Halong Bay is in the northeast of Vietnam. It’s one of the seven natural wonders of the world — or so it was recently voted.
It’s around two and a half hours by road from Hanoi to the harbour where you can get on a boat and sail Halong Bay.
And those boats are called junks.
Not a very auspicious name. I didn’t know what to expect the first time I visited Halong Bay. What is a junk? Why would I want to go in a junk? I’m happy going in a boat — a yacht would be better — but a junk? No, thank you.
But the fact is that when it refers to a vessel, the word junk has nothing to do with its usual meaning in English. It has a completely different origin. Junk comes from the Javanese word jong —which simply means a kind ofboat — through the Portuguese junco.
By the way, the Vietnamese name for these traditional wooden vessels that cover the waters of Halong Bay is thuyên mành.
But I didn’t know that the first time I visited, in 2008.
At that time, I was backpacking. I was on a very low budget and I went on the cheapest boat there was — which happened to be a genuinely junky boat. There were mice going around in my cabin. The boat was always lopsided — I’m not really sure how we were even moving forward — and at some point I thought we were sinking. And there were — there still are — a lot of other wrecks like that in the water around Halong Bay.
But there are also a lot of excellent junks, which besides have stayed true to their traditional concept.
Because that junk I was in the first time I went was a modern junk, a motorboat. But there are junks that are still powered by sail — big, beautiful boats with multiple sails, travelling silently on the winds to the outer areas of Halong Bay.
And this was something I only discovered on my second visit, which was two years ago.
The first time I went for the cheapest trip and I wanted to see the things that were famous. Halong Bay is a big area — it would take three or four days to really go around everything there. But within that area, there are caves with Buddhist statues inside, golden sandy beaches, and small islets.
There are things to do amid those beautiful limestone karsts. And the first time, I went for two days, wanting to see those places that everybody sees and what’s on the standard tour.
I did not have a good travel experience.
It was probably one of my least favourite travel experiences ever. Because the water was chockablock with junks — a hundred boats, everybody trying to get off at the same time, everyone charging into the same caves and shouting and taking selfies. (Yes, even back then taking selfies — just with cameras rather than smartphones). They were making absolute chaos.
And it’s hard to appreciate a landscape like Halong Bay when you’re hemmed in by other boats — especially by junks that also look like they’re sinking.
So my advice is, when you go to Halong Bay, do not follow the central route around the famous places. Find a tour operator, see what route they do and just avoid those places. Because it was chaos. Everyone was going at the same time, everyone was getting crowded. And there was quite a lot of pollution.
That really put me off the whole of Halong Bay. I thought, “Seventh wonder? Not a chance.”
Luckily, the second time I went I had a much better budget. I went with some friends, got a much nicer boat and had more time. I had four days and three nights. And we travelled to the outer areas of Halong Bay.
This was blissful.
To cruise on the wind, with no sound of motors, through that karst landscape — those limestone cliffs that rise like phantoms from the ocean, the spines of mountains that are mostly submerged. The cliffs are covered in trees that jut out to impossible angles, every cliff the same from a distance, yet each one completely different.
As we cruised, we found private beaches. We could get off the boat and kayak across 200 meters and just be alone on a small golden beach that would disappear at high tide. We could also get into the kayaks, paddle through hidden archways and get inside the karsts, in secret lagoons.
The guides knew we could only go there at certain times based on the tide, and they knew when we had to get out to avoid having to drag our kayaks a kilometre out, across the sand. We saw spectacular caves, where there were no other people — just stalactites and stalagmites. There were no statues, no Buddhas, just peace with nature.
The highlight of my experience was waking up in the boat on Halong Bay.
Being out on the sea, there is a layer of mist hovering above the water around sunrise. That mist was slowly clearing, just as the colors of sunrise filtered through. And as it cleared, I started appreciating that our boat was completely alone in this area of Halong Bay. Every five minutes a new karst would reveal itself, as the mist cleared further. By 8 a.m. the sun was up, the mist was gone, and I realized I had witnessed something ephemeral — this one specific place in Halong Bay, this one series of karsts, this one morning — something never to be repeated, something that would look different from every angle.
If you want to visit there, I would advise you to find a local tour operator that can take you on a traditional junk to where you will find yourself alone in Halong Bay watching the sunrise.
And it’s not that difficult. Halong Bay is a massive place — there are a lot of different areas you can visit. It’s just that 90% of the boats all follow the same route, taking mass tourism to the same places where it’s polluted and overcrowded.
Halong Bay is more than that.
You can spend a night by a karst that has its own beach, where you will be the only guests. You can do what you like — a barbecue on the beach, playing volleyball, snorkeling — in complete privacy.
You can also take a seaplane directly from Hanoi. Instead of driving to the harbour and taking a boat from there, you can fly and land on the water in Halong Bay — a flight that gives you the full aerial perspective on this world wonder. I haven’t experienced that, but I’m sure it is magical.
On my first trip, I was very excited to go to Halong Bay — and it was such a disappointment. On my second trip, I was not expecting anything — but I had a wonderful experience, because I was on a traditional junk, and the guides and the boat captain knew just where to take us.
They were the people who showed me that Halong Bay does deserve its place as one of the natural wonders of the world.