Halong Bay in Vietnam is a magnificent cluster of jagged limestone rocks jutting out of the ink-coloured ocean and is home to floating fishermen villages, still tranquil waters, weather eroded grottoes and pristine deserted islands.
For the Vietnamese, it is believed that when Vietnam was at war with the Chinese, dragons created Halong Bay as a maze to confuse the Chinese.
Consequently, they won the war.
This back story makes this area even more majestic and spiritual to explore.
Quite rightly, Halong Bay is a World Heritage Site and is therefore, the most desirable ‘must see’ spot in Vietnam.
But how can you do this magical area justice?
There are a ridiculous number of tours on offer through hostels and travel agents in Hanoi that vary in length, cost, activities etc. You can also visit Halong Bay independently however, this option is slightly more time-consuming, which is not ideal if you’re on a tight schedule like we were.
We were recommended the Hideaway Tour by a couple of girls we met in Dalat.
This tour is sold through the Central Backpackers Hostel in Hanoi and is based in Cat Ba National Park.
Cat Ba is an area close to Halong Bay, which boasts the same alluring scenery minus the swarms of boat tours – it sounded perfect for us.
We opted for the 3 day/2 night tour, which included transport to and from Hanoi, dorm style accommodation on an island in the archipelago, all meals, a guide and all activities including kayaking, hiking, cycling, swimming and rock climbing ($130 for 2 nights/$85 for 1 night).
As I’m usually very anti-tours, I was keen to find a tour that had a good balance of culture and socialising without feeling like we were being shimmied from one activity to the other – I feel the Hideaway Tour nailed this on the head.
On our first day we travelled for 5/6 hours on a couple of buses and boats before pulling into Monkey Island – our home for the next two nights.
After climbing a rather steep set of stairs, we came to our dorm rooms. Basic yet, with excellent views across the ocean and protruding rock formations, it was a great set up for backpackers (but maybe not for flashbackers).
Once we’d had time to eat lunch and freshen up, it was time to jump back on the boat and explore the surrounding scenery we’d had teasing glimpses of on our way to the island.
As we boarded the boat the clouds parted and the sun emerged – magnifying the area’s beauty. We grabbed a beer, laid back and soaked up the contrast of Cat Ba to the manic streets of Hanoi.
We swam, kayaked and learnt about the locals’ lifestyle before heading back to the island as the sun began to sink behind the craggy karsts.
That night we had an incredible BBQ dinner (all the food on this trip was excellent) before drinking one too many vodkas and dancing the night away to ‘Roxanneeeeee’ in the islands’ bar, which is located beneath the dorm rooms.
We awoke the next morning feeling rather worse for wear. After brekkie and some much-needed coffee, we set ourselves up for another day of activities. We jumped on the boat and beelined for Cat Ba Island.
On the other end we transferred onto bicycles and followed our lovely guide along the waterfront and through local villages.
Before ascending a mammoth rocky mountain (sometimes on all fours) to gain panoramic views across the bay. Unfortunately it was a little cloudy but it was still incredible to admire the scenery from a different viewpoint…
After a scrummy lunch we made our way back to the island to meet the new arrivals (anyone doing 2 nights will spend one day/night with one group and the second night with another).
Due to our voddy overload the night before, we ate dinner and chilled around the campfire with the others before hitting the hay.
The next morning the weather was a little drizzly. Nevertheless, we didn’t let this rain on our parade and still explored the island we were staying on.
We started at monkey beach on the other side of the bay…
Before once again climbed up a cluster of terrifyingly high and sharp rocks to get views across the horizon…
Overall, the Hideaway Tour was everything I had hoped it would be. It was away from the hoards of other tourists, had a great balance of activities and socialising and had incredibly friendly staff as guides.
As a budget backpacker it is a bit on the expensive side however, I feel this trip was worth the extra for the ease of getting around, the standard of food and activities and the opportunity to stay on an island within the area.