When we booked our Viking Mekong trip with Viking River Cruises, the dilemma we had was whether or not to book an extension. Two extensions are offered with the Viking Mekong itinerary through Vietnam and Cambodia. One is for a couple days in Bangkok, but we’d already been, and the other is a side-trip from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay. The Ha Long Bay extension effectively adds two days on to the trip, 24 hours of which is spent on a trip to Ha Long Bay and the rest of which provides additional time in Hanoi.
I read mixed reviews about Ha Long Bay. On one hand, Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. On the other hand, I’ve heard some complain that it is overrated and touristy and not as spectacular as advertised if it is overcast. However, we are never ones to discard a place because it’s touristy, especially since places are usually touristy for a reason and we are suckers for natural beauty.
Ha Long Bay is comprised of 1,969 islands which are uninhabited. Ninety-percent of those islands are made of limestone. Approximately 775 islands, in an area of 434 square kilometers, are protected by UNESCO.
The islands took 60 million years to form. Many of the islands have caves or grottos. These limestone karsts stand like pillars jutting out of the water, and the bases are worn away by the constant movement of water. They are very similar to the karsts we kayaked in Thailand, but more extensive.
Our half-day Ha Long Bay cruise started with a very nice lunch on the junk boat, which we enjoyed while watching the scenery pass by outside the windows. After lunch was completed, we headed up to the top deck for an even better view and a bit of relaxation.
Sometimes water destinations that are popular with tourists like this end up being filled with boats and polluted. While there were many boats on the water, it didn’t necessarily feel overcrowded, and the boats also added to the picturesqueness. The only bummer was that none of the boats had their signature red sails up. I was pleased to notice that, while cloudy, the water appeared to be clean and we did not see trash floating by, which is a common sight in some over-touristed, polluted waterways.
After making a loop through the karsts of Ha Long Bay, we stopped to tour one of the most famous caves, Sung Sot Cave, which means surprising cave. Sung Sot Cave is located within Bo Hon Island.
To reach the cave, we first had to climb a hundred steps. The cave system has high ceilings covered in curving, dripping stalactites. A paved path leads through Sung Sot Cave, passing from room to room. Colored lights brighten the cave walls, illuminating the alien-like formations.
After our cave exploration, we boarded the boat once more and slowly made our way back to port while the sun began to set.
The drive between Hanoi and Ha Long Bay is about four hours (without traffic jam), so we made a rest stop on the way from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay and back again at the Hồng Ngọc Fine Art Company Ltd-Sao Đỏ. This is a place to stretch the legs, visit the restroom, have a bite to eat . . . and shop.
Hồng Ngọc Fine Art Company sells stone statutes, pearls, jewelry, hand-embroidered pictures, clothing, and more. While definitely frequented by many tourists on the way to and from Ha Long Bay, the products appear to be good quality, many are unique, and prices are negotiable. I have this issue where I can’t buy anything so early on in a trip, so we didn’t end up buying anything but snacks, but it was fun to look at everything.
Hồng Ngọc Fine Art Company was founded in 1996 to provide training and jobs for disabled people. In addition to products available for purchase, workers create some of those products on the shop floor for visitors to see, like the embroidered pictures.
When we were driving through Ha Long City, we saw what looked like a resort on its own private island. We speculated what that hotel must be like. To our surprise, that is where we were booked for the night.
There are two parts to the Vinpearl Ha Long Bay Resort. A building that looks like a hotel on its own is on the mainland. This is the lobby where you check in. After receiving your room key, you use the key to pass through the gate to board a boat that takes you to the island. Here is another lobby and the hotel. The hotel is so fancy, the prime minister of Vietnam was there and the hotel was surrounded by government and military cars.
The Vinpearl has three restaurants, but only one was open during our visit, and only the buffet was available for dinner. The buffet was a mixture for all cultures. There was Vietnamese soup, there was sushi, there were pizza bites. I wasn’t crazy about the buffet dinner options, but the buffet breakfast options were a different story. In the morning there were four choices of soup, lots of tropical fruit, dim sum, and a lot more.
Our room was enormous, the décor was fancy, and the view was of the outdoor pool and Ha Long Bay. My favorite thing about the hotel was the misty view of Ha Long Bay in the morning, best seen while enjoying breakfast on the restaurant patio. While it is possible to do a day trip to Ha Long Bay from Hanoi, there is nothing like waking up to the view of Ha Long Bay clouded in a heavy mist which makes it look like it must be cold outside, but it still isn’t.
After our 24 hours in Ha Long Bay concluded, we determined the side-trip from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay was definitely worth it. The scenery on our Ha Long Bay cruise was stunning and it was the perfect way to start our trip to what can be a hectic and overwhelming Southeast Asian country: slowly, calmly, and beautifully. We have read about day-trips from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay, but with the long drive, it is better to have an overnight. We have also read of overnight visits to Ha Long Bay which include spending the night on a junk boat. That also sounds very enjoyable, but we didn’t mind missing out on that experience since we would be spending a week on a boat cruising the Mekong River on a Viking River Cruises Southeast Asia ship. Besides, in addition to our Ha Long Bay cruise, we had a breathtaking morning view of Ha Long Bay from our Ha Long Bay hotel.
Thank you to Viking River Cruises for hosting us on their Magnificent Mekong tour through Vietnam and Cambodia and making this post possible. As always, all opinions are our own. This article contains affiliate links. If you purchase through them it costs you nothing extra and we earn a small commission which goes towards running this website and bringing you more travel stories.