Cruising HaLong Bay and Exploring the Floating Villages in Vietnam

Cruising HaLong Bay in Vietnam is a mystical, ethereal experience. Kind of a blend between an ominous opening to King Kong movies and a weird dream about floating weightless in outer space, HaLong Bay is everything it’s cracked up to be. The fact that it was overcast and misting a little rain during our visit added to the other-worldliness of the experience. We loved it.

Limestone islands jut straight from the sea in HaLong Bay Vietnam.

If you saw the movie “Kong: Skull Island,” you’ve seen HaLong Bay, thus my reference to creepy movie openings. James Bond fans may remember “Tomorrow Never Dies” and that fascinating scenery. That’s HaLong Bay.

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What Makes HaLong Bay Special

Located near the border with China in northern Vietnam, HaLong Bay is dotted with 1600 little limestone islands that jut straight up out of the water. With few exceptions, there are no sandy beaches or horizontal spaces of any kind on land.

A junk boat crosses infront of limestone islands in HaLong Bay VietnamA UNESCO World Heritage site, HaLong Bay is about 600 sq miles of perfectly still water. The many little islets scattered here and there break up the waves and current coming off the Gulf of Tonkin and the South China Sea. The indiscriminate placement of the islands creates this massive maze that local fisherman navigate without any electronic assistance.

Me — I would be helplessly lost for all time until James Bond or King Kong could come to my rescue, pinging around between the islands in an eternal pinball machine.

The Floating Fishing Villages of HaLong Bay

A family works on a boat in HaLong Bay Vietnam.What really makes HaLong Bay so special is the people who live there on boats for their entire lives. For nearly 100 years, people who first fled war on land have lived on boats clustered together in small, remote coves. They’ve had little to no education, limited health care and a quiet, peaceful life away from the mainland hustle.

A teal houseboat sits at a floating village in HaLong Bay Vietnam.Neither have they had plumbing. Until recently the residents collected drinking water from small waterfalls on the limestone islands. The problem with that is that the limestone contains lots of minerals that contribute to kidney stones. The government has begun bringing barrels of drinking water to the various floating villages. They’ve also supplied generators for a few lights.

The Floating Village of Cửa Van

A young woman rows a sampam in HaLong Bay Vietnam.There are seven of these floating villages with as many as 1,000 residents each. We had the opportunity to explore Cửa Van, which translates to “entrance to the sea,” via a sampan rowed by a petite woman with broad shoulders and strong hands. We floated silently past colorful junk boats painted in rich teal and red.

People watched as we moved past their homes, some smiling, some not. I felt guilty, like a privileged white American gawking at this world so far from mine.

A woman cooks on a boat in HaLong Bay Vietnam.

But the woman rowing our boat tapped me on the shoulder and through a complicated series of sounds and hand signals, she told me she had two young children.

A small shed on pontoons serves on the school in HaLong Bay Vietnam.She pointed out a little building, no bigger than a garden shed, that is now the village school. Later, as we floated silently past another floating hut, she pointed to the children asleep on the floor inside. She touched her heart and smiled. Those were her children, and yes, I felt privileged, deeply honored to have this woman sharing her home and life with me.

If only some way I could return the honor and have her as a guest in our home. It’s not likely that will happen, but because of her warm smile, I no longer felt like a rubbernecking tourist. I felt like I had a new friend in this little floating village a million miles from my home. I smile as I write this, thinking of the warm hug that we shared as I stepped from her little boat.

Cruising HaLong Bay Vietnam

A multideck boat filled with people sails through HaLong Bay in Vietnam.There are dozens, maybe hundreds of companies that offer day trips and overnight excursions through HaLong Bay’s many islands. Indeed, it’s rather chaotic and crowded with boats leaving from the port in HaLong City each morning. It was my understanding at the time that the government was considering limiting or scaling back simply because of the environmental impact on the bay.

We did an overnight cruise with IndoChina Sails and I can highly recommend it. We had just three meals on board, but the food was fabulous and the service spectacular. It was Bruce’s birthday and they made a special cake and gave him roses. Seriously, the best birthday ever!  Check out our guest room and bathroom!

This image shows our guest room on IndoChina Sails in Halong Bay Vietnam. Facilities on IndoChina Sails in HaLong Bay Vietnam.

We loved all of Vietnam, even the sobering uncomfortable moments that reminded us of the worst of the “American War” in that beautiful country. We loved our short time in HaLong Bay, but most of all, we loved the people we met all along the way.

This image shows the weathered face of a fisherman living in a floating village in HaLong Bay Vietnam. A woman rowing a sampam in HaLong Bay Vietnam.

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