, and it was quite a lovely atmosphere with mood music under the fairy lights.  

Day 4 | 9 December

We woke up early trying to make the best out of our time in Hạ Long city, half-expecting to see more life in the morning. Yet for some reason, we were still the only ones out and about, which was honestly unnerving. Sure, having an entire beach to ourselves is a luxury some can only dream of, but not when you least expect it. 

The empty beach did make for a good backdrop for my bookstagram, which I appreciated anyway.

As we continued walking into the city, we were greeted by rows and rows of closed shops. Several of the buildings felt like mere shells, with no life within. We even passed a few night clubs, but it didn't look like any of them were hosts to wild parties the previous night. 

At this point I was just looking forward to head back to Hanoi. And perhaps I was too excited to return, as I'd carelessly left one of my Pixel earbuds in the Bai Chay hotel room and only realised when I wanted to listen to some tunes on the bus back to the capital. 

JX immediately contacted our tour guide from the previous day, who then got in touch with the hotel. There was a fair bit of back and forth as the hotel staff initially couldn't locate it, though it was later found under the bed. Despite the language barrier and scheduling complications, our guide made the trip to the hotel to fetch the tiny item, and returned with it the following night in Hanoi, even meeting us personally to hand it back. 

It may seem like a small gesture, but it was this experience that anchored exactly what had been missing from the overall Hạ Long trip–the incredible warmth of people, especially locals, which is exactly what makes traveling so special. Even as an introvert, it felt so strange and surreal when we didn't get to interact with anyone during our night there, but I'm glad the unexpected detour of my earbud's journey allowed me to encounter the allure of Vietnamese hospitality and its people. 

Definitely not the beauty I was expecting from visiting Halong Bay, but it's heartening to know that the trip afforded us both the outward appearance and inner charms of Vietnam. 

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