The Hanoi Backpackers’ Halong Bay Trip has become somewhat legendary amongst backpackers in South East Asia. Through the traveller grapevine, we’d heard reports of a deserted castaway island of unrivalled beauty right in the heart of Cat Ba National Park. A slice of untouched paradise it was told – that could only be reached via the Hanoi Backpackers’ sail boat, the ‘Jolly Roger. ‘ At S.E.A Backpacker, such talk proved too tempting for our adventurous spirits and we decided to take the ‘Rock Hard Rock Long Halong Bay Tour’ to find out what all the fuss was about.
Leaving Hanoi wearing Mexican Sombreros!
Donned with multi-coloured Mexican Sombreros, a group of about fifteen backpackers, an entertaining tour guide, a green plastic reindeer named Duval, and myself journeyed four hours by bus to arrive in Halong City – the starting destination for our amazing adventure.
Sailing into Halong Bay on the Jolly Roger
Leaving the touristy harbour aboard the ‘Jolly Roger,’ our home for the next day and night, the atmosphere was jolly indeed! Excitement ran high as backpackers from all around the world sat on the sunny deck and exchanged travel stories. Many were already forecasting the Halong Bay trip as a highlight of their travels in SE Asia. The bar opened immediately and I decided to sip a cool Ha noi Beer as our old junk sailed majestically into the incredibly beautiful Halong Bay. The life of a backpacker sure is tough.
View from the deck of the Jolly Roger as we sail out into Halong Bay
UNESCO World Heritage Site, Halong Bay, Vietnam
The Magestic Halong Bay
As our boat dropped anchor right in the heart of Halong Bay, it was the perfect time for a swim in the deep turquoise waters amidst the limestone crags. Some acrobatic ‘jumping in’ off the boat ensued, followed by a delicious lunch of Vietnamese stir fry dishes, fresh seafood and rice.
After lunch it was time for kayaking and in teams of two we set off for a nearby island with a sandy beach. Down at sea level, kayaking proved to be a great way to explore Halong Bay – closely passing floating fishing villages and paddling into intriguing caves in the limestone rocks.
The Beach that we kayaked to in Halong Bay
And then… The Drinking Games
As the sun was setting, we headed back to the boat ready for the evening’s entertainment to get underway! As you may have already guessed, the ‘après-boat trip’ did not consist of a civilised black tie dinner dance, oh no – the ‘entertainments’ meant one thing – drinking games. And never in my life have I seen drinking games played with such vigour!
Knowing how bad I am at remembering the rules in drinking games… drink with the left hand only, no pointing, no saying people names, thumb on the table… last again! What! Too many rules! I knew I was done for. After about 20 plastic cups-worth of vodka and mixer, I had to save myself from a sure hangover from hell the next day. Of course, my ‘inconspicuous’ attempts to sneak water into my drink instead of deadly vodka were caught and suitably punished. I became the victim for the rest of the night and was policed even more vigilantly than before!
After several rounds of ring of fire, hysterical confessions, goblins, trolls, crazy dancing – and heaven knows what else, I managed a backdoor boogie around 2am, leaving the remaining ‘Rock Harders’ to fall asleep on the top deck underneath the stars. I headed back to my cosy cabin after a fantastic day and a fun night, excited about what the next day’s adventures would entail!
After an early 8am breakfast, we switched boats and said cheerio as we sadly left some crew members behind who were heading back to Hanoi as they’d only booked a one night, two day trip to Halong Bay. (Suckers!)
The Beautiful Cat Ba National Park
For us, on the other hand, the best was yet to come! We were now cruising into Cat Ba National Park and Lan Ha Bay, an area of extreme beauty within Halong Bay and the location for the much anticipated Castaway Island. We were nearing the moment I’d been waiting for. As other tourist boats became more and more sparse and the scenery became even more spectacular and untamed, I knew we must be getting close.
And then we saw it. A glorious golden stretch of sand surrounded on all sides by dramatic limestone cliffs. Dense jungle formed the epic backdrop and in the other direction the bay looked out towards rugged islands, the Gulf of Tonkin and beyond that the South China Sea. Maya Bay eat your heart out. It was an amazing location. Even more amazing when you consider that we had the beach and the entire island to ourselves!
First sight of Castaway Island
Hanoi Backpackers’ private Castaway Island, Halong Bay
There were many activities on offer on the island, from banana boat rides to wakeboarding, rock-climbing, volley-ball and table-tennis tournaments. Or if you wanted to just chill on the beach and catch some rays – that was fine too. I wanted to try everything! After a ‘just what the Doctor ordered’ ham sandwich – the perfect antidote to any lingering hangover – a friend and I plumped for an afternoon of rock climbing – which turned out to be an excellent choice.
Rock Climbing, Wakeboarding and other adventures
We were taken out on a small motorboat to an island opposite our beach and roped up for the climb. The instructors were great and it didn’t matter about level of skill or previous experience as there were first-time climbers amongst us. Up on the rock, the views of the surrounding bay were breathtaking. It just doesn’t get much better than the adrenalin rush you experience from hanging by your finger-tips onto a 20 meter limestone cliff above Halong Bay. After three hours and a challenging five ascents we were exhausted as we headed back to Castaway Island.
But the adventures weren’t over yet. With a bit of luck, we bumped into the wake-boarders on their way back and managed to convince the Tour Guide to give us a quick try before it got dark. After never having tried wake-boarding before I never expected to even stand up let alone ride on the board behind the boat for a full 30 seconds! It was so much fun! I guess Halong Bay at sunset wasn’t a bad place for my first wake-board.
That night, we discussed the day’s adventures. The banana boaters seemed to have had a whale of a time – despite the fact that it had been pretty difficult to stay on the boat, not to mention keeping bikini bottoms in place! The table tennis tournament had been pretty heated and there were a few ‘ball’ marks to show for it. All in all, everyone had experienced a wonderful day jam-packed with activity.
Amazing views rock climbing in Cat Ba National Park, Halong Bay
A beginner wakeboarder in Halong Bay
Looking across to Castaway Island
More drinking games and frivolities followed during the course of the evening and around midnight someone suggested an alcohol fuelled “late night dip.” We all agreed, although much to the boys’ distaste we weren’t drunk enough for it to be a skinny dip! What we didn’t know before the swim was that the area of Halong Bay is rich with phosphorous plankton that responds to movement in the water making it glow in the dark. It was such a magical experience to be swimming amongst the twinkles under a canopy of stars. It was the perfect end to an awesome trip.
On the way back to Halong City on the boat, we saw two miserable looking backpackers heading out onto Halong Bay surrounded by a group of silver haired tourists sipping tea. “You should have booked with Hanoi Backpackers!” Someone on our boat shouted. And their awkward smiles told us that we were right.