Vietnam’s Halong Bay: Squid, Pearls And A Cave Full Of Surprises

Cruise boats on Halong Bay, Vietnam

Crowded on the back deck, we all peered keenly into the turbid water. As one of the lures came up, we finally saw the pearly white tentacles we had been waiting for. A tiny squid was wriggling around next to the hooks, not quite caught but tantalisingly close. The back deck erupted with shouts and cheers of encouragement for those fishing. In the heat of the moment, all 4 lines were enthusiastically thrown in the direction of this one tiny creature. Disaster struck as the lines entangled and had to be removed from the water while they were separated. The squid took his chance and retreated, quickly vanishing into the murk. Squid fishing was just one of many activities we enjoyed during our short Halong Bay cruise.

We quizzed the staff about how many squid we could expect to catch. “Normally one per night”, came the confident answer. Sure enough, after most of us had given up for the night, we heard a raucous cheer of success as that one squid was caught. The catch was quickly whisked away by the staff.  We assume it was added to the squid tempura served for lunch the following day.

Squid tempura, grilled fish and spring rolls served in Halong Bay

Mixed Seafood with Squid Tempura

So, How do you Kill a Squid?

This is a question we've asked several times before.  We still haven't received a satisfactory answer. The first man told us “I put the squid in a delicious sauce and it breathes the sauce. I then put it in my freezer.” And the second, “I put the squid in my cool box and it is dead by the time I get home.” When in Halong Bay, we asked the same question. “I don't know” was the unconvincing reply. We suspect they didn't want to say.

Is there a more humane way to kill a squid?  If anyone can enlighten us, we would love to know. Please leave a comment below!

The Dragons of Halong Bay

The origin of Halong Bay is surrounded by legend. During a fierce battle, a family of celestial dragons came to the assistance of the Vietnamese troops, ensuring their victory. The dragons spat out jewels that became the 1600+ islands of Halong Bay (literally Descending Dragon Bay). After the battle, the dragons decided to remain on Earth and the mother dragon now resides in Halong Bay.  Needless to say, we did not encounter any dragons on this trip.

Read about our previous encounter with dragons in Komodo.

Halong Bay is famous for the rugged limestone karsts that erupt from the sea. Vertical cliffs are topped with lush green vegetation and we saw numerous black kites soaring overhead. The islands are best known for their atmospheric landscapes, picturesque beaches and the networks of caves that extend through the islands. Sung Sot Cave is one of the more popular, a series of 3 caverns each considerably larger and more impressive than the last.

Why is it Called Surprise Cave?

Hang Sung Sot directly translates as Surprise Cave. We wondered where the name came from and were told “It's a surprise. You will find out when you enter the cave.” Inside, the caves were packed full of stalactites and columns. Many of the features have been named and with a bit of imagination we saw multiple Buddhas, dragons and elephants in the ancient formations.  These limestone features have been formed by years of rainwater filtering down through the caves.  The pitted sandstone ceiling however has been eroded by the sea and looks so out of place we initially thought it may have been plastered over.

Flowstone Column in Sung Sot Cave, Halong Bay

Sung Sot Cave

We entered the third and final cavern and spotted one rocky outcrop that was glowing red. When everything else was gently lit with white light, the eerie red glow really made this particular feature stand out. We were convinced we'd figured out what the surprise was.

Phallic rock formation in Sung Sot Cave, Halong Bay, Vietnam


Well, not quite. We later heard that it was the unexpected magnificence of the cave that surprised the French men who discovered it. Or perhaps that's just the more socially acceptable version of the story!

Halong Bay Pearls

Halong Bay is also well known for cultured Akoya pearls. Taking the opportunity to kayak around a pearl farm, we were able to get a close up look at the production process. A bead is inserted into each oyster to encourage pearl growth and left for 2-3 years before being harvested. Countless rows of black buoys marked the location of the oyster nets suspended below. With a success rate as low as 40%, not all of which are suitable for jewellery, the hefty price tag of the pearls is understandable.

Kayaking through the pearl farm at Halong Bay, Vietnam

Pearl Farm Kayaking

We paddled closer to the islands in our usual haphazard fashion, unable to travel in a straight line for more than a few metres. Thankfully we narrowly avoided scraping across the fringing coral reefs that surrounded the base of the cliffs. We did however get close enough to see the urchins and anemones that thrive among the coral.

Hordes of tourists descend on Halong Bay every day for a whistle stop tour of the highlights. As one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, it's easy to see why the area is so popular. While the tourism is carefully managed, the crowds can sometimes get a bit overwhelming. We visited Ti Top Island and joined the queues trying to climb the hill. When we did finally make it to the top, the crowd at the viewpoint was three people deep. For the most part however, Halong Bay is large enough that it doesn't feel overcrowded and we were able to relax and enjoy the experience.

View of cruise boats on Halong Bay from Ti Top Island

The View from Ti Top Island

Halong Bay Travel Tips

Most cruise operators offer transfers from Hanoi. This is a long and tiring bus journey and requires a very early start. You may find it less exhausting to stay near Halong Bay for a night before your cruise.

Most overnight Halong Bay cruises depart from Tuan Chau Island. The island is developing fast and there are a number of hotels near the harbour.

If you stay in nearby Bai Chay before your cruise, you will need to take a taxi to Tuan Chau as there is no public transport. Your accommodation should be able to arrange a taxi from Bai Chay for around 150,000 VND. This is a competitive price and you may find that a metered taxi costs more.

The green Mai Linh metered taxis generally offer the best price.  It's worth noting that larger vehicles cost more so avoid the 7-seater people carriers unless you really need the extra space.

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