It’s a mystical place where the mountains meet the sea. As we bounced over the highway toward Hai Phong, I met the people I was to spend the next few days with: Two Dutch cousins, a Dutch solo traveler, a German couple living in Kuala Lumpur, and a solo Italian girl who was living in London. In no time, we were all best buds, and I knew the next few days were going to be good ones.

I signed up for the Real Halong Bay Experience at the suggestion of my ever-handy Lonely Planet Southeast Asia on a Shoestring. What sold me on it?

  1. The price was right – with so many Halong Tours being hawked in every corner of Hanoi at varying prices, it can be very difficult to know what’s worth the money and what isn’t. This was ‘mid-range,’ which gave me confidence that I wouldn’t be shoved into roach-infested accommodation nor would I be ripped off.
  2. It was recommended by several reputable travel authorities. In addition to the Lonely Planet, this tour also ranked highly on TripAdvisor, and was mentioned in a blog or two. More than one source in agreement? I’m sold!
  3. It covered a lot. Not only would we cruise Halong Bay, which had been reported to be busy and dirty, we were also exploring lesser-traveled Lan Ha Bay. Two for the price of one!



We managed to fit the best of the best into a full day, and rarely ran into any other boats on the water. We docked to kayak the lagoons, which was an incredible experience.



Then we stopped off to swim in the clear waters of Lan Ha Bay for a while. I managed to jump from the second-level deck of the boat into the water with my favorite sunglasses on my head, losing them forever to the turquoise depths of the Bay.


We finally docked an hour before sunset at the private Cat Ong Island, where our ‘dorm’ accommodation was actually just a private bungalow with four of us in there! We shared two to a room, and I ended up in a bungalow with the three Dutchies, who were fun girls.


We hiked to the top of the mountain as a group to catch the sunset. I was the only silly one who decided my flip-flops would make appropriate hiking shoes. Fortunately, I was able to power up the hill leading the pack, in spite of my poor choice of footwear! Coming down? I had to do most of it barefoot. We were treated with an incredible view of the sunset from the highest peak on Cat Ong Island.

After we descended for dinner, we soon found ourselves a couple of bottles of wine deep. We began playing drinking games, and I learned the Dutch version of King’s Cup (it’s WAY more fun than our American version!) and I taught the group the merits of playing flip cup. I must say, the Dutch girls caught on quickly! We pitted boys vs. girls, and the girls won the day!

In no time Diep, our tour guide, was slumped against the wall with drunk eyes, refusing to go to bed until the last of us had finished. We finally retired around 3 a.m., better friends than we had been that morning and making plans to meet up with each other at different points on our journey south through Vietnam.IMG_20150421_173758