Ha Long Bay conclusions

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First published 28th October, 2006

And now, our adventures at sea have drawn to close. We've sampled the budget, mid-range, and luxury tour options. And as we reflect on the experience, what conclusions can be drawn?

Quick links
Ha Long Bay introduction
Ha Long Bay for backpackers
Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
Ha Long Bay for budget-busters

The budget tour is a crap shoot. We'd be hard-pressed to say which of the myriad agencies offering discount tours is most likely to offer the best experience. The problem is, in order to fill all the boats, agencies shift passengers around from operator to operator, so there's no telling in advance what which boat you'll be on or how good the crew will be. For every report we get of having a wonderful time going through a specific tour company, we hear from elsewhere that travellers had a trip from hell.

You can't stop the budget tour agencies from loading the boat full of day trippers, and you can't do much about the quality of the food. When you get to Cat Ba, however, you can skip out on the meal you've paid for (after all, you didn't pay that much) and dine at one of the seafood restaurants instead. Once you are on the boat, you can try to persuade the crew to take you to Surprising Cave, rather than Dragon Cave, to take you kayaking through tunnel arches rather than in circles around the boat, and take you to the best beach, which is Ba Traidao (Three Peaches Beach).

Taking a refreshing dip at another Cat Ba beach

Much of your enjoyment however depends on the group of people you wind up with on the boat. If you're in your own small group, you could have a really good time no matter how hellish the service and accommodation are. We were lucky and were in a great group of people and, truth be told, had a lot more fun on the budget tour than on the other tours -- probably because the lousy conditions created a sense of comradery that was absent on the other tours.

At the end of the day, it can't be denied: it's a great deal for the price -- a night in a hotel, a night on the boat, and, (weather permitting) swimming, kayaking, trekking, caves -- doing it on your own would be much more expensive.

A midrange tour is definitely worth the money in terms of the increased quality of the food and the service. There's less chance of missing out on things because of schedule changes, there are fewer passengers aboard the boat, the cabins are better, and activities are much more well-planned and well-coordinated.

Families travelling with children are strongly advised to steer clear of the budget tours, where every hiccup and set back will be multiplied by the number of kids in your brood. But you'll still get a two-star hotel on Cat Ba, which is no better than you'd get on the budget cruise. There are two three-star hotels on Cat Ba you can request to book into, for an extra charge -- The Princes and Holiday View, but of the two, we can only recommend The Princes. And there's one four-star option, the Sunrise Resort, but if you're only spending one night, it hardly seems worth it.

Also, midrange cruises can adapt more easily to special requests -- if you want to go mountain-biking or take an independent motorcycle tour while on Cat Ba, instead of the scheduled group activity, they can probably arrange it for you -- just make your needs known in advance.

But a real concern on the higher-priced tours is that solo travellers might find themselves on a boat full of families and couples and feel a bit left out. Independent travellers tend to travel cheap, and you're likely to find more of your own kind on the budget trip. Still, if you're a stickler on the finer points of service and accommodation (you know who you are) you'd probably be happier paying a bit more.

For most travellers, the luxury trips don't offer a significant benefit except in terms of the food and service. Gourmands will be well-satisfied by the delicious, well-presented cuisine. Otherwise, there isn't much your extra dollars will buy that can improve on the basic Ha Long Bay experience, over and above what you get on a midrange cruise. With one important exception: for travellers with mobility issues, a luxury tour is a necessary expense -- it's the only way to guarantee you'll be able to get easily on and off your boat, and receive the necessary assistance to do so.

When it comes to recommending particular operators, we're left in a quandry of sorts as very few operators actually own their own boat. While passengers with XYZ tours today may have the boat of the day, the next group may score a rust-bucket, and while the more you pay reduces the chances of you travelling on a Vietnamese Titanic it doesn't remove the possibility totally.

Rather than getting hung-up on the boat, ask the right questions beforehand and see if the agency starts steering you to their more expensive tours -- that's a good sign -- it means they may actually be able to provide what you want.

Some good questions to start with include:
Do they take day-trippers and people heading to Cat Ba as was as the group?
Can the generator be heard from the rooms?
Does their deck furniture have cushions?
Is there a top deck you can relax on?

But our final conclusion may surprise you. Did we say we took three Ha Long Bay tours? Sorry, we lied. We decided to do the tour a fourth time -- on our own.

Doing Ha Long Bay on your own -- well worth the effort

Those day-trippers had the right idea. Make your way to Ha Long City on our own. We showed up at the pier at around 10:00, asked around among the tour operators hustling on the dock, did a little bargaining, and hitched a ride on a tour boat for 80,000 dong per person. There are no hydrofoils or fast boats from Ha Long City to Cat Ba anyway, so you might as well take a tour boat, and it really is a great way to see the bay.

We were once again on a lousy budget junk, but who cares, we weren't spending the night on it! We could have bought lunch on the boat, but instead we just brought along some sandwiches of our own. The boat stopped for the cave tour, which we could have done for an extra 20,000 dong, but we were understandably a bit caved out at that point.

Sometimes you should just go!

When the boat stopped for a swim, we all put on our suits and leapt from the top deck into the water -- something we missed out on during our rained-out budget tour, and the high-priced tour boats had no top decks. Now, that was fun. Hell, we'd pay five bucks just to do that alone.

We saw as much of beautiful Ha Long Bay as anyone really needs to see anyway, could have gone kayaking (again) if we wanted to, and arrived in Cat Ba in the evening, where we found a cheap room, hooked up with some other travellers for a sea food dinner, tipped a few glasses of bia hoi on the promenade, and no one woke us up at 07:00 because we had to check out and catch the tour boat back to Ha Long. We'd been to Cat Ba twice on tours, but this time we were able sample the seafood, the beaches, and the treks at our leisure.

For the trip back, a 45-minute, US$7 hydrofoil ride took us to Hai Phong, connecting to a cheap two-hour bus to Hanoi. For those of you who cringe at the idea of a package tour at any price, it's an option well-worth the extra expense and effort.

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Read 23 comment(s)

  • Thanks for the info, very helpful. In about a week, I am thinking of doing Ha Long Bay on my own much the way you describe here. However, I would like to try to spend a day kayaking off of Cat Ba Island, especially in the Lan Ha Bay. My question: Is it possible for an independent traveller to rent a kayak on his own in Cat Ba to explore the island? If not, is it possible to go on a 1-day kayaking trip with a group around the island? Thanks.

    Posted by Malcolm on 7th May, 2009

  • Booked Blue Paradise Cruises through one of the Travel Agents in Hanoi.Although the boat we haad booked and paid for had a Blue Paradise logo on,it was definately not the one in the brochure that agents will show you.If this happens to you,I recommend that you complain to the tour guide (who accompanies you on the bus trip to and from Halong Bay) and ask him to meet with the "owner".We did,and received a partial 30% refund.
    The boat we were on was very sub standard,and the accomodation nothing like that in the glossy brochure.From 3 diferent people in the company,I received 3 different "reasons" for the change in boat....the last one being that the original boat had sunk !
    Needless to say I came away with the feeling that this company is being blantantly dishonest and overcharging for a sub standard boat,and unless we had complained,we would not have received any apology or refund.
    Avoid this cruise company.
    The bay itself is attractive,but there is no attempt to keep it from overcrowding with junks and from the pollution......mainly from the junk operators.See it quick before it becomes a cesspool.

    Posted by Make sure you get the boat you paid for.Avoid Blue Paradise Cruises on 5th December, 2009

  • This site has been most useful and would reccomend anyone to read before booking this trip. We will give our feed back on our trip and hope this will help others. Thank you

    Posted by stephen bull on 30th January, 2010

  • We booked a 3 day tour to Halong Bay in December 2009, with Halong Blue Paradise Cruises, through the Civility Hotel in Ha Noi.
    We saw great photo's of the junk on which we would stay one night, and to be sure about the best quality, we booked the VIP comfort level, the highest out of 3 levels (and prices). It was all well organised in terms of timing, bus travel, etc. but we got onto a fairly ordinary junk, with less than acceptable bathroom facilities. We had a room for three, and only two of us had a shower that was more or less warm. The next morning the shower was still cold. Mind you it is quite chilly in Halong Bay in December. The tour guide was helpful to run us through the various events (cave visit, kayaking, drop off in Cat Ba, etc.), but did not know anything about Halong Bay. Several in our group really wanted to know a bit about the geology, history, mythology, and even what we were going to do next! None of that, we were basically treated like a flock of sheep, who simply had to follow the programme. All meals are included in the tour price, except your drinks. Well the drinks on board were exceptionally expensive for Vietnam, and wine is only available by the bottle. We were lucky that we had a Vietnamese couple in our group (living in the US), because the staff on board did not speak a word of English.
    Bottomline? Halong Bay is already destroyed by the massive tourism there and we were there even off season! There are about 500 junks on the Bay and wherever you go, you meet masses of tourist groups. Looking at the resort developments in Cat Ba, it is going to be much worse in the future.
    I had looked forward to Halong Bay as one of the (if not THE) highlights of our trip through Vietnam, but honestly, my advice is to look up photographs on the internet from the times that it was quiet there, and to enjoy those. Going there now is a waste of time and money in my view. Unless you like to be treated like a sheep. And as a Kiwi I don't!

    Posted by you like to be treated like a sheep with Halong Blue Paradise Cruises on 31st January, 2010

  • We went on the 2days one night margarite junk, we really weren't expecting much but the boat was fabulous, the room was the nicest we had stayed in vietnam, the food was really good and plenty of it, the staff kept coming with lovely dishes. Ha long bay is beautiful if the water was clean it would be far nicer, i couldn't believe the amount of rubbish that was in the water, it spoils the lovely scenery, it is all the locals, they don't seem to care but yet our guide was expecting us to vote Halong bay as one of the 7 wonders of the world, it will get more and more polluted as time goes on and its the locals that are doing the damage. Its a pitty

    Posted by kerry c on 18th February, 2010

  • Great information here. Just arrived in Hanoi with 10 friends we met on the overnight bus from Vientiene. We are planning our cruise and this website was a great help to sort out what we are looking for, and how to find it. Many thanks!

    Posted by Alex on 30th October, 2010

  • We tried the 'do-it-yourself' Halong Bay tour by hitching a ride on a junk from Ha Long City to Cat Ba island. What is not mentioned in the above travelfish article is that the junks now drop tourists at a dock which is on the side of the island opposite to Cat Ba town (40 km away). Tourists can then get a bus from this dock to Cat Ba town for a reasonable price ($2-$5 USD) during the day. Our junk dropped us off just after dark (6 pm) and we were lucky that the last tourist bus going to Cat Ba town was still waiting on the dock. It was pitch black, no motos around and the dock was otherwise deserted. The tourist bus driver demanded $15 USD to drive us to Cat Ba town! We tried to bargain but he wouldn't move on the price. We really had no choice but to pay $15 USD or we would have been sleeping outside on the dock in the dark. We felt really ripped off by the time we got to Cat Ba town.
    If you were going to do the 'do-it-youself tour', I would recommend skipping the Halong Bay tour in the junk. Instead, take a hydrofoil/ferry from Ha Long City or Haiphong to Cat Ba island which drops you either in Cat Ba town or at a dock 5 km away where lots of transportation is available to Cat Ba town. Once in Cat Ba town, you can organize a tour of Lan Ha Bay that has the same beautiful sights as Halong Bay, but with less people, less trash in the water and no stops at the tourist traps along the way.

    Posted by McLovin on 7th November, 2010

  • Hi McLovin,

    Did you manage to organize a tour to Lan Ha bay? If so, how did you arrange it? We are planning to do this at the end of the month.

    Posted by Abby on 21st November, 2010

  • Abby,
    Once we got to Cat Ba Island (finally!) we ended up having a great time there. We organized a boat tour of Lan Ha Bay via Slo Pony Adventures:


    We did a full day trip of Lan Ha Bay on a boat. First half of the day was taking the boat out into the bay and then rock climbing. Lunch on the boat was included - it was decent. The second half of the day was swimming/kayaking around the bay and lounging on the upper deck of the boat. Some people did a full day of rock climbing while others did the swimming/kayaking/lounging for a full day - it's really up to you. The price of the tour is dependent on the number of people that are interested in the boat trip that day but it was very reasonably priced. I think it was around $20 USD/pp for the day. The boat was not 1st class but it was the activities and the other travellers and Slo Pony staff that made the day fun.

    If this isn't your style, there are lots of other travel agencies around town that will organize boat tours of Lan Ha Bay and I'm sure that the quality will vary - just go around and talk to some agencies and see what they have to offer.

    Posted by McLovin on 22nd November, 2010

  • Thanks for your thoughts McLovin - made me want to go to Halong Bay when I'd just about lost hope.
    I've been there before and was upset by the rubbish and tourism then (about three years ago) and so reading about other people's experiences makes me think it might be even worse now so that'll make me really grumpy.
    Got to decide if we spend more time down further south or continue on to Halong!

    Posted by Amanda on 17th January, 2011

  • Thanks for this wonderful and helpful review!

    Posted by FraninMUC on 21st January, 2011

  • Recently I actually made that Halong Bay Cruise, after carefully studying Travelfish advice of course. My conclusion is hat there are just TWO types of Halong bay tours: there is only a regular and a luxury category. The former includes the budget tour - which is a lot cheaper but potentally just as good or bad.

    While the usual three day tour includes one night on a boat and one in a hotel, I was offered a tour with two nights on a ship. I found that this option is very unusual: you are transferred to a different ship (and a different group): basicallyyou get two "half-tours" instead of one. Another fine example of Vietnamese dis-information.

    Still, this strange arrangement provided me the nice insight (an insight I love to share with you) that even two boats on the same tour can be of very different quality. I also noted that people paid very different amounts (I paid about USD 70 but some people paid half of that). The first boat was much better than the second. I get the impression there is just a large pool of boats that are all scheduled on all tours, with only the really luxury tours as an exception.

    If I would do this tour again, I'd definitely consider a tour in the 100+ USD range. Until some other Travelfish commentator perhaps reports that there are not even two different categories of Halong Bay tours ... Reportedly some travel agencies say "same tour, same tour, different price" which sounds crazy but actually may be very honest!

    Posted by Reinier Bakels on 29th January, 2011

  • Great article. I'm looking to do the 'on your own version' but I'm wondering if there is a bus that leaves from Hanoi in the morning and can get you to Ha Long City by 10 am or whatever time is needed to carth a ride to Cat Ba that day, or if I will need to take a bus the day before to get there in time? Thanks!

    Posted by mck on 12th September, 2011

  • I've read all posts about Ha Long Bay. Can I get the most update information about Ha Long Bay tours? I get offers from 2 travel agents in Hanoi about USD 250-300 for 2D 1N (stay at the boat) for single (I'll travel alone in February 2012). Is it reasonable price? Coz I read here the price is less than USD 200 (updates from 2010). Thanks for any feedback.

    Posted by suzana on 31st December, 2011

  • Suzanna, this is de definitely the price of a very luxurious tour. Also I recall that on some luxury tours you have to pay for a two person cabin if you travel alone, while on cheaper tours (typically less than USD 100) they let you share a cabin with another solo traveler.
    I was there about a year ago and then it was pretty cold in Halong bay. Perhaps the luxury boats are heated.

    Posted by Reinier Bakels on 31st December, 2011

  • Hi Reinier, thanks for your information. Yes finally I get another offer, not a cheap one but I think USD 165 for single traveler is a reasonable price. Can't wait to go there.

    Posted by suzana on 2nd January, 2012

  • I'm also going to Halong Bay solo this year and I found this website Suzana and for 2 days 1 night it comes up to about $105 US which I think is still overpriced
    Any feedback for on this travel group anyone? I would also love an update on Halong Bay tour groups too

    Posted by valerinaaa on 12th January, 2012

  • Hi I'm arriving in Vietnam in a few days and my hostel in Hanoi have quoted me three different prices for halong bay trips at 55, 75 and 100 dollars for budget/mid range/luxury. They are Prince 79 if you're interested in finding out more from them. I can't comment on the quality as I haven't booked myself yet! Cheers Kasia

    Posted by Kasia on 22nd February, 2012

  • Re: luxury cruises and how much you should pay.

    We just got back from what was supposed to be a mid-range cruise (two days, one night) at a cost of $89 with Ha Long Party Cruises. Basically, it was a scam. When we were booking at our nice-ish Hanoi hotel we were shown photos of a nice looking boat and nice looking food and the company website was okay, but when we eventually got to the boat, it was exactly the same as the cheap (i.e., $40) cruises. Overall, a pretty bad trip - exactly the same as the cheap trip, but everyone got scammed. Some people had even paid $140. The lesson is... it's hard to know who to trust. We'll be trying for a refund.

    Posted by Richard on 17th March, 2012

  • would love to hear more details from Kasia about her experience with Prince 79 on the halong bay cruise. Thank you.

    Posted by narong on 5th July, 2012

  • didn't see anybody mentioning the bus company Hoang Long yet, they have buses to cat ba, i.e. bus via haiphong and transfer on ferry to cat ba included in ticket price. I took this bus 4 years ago and just called today to check if they're still operating, and should be 210.000 dong from hanoi to cat ba nowadays. Several times from 5am to 1pm. Call +84439875410 for more info and bus station address, probably only in vietnamese.

    Posted by Jeffrey on 24th November, 2012

  • Thanks for this, very enjoyable read... You've provided very grounded, straight forward advice. Kudos to you mate

    Posted by Dins on 4th February, 2013

  • @Don Morgan
    very interesting.
    -a simple day trip to halong bay is not sufficient? an overnight is worth the time?

    Posted by Gene on 2nd February, 2015

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