Back to the trip reporting! Apologies for the long pause, but I hope to do a better job of finishing my trip reports in a somewhat timely manner…
One of my friends told me that I should go to Halong Bay, so I tried to do research on the best tour options. Part of the problem is that there are so many choices in terms of companies, boat size, length, and even location (the tour that I ended up going on actually went to Bai Tu Long Bay instead of Halong Bay), and there isn’t really a definitive source since most people will only ever go on a single Halong Bay cruise in their lives, so it’s hard for people to make judgments.
What I will say is that I enjoyed my tour with Indochina Junk. We chose a 3-day, 2-night cruise on the Dragon’s Pearl. There are tons of options in terms of booking the cruise, and when I tried to book prior to arriving in Vietnam, I was quoted a price of $290 USD per person. I decided that we should wait to book until we got to Hanoi, so we ended up visiting their office the day before we wanted to leave on a cruise.
The negotiation on price was a bit awkward. They essentially said, “the public price is $295, but we want to give you a special deal–how much are you willing to pay?” After a little back and forth, we ended up paying $265 per person, plus a 3% charge for paying by credit card. Was this the best we could do? No idea. (Note that they’ll tell you that there’s only one room left on the cruise, which is a blatant lie–everyone on our cruise (even those who had booked months in advance) said that they were told that they were booking the last room).
The price included transfers to/from Halong Bay, as well as all food and activities on the boat. It didn’t include drinks besides water, tea, and coffee, nor gratuities at the end of the trip.
We were picked up bright and early on the day we wanted to depart, and I was impressed by the van. It was definitely nicer than expected.
It takes about three hours to get to Halong Bay from Hanoi, so we had a bathroom stop at a store that had goods sold by disabled people. This might make me a bad person, but I felt awkward even looking at things because the sales people would hobble toward you in the hopes that you would buy things, so I ended up sitting outside for most of the stop so I wouldn’t make anyone have to move unnecessarily. The items were generally very pricey (e.g. a silk screen print was $200), but there was no pressure to buy anything.
We got to Indochina Junk’s office at the bay and had to wait a while for them to organize us and wait for the previous day’s tours to clear off the boats. There were 19 people on our tour.
The boat was pretty nice overall. The rooms were fine (good air conditioning, but the rooms are the only place with air conditioning), and the bathrooms were larger than expected. The beds were a little hard, and the bedding is just a sheet, but it was fine for two nights. There were plenty of lounge chairs for everyone, and dining outside was great.
Part of the reason why I chose Indochina Junk is because they cruise on Bai Tu Long Bay instead of Halong Bay. I had heard that Halong Bay was overcrowded with boats and full of garbage, but we didn’t see many other boats at all during our trip, and there wasn’t much garbage in the water (there was some, which was sad to see).
After lunch and some time just appreciating the scenery, we went kayaking. I don’t think I’d ever gone kayaking before, and I’d say it was fun for about 30 minutes, at which point it became hot and frustrating. I’d like to think it was just our kayak, because my sister and I are both pretty fit people, but we had way more trouble than any of the other kayaks…
The next day, we started off with a tour of a floating village, which was awesome. It was a little voyeuristic, but I found it fascinating. We were taken around in boats that were rowed by crazy strong Vietnamese women (make sure to bring some money to tip them as I would’ve felt terrible if I hadn’t), and we visited a school and an pearl farm.
In the afternoon, we had the chance to swim in the bay around the boat. I highly recommend jumping off the boat. You need to watch out for jellyfish, but our guide told us when we needed to get out of the water.
Then, we kayaked to a beach, which held the cave where we’d be having dinner. The caves were massive, and it was an awesome environment in which to have dinner.
The final day was a bit of a letdown in terms of activities. We were supposed to have a cooking class, but instead we watched a guy carve some food into animals. I left after about 5 minutes.
And then on the drive back, we stopped at a water puppet show, which was hilariously bad.
Overall, this was a great experience that I’d recommend. The views are incredible, the boat felt isolated, and I enjoyed a lot of the activities. I’m also glad that we did a 3-day cruise as that provided more time to just relax and enjoy the surroundings.
That being said, the experience wasn’t perfect. The food was pretty bad after the first lunch (LOTS of deep-fried food), and the service had regular miscues (perhaps encapsulated by the final lunch where no one got their order because they ended up making the previous cruise’s orders by mistake instead). But those are small things compared to the beauty and splendor of Halong Bay.