Numerous companies operated overnight boat trips on Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. I chose Galaxy Cruise based on a recommendation from an American I’d met in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Like many people, I booked my Ha Long Bay trip while staying in Hanoi. The front desk agent at the hotel where I was staying made the arrangements for me with Galaxy Cruise. The boat would department in the afternoon and return to the harbor the following afternoon.
On the day of the trip, I was picked up at the hotel and taken by mini-van to a bayside town northeast of Hanoi. There were a total of eleven of us on the trip. Our group was very international. Aussies, Pols, Brits, Americans, Japanese, and Chinese. All nice people. We got along quite well.
Our boat, and all the other tourist boats moored in the harbor, was painted white. However, tourist boats in the bay, including the Galaxy Cruise boat, used to be brown in color. But in 2011 one of the tourist boats sank in the bay, and 12 people drowned, all of them tourists but one. As a result of the accident, the Vietnamese government tightened regulations, including requiring that all tourist boats be white washed. This particular regulation made no sense to me, since a white boat would blend nicely with the fog that frequently cloaks the bay.
Once at the dock, we were ferried to our boat out in the harbor. The Galaxy Cruise boat was very nice. The boat had two decks, all of teak. My cabin was 100% teakwood, and had AC to boot. The second deck housed the dining and bar.
Our boat departed under gray skies, motoring slowly through the bay’s chalky emerald waters. The slow speed gave us ample time to admire the hundreds upon hundreds of limestone islets that Ha Long is famous for. The weather remained gray, and later on it rained for a bit.
Our first stop that afternoon was at a limestone island that was home to a large cave. The cave was very touristy, with flood lights in its interior and railings and chains along the way to guide visitors. But it was still interesting.
After caving, we went kayaking around some of the limestone islets. Being so close to the water provided a unique perspective of the bay. The islets seemed larger, the water more vast and deep, and I felt tiny sitting in that kayak.
After the caving and kayaking, our captain piloted the boat to a secluded spot on the bay and cut the engine. The crew told us that we could swim from the side of the boat in the open water. I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to swim in Ha Long Bay. I was joined by only three other passengers, a woman from Texas, her Chinese-American husband, and their daughter. The water was warm and opaque. Visibility was limited and I struggled to see my feet when treading water. We treaded cautiously, because there were some large jellyfish floating about.
After a lovely dinner of shrimp and fish and rice and soup and spring rolls, it was time to try squid fishing. The deep, opaque, emerald waters of the bay were home to schools of squid. To catch the squid, we used nothing more than a bamboo pole with a lure attached to the end of a length of line. We stood on the bow of the boat, the bay shrouded in darkness, casting our lines into the water and using our wrists to gently make the lures do a jig. Lights on the bow of the boat illuminated the chalky green water. With each cast, small squid appeared out of the opaque depths, attracted by our silvery lures.
The squid tried to use their beak-like mouth parts to devour the lure. But most of the squid were very small, and the hooks too big for their mouths. But eventually, a couple of us caught and released a few of the squid. I had no such luck, but still enjoyed the experience. To be out on the bay at night, to see the lights of the other boats floating in the darkness, to smell the water and feel the moist night air was a real treat for the senses.
Later that night there was the requisite karaoke session by the bar area. The bar tender onboard was a real ham. He sang a number of songs for us, at times crooning like Elvis Presley, but with a severely affected manner of pronunciation. Some of the women in our group had lovely singing voices, and happily sang away, their voices lubricated by a few mixed drinks.
The next day we motored past karst after karst until arriving at a floating village. The village had a floating schools house, a number of floating homes, a floating bank, a floating convenience store, and a floating gas station. I wondered how sanitation was handled. I imagine everything just went right into the bay. We snapped a bunch of pictures of the floating village, wondering what such an existence would be like. I imagined that everything would have always been a little soggy from the humidity. But surely one’s skin would have been soft and supple.
Unfortunately, like nearly all of the bodies of water around the globe, Ha Long showed signs of pollution. I saw various types of plastic refuse floating in the water. Bottles, bags, mesh sacks. In certain places, I saw a slick of petrol floating on the water’s surface.
Our journey ended with us back in the harbor where we’d started. Before mooring in the harbor, a boat pulled alongside us which had a bunch of blue 55 gallon barrels on its open deck. I asked a crew member what was going on. He told me that our boat needed to replenish its water tank. The blue barrels on the other boat were filled with water. A large hose was connected from the supply boat to a port on the side of our boat. I watched as a Vietnamese woman on the supply boat turned on a gas-powered pump. She gave orders to a skinny Vietnamese boy standing among the barrels. The boy held a large hose, which he placed into the barrels, allowing the water to be pumped out and into the tank of our boat. The boy wore only a pair of jeans, which kept slipping down. He moved from barrel to barrel with the hose, working quickly and moving empty barrels out of the way. For his hard work, the woman operating the pump viciously yelled at him.
Once back on land, we piled into the van for the return trip to Hanoi. It was a stark contrast going from a slow boat ride on the bay to near head-on collisions with trucks and busses on Vietnam’s notoriously dangerous roads.