Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay

I hit a wall when I tried to write about Halong Bay. I think it’s been so hard for me to write about because I’m torn between two posts: 1) The majestic place that is Halong Bay; 2) My mental state in Halong Bay. I’m very aware that what I’m writing goes out to the online world, so it can be hard to know how to approach these things. As I’ve written more, I have found myself wanting to portray the places and helpful tips on seeing them for other travelers, just in case someone stumbles across my blog when looking up a place (as I have with others), but I also have to be true to myself. Ultimately this blog is my record of my trip. So I’ll just have to include both posts somehow. I’ll start with Halong Bay itself.

Halong Bay is one of those places that is entirely deserving of all of its praise. It’s Vietnam’s answer to New Zealand’s fjordlands. It’s the end of the world. The way to visit Halong Bay is on a boat tour, which takes you in between soaring karst mountains that rise directly out of the water. I found myself just sitting at the front of the top deck staring in awe at the sight all around me.

I chose a quieter tour on purpose, opting to avoid any mention of “party boat.” I was picked up at my hostel and, with my four new travel companions, driven 3 hours to the dock. Our junk was an in-between: not new, but not falling apart. Since there were so few of us I was upgraded to a private first level room, complete with my own balcony! Luxury. Lunch was served as we departed for the cave, a main tourist attraction. The cave is overrated. It probably was cool before it was Disneyfied with colorful lights. We were herded around with all the other tours being shown the same rock formations and what they supposedly looked like; a couple, a lion, a boob.

The afternoon was dedicated to getting to where we would dock for the night, which was a perfect way to spend it really. It was such an enjoyable ride. Upon arrival we had some free time to kayak around wherever we pleased. The water was so calm and the mountains so huge around us. After dinner on the boat we all called it a night rather early, which was fine with me since we had an early morning for the next leg of the trip.

I chose to do a night in Lan Ha Bay on an island – based on a great recommendation from a friend – so after breakfast we took a bus across Cat Ba Island to board our next boat out into Lan Ha Bay. We puttered through the largest floating village in this area; an impressive array of houses and shops all bobbed on top of the water, and I wondered how the families raised kids somewhere where they had to balance on beams to walk around. It wasn’t much further through more karst mountains until we reached our private island: Monkey Island.

There is just one hotel on the island made up of bamboo bungalows set back from a small beach with a gorgeous view. I had my own bungalow just steps from the sand. Lunch was served – hot pot this time, a group activity – then free time for kayaking. This water, much closer to open ocean, fought back against me way more than in Halong Bay, but it made for a more rigorous kayaking adventure. Later that afternoon our guide led us on a hike up and over the mountain to a beach on the other side where the monkeys liked to hang out. Turns out monkeys really like white bread; we saw tons of them up close. They started out cute, but once a new group showed up and provoked them we saw their mean side.

The evening was another quiet one, and the next day we started the long journey home early. Boat to bus to boat to bus – it took all day to get back to Hanoi.

This three day trip was a peaceful getaway in amazing scenery. I definitely recommend spending a night in Lan Ha Bay. It was so much quieter than Halong Bay so it felt like a real escape, and it’s still stunningly beautiful. I felt so lucky to be there.

So the second part.

I started the Halong Bay adventure unsure of my tour decision. My resentment of tours upon leaving Australia carried over into Vietnam a little bit and I spent most of the ride there thinking I should have gone about this in a different way. But maybe there is no right way to do Halong Bay. Then as we were gliding through the rock formations I decided it was nothing to harbor over because look where I was. The thing that really mattered was that Halong Bay was worth it in every way, no matter how I got there.

All I could think was: “This is good for me, this is what I needed. I should really start believing in myself more. Isn’t that what the yogi said anyway? Just keep going, I’m strong, I can do it.”

Everything that I had experienced in Vietnam shook me in ways that are hard to talk about. I needed to get out of South Vietnam, I needed to get out of the craziness of Hanoi, and I needed to get into serene, gorgeous nature and be by myself. I spent a lot of time just thinking, admiring where I was, and working through what I was feeling. I meditated both mornings with pleasing results. I came around to travel decisions that felt right for me, most immediately that I needed to go to Cambodia.

I was sad to leave Lan Hay Bay but confident in the decision I had made to go to Cambodia. Sometimes I just need a little alone time in nature and everything feels right again.

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