One of Vietnam’s most famous tourist attractions, the stunningly beautiful Halong Bay is also a bit of a minefield for finding a straightforward boat trip tour package. Russ Brooks explains how to find the best Halong Bay tour operator so as make sure you get a good value deal on a boat that’s safe
Legend has it when the ancient Vietnamese people were fighting off foreign invaders from China, the gods sent a family of dragons to help defend their land. The dragons descended upon what is now Ha Long bay and began spitting out jewels and jade. Upon hitting the sea, these jewels turned into the various islands dotting the coastline and formed a formidable fortress against the invaders. The dragon family also fell so much in love with this area because of the calm water and the reverence of the Vietnamese people that they decided to remain on earth. The mother dragon is said to lie on what is now Ha Long and her children are said to lie at Bai Tu Long.
Beautiful And Popular
Halong Bay is unarguably an extremely beautiful and so popular destination – the only way to really visit the dragon family, as well as the jewels and jade they spit out, is to take a cruise on a junk through the thousands of islands and islets. Choosing the right boat and route can be challenging, as there are hundreds of tour operators and cruises that have trips departing every day. Hanoi is the usual jumping off point to Halong Bay, with your chosen company providing transport direct from Hanoi to the boat on the coast and back again after the trip. (Hanoi is an amazing destination in its own right – see the previous Travelhappy article Don’t Miss: Hanoi for more info).
Which Halong Bay Cruise Operator To Choose?
I visited Ha Long Bay for the second time in March 2011, this time with my father. Due to the recent, well-publicised sinking of a junk in Halong Bay, I wanted to make sure we chose a good operator with a solid reputation. I spent days prior to our arrival combing through forums and operator websites and discovered there are really only a dozen companies or so operating hundreds of different junks, the traditional Vietnamese boats that sail in Ha Long Bay. There were also myriad reports of unsafe boats, bait and switch tactics, and even rats aboard some of them.
Halong Bay Cruise Pricing
I also found it difficult to know what to expect, as there were very different price levels that could be found; from $45USD/night for the barest of budgets to $500USD for a private junk. Every company had beautiful pictures and great testimonials, but having been there before, I knew that many wouldn’t live up to their claims. (If you’re researching a trip to Vietnam, you might also want to check out How Much Money Do I Need For Vietnam to help with your planning).
Halong Bay – 1 Day, Overnight, 3 Day or Private Cruise?
The first thing to determine is how much time you want to spend. There are day trips, 2 day/1 night cruises, 3 day/2 night cruises, and private charters as well. After deciding on how much time you want to spend, you’ll need to figure out how much money you have to spend. There are high end cruises with white linen dinners and top chefs and there are backpacker cruises where you’ll stay up partying late into the night. It’s important to know what kind of cruise you’ll be on as being on the wrong one could be miserable; either up late because of all the noise or no one to party with if that’s what you’re after. A good way to get an idea of Halong Bay cruise prices is to check Viator – you can book Halong Bay 1 Day cruises, overnight cruises, 3 day cruises and private tours online. This gives you a benchmark price but also previous guest reviews and peace of mind booking through an established tour operator that works with trusted agents.
Halong Bay Itinerary
Most of the cruise companies have pretty similar lists of activities and itineraries for their cruises. Sail, eat, explore a cave, kayak, eat, sleep, floating fishing village, eat, leave. The extra day on some itineraries is often spent motoring around, at the beach, or more time kayaking, but check to see what they offer. Some cruises also offer activities at night, from language and cooking lessons to hardcore drinking games.
Having been there before and reading the itineraries, I decided on a 2-day/1-night cruise with Indochina Junk. After much research, and tons of forums, they seemed to have a solid overall reputation and had something the others didn’t: an exclusive permit to explore the Bai Tu Long area. Since I’d already visited the Ha Long Bay area, I thought this might be a nice change and a way to avoid the hundred of other boats that roam the waters every day.
Is It Necessary To Book Ahead For Halong Bay?
While I had contacted Indochina Junk by email prior to arriving in Vietnam, I don’t think it necessary and frankly, with so many boats, I’d wait until you arrive in Ha Noi and can meet the tour agent directly to get a feel for their operation. When we arrived in Hanoi, we headed over to the booking office to meet our operator. He was very welcoming, offered us drinks, and showed us more pictures of the boat as well as a wall map that showed where we would be sailing. Since a boat had sunk a week or so earlier, I asked what he knew about it and he showed me where it sunk as spent time reassuring me about their safety record and that our boat, the Dragon’s Pearl, was built just last May. We arranged the final details and he wished us a “happy cruise.”
Free Transport To And From Hanoi To Halong Bay
As with most, our company offered free transportation to and from Ha Long Bay, departing and returning to Hanoi. Pick up is at your hotel at 8am and will be in a small bus or minibus. After we stop around Ha Noi and pick up a few others we’re on the road by 8:30am. The guide introduces herself, welcomes us, and passes out water bottles. She asks if anyone is celebrating a special occasion or if there were any special concerns with food or accommodations before telling us it’ll be 3.5 hours to the boat and that we’ll stop for a break along the way (at a tourist junket shop no less. It is Vietnam after all.)
When we arrive at Ha Long City we’re gathered in what seems to be a dining room with a stage off to one end and separated at different tables according to what boat we’re one. We meet our “cruise director” and introduce ourselves. We’re told that the boat is being cleaned and restocked and that we’ll be on our way shortly. As I look around, I discover that Indochina Junk uses five names, but has twelve different boats. We’re told they’re exact copies of each other, but I get a bit nervous as I start to remember the bait and switch comments from the forums.
Boarding The Halong Bay Cruiseship
We head to the docks and board a small boat and head out to the junk. We pass a few of the copies along the way, but as soon as our boat comes into focus, it’s clear that it is a newer boat in excellent condition. We hop aboard and are led right up to the main deck and seated for lunch. After a short introduction to the boat and a safety briefing, the cruise director introduces the staff and gives us our itinerary for our trip.
As we head out of Ha Long City, lunch is served. There are a number of different Vietnamese dishes and all are quite tasty and plentiful. After lunch, we’re shown to our rooms to get settled before arriving at an island. Our rooms are clean, comfortable, and designed well and while there isn’t a ton of space, there’s enough and the bathroom is modern and since I’ve been traveling the past six months, it’s a nice change.
Dau Tien Island – Not That Exciting
When we arrive at Dau Tien Island, which we learn is company owned, the guide tells us that a local fishing family of seven used to live in the cave, but the company persuaded them to live in the fishing village and set them up there. He also says two of the family still live and work on the beach for the company. We climb up to explore the cave, their former home, but it’s pretty small and not particularly special or impressive in any way. The cave tour takes about 5 minutes, but mostly because the guide is dragging it out with stories and jokes. It’s really that small… We mostly just chat about how “voluntary” the family’s departure was from the island. As we emerge from the other side of the cave, we look around from the top of the island and notice there are seven boats in the water nearby and I make a joke about the company’s claim that because they have exclusive permits to operate in a different area than the rest of the companies, we won’t see any tourists, but they failed to mention that all of their own boats go to the same places at the same time.
Kayaking In Halong Bay
After the cave, most of us kayak around an adjacent island. It’s nice – we’re able to kayak around and close to the karsts and around a nearby bay and it’s a great way to see the islands up close. After we get back, a few people swim, but the water is very cold and looks to be pretty dirty. We hang out for a bit on the beach, which we learned was manmade as there are no naturally occurring beaches in Ha Long Bay, but are shortly shuttled back to the big boat to set sail for the place we’ll moor for the night. After we get back and get cleaned up, we meet back up on deck for dinner. Another delicious Vietnamese meal with plenty to eat and we all sit around getting to know each other and swapping stories. After dinner, most retire to their cabins, but a few of us head up to the upper deck to swap a few more stories, have a cold beer, and look at more stars than I’d seen in a while.
Halong Bay Floating Village and Pearl Farm
We head out early in the morning for the floating village and pearl farm. We get on the small boat and motor to a shallow area that’s protected from all sides by towering limestone karsts. We head towards a visitor’s centre of sorts and hop of our boat and pair up into smaller bamboo rowboats that will ferry us to and around the village. As we round a corner, we can see a few clusters of floating buildings and head for the largest one that seems to be the town center. When we arrive, we’re shown the school, the community center, a few pearl farmers at work and most importantly…the gift shop. While interesting to see, I certainly don’t get the feel that I visited a floating village where people live, but a floating tourist attraction where they work. At any rate, it’s the same as I remember from my previous trip and the ride in the rowboat around the karsts was quite beautiful. After the floating village, we head back to the boat to get packed up as the trip is already over and we’re already setting sail for Ha Long City. We pack our things and head up on deck for an early lunch before disembarking.
Heading Back To Hanoi
23.5 hours after we get onboard, we’re back on land and loading up the vans for the trip back to Ha Noi. It was a very short trip and while technically correct, 2 days and 1 night is more like two half days and a night. That being said, overall, we had a good, but I think largely average experience on Ha Long Bay. While you should be prepared for a largely programmed experience, it doesn’t matter too much as what you’re really there to see is the topography and the views, not the activities.
Halong Bay Conclusions
While the boat was nicer than I remember the other boat being 2 years ago, (thanks Dad), I don’t think there was really much difference in what we saw or the overall experience. Indochina Junk did a nice job and the boat was in excellent condition. The rooms were clean, comfortable, and quiet at night. The food was Vietnamese, very delicious, and plentiful to the point of turning food away. They handled the vegetarians as well as those of us with food allergies well, giving us options on what we wanted to eat. Overall, the service was good, prompt, and the staff always had smiles and were eager to please.
And Finally…Don’t Worry About The Weather
I’d also say, don’t be too concerned with the weather as both the sun and rain make for some stunning sights. The weather during my trip was mostly misty and rainy, although the sun did come out almost perfectly while we kayaked. As soon as we finished kayaking though, the clouds came rushing back and we had to race the weather to our mooring spot. That being said, as I remembered from before, it’s absolutely gorgeous in Ha Long Bay and the fog and mist made for some wonderful photos.