This past August I revisited Hanoi, but this time, we used it as a stepping off point for the Halong Bay Cruise and Sapa Hike. If you are just interested in things to do in Hanoi, check out my separate post here.
Why visit Halong Bay/Sapa?
Ha Long Bay, which means “The Bay where Dragons Descent” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is located in the Northeast and its emblematic picture depicts ancient limestone formations, protruding calmly over emerald waters. A boat cruise to Ha Long bay will take about two hours, and for me, it felt like an unending cycle of islets over the horizons.
Popular tourist activities in the bay includes hiking, scuba (although I did not see any), cave exploring, and kayaking.
It seems that you can visit Halong Bay all year round, but fall and spring may be the more preferred seasons due to the moderate temperatures. However, rainfalls are pretty much expected all year round, so it’s anybody’s luck. We went in late August and were met with hot humid weather.
Sapa is about 380km NW of Hanoi. Capital of the Lao Cai province, Sapa is known for its rice paddies, sloping hills and beautiful mountain scenery. Ethnically it is occupied by five minority groups, the Hmong, Dao, Tay, Giay and Xa Pho. The town is not very developed but you can find the usual touristy things such as spas, coffee shops, and shopping for cheap frills. Major activities include day trips to Catcat village, learning about the ethnic minority groups and their way of life, and of course, trekking.
For further things to do in Sapa, click here.
Which is better?
I can say with almost certainty that if I were to do the trip again, I would forgo Ha Long Bay and do the Sapa trek.
While both retained its natural allure, I think the Sapa trek was definitely more memorable. Halong Bay was underwhelming and I think we were really over-sold on the experience. The expedition, food, and sceneries did not live up to the hype. Sapa, while it was much more difficult to get to (read below), took our breathes away. In the entire two days that we spent trekking in the mountains, we may be saw three other hikers. Imagine the Tegalalang rice fields of Bali x 20.
Budgeting & Planning
|Flight||173||Flew with Hong Kong Airlines. Booked with Trip.com|
|e-Visa||35||One time entry visitor visa|
|Airbnb||15||One-night prior to the package start. Price listed is roughly for one night, but split between 5 people.|
|Cruise||412||5Day4Night with Indochine Junk package. Price includes a 15% discount for booking early.
Note: We upgraded to luxury cruise for an extra USD21.
We booked our entire package through a travel consultant with Indochina Junk, at a friend’s recommendation. Our package was called Sapa and Sea, which was a 5 day package that includes a 2D1N cruise at Halong Bay, followed by a 2-Day trekking adventure in Sapa. Due to the nature of tourism in Southeast Asia, some of the advertised experiences may seem exaggerated. Sometimes it also felt like we were just suppose to just show up at a certain spot at a certain time and be picked up by drivers who usually didn’t speak English well. That said, the company was responsive and our overall correspondences with the main travel consultant was good. We had her on whatsapp and she helped to liaise with the various vendors and drivers, and accomodated us leaving our luggage with her before we flew the last day.
Halong bay is easily accessible by car and then cruise. However, we reached (and returned from) Sapa via overnight trains. This was a bit of a nightmare and I have to give fair warning to anyone whose tour agency might be booking the night trains for them…
The trains were 9 hours each way; it was jerky, loud, and the bathrooms were in bad shape.. All through the night I could hear a nearby train door swinging and banging on the frames (I got up and tried to figure out how to hold it close, to no avail). I took the top bunk for both nights. On the first night, I found a moist tissue in the storage area beside the bed. The train comes with four bottles of water and some fruits. On the second night, we got four grapes. Not buschels of grapes – just four individual grapes…
Alternative methods to Sapa includes car/bus – which would only take 5 hours, but I believe the departure times may not work as well if you are restricted by time. Check out here for some alternative options.
Day 1: Hanoi – > Halong Bay
We got picked up at our hotel and after an hour’s drive, arrived at our boat. Our boat was called the Dragon’s Pearl 01, named in line with another identical boat called Dragon’s Pearl 02. Maybe Dragon’s Pearl is a very auspicious name. In any case, the cabins were decent, with a small window that allows you to enjoy the mountains are the boat cruised on.
After the boat settled in in the middle of the islets, we began our first activity: kayaking.
We kayaked about 30 minutes (or 45 minutes if you are out of shape or are a bad partner) to a nearby little scrap of sand, I mean, a small beach, on one of the islands. We had free time to wade in the water a bit. With no real activities planned, most people kind of just sat in the sand and waited to return to the boat. I’m not exactly sure what they expected us to do during this time, but at least they didn’t make us paddle back to the boat.
We had dinner on the boat, followed by some magic shows on the deck. Most people set off for an early night in order to catch the sunrise the next morning.
Tip: The food was very Western, which was disappointing to me because I wanted my pho fix badly. Also, the booze was not included in the price, and the alcohol was overpriced by Asian standards, so I’d recommend stocking up beforehand.
Day 2: Halong Bay
We woke up at 4:30am for the sunrise, which, I have to admit, was really beautiful. The cruise ship had decks for us to lounge on and watch the sunrise from and I will admit, this part of the trip I really did enjoy.
A quick powernap later, we were ready for (what is probably the world’s most underwhelming) activities! Advertised as cave exploration, we were led to walk through a small cave of maybe 20 metres. At the other end, it was a sign for us to turn back and walk through the same cave again. That was it.
Maybe I am biased because I am from Guilin, where our stalactite caves go on for kms on end, but this was a really unimpressive cave and I can’t believe it is even considered an activity.
After this we returned to the boat and prepared to come back on land. We taken to a hotel in Hanoi to shower and get dinner before someone met us and led us to the train.
As I had covered up top, a mortifying night on the train ensued.
Day 3 : Sapa
We arrived to Sapa in the early hours and checked into our hotel, Chau Long hotel. It was perched on the edge of town, and from our balconies, we could see the beautiful rolling hills of Sapa. The air literally felt more fresh. We got into our hiking gear and started the day’s through the villages of Cat Cat – Y Linh Ho.
I wouldn’t say that the trek was particularly hard, but it was definitely hot, long and humid. It had rained the couple of days prior and lots of grounds were muddy. However, we slowly manoeuvred through the fields, and had to stop every couple of steps because we just could not believe how green everything was.
As we hiked, our guide’s friends seem to join in. Typically, they will chat with you, and assist you where you are slipping. I would recommend preparing small hange to buy the bracelets they try to sell you at the end.
I think that we covered about 4-5 hours of trekking, and while we sweated our balls off, our guide actually completed the same hike as us, with a newborn baby on her back!
That evening I got a whole body massage at the hotel next door and it was heavenly. A foot massage is highly recommended.
Day 4: The next morning, we trekked onwards to Lao Chai.
It was a lot less intense than the prior day, because when we reached the village, we had free time to explore and check out the bustling market and catch the ethnic dance shows. It was a lot more touristy than the day before, but we enjoyed the slower pace of the day.
At night we boarded our night train to Hanoi.
If I had never gone to Halong Bay, I would’ve been okay with it.
And despite how hard it was to get to Sapa, I would definitely do it again.
I think it’s a pretty clear winner here.