What to Expect in Halong Bay

Ha long bay junk boat

Riding a junk boat into the beautiful Ha Long Bay

I stared out the window of the van and watched as the city gave way to suburbs, to industry, to rice fields, that would eventually deposit us in Halong Bay. As I watched our driver play chicken with big trucks, dodge motorbikes, and zip by the slower bicycles and buffalo – I thought that not much had changed in Northern Vietnam in the last 5 years since I had been there. Sure, the suburbs of HaNoi were planned a bit better with more space, but all in all there seemed to be about the same number of motorbike to car ratio on the little 2 lane roads. The 2 lane roads were still used in the same way – lines were pointless as any space that was needed was used to weave in and out of traffic turning the official 2 lanes into an unofficial 3 and 4 lane road at times.


But then I started to see them. Square, lifeless, cement structures – more big buildings and factories as we started heading East towards Ha Long Bay. I perked up when I saw the name Foxconn on the side of one of the white factory buildings and I asked our tour leader, Ngoc, if that was the infamous Foxconn of China/Taiwan and Macintosh manufacturing and he confirmed. Foxconn is a big manufacturer who works with many American electronics brands but most notably they manufacture the holy grail of our day – the iPhone.

This was definitely new to the area – it was odd to see this industrialization move into villages and rice fields. I wondered what happened to all of the farmers who used to be here not more than 5 years ago. Maybe they got factory jobs, maybe they went to work in the tourism industry in Halong Bay, or maybe they just gave up.

Halong Bay Tourism

When we arrived at the port in Halong Bay – we had left the industry of manufacturing and became part of the tourism industry. There are over 600 boats in Ha Long Bay serving local and international tourism. Why so many boats? Because the limestone formations are just that beautiful. You’ve probably seen the stunning pictures of the old wooden boats on Ha Long Bay – they entice you with their old world feel and charm of the Orient.

But before you get your expectations too set back in the ancient Orient and the world of spice trade and dynasties – know that sometimes the reality is a bit different.

I had seen pictures before and had even been to Halong Bay once before – but now as I peered out at the port with rows of boats docked, I realized that something had most definitely changed. All of these famous junk boats were painted white instead of the brown that I was accustomed to seeing in other tourism pictures. Ngoc informed us that all of the boats were required to be painted white a few years ago by the government. Not sure who decided that this was going to be a brilliant idea – but whoever they were – they were wrong. Everyone sees the pictures of iconic brown junk boats with their fanned out sails in the bay – looking picture perfect. But do know that it’s just that – it’s only for a staged picture. Unfortunately it’s those pictures that set our expectations – so I can imagine that some people are rather let down when they actually see the reality.

The reality is that all of the boats are now painted white – and because white unfortunately shows a lot of wear and tear they look pretty beat up and in need of a paint job. In addition, the sails are rarely used for sailing any longer on a day to day basis. Instead or sailing out to the limestone formations, a row of junk Boats chug out on a well worn path under the help of an engine – the sails are never put up. I only saw sails on 2 boats while I was there – and they were anchored.

No Swimming Or Diving

If you have idyllic visions of jumping off those beautiful white boats into turquoise waters, you may be disappointed. We were informed that tourists were no longer allowed to jump/swim off the boats. Another new government regulation which is a bit absurd if you ask me. I wasn’t real sure if this was an actual ‘rule’ or a suggestion. I also wasn’t sure what they are trying to prevent with that measure since the Vietnamese government never really seemed too worried about people’s safety in the past compared to Western standards. But the boats’ crews enforce the rule as they said that they get heavily fined if tourists are caught swimming off the boat.  We enjoyed soaking up the sun on the deck instead.

Is Halong Bay Worth It?

Despite the number of tourists, white boats, lack of sails, and restriction on swimming off the boat – that doesn’t at all take away from the scenery you will chug on by. The limestone islets are said to be over 500 million years old and are a UNESCO World Heritage sight for good reason – they are spectacular.  For me, photography is one of my main goals, so the scenery alone was enough for me to recommend Ha Long Bay. In addition, Evie and I had a marvelous time and overnight on the boat soaking up the sun, touring caves, and kayaking. The food on our boat was delicious and the sleeping conditions were good (we even had air conditioning!). If you are looking for a hard core sailing or kayaking experience, then Ha Long Bay might not be the best choice for you. But if you want some R&R and scenic photography – it’s perfect. And in order to properly set your expectations, I can assure you that there was no special staging for these photos I took – this is pretty much what you can expect when you visit Ha Long Bay – one of the most scenic stops in Vietnam.

Halong Bay Vietnam pictures

A popular ‘parking spot’ for the boats near the caves

sunset halong bay

Sunset in the bay left a golden glow. A great reason to do an overnight junk boat.

ha long bay junk boat

A white junk boat parked at one of the caves.

ha long bay sunbathing

Plenty of time to relax and soak up the sun.

halong bay limestone formations

The limestone formations seems to go on forever

ha long bay photos

A local  fishing boat in the bay

Kayaking Ha Long Bay Vietnam

Kayaking is a great way to get up close.

Sunrise Ha Long Bay Vietnam

Sunrise from the boat…a lovely sight.

ha long bay local

A local rows a boat in the bay. Many locals still live and work on the water in the bay.


Disclosure:  While in Vietnam I was a guest of Intrepid Travel.  However all of the opinions and thoughts expressed here are my own.  I never accept such a deal if I am required, in any way, to write positively about any company, organization or experience. I will only take such a trip if I am free to write honestly and openly based on the actual experiences that I have.

Your Comments

29 Comments so far

  1. Maria says:

    Amazing, surreal and sublime! Well done Sherry!

  2. I love your pictures! However I took a trip on the Dragon’s Pearl and we were definitely allowed to swim off and around the junk (not that there was nice turquoise water, but still). Was that because they went to Bai Tu Long Bay which is still a lot more deserted I wonder…

  3. It chokes me up that I missed this my first time through Vietnam. I won’t miss it next time (which may happen this winter!)

  4. I have been to Vietnam but it is a shame I didn’t take great photos like you did. Thumbs up!

  5. I am going there next month! Thank you for the pictures and the timely post!

    My first mostly solo trip too. Meeting with people at different points but going on my own. Halong Bay is part of the whole journey.

  6. Megan says:

    Oh wow, it looks so different with the white boats! I really did love Ha Long Bay, but there were a few things that bummed me out…namely the amount of trash in some of the more heavily trafficked spots. But kayaking in places where the boats aren’t allowed was an excellent way to get into some more pristine nature, though!

    • Sherry says:

      Yes – the kayaking was good – still a bit trashy in the water – but it was great to get into little coves away from the boats – and we could swim off the kayak!

  7. Halong Bay looks like paradise on Earth. I want to be there now. Amazing photos!

  8. Lorraine says:

    Thanks for sharing, that is exactly the info I need to narrow my destinations did to limited time. I am excited to be going .

  9. Jo says:

    I was there in June this year and did a similar trip to you, so I’m loving reliving it from your posts.
    We were allowed to swim off our boat, we were parked slightly away from other junks right near the cliffs. When we were in the water it felt like we were the only group out there.

    • Sherry says:

      Jo – it sounds lovely! Yes – we did see some others swimming off their boats – but our boat was quite strict about it – they told us that the fine was large if they were caught. Or maybe they just didn’t have the right connections – who knows!

  10. Siblu says:

    Simply awesome photos I ever seen. Would like to say, I’m from Bangladesh and we have Cox bazar Sea beach which is world largest Sea beach around the world. Just after visit cox bazar I thought that this one is best but after view your photos I feeling curious to visit lots of place around the world. Thanks sister.

  11. I absolutely love my trip to Halong Bay, though it was some time ago and I am sorry to see that the boats are now all painted white as the natural stained wood was gorgeous. I had thought that swimming here was limited due to the abundance of jellyfish, though perhaps that was a rare occurrence those years ago. That aside, Halong Bay is stunningly beautiful and one of my favourite travel memories! The Junk Boars, floating villages, gorgeous islands, extraordinary kayaking into the centre of islands are just a few of the wonders that make this place so magnificent!

    • Sherry says:

      The jellyfish may have also been a factor – along with pollution and boat traffic. It wasn’t really clear to me on the why – even though we asked the question. Which is somewhat typical when things are dictated by the government there – they don’t always make sense and the guides are at a loss for how to explain it without making VN look bad. At least that’s my opinion!

  12. JoAnna says:

    I traveled on a junk in Halong Bay a few years ago and didn’t enjoy it then. It has the potential to be beautiful – and it was to a certain extent – but it was so touristy and I had a bit of a run in with the tour guide on our boat, which turned me off from the area. Though it seems to be a ‘must do’ of Vietnam, I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anyone.

    • Sherry says:

      Thanks for your feedback JoAnna – yes – it can be hit or miss. I think it’s especially hard if you go do it independently as you don’t really know what you are going to get. I was happy to be a part of the Intrepid tour and have our leader there which helped quite a bit to understand things and be able to ask a bunch of questions. I didn’t really like it the first time either – this 2nd trip was much better – but the nice weather also helped!

  13. Angela says:

    I have always wanted to go to Halong Bay. Thank you for writing an honest post about the boats. I had the same thoughts about the area from the older boat pictures I have seen in the past. I still want to go, but I will keep in mind all the changes that you have mentioned.

    • Sherry says:

      Great – I don’t want to scare people away – I just like to try to set expectations as everything is so hyped up from marketing these days it seems like. Have fun and let me know what you think!

  14. Bianca says:

    I was there in 2009 and my photos certainly look different. The boats definitely looked better when they were stained brown wood. I wonder if it is because of visibility on the bay. At times it was very foggy and there was a boat crash that killed a few people a couple of years ago.

  15. Halong Bay looks so beautiful. It will definitely be apart of my Vietnam itinerary!

    Thanks for sharing :)

  16. What I learned from your post:
    1. Stay overnight on the boat
    2. Rent a kayak
    3. The photo ops are spectacular
    Halong Bay has now been moved up on my list!

    • Sherry says:

      Well – that a great summary! I should have just wrote that and it would have saved me time! :) So happy you are considering going to Ha Long Bay…take a camera!!

  17. Abi says:

    Oh , shame! I went there earlier this year and was allowed to swim… Wonder which company has it right? (Gulp!)

  18. I think you had an enjoyable trip to Vietnam.There is also a lot of things that you can explore.Hope to see you again one day in Vietnam.

  19. Gene says:

    -would you say doing ha long bay overnight is worth it? or is a day trip sufficient?

  20. Tarah Milley says:

    The pictures are amazing, why would they let you see such beautiful waters and not allow you jump in..:(

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