Halong Bay is famous for its limestone cliffs, emerald water, isolated beaches, quaint fishing villages and jungle hikes. Halong literally translates to ‘where the dragon descends into the sea’, as legend has it that the landscape was created when a mountain dragon charged through the region gouging out earth with its tail before plunging into the water causing flooding to such an extent that only the peaks of the karsts remained visible. There may be as many as 3000 small islands, but the Vietnamese government chooses only to recognise 1962, as this was the year their beloved Ho Chi Minh died.
There are hundreds of tour companies operating in the area, but a visit to Castaway Island with Vietnam Backpacker Hostels allows you to enjoy two nights on a private beach away from other tourist groups. It includes a lot of fun activities and attracts a great crowd of young, fun and interesting people. The price for three days/two nights is AUD$290 with tubing, or AUD$298 with rock climbing or wake boarding. What’s more, if you can’t bear to leave, you can pay to extend your stay for as many extra nights as you like.
All tours organised through Vietnam Backpacker Hostels set off from the Downtown branch. If you’re staying at the Original branch, the staff will guide you over, but you’ll need to be up super early.
The tour to Castaway Island sets off at around 7 am, but it’s a good idea to grab the free breakfast first. You’ll also probably regret it if you don’t leave some of your belongings in storage, as there isn’t much you’ll need and the journey has a lot of transfers.
While food is included on the island, you should take spare cash for drinks. Besides that, all you need is your swimwear, flip flops, some sunscreen and sunglasses, a few changes of clothes, a camera, and your basic shower items.
You should arrive on Castaway Island around midday. After a buffet lunch it’s time to do the included activities. Rock climbers head off to the limestone cliffs behind the beach, while a speedboat starts taking tubers out in groups of three or four. Wake boarding typically takes place after the tubing, by which point it might be starting to get dark, so try to be up first in your group if you want some decent photos of the action.
Back at Castaway Island, you’re joined by the group that arrived the day before and the party kicks off alongside dinner. You could be treated to live music, fire performances, organised drinking games, a disco or, if you’re lucky, all of the above.
Day two is the ‘booze cruise’ and, whether or not you like to drink, you’re in for a great day out. The scenery in Halong Bay is epic, and the kayaking is a huge amount of fun too. Just AVOID THE GREEN KAYAK! Almost every day, it capsizes multiple times, fills with water, making it even more unstable, and inevitably needs to be drained slowly at the side of a cave where you are guaranteed to cut your feet on the sharp stones. Also bear in mind that if you lose a paddle falling out, you have to pay US$10 to replace it, and if the kayak sinks you’ll definitely feel the pinch.
The Vietnam Backpackers Castaway Cruise has come under some scrutiny in the past from people who described it as just another excuse for Brits to get wasted. While the tour does attract a lot of Brits, and a large amount of alcohol is consumed by most, it doesn’t mean that non-hardcore partiers won’t enjoy themselves too. You can take out kayaks from the beach, play volleyball, go for a swim with bioluminescent plankton or sip a rum and coke by the fire if that’s more your scene.
The important thing is that this trip enables you to meet fun travellers who you’ll inevitably bump into again along the road, which makes your time on the island, and in the rest of Vietnam, much easier and more memorable. Go with an open mind, find a crew of likeminded people and just look the other way if you feel like someone’s taken their drinking games a step too far.
A FEW RULES
You’re not allowed to bring your own alcohol to Castaway Island – and that’s about the only rule they enforce. Aside from that, pretty much anything goes, whether that be attempting to break the record for the most cans of beer shotgunned in one trip, dancing on the tables, or picking up some fire poi and waving it around in a booze-fuelled stupor.
The staff encourage chivalry, asking that girls visit the buffet first and boys clear away their plates. Listen carefully to their introductory speech as there are a few key words you should never say on Castaway – unless you enjoy doing press ups in public, that is. The most important rule to remember is that if you ring the island gong, you’ve just committed to buying everyone a round. If you don’t want to spend a small fortune, stay well clear, but if you want to make loads of new friends very quickly and hear a huge tribe of people chanting your name, by all means go for it!
Castaway Island is one of those trips you’ll hear backpackers talking about throughout Vietnam and elsewhere in Asia. If you suffer from the ‘fear of missing out’ you absolutely have to join this tour or you will regret it for the rest of your trip as you’re continuously regaled with tales of other travellers’ incredible stays in Halong Bay. The only bad thing about this tour is that, eventually, the time comes when you have to board that boat back to Hanoi and you wonder if any experience on the rest of your trip will live up to it.