Halong Bay is a “must see” on almost any guide to Vietnam. If you head to the north end of the country, you can’t leave without seeing the UNESCO World Heritage site.
The best way to view the Bay is widely debated. Information is seemingly vague past the point of “you have to see it.” Often left out is when to go and how to do it. The most convenient way is obviously to book a tour. Most tours are 2d1n or 3d2n and price from Hanoi and range from $70-500usd. Basically the higher up you go, the older the crowd gets. I imagine by the time you get to the top range, all they serve is blended food.
We looked in to going on our own to Halong Bay and booking it from there but deals online didn’t seem to change whether we booked it in Hanoi or Halong bay. We decided we would just book a tour based on us having just arrived in Vietnam and the convenience of it. There are seemingly endless scams for anything you want to do in Vietnam so we decided to book through our hotel with the promise that we would return to the hotel after. This way if there was a scam, they would have to deal with me face to chest (because at 5’10” I’m a foot taller than everyone)
Shopping around is the most tedious thing to do in Vietnam. There are hundreds of boats to choose from, each one almost as crappy as the next. We were warned that the budget boats are extremely crappy with awful food and service. Kind of a “you get what you pay for” thing. We were talked into a 3 star boat and negotiated the price down to $92usd each(I read an online review where the person paid $85usd afterwards) for 2d1n. One thing that drives me insane with Vietnam is anything that tourists do is priced in USD and not VND so then I have to ask what their rate is in Dongs (usually 21k or more). It’s very unappealing being quoted in US dollars because:
A) I don’t have USD
B) The Canadian $ sucks when converted to the USD right now
C) I have to convert to VND then to CAD to know how much I’m paying.
D) I’m in Vietnam. Please give me a price in your currency.
So we booked with Imperial Cruise Lines. They pick us up directly from our hotel at 8:30am in a decent sized bus. There are 30ish people on the bus but only half of them are in our group. The bus ride is about 3.5 hours to Halong Bay with a 20 minute break around the mid point. They have a set destination that all of the busses stop at with a store where you can buy very overpriced souvenirs or coffee and snacks. I contemplated buying a snack but our guide on the bus warned us that you cannot bring your own food or drinks onto the boat or they will charge you to eat/drink them. $92 is a lot of money in Vietnam, this is a pretty shitty policy by the boat. I understand you want us to spend money on the boat but there’s a line between business and greed and they are hovering on it.
When we arrived, we are rushed onto a small ferry to take us to our boat. Our guide warns us that if we want to do everything on the itinerary then we need to stick to her schedule. We all sit down in the dining area and are told we will have 10 minutes to check into our rooms and get back here to eat a quick lunch before we go to our first activity. Lunch comes out on small plates and placed in the middle of groups of 4-5 and served family style. The portions may be small but 6-8 courses come out so we have plenty to eat. The food is all very average and none of the flavors really jump out at us so small portions of each is perfectly fine.
We are then given 5-10 minutes to change and get on the smaller ferry so we can get to our first activity: The Surprising Cave.
As our boat pulls up to the dock we are behind 5 other boats all with 15 or more people on them (there’s also 2 boats behind us). There are also crowds of people around the entrance and coming out of the exit. I’m guessing there’s around a thousand people here at this moment. We are told by our guide that we have 45 minutes to go through the cave so we need to hurry. Easier said than done when we start out behind a group of seniors. They must be from one of the higher end applesauce boats.
The inside of the cave is lit up with lights so no flashlight is needed. The lighting they use isn’t great though so it makes some of the pictures we took look funny. The cave also has a manmade walkway so you can admire the views of the inside without worrying about tripping on rocks. The inside of this cave is truly spectacular but there is just something lost with their being so many people here and it is made to be tourist friendly with walkways and lights. There’s no bats or spiders in the cave, it’s almost just artificial. I won’t spoil the surprise for anyone in case someone is reading this as a guide to Halong bay. If you really want to know, message me on FB or Twitter and I’ll tell you. It’s worth going to see if you can though.
Next we rush off to a beach where we can swim. The only problem with doing this in November is that temperatures drop to around 18 degrees in the day time and the water is really cold. Not to mention there are 20 boats parked right next to the swimming area, I doubt the water is very clean in the small swimming area. We decided to sit down and relax on some chairs on the beach, a guy comes up to us and tells us we need to pay to sit here. We get up and move. It’s grey out, it’s somewhat cold and there is nobody else on the chairs but this guy wants money. There is a set of stairs to the top of the small island. I imagine the view up here is spectacular on a sunny day. We weren’t so fortunate. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still quite nice but we are definitely here in the wrong season. Back at the bottom, another boat pulled in. A bunch of people on the beach sit down in the chairs. The guy comes up and asks for money… every person gets up and moves. His business isn’t going very well.
We rush off to our next destination. A small dock with some very beat up looking Kayaks. We have 30-45 minutes to kayak around a small bay area as the sun sets. We can’t see the sun set because it’s very overcast and it’s pretty chilly on the water. Our kayak is extremely beat up with a couple holes above water level. My seat doesn’t have a seat in it, just an old life jacket to sit on. These kayaks need some serious maintenance done. Kristi is getting mad at me because I’m not steering properly. I decide it’s easier to not paddle at all and just let her do all the work. This also doesn’t go over well. I’m hungry and looking forward to dinner.
When we get back to our boat, we are pretty tired. In our room description, it says we get a fruit basket and a couple waters in our room. We didn’t have this so we asked our guide and she looked into it for us. According to whoever she talked to, it was just to make the picture look nicer but didn’t actually come with the room… they probably shouldn’t have written that it’s included in their book. A simple, “I’m sorry but there was a misunderstanding, we’d like to buy you a drink” would have been the perfect response. US prices does not mean US customer service.
Drinks are not included on the boat. No water, no coffee, no tea. Your food is included but drinks are not. They are also overpriced and in USD. $2 (42k VND) for a beer seems like a decent price. Except that I was drinking the same beer for 1/3 of the price in Hanoi. Because drinks aren’t included, there is a bartender walking around asking you constantly if you would like a drink. It’s funny because anywhere else we’ve been in Southeast Asia, if you want something, you need to ask for it. Here there is a guy constantly asking you if you’d like a drink. We’re already well over budget on this tour but decided to have a beer and I ordered a Jack Daniels later that night when he offered it on “special” for $3usd. I then received the worlds smallest ounce of Jack Daniels.
One guy ordered a cuba libre (rum & coke with lime) with his dinner… he received a rum and lime juice… when he confirmed with the bartender that his drink was a cuba libre, the bartender said “yes! of course”
After dinner they were really pressing us to enjoy karaoke. I am not a fan of karaoke. Most of the songs chosen are usually bad songs before someone who can’t sing gets up to butcher them. Everyone else in our group seemed to have the same opinion as me. Unfortunately our guide who is Vietnamese and loves karaoke, can’t pick up on our polite subtle cues that we don’t want to indulge in this activity. The music is blasting too loud, the mic has an echo on it and they didn’t have the actual instrumentals for songs. Instead they had cheap tunes done on a shitty organ or some other instrument so not only was the music trying to deafen me but it was trying to make my ears bleed too. We duck out to the front of the boat to try our luck with some squid fishing. They turn on a big spotlight into the water. No bait. Just a bamboo rod with a short line and a hook with the instructions up “move up and down to catch squid. You can catch depend on lucky”… this should be fun. Kristi asks, “What do we do if we catch one?” Our guide responds, “Oh you can keep it.” The temperature dropped to around 14 degrees which was really cold for us having been in 32 degree Bangkok 3 days ago. We spent about 45 minutes trying to squid fish with no luck. We could see them swimming past our hooks but that was as close s we got. We did see an octopus swim by but we didn’t catch that either.
Sleeping on the boat was fine. We had a room in the middle of the boat and our bed was quite comfortable. In the morning some people near the back of the boat didn’t sleep very well because the generator is quite loud when it’s running at night. If you are booking, request a room in the middle of the boat.
Breakfast is at 7am so we have an early start. The breakfast is also served family style with bread that was toasted 30 minutes ago and one fried egg each. Everything is cold by the time it gets to us but they were nice enough to include free coffee and tea with breakfast. We then get on the ferry and head over to the pearl farm where they put small pieces of coral in the oysters mouths in order for them to turn them into pearls. This is basically a great demonstration of how supply and demand works alongside business. Interesting to learn about but it’s a shitty industry overall. We were warned about the quality of the pearls before going on the cruise. We’re too cheap to buy anything anyways.
We then go back to the boat, pack our bags and check out of our room. The people on the 3 day tour get on another boat and head to Cat Ba island. The rest of us joined by the 2 dayers from the other boat get to do a cooking class. We are going to make spring rolls. Of course everything is already prepped so it’s more of a cooking demonstration than anything. We all got to roll one spring roll each and be criticized on how poorly we did. Kristi’s was good. Mine was too fat and the paper was likely to rip. Though we did better than others who had theirs completely unwrapped and re-rolled. It’s funny because you know her intention is not to be rude but because her English is second language it comes off as rude. I get it, so I find it funny. I can’t say others felt the same way.
We then head off the boat and back to wait for the bus. Turns out our timing was good on this tour because at noon, they got word of a big storm coming in and decided no more boats would be going into the bay today. The downside was that meant our bus that was supposed to empty out, wouldn’t be doing so. They had to call us another bus, delaying us by about 30 minutes to go back to Hanoi. Even shittier, when you book a tour that gets canceled because of weather… there’s no refund. I feel bad for the people who were turned away. This is a pretty awful policy. I get that you can’t do anything about the weather but to just keep the money doesn’t seem right. However, that is a risk we take whenever you want to book a tour involving the ocean.
Unfortunately, our experience with Imperial Cruises was extremely mediocre. That said, I would love to find a better way to visit Halong Bay when the weather is better. I can only imagine how beautiful it is when the weather is nice. However, being on a tour everything felt like it was go go go and there was no real downtime to just relax. If the weather had been nicer, I definitely would have wanted to spend some time on the top deck in the sun or playing crib with Kristi. We also had a somewhat antisocial group with a couple from France, 2 Slovakian couples and a mother-daughter-friend combo from Chile. We had small conversations with everyone but it was all very forced. The only thing we seemed to have in common was that none of us were impressed with the boat. Had drinks been priced normally I probably would have relaxed and had a few more. I think the same would go for the others as no couple had a bill over $15.
I know I’m not selling Halong bay very well but it truly is a beautiful place to visit (maybe more so in the summer time). My advice would be to do your research in advance, check trip advisor to figure out what company you want to go with and how much you want to pay. Don’t book online, find a tour company and negotiate prices from there. My budget is obviously going to be very different than someone on a 2 week vacation.
There are great experiences to be had here. Maybe we just came in with unrealistic expectations. Maybe the cold weather is effecting view on everything.