I think there is a law that says if you book a tour to Vietnam that you have to include an excursion to Halong Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin. It is about a 3-hour drive from Hanoi into the countryside to the coast. The area is seeing a lot of construction and suffers from air pollution but the scenery is spectacular. If you have been to the southern provinces in China, the landscape in Halong is somewhat reminiscent of what you would see in Guilin with limestone peaks rising straight up out of the bay.
After the long drive from Hanoi, a typical trip to Halong includes a cruise around the bay, a cave walk into Bo Nau Grotto and a visit to the at least one of the other islands in the bay; perhaps for a chance to climb one of the peaks.
The scenery is truely beautiful but to this writer, the best part of the entire tour was sitting on the deck of our boat, sipping a gin & tonic and watching the sunset.
We spent the night there on the Emeraude, a reproduction of an early 20th Century French riverboat but there are also trips on “junk” type boats, which looked like they might be fun too. Our cruise was very luxurious but other than one other American couple there were only French speaking people on the ship. One word of warning if you ever find yourself in a similar situation: Be sure to avoid standing between a group of hungry French people and the fromage tray.
We enjoyed our visit to Halong Bay but in all honesty, it would be difficult for any destination to live up to all the hype we had read prior to our visit. If we hadn’t had the time to do both and forced to choose between a side trip out of Hanoi to Halong Bay vs. one to Sapa, we would take Sapa every time.