If you're planning a trip, try choosing one that is at least one night. Castaway trips are three days and come recommended for the party type, though friends said they are basic and somewhat expensive. There are plenty of trips to Halong Bay which can be booked from Hanoi. I'd imagine there are also Halong Bay trips on offer at most hostels in the other big towns.
...So. Our trip.
KayakingWe made it to the only inhabited area of Halong Bay, where we got out to rent Kayaks and explore the massive caves, bays and limestone structures. Anyone who knows me well will know a certain incident with a kayak 5 years ago left me a bit traumatised by water, but luckily I've built my confidence back up since then. I'm glad I made the effort to Kayak as it would have been a missed opportunity not to get out and actually explore the structures up close.
The kayaking was pretty cool... until more boats arrived and more tourists swarmed the waters in larger boats paddled by the Vietnamese. Not known for their manners and gentle nature, the boats pretty much pretended we were driftwood and pushing us out of their way. It somewhat hampered our efficient kayaking, especially through tunnels, but it was good that we had some [limited] time to explore before the others descended. Back to the boat to sunbathe.
WaterThe water of Halong is very dirty, so much so that you can't swim. This was certainly not something I had surmised from the pictures I'd seen. It's the big factor that really 'put me off'.
Dau Go CaveI realised by the time we got to Dau Go Cave that despite being out at sea, the crowds still existed. Due to the complete absence of research before my trip (as I confessed before) I didn't know about the caves that exist in Halong Bay, or that we were going to make a trip to one of them.
Apart from being used as a timber store to make awesome boat traps (read more here), the cave has no title to boast of. It's 'one of' the biggest caves in Halong Bay. This said, it is very convenient for day trippers as it's only 30 minutes from the coast. Quite charmingly it is on Driftwood Island and often referred to as Driftwood Grotto (after the aforementioned use as a timber store), which sounds like something out of Peter Pan.
A lot of my group hated the way they had made the caves look like a Disney queue line. I have to say I quite enjoyed it, especially given that if you ever take an extended trip across
Asia, then you will see a fair few caves. It takes something new to make the last cave/temple/waterfall stand out from the first.
Halong Bay TownIf the town had a good atmosphere OR the beach was nice and not covered in litter OR even if the town had been small, calm and authentic then I really wouldn't have minded only an afternoon trip to Halong Bay. As it was, the town had a really tacky market, tacky Vietnamese karaoke and distinctly average restaurants. It was just not a place worth knowing.
RunningThe only benefit of staying on dry land was the fact that the beachfront promenade encouraged me to take my first run since the marathon and my first run in Asia. Following the waterfront made for an easy route and you can follow the road for quite some distance. I stopped at the end of my run to do some core work etc. and it caused a bit of a stir. I clutched on to my phone and promptly ran back, staying clear from the edge of the road and not making eye contact. It was a quick lesson as to what exercise is and isn't acceptable in public, in SE Asia.*
*More coming soon about running in SE Asia.