Ha Long Bay, Vietnam: is it worth it for just a day?

Before I booked our day-trip to Ha Long Bay – a UNESCO World Heritage site consisting of almost 2,000 islands of limestone rock scattered over an area of 600 square miles – I was a bit concerned I might be wasting my money.  

All the reviews I’d read, and people I’d spoken to, said that the thing to do in Ha Long Bay is to stay overnight or for a couple of days – only then can you fully marvel at its splendour and properly see the scenery it’s so famous for.  

Others had said the trip wasn’t worth it at all – that it was overrated and not worth the long journey it took to get there, which obviously eats much more into a day-trip. But having never been to Vietnam before, and only having a day to spare in our jam-packed itinerary, I decided that we would risk it and make up our own minds.  

Neither of us was disappointed.  In fact, it probably wouldn’t be stretching it to say that we were blown away and had one of the best days on our trip; we definitely didn’t feel short-changed by only having a few hours there. 

We booked a slightly more expensive trip than some of the other ones you can find.  However, this included reaching Ha Long Bay via the new highway from Hanoi, which cuts the travel time from four hours down to around two and a half each way – something that allowed us to maximise our time.  And although it was more costly than comparable day trips, it was still cheaper than booking to stay overnight.

The day

We left Hanoi early in the morning, reaching the boat in time for our 11am departure.  After some refreshments and a briefing on our itinerary, we slowly pulled out from the harbour and towards the islands of limestone rock that I’d seen in numerous photos of Ha Long Bay.  

At this point it was cloudy and misty – something we were told is not uncommon on the bay; but any worries of not being able to see enough was dispelled as the mist gradually started to lift and we realised that you sail fairly close to some of the islands.  From this distance, you get an excellent view from which to see the rocks of all shapes and sizes, some with thick scrubby vegetation blanketing them.

Some of the islands, we were told, bear a striking resemblance to living things or have become famous Vietnamese images – for example, the “two chickens kissing” set of rocks that apparently resemble – well, two chickens kissing!  This is so iconic that all the boats seem to sail in front of these rocks to give you an unrivalled position from which to take your pictures.

The first part of the trip involved sailing gently around this incredible landscape, making our way further into the bay. With the weather warming up and the sky clearing, we were able to sit on the top deck staring out at the scenery, basically in awe at what an amazing place we were lucky enough to be visiting. Then, after around an hour and a half, we moved towards our first stop for the day: Sung Sot cave.  

Sung Sot cave

This first stop was a chance to step onto one of the islands and explore the caves that some of them have.  We went to Sung Sot cave, otherwise known as “Surprise Cave” – and it really was a surprise – at least the scale of it.  After a short, steep, walk uphill, we entered an absolutely gigantic cavern of stalactites, stalagmites and other rock formations that you can admire more closely as you take the path set out through the dimly lit cave.   

If you visit this cave, I’d recommend hiring a guide who’ll be able to tell you the history and legends of the cave and who will also point out the various rock formations that are said to resemble animals, including monkeys, snakes, and tigers.  The size of this cave means that you’re unlikely to be able to scan all areas yourself to discover these.

Bamboo boating

We then moved on a short distance, disembarking from our big boat to a much smaller bamboo boat that held around a dozen people. This was a great opportunity to get much closer to the water and appreciate that in some areas, it’s really quite shallow.  

We were steered under a rock archway, through a short tunnel, and into a small, but beautifully peaceful, lagoon; the only sounds here were the sloshing of the water as the paddles cut it, a few birds tweeting, and the odd tourist pointing out a monkey they had spotted on a craggy rock above: wonderful!

Ti top Island

The final stop on our trip was Ti Top island – so named because of the Soviet cosmonaut, Ghermann Titov, who visited the island with President Ho Chi Minh in the 1960s (you can see a statue of him at the entrance to the harbour).  

Although this stop was the last on our schedule, it was by no means least – in fact, the view you get from this island is really the cherry on top of the cake. 

To experience these views, you do have to work a little: they are at the top of a very steep set of winding steps, and the climb under the hot afternoon sun that was now beating down was a little challenging. But once you reach the summit (or the halfway point if you choose to stop here), you’ll be really glad you made the effort.  

There are absolutely breathtaking views out across the bay and you get a much clearer sense of its scale when you’re able to see the collection of islands and boats floating in between them from this height.  Just make sure you have enough film/battery life in your camera, as you won’t want to miss taking dozens of photos here.

Wandering back to the boat is obviously a much easier route downhill; at the bottom if you have time, you could take a dip in the water or stop for some refreshment on the sandy beach here. 

Ending the day

After all of this, we returned to the boat for our ride back to base.  This was a slow and quiet journey, (we could barely hear the engines running), and sitting on the top deck of the boat in the open air gave a real feeling of peace and tranquillity which was utterly amazing.  After a pretty frenetic few days in the capital, Hanoi, this was such a contrast and one of the most relaxing 90 minutes I’ve had in a long time. 

So, to answer my own question – is Ha Long Bay worth it for just a day – yes, definitely.  True, it would have been great to stay longer, but if you only have a day to spare, then this shouldn’t put you off making the trip here.  It’s a wonderful, captivating and magical place and one I’ll never forget.

We booked our trip with Paradise Cruise –(note that this post is written independently; no payment or payment in kind has been received for citing this company).  

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