Cruising Halong Bay
You know how we said we never do tours? Well, we just did one. In our defence there isn’t really a better way to do Halong Bay. Situated in Northern Vietnam roughly a 4 hour drive from the capital of Hanoi is Halong Bay, one of the new seven natural wonders of the world. It is a gorgeous bay filled with over 3,000 limestone cliff islands and it is absolutely stunning!
Through our guesthouse in Hanoi we booked a two day one night cruise and it was really wonderful. We debated whether or not we were going to choose this way of seeing the bay since it isn’t exactly budget friendly, but in the end we decided that this was just going to be one of those things that we shelled out the extra cash for. It ended up being SO worth it.
We went for the mid-range cruise option for 75$ each since we had heard many horror stories about the terrible quality of the budget cruises and we obviously have no business on a luxury cruise. This 75$ included transportation to and from Hanoi to Halong City, a double room with bathroom on the boat, all meals, admission to a cave and kayak rental. Like I said, it’s not cheap, especially for a country like Vietnam but we found it to ultimately be very good value.
Our first day began in Hanoi at 8am when we were picked up by our tour guide on a minibus. After going around the old quarter to pick up the others (there were 20 in our group) we drove four hours out to Halong city with one short stop at a souvenir shop for a bathroom break. When we arrived at the port at Halong city we waited about five minutes before being led onto a small boat which ferried us out to our ‘junk boat’ where we would be spending the night.
All of the boats in the harbour looked like they were in terrible condition so at this point I was pretty nervous that we had been scammed and were being led onto one of those awful boats. Most of the others in our group were backpackers so we wondered if we had maybe just been overcharged and put onto a cheap ‘backpacker’ cruise. As it turned out, our boat also looked pretty bad from the outside but substantially better once on board.
After we checked into our room (which was tiny but had a private bathroom, a comfy double bed and two windows so we could enjoy the magnificent views), we were given a big, varied lunch. I was very well provided for as a vegetarian and had more than enough choice which was amazing because this is usually not the case at all.
After lunch we hopped onto the small boat and went off into the harbour to explore an amazing cave, do some kayaking and climb 400+ steps on another island to get a glimpse at the best view of the bay. It was a really awesome afternoon and we had so much fun.
When we got back onto the boat we had some time to relax before dinner. Luke and I smuggled some rum on board since we had heard that drinks were super expensive to buy from the boat’s bar so we had a few rum and coke’s while watching the world go by. Dinner was once again yummy, varied and plentiful. When we were finished eating we went squid fishing off of the back of the boat with our new friends and table-mates Jakob and Maria the Swedes before heading to bed.
We were woken up at 730am for breakfast which was our first bad meal on board – cold, stale toast, yuck! We spent the rest of the morning sitting on the sun deck of the boat cruising through the islands. It was incredibly relaxing and so, so beautiful. Halong bay is such a surreal landscape.
By noon we were back in Halong city harbour and with the bay at our backs. We had one more lunch before heading back onto land to catch the bus back to Hanoi.
Overall we really loved our time on Halong bay and are so glad that we chose to do the cruise despite it being out of our normal budget range. Normally we really hate tours, but this one was very well organised, we never felt like sheep, and we still felt like we had some freedom to do our own thing at our own pace. I suppose this was an example of how a tour can be a good thing. It felt great to relax, be pampered a little bit and have someone else do all of the planning, cooking and thinking. All we had to do was enjoy ourselves.
The company we booked through was ATS tours and the boat we were on was apparently a Lemon Cruise. It can be extremely difficult to figure out which tour/boat/company to use to visit Halong bay since there are a million options, tour offices and touts in Hanoi, so I’ll throw out our recommendation for these guys. If you ever happen to find yourself in Hanoi and confused with which option to take, you might want to take them into consideration. That said, apparently every single trip is a gamble since you never know which boat you will be on, who the staff will be and what your overall experience will be like. I think we got lucky with our experience. I wasn’t expecting it to be anywhere near as good as it was, even with the stale toast .