On the second day of our visit to Hanoi, we traveled by a tour van to Ha Long Bay which is listed as a must see attraction in the tourist brochures. The tour guide came to pick us up at our hotel around 7 in the morning. He seemed pleasant enough and spoke fairly good English.

The distance from Hanoi is about 155 kilometers or 96 miles, so in theory it should have taken us 3 hours maximum to reach Ha Long Bay. As it turned out it was more like 4 hours as we had to wait for a no show passenger at a town halfway through our journey. The car also stopped at a souvenir/shopping store where the guide encouraged us to buy gifts. No doubt, he had prior arrangements with the store owners there to collect commission on every item sold. Along the way we saw a lot of Vietnamese rural life; small villages, larger towns with factories, paddy fields, which by the way, are always right next to cemeteries. Well, Vietnamese rice is supposed to be among the best in the world, but after I saw how it was grown near people's burial grounds, I now think twice about eating rice imported from this country.

When we finally reached our destination we saw bus loads of tourists milling about the ticket office at the pier, and we had to wait for another 40 minutes or so. I think he was co-ordinating with the boat and tour operators to combine us with other passengers to make a full load on the boat going out to sea. Well we did cast off at last, and got our cameras ready to take photos of the much acclaimed spectacular sights. The waters were quite calm and the boat sailed along at a steady pace. We saw a lot of limestone rocks jutting out of small and big islands. We were told that there are thousands of these islands in the bay, some with big caves. Most of them are covered with thick vegetation and looked like big rock towers.

We had lunch on the tour boat. The food was quite good but the quantity was not enough as we had to share the table with 6 or 7 other people. Our tour guide was nowhere to be found. Maybe he was avoiding us! In fact, I found the services of the guide to be quite lacking. He explained very little about the voyage route on the bay, and hardly told us anything about the bay itself. Perhaps it was because we were a mixed bunch on the boat, as our original group on the van were put on different boats at the pier. The boat stopped a couple of times at small floating docks, and some boat vendors came close to the dock with their boatload of fruits and other goodies.

The boat dropped anchor somewhere in the bay near a big island. We had the option of hiring a kayak to explore some of the caves, but decided not to as we had heard of some accidents involving several tourists who died while kayaking. Although the sea was calm when we were there, it has been known to have choppy waters during the rainy season too. The boat stayed at anchor for about a couple of hours so we just relaxed, as there were fewer people left on board.

I believe some of the more adventurous tourists actually spend a night or two on some of the boats which have accommodation facilities. But most were on day trips like us. Anyway, when our boat weighed anchor and set out again we saw more of the rock islands. At one of them we were told that we could join a group tour of the island and visit a small temple at the summit of a hill. Again, we declined as the climb up the hill didn't look too easy!

I think we were on the boat for a total of five hours because when the boat returned to shore it was nearly dark. Yet again, our guide was busy arranging which bus or van to put us on for the trip back to Hanoi. The two of us finally ended up on a mini-bus with a completely different group of people. On the return journey the bus stopped again at a big restaurant somewhere, with several souvenir shops in the same compound. We just bought some light snacks there, and when we arrived in Hanoi the bus let all of us get off at Hoan Kiem Lake. It wasn't a problem for us as our hotel was very close to the lake, but I wondered if the rest of the passengers were also staying nearby.

To summarize our tour of Ha Long Bay; as mentioned before, this is a prime tourist attraction in Vietnam, and so many travelers who visit the country make it a point to go there. I saw with my own eyes the hordes of tourists when we were there. However, in my opinion, I feel that this place is a bit overrated. Perhaps my opinion stems from not having a good guide. I am sure a lot of the folks who were there had a great time and were overwhelmed by the natural beauty of the bay. In my case, let's just say I expected too much and was somewhat disappointed. Consequently, it didn't leave a lasting impression on me.

Footnote: About a year after our trip, I read a news article about an accident at Ha Long Bay when a tour boat sank, and several tourists drowned. According to the article, inadequate safety measures on the boat led to this tragedy.