Castaways Island: Living the Dream in Vietnam’s Halong Bay
Castaways, Castaways, where to begin? I write this several days after returning, still trying to digest it all…and still trying to get the sand out of my hair. For backpackers in Vietnam, Vietnam Backpacker Hostels’ Castaways Island trip to Halong Bay is legendary. You’ll be hard-pressed to meet a young traveler who hasn’t been on the trip or at least hasn’t considered it. And, as I found out this week, there’s good reason for that.
We departed from the Vietnam Backpacker Hostel in Hanoi bright and early and boarded a bus followed by a boat followed by another bus followed by another boat, but all of that was worth it the instant we set eyes on our final destination. Our home for the next two nights? A private beach with straw huts and blissfully soft sand surrounded by steep limestone cliffs. It was ours, all ours to make whatever we wanted of it.
We sat down to a buffet lunch in the island’s bar, checked into our dormitory-style rooms within the straw huts, and then it was time for a bit of rest and relaxation in the sun. The activities began that afternoon: we were given a choice of high speed tubing, wakeboarding, or rock climbing, and I chose the tubing option. Three Dutch guys and I loaded ourselves onto the tube, and away we flew, holding on for dear life as the boat rushed us through the bay. I have to admit that, despite my experience on similar tubes at the Colorado River, I was the weakest link, flying off quite a few times.
Back on the beach, I soaked in the sun and ocean, made some friends, and then joined the wakeboarders as a spectator on the boat. Kicking back, cruising along, and cheering on the wakeboarding novices, I felt just like I was on my annual trip to the Colorado River watching my family and friends waterski, my ultimate happy place. Life was good.
A buffet dinner transitioned into what most of our group was really there for: a night of partying. If you love to party, I guarantee these will be some of the best nights of your life. You with 50-100 young backpackers, cheap drinks, a warm night, the ocean just steps away, and a view to die for. I love how Vietnam Backpacker Hostels puts it: “You’ll be fueled to party with a level of abandonment that can only be reached while on an island paradise in the middle of a stunning nowhere.” But if you’re not really there to party, like I personally wasn’t? You’ve got an amazing beach, hammocks, and lots of friends to be made while sipping on drinks, people watching, and taking in the atmosphere. No matter what your cup of tea, you really can’t go wrong.
It wasn’t all fun and games, though: there were some preeeetty harsh rules on the island. Say the words “ten” or “mine”? Sorry, but you’ll have to show us ten push-ups. Ring the gong that’s intended for announcing meals? You’re buying the entire island a round of drinks. So if all inclusive accommodation, meals, and activities aren’t enough for you, bonus! A free workout regimen, and, if you’re lucky, quite a few drinks at the expense of your gong-happy island mates.
I had committed myself to attempting to bring out my hidden party side that night, but that plan quickly was pushed aside when I made a friend who loves The West Wing and Lord of the Rings as much as I do. We decided to abandon drinking games and drunken dancing in favor of limitless nerd conversation. My kind of vacation!
One of the things I had most been looking forward to in Halong Bay was seeing the water’s bioluminescence, which was an absolute delight to observe as I dangled my feet off the dock into the glowing water. Mother Nature proved even cooler when a massive thunderstorm rolled in, providing buckets of rain and a spectacular lightning show we observed from the safe shelter of a tent. Slightly less beautiful to watch? The groups of skinny dippers swimming out to the innertube…but at least it was dark enough to leave everything to the imagination.
Day two was dedicated to a cruise — some called it a “cultural cruise,” while others called it a “booze cruise.” I’ll put it somewhere in the middle. Though it had been pouring cats and dogs when we left Hanoi, by the time we arrived to Halong Bay on the first day, the clouds were clearing, and, fortunately for our cultural booze cruise, our second day was absolutely stunning. We set off to sail around the bay, with views of some of the 2000 islets and fascinating fishing villages. With the day heating up, we jumped off the upper deck of the boat for a swim. Next, we kayaked through caves to reach some of the bay’s more secluded outlets. Back on the boat, we had lunch and lounged in the sun with beers, music, and comfy beanbag chairs.
The party wasn’t over there, though. Back on the island, we met the newcomers who had arrived for their first day, enjoyed another buffet dinner, took a swing in the island’s beachfront hammocks, and kept the night going with more drinks, games, and good conversations.
Our third and final day came all too soon. We had one last morning for beach volleyball, kayaking, and whatever other activities we chose…although I have to say that most were far too exhausted to get their athlete on. And, all too soon, we had to say goodbye to the magical Castaways Island and return to the real world. Uh, if you can ever call backpacking through Southeast Asia the “real world.”
I have to be honest: prior to leaving, I was unsure about what to expect at Castaways. A friend who traveled through Vietnam previously recommended it to me but warned me that it was a total party trip. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a total old fogey and am open to parties here and there. But when traveling, I’d choose a good night sleep and a full day to explore a new city over a drunken night out any day. And, yes, Castaways was, at its core, a party trip. But it was also oh so much more than that. No matter your style of travel, if you’re into beautiful views, secluded beaches, rip-roaring activities, amazing company (um, who wouldn’t be?), you really can’t miss out.
A totally unbiased note on the price: I spoke to a few travelers who were scared off by the cost of this trip, which is a bit high by Vietnamese standards but is still a steal compared to tours in most countries. I’d honestly say that no trip to Vietnam would be complete without a visit to Halong Bay. While there are some cheaper options for getting there, I got first-hand accounts from some people who opted for those, and they were not happy with the overall quality compared to Castaways Island. More importantly, though, those groups can be very mixed (two girls I met had a crying baby in their travel group), while Castaways is replete with young backpackers.
I’ve been traveling for nearly ten weeks now, and I’m overwhelmed by how many magnificent things I’ve seen and done in that time. But if I had to pick the best days of this trip so far? It would be my time spent on Castaways Island. Someone, please, take me back!