Boats and Karst on Halong Bay, VietnamAfter trekking in the northern highlands of Vietnam and exploring the buzzing streets of Hanoi, Keith and I thought that an overnight cruise on Halong Bay would be a perfect romantic and relaxing getaway for us.

I couldn’t wait to return to Halong Bay. I had beautiful memories of it from my first visit in Vietnam in 2005.  I told Keith how enchanted I was by its picturesque seascape of limestone pillars rising up from the water. I found it unspoiled, mystical and romantic, and I was charmed by the sight of exotic traditional junk boats sailing the bay.  Keith couldn’t wait to experience Halong Bay for himself;  it was the destination in our Vietnam itinerary that he was most excited about.

However, as soon as we arrived at the port, it became apparent to us that things had changed.


The Port of Halong

Old Boats in Halong Bay Port (2005), VietnamThese were some of the photos I took of the port of Halong Bay in 2005. It was filled with traditional junk boats. I loved its atmosphere of  rawness, of foreignness and its fascinating chaos. It reminded me that I really stepped into faraway, exotic land.

Port of Halong Bay, VietnamAnd this was the port during our visit in November 2012. Keith and I thought,  “Are we in Florida, or California or Long Island in New York perhaps?  Flanked by high-end condominium developments, the port today looked so sanitized, so developed, a bit Disney-esque, in fact.  Exotic no more.   Boats on the Halong Bay, Vietnam All the boats were white. Where were the traditional brown or red junk boats?

Our Cruise

Bhaya Legend Cruise, Halong Bay, VietnamEven our boat was sparkling white! I swear it was brown on the website (it was probably an old photo).

I asked the cruise manager if those exotic brown/red junk boats were perhaps docked or sailing in another part of the bay?  He answered, ”No more brown or red boats or other colored boats, only white.” He explained that under new government regulation all boats cruising Halong Bay must be painted white. Oh well….whatever the reason is, it’s just not the same.

Bhaya Legend Cruise, Halong Bay, VietnamAnyway, we set aside our initial disappointment and looked forward to enjoying the cruise and the unspoiled beauty of the bay.

Bhaya Legend Cruise, Halong Bay, VietnamOther than being white, our boat, the Bayan Legend, did not disappoint. It was lovely, comfortable and the crew were friendly and efficient.

Bhaya Legend Cruise, Halong Bay, VietnamAnd it was romantic indeed. We shared the cruise with about 20 other passengers, who were mostly couples and honeymooners.

Food on Bhaya Legend Cruise, Halong Bay, Vietnam

And the food was delicious!

The Bay

Limestone Karst of Halong Bay, VietnamAfter enjoying a sumptuous lunch, we settled in the private balcony of our room and enjoyed the spectacular view of of the bay and its majestic karsts (limestone formation). Limestone Karst of Halong Bay, Vietnam Limestone Karst of Halong Bay, VietnamWe were enjoying the tranquility, beauty and romance of the bay UNTIL……

Industrial ship in Halong Bay, VietnamHoly cow! What is  this huge, ugly industrial ship doing in Halong Bay?  The Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Isn’t it s supposed to be protected from anything colossal, like this ship, that may harm its environment?

Industrial ship in Halong Bay, VietnamAnd then we passed by another monstrous one and then another one.

Industrial ship in Halong Bay, VietnamWe looked further ahead and we saw a lot more.  They seemed to outnumbered the karsts.  Oh well, there goes the tranquility, beauty and romance of the bay.   Disappointed, we retreated to our room and waited for the first planned activity for the day.

We  later asked the cruise manager to enlighten us about the presence of the industrial ships on Halong Bay. He excitedly quipped that they were logistic boats that transport goods into Vietnam. He made it sound like It was a great thing.

The Floating Village of Vung Vieng

Part of our cruise itinerary was a visit to the floating fishing village.  I thought that our boat was just going to sail along and we would observe the village as we pass it by, like how it was done in my previous cruise. Vung Vieng Floating Fishing Village, Halong Bay, VietnamHowever, we were told to disembark upon reaching the village “gate” and to transfer to one of the many row boats that were waiting to take the tourists to the village.

Row boat on Vung Vieng fishing village, Halong Bay, VietnamBefore getting on the row boat, one of the locals gave us a brief orientation about the village and the itinerary of the village tour. It sounded too organized.

Vung Vieng Fishing Village,  Halong Bay, VietnamThe village of Vung Vieng is one of the the four floating fishing villages on Halong Bay.

Vung Vieng Floating Fishing Village, Halong Bay, VietnamPeople have lived in the floating villages for many generation.  Fishing and aquaculture are their main sources of livelihood.

Vung Vieng Fishing Village, Halong Bay, VietnamThey say people in the floating villages learn to fish before they can walk.

A home in Vung Vieng Floating Fishing Village, Halong Bay, VietnamThe colorful homes on the villages are supported by floating rafts.  Most of the households raise fish and shellfish under the rafts.

Houses in Vung Vieng Floating Fishing Village, Halong Bay, VietnamThe colorful floating houses in Vung Vieng.

Vung Vieng Floating  Fishing Village, Halong Bay, VietnamThe floating grocery store.

Vung Vieng Village, Halong Bay, VietnamWe were herded into a floating area they called  “community center.”

Vung Vieng Floating Fishing Village, Halong Bay, VietnamThe community center was actually a tourist center. It has a shop selling handicrafts and souvenirs (the same ones found in other parts of Vietnam but more expensive), a small museum and some fishponds that display the different variety of fish that thrive (or used to thrive?) in the waters of Halong Bay.School in Vung Vieng Floating Fishing Village, Halong Bay, VietnamThere was also small classroom with a handful of children. Tourists were going in and out of the classroom to take pictures while the class was going on. We thought it was plain disrespectful and disruptive.  But then nobody seemed to discourage them.  At this point, we felt deeply sad as too how commercialized this floating village had become.

After the trip, we read up more about the conditions of the fishing villages on Halong Bay. We learned that the supply of fish has been scarce the last few years due to pollutants caused by villagers’ own waste (they don’t have toilets), fuels and rubbish from irresponsible tourist boats, etc. To supplement their income, the villagers have resorted to tourism.

 Halong Bay, VietnamAfter leaving the community center, we rowed  towards this majestic rock with a tunnel.  We were excited to go through and see what was on the other side. What did we see?  More majestic karsts and more humongous industrial ships.

Pearl Farm, Halong Bay, VietnamWe were then herded into the pearl farm.

On a  floating workshop, this young lady demonstrated how the pearl seeds are planted on oyster shells. They will be then cultivated on the farm for about 18 months. Halong Bay is said to produce fine quality of cultured pearls.Pearl Farm, Halong Bay, Vietnam We were then led to the shop where pearl jewelries were sold. I think everyone felt that we could have skipped the shopping part.

Cruise Activities

Bhaya Legend Cruise, Halong Bay, VietnamAt the end of the day, there were several activities on the cruise that we really enjoyed – a massage on the open-air spa, a delightful cooking demonstration, and a fun squid fishing.

The Second Day

Morning in  Halong Bay, VietnamWe woke up to a beautiful morning.  (There were still lots of industrial ships around but we chose not to focus on them).

Tai Chi Class, Bhaya Legend Cruise, Halong Bay, VietnamA tai-chi class on the deck was a nice way to start  the day.

Boats on Halong Bay, VietnamOur main activity this morning was a visit to one of the caves on the bay. We followed these boats heading into a picturesque inlet where the cave was located.

Boats on Halong Bay, VietnamMore boats heading for the cave. They actually looked pretty when their sails are up.

The Han Sung Sot (‘Surprise Cave’).

Han Sung Sot (Surprise Cave), Halong Bay, VietnamWe reached an islet where Han Sung Sot Cave was located. From the wharf, we had to climb 50 steps to the opening of the cave. The view on the way up was stunning.

Han Sung Sot (Surprise Cave), Halong Bay, VietnamOur ghost-like images inside the cave.

Han Sung Sot (Surprise Cave), Halong Bay, VietnamThe sheer size of the cave (it has three chambers) was very impressive….

Han Sung Sot (Surprise Cave), Halong Bay, Vietnam… and its drip formations were very fascinating…….but the garish lighting and cemented walkways made it look more like theme park than a raw wonder of nature.

Surprise Cave, Halong Bay, VietnamThe view of nature outside the cave was thankfully untouched by human hands and was truly spectacular. We took our time to enjoying the sight as we were heading back to the port from here.

Despite some disappointments, we were glad we did the cruise. Halong Bay as a nature is still beautiful. Lesson learned: changes are imminent, don’t expect a place to stand still.


You can find out more about the Bhaya Legend Cruise at

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About Marisol

Taking you on our journey one photo - and footstep - at a time.

46 responses to “Cruising Halong Bay: Still Beautiful, But….

  1. Leigh

    I was in Halong Bay about 5 years ago and spent three nights on a brown boat. We were kayaking and hardly saw another soul. As beautiful as it is, I agree and think they’ve sanitized the area. All white boats – not so pretty. I loved the wooden boats!! even though my room wasn’t nearly as nice as yours. I can’t get over those big, ugly industrialized boats either. I think I’ll keep my mental image of Halong Bay from my visit. Sometimes progress seems like a step backwards.
    Leigh recently posted..Exceeding Expectations: Hostal Finca La Violeta in SusaconMy Profile

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Leigh, glad to know that you were able to experience Halong at its purer form and that you’re able to appreciate our disappointment. Those white boats and the presence of the colossal ships were certainly not pretty.We agree, progress sometime is a step backward.

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi TJ & Charlotte, I know that you always run a risk of being disappointed when you return to a place you truly loved. Glad you enjoyed the photos.

  2. Lisa

    I’m always hesitant to return to places that I have previously visited for fear that it will have changed and not live up to my memories. It’s so sad that what is described as progress can actually destroy the charm and beauty of a place. I wish that I would have had the opportunity to visit Halong Bay before it had changed – it looks like such a naturally beautiful destination.
    Lisa recently posted..Photo Memories from the Grand CanyonMy Profile

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Lisa, as Leigh mentioned about, progress can sometime be a step backward and it’s really sad, especially for such naturally beautiful place like Halong Bay.

    • Traveling Solemates

      I totally see what your Aunt is talking about. The problem with many developing countries are they so eager to please the tourists and their tendency is to overdevelop the tourist attractions to the extent that they destroy its natural form and that some of them are unrecognizable when you return to them.

  3. I can only imagine how disappointed you were at seeing the changes to Halong Bay. I wish I had seen it in the good ole days as I don’t think it would be making the trip now. I’m happy to have seen it through your eyes!
    jenny@atasteoftravel recently posted..Jordan: The Ottoman Town of SaltMy Profile

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Jenny, yes, it was disappointing because I guess we had this great expectation based on the past. Halong Bay as a nature is still beautiful. If you go and and know what to expect in its current state, I think it will still be enjoyable.

  4. Fancy painting all the boats white, what a strange thought. Did you notice tree trunks painted white in Vietnam – a strange thing that we noticed. We boycotted Halong for a day trip on a small brown boat in Lan Ha Bay. We were very happy with our boat that ferried kayakers and rock climbers for a day amongst the karst islands. I think however that your boat looked very luxurious and the food wonderful. Lan Ha is less polluted and does not have the big ships, but I think Halong Bay is a big draw card. I guess that Halong City is the port for Hanoi so they need to have the big ships there. No doubt when it gets too polluted they will shift tourist operations to Lan Ha Bay.
    budget jan recently posted..Resuming our Mekong River Trip from Luang Prabang to Pak Ou CavesMy Profile

    • Traveling Solemates

      HI Jan, Yes! We saw those painted tree trunks! Strange thing indeed. You did a smart choice boycotting Halong Bay. Had I not romanticized it that much, we would have gone the Lan Ha rout.e.

  5. I too would have been a little disappointed, and in a way it proves that we should be careful about going back to places we once visited and loved. How the world has changed, and oh so quickly too. I can imagine how exotic and foreign the bay once was, and although your cruise looks amazing, I think I would have liked to see it before all the boats were white and those enormous industrial tankers were around. Really interesting post though, which I read with great interest, and I did love the pics :)
    Johanna at ZigaZag WA Travel & Lifestyle recently posted..Sensational Luxury Accommodation in Margaret River RegionMy Profile

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Johanna, I’ve noticed that things have been changing so quickly in most developing countries. I feel that they’re in a hurry to show the world how far they have come along that they make tourism development haphazardly. They use the western standard as a their yardstick for development that they tend to lose their unique identity.

  6. such a interesting post. Having never been there, I have always viewed Halong Bay as one of those exotic places where time had stood still, so to see those huge cruise ships was amazing and a little dissapointing. Then I saw that you went to a fishing village, and I thought ah a bit of authenticity. Sadly also now commercial. Yes time doesn’t stand still, all this is the face of commercialism and progress. We can but sit back and enjoy the majestic natural views that are still there. We went to Africa about 10 years ago and had the most magnificent holiday. We went with no expectations and had the most perfect visit in every respect – probably why we haven’t gone back. We would go back with expectations and perhaps might be dissapointed.
    A great post. Thanks for taking me there.
    have a wonderful weekend and thankyou for stopping by my blog today.

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Jill, thanks. Glad you appreciated the post. You know it’s sad that some countries, mostly the developing ones, don’t realize that their beauty lies on their authenticity and that they don’t have to feel that they have develop themselves to western standard to please tourists/travelers.
      And for us travelers, I guess we have to learn to let go of expectations to avoid disappointment.
      I’d say, hey, go back to Africa! You may find you may like it much more than the first. You’ll really never until you get there.

  7. Beautiful pictures and narrative, Marisol! Thanks for taking us on your cruise. It’s sad how they have to rely so much on tourism now and everything looks so commercialized. It still looks like a great way to cruise down Halong Bay though. It’s too bad so many things have changed since your last visit. I’m one of those people who rarely go back to the same place but we’re returning to London 14 years later this summer so I’ll let you know :-)
    Mary {The World Is A Book} recently posted..Favorite Water Photos for World Water DayMy Profile

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Mary, thanks! Glad you enjoyed the post, Mother! :)
      I know , the changes caused by human are sad but we’re just glad that the nature itself is still beautiful.
      Have a wonderful return trip in London! I think it will be great. You know, my return visit to European destinations is always better than the first. I guess because they were already in that developed state, anything different that you may find next time around is just an enhancement and not a drastic change.

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Mua-chan, glad you enjoyed it.

  8. I would have wanted the old red and brown boats myself but it seems the authorities wanted order and neatness.
    Isn’t it funny how we want things to stay the same as they are in our memories, especially when ours are romantic, quaint, etc.? Nice and comprehensive post. Makes me want to see it for myself.
    InsideJourneys recently posted..Moving Day, Westmoreland JamaicaMy Profile

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Marcia,
      I know, when you fall in love with a place you tend to romanticize it and wish it would stay that way forever. As travelers, we have to keep in mind that as people change, places change, too.

  9. What a touching story you told – both about what you found and what you lost in returning to a favorite spot. We had a similar response returning to Kotor, Montenegro on a cruise last fall. . .tourism had reared its ugly head in this wonderful spot. Maybe it is good. . . .maybe it is bad. . .it was somewhat disappointing.
    Jackie Smith recently posted..Springtime in Washington’s Wine CountryMy Profile

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Jackie,
      Wow, really? Much changes had taken place in Montenegro? That’s one place we would like to explore hoping to get a glimpse of an unspoiled spot in Eastern Europe. Oh well, I guess progress is creeping in so fast in these places than we expect. Thanks for sharing.

  10. I’m glad that you were able to get past your disappointment and still enjoy your cruise. Your room looked lovely and romantic and I loved ypur pictures of Halong Bay- minus the industrial ships of course.
    Tonya {The Traveling Praters} recently posted..Civil War Sites in the SouthMy Profile

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Tonya, despite the disappointment we tried to make the most out of it. Glad you enjoyed the photos.

  11. Mitch T

    Amazing photos and commentary. That first shot should be printed on canvas on mounted on your wall.:)

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Mitch, thanks! Your photos on 500px are amazing!

  12. Dennis

    What a few years can make huh! Many times we find government agencies (especially when someone takes over) not thinking enough whether changes they implement is good for the long term.
    Dennis recently posted..Carnival ValorMy Profile

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Dennis, unfortunately that’s the reality in a lot of developing countries. They’re in a rush to show the world their progress without thinking of its repercussion.

  13. jill

    Oh wow… I don’t really get the decision behind painting all of the boats white. I just don’t… I guess it doesn’t really matter in the end, but I loved the look of our brown ‘junk’ we were on back in 2011.
    jill recently posted..Miracle of the Year: Getting Scuba Certified in HawaiiMy Profile

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Jill, I know I don’t get it either. I’m glad you appreciate why I was so upset about not seeing any of the brown junk boats.

  14. Sarah

    Hi Marisol, I wonder if the new boats have anything to do with that awful fire a few years ago? Maybe an attempt to make things appear safer and more modern? Thank you for your honest reporting, at least if I go some day I will know what to expect. That crab looked delicious!!!

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Sarah, not sure of the exact reason but I got the impression that it was more for the modern look than safety. We actually read that since all the boats were painted white there had been numerous boat collisions or near collisions. They said that during extreme foggy condition, boats don’t see other boats until they’re very close to each other.
      Yes, those crabs were delicious! :)

  15. Helen

    wow, that’s a really lovely piece of photo journalism, it tells a great story. It does look like they’ve done up the boats a lot since I was there and the massage platform is a great idea.
    Helen recently posted..VancouverMy Profile

    • Traveling Solemates

      hi Helen, thanks for you kind words. Yes, the boats do not look as traditional as they once were. Well, they’re actually the same boats they were just painted white.

  16. Awesome! Its genuinely remarkable paragraph, I have got much clear idea on the topic of from this paragraph.
    vietnam travel recently posted..vietnam travelMy Profile

  17. Nice post – now I have a pretty good idea of what to expect from my Halong Bay tour! The boats now all have to be painted white by law for safety – a dark boat at dawn or twilight is harder to see, and as you noted there is a lot more industrial traffic in the area now. I agree that having the tankers in Ha Long Bay disrupt the scene and that progress sometimes comes at a cost, but I think the local Vietnamese are pretty stoked that there’s economic progress for their country, as represented by goods flowing into Vietnam… and Ha Long Bay it seems is a natural harbour and the best place for a port in Northern Vietnam. A story has many viewpoints! Your cruise ship looks fantastic though, I don’t think the one we booked is quite so posh! :)
    Taking to the Open Road recently posted..4 Days in Madrid and SurroundsMy Profile

  18. Rob

    Love to go to Vietnam and explore off a boat, food must be amazing as the landscape just absolutely great cant imagine how fresh the air might be there in the mountains :) nice pictures too!!! love your site
    Rob recently posted..Sea Ray Yacht Boats For Sale Export importMy Profile

  19. Thanks for sharing this news. Hopefully waiting for some positive changes due to this new initiative.

  20. Ophelia

    Thank you for the auspicious writeup. It if truth be told was
    once a amusement account it. Glance complex to far delivered agreeable
    from you! However, how can we keep in touch?
    Ophelia recently posted..OpheliaMy Profile

  21. Oh my goodness! Incredible article dude!
    Thanks, However I am encountering difficulties with your RSS.

    I don’t understand why I am unable to join it.
    Is there anybody having the same RSS problems?
    Anyone who knows the solution will you kindly respond?
    Paris R. Friehauf recently posted..Paris R. FriehaufMy Profile

  22. Many touristy sites are much commercialized. We have to be responsible tourists and not do anything that will spoil the culture or values of the places. Nice blog! Halong Bay is in my bucket list and I hope to visit it soon :-)

  23. I also had been to Halong bay for twice but still eager to go there. Its mesmerizing beauty was unforgettable.

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