Halong Bay: First-Time Expectations vs Reality

One of the things I love the most about traveling is how often my assumptions and expectations are proven wrong. Usually, I look for places that are less touristy and less traveled, either through word of mouth or through online research. I don’t like crowded places, where people clamor for photographs and wait in long queues just to catch a glimpse of what they’ve traveled thousands of miles to see. I like to get more hands-on, to experience life the way it is lived by people whose cultures are much different from my own.
For that reason, Halong Bay was admittedly low on my list of places to visit in Vietnam. I had seen the pictures and though it did look beautiful, I had my reservations. Based on what I heard about the place, it sounded like a crowded, dirty, and perhaps overrated place to spend my holidays. But after booking a trip with Paradise Vietnam and experiencing Halong Bay for myself, I came away with an entirely unexpected impression.
Without further ado, here are the five most surprising experiences I had in Halong Bay.


Ok, so some parts were crowded. “Surprise Cave” is probably one of the busiest tourist attractions in Halong bay, but I didn’t even mind! On the first day of our two-night itinerary with Paradise Cruises, we stopped here and had some time to walk around and explore and I was floored, especially never having experienced a massive cave like this. It was incredible; the carvings on the ceiling had the most fascinating geometric patterns, and the huge stalactites and stalagmites were unreal. But to be honest that’s about as crowded as it got. Aboard the cruise ship and at all our other stops, it didn’t feel crowded at all. And in fact, it was one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been to.
When you’re out on the water, you’re enveloped by total silence, it’s a powerfully calming feeling that I can’t really put into words, but it’s palpable. I was expecting to hear the noise of crowds, loud motors, vendors everywhere, smoke in the air. But I was pleasantly surprised.
You can actually book a cruise aboard Paradise Peak for the most exclusive-feeling experience. There are fewer cabins on this boat, which means they are larger and more luxurious, and the service is much more personalized with your very own butler. Far from experiencing any kind of hustle and bustle, I felt extremely relaxed and calm, totally removed from the stresses and cares of life on land. The three days, two-night itinerary really felt like a dose of mental health!


I was amazed at the gorgeous, clear emerald green water, the pristine rock formations and the clean beaches we encountered all throughout the bay. Most of us have unfortunately experienced crowded tourist sites littered with trash, with wave after wave of plastic bags and bottles washing up to the shore. But fortunately, this was not the case in Halong Bay.
Local authorities in recent years have ramped up conservation efforts in an effort to preserve and protect this natural wonder. This includes strict measures that regulate when and where cruise ships can take their passengers. Because of constantly changing conditions, local authorities sometimes temporarily restrict access to popular tourist sites, which means Paradise Cruises itineraries are always subject to change. However, the plethora of options in Halong Bay means there’s always a new place to check out even when the one on the itinerary is temporarily inaccessible. 
Some locations have been permanently closed in order to rehabilitate them after years of frequent visits from tourists. One of these closed-off caves used to be a popular spot for couples to enjoy what must have been an incredible dinner with stunning scenery. However, I find it reassuring that, despite its popularity and marketability, local authorities have opted to preserve and protect the environment here rather than exhaust its resources for easy tourism revenue. 
In addition to institutionalized measures to protect Halong Bay, Paradise Cruises has also been working to completely eliminate single-use plastic from all their facilities both on land and in the water. Hotel rooms feature refillable glass water bottles, and all other beverages are served with glassware and optional paper straws. Very little is disposable here, and it was quite obvious that this cruise company was not only trying to eliminate single-use plastic but be good stewards of the bay by cutting down all forms of waste to an absolute minimum. 
Thanks to these efforts, I can honestly say Halong Bay was not only pollution-free...it looked pristine.


When I pictured a stay in Halong Bay, I thought it would mainly consist of admiring beautiful rock formations...and not much else. I was skeptical that I’d need to stay for any longer than a day, to be honest. I decided to book a 2-night cruise anyway, just to see if there was anything I might be missing from my limited knowledge of Halong Bay. Throughout my time on Paradise Cruises, I was continually proven wrong.
The floating village was an unexpected highlight for me. I knew vaguely of these floating villages but didn’t realize the in-depth cultural education I’d be receiving from visiting one of these places. When we stopped at the welcome center, we were shown an entire museum dedicated to the long history and ancient way of life that is still in practice to this day. The population has dwindled down to only three floating villages and a few hundred residents because of recent efforts by the government to relocate most of the bay’s residents to land, both to improve their quality of life, and preserve the fragile marine ecology of Halong Bay. Still, the people who remain carry on the old traditions and it’s truly incredible to see.
The pearl farm was a fascinating stop as well, as I had no idea how pearls were made. I had always assumed they were discovered randomly by scuba divers sent out to harvest them, but they’re actually very intentionally “planted” and harvested in a very efficient way. In addition to learning about the different kinds of oysters and the pearls they produce, we actually got to see a live demonstration of pearl extraction. And of course, there was a shop full of all kinds of pearls and pearl jewelry at the end of the tour.
In addition to these stops, there were opportunities for kayaking and exploring caves and beaches, climbing to a high viewpoint at Ti Top Island, and even squid fishing late at night. My Paradise cruise also offered a full spa, cooking demonstrations, and Tai Chi early in the morning. There’s even a fully-featured spa, which I definitely took advantage of on a couple of occasions as it was the perfect way to unwind after a day of trekking and sightseeing. I was actually shocked at how much, not how little there was to do throughout my time in Halong Bay. For this reason, alone I’d recommend the 2 night Paradise Cruise itinerary to anyone. It’s really worth the extra day and a great way to get a full experience of this surprisingly action-packed destination.


Nothing could be further from the truth. Paradise Cruise cabins are like hotel rooms. Full bed, soft comfy bedding, a full bathroom with a separate shower, closet space, and even a private balcony. Honestly, this cabin was one of the nicest rooms I’ve stayed in on or off the land. Apart from the gorgeous view of the bay from my private balcony, nothing else in this room made me feel like I was in a cramped wooden boat. It didn’t feel like a compromise at all.
Best of all, there’s even room service like a full-fledged hotel. I ordered drinks and food directly to my cabin on a couple of occasions when I felt like staying in and having some chill time. In my mind, I was ready to give up convenience and comfort to explore Halong Bay on a boat for a couple of days. But in reality, it was just as amenable and comfortable (if not more so) as any other land-based hotel room I’ve stayed in.


Halong Bay was a truly wondrous, magical experience. I could never have expected to meet the people I met and get such an in-depth look at the local culture and history of this place that I had previously assumed was little more than a tourist trap with pretty-looking rock formations. While the scenery was absolutely stunning, it was those elements you can’t really put into words that will stay with me forever. 
I can’t describe to you the way it feels to be out on the bay in total quiet and calm, watching the sunset behind those iconic limestone karsts. It’s difficult to express the feeling of wonder and excitement at all the new adventures on every day of the itinerary. And the luxurious comfort on Paradise Cruises far exceeded my expectations in terms of value and quality. I really couldn’t have anticipated just how much I would enjoy this trip, or that I would recommend it to just about anyone I know. 
My expectations about Halong Bay were not met. And in this case, I couldn’t be happier that I was proven wrong.

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