Ha Long Bay conclusions
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?
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).
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.
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.
Story by Don Morgan
Related readingHa Long Bay for budget-busters
Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
Ha Long Bay for backpackers
How to pick a good Ha Long Bay cruise
Read 22 comment(s)
Add your comment
Feature story quicklinks
- Giving back in Southeast Asia (16)
- All stories
- Angkor Hospital For Children
- COPE: Helping people move on
- Epic Arts
- Free the Bears Laos
- Helping Phuket's children in need
- Helping Siem Reap's rubbish dump families
- Helping Singapore's transient workers
- Helping the Karen of Burma
- Humanitarian Services for Children of Vietnam
- Lifestart Foundation, Hoi An
- MyME Yangon
- Soi Dog Foundation
- Swim Vietnam
- Thai Freedom House, Chiang Mai
- The Samui Prison Project
- The SET Foundation
- Burma (9)
- Cambodia (23)
- All stories
- A Cambodian Eco-lodge
- A honeymoon in Cambodia
- Angkorian traffic woes
- Battambang weekend
- Elephant riding in Cambodia: Should you?
- Great places to stay in Siem Reap
- Is Preah Vihear safe to visit?
- Kampot or Kep?
- Koh Rong: Trouble in paradise?
- Kompong Cham escape
- Northeast Cambodia in photos
- Oh Poipet!
- PEPY:Sustainable Cambodian tourism
- Phnom Tamao Wildlife Refuge
- Sihanoukville beaches lure expats
- Spas, shopping & seers in Siem Reap
- The best islands in Cambodia
- The best places to stay on Cambodia's islands
- The Death Highway
- Trekking in Virachey National Park
- Trekking the Cardamoms in Cambodia
- Which Cambodian island is right for you?
- Why you should go to Cambodia
- Indonesia (14)
- All stories
- A funeral in Toraja, Sulawesi
- Climbing Rinjani
- How to hire a boat in Indonesia: Without drowning
- Learn to surf in Bali
- Medewi: A great Bali getaway
- Mountain biking in Bali: A ride in the woods
- Pasola, Sumba
- The Gili islands: Which is the right one for you?
- Ubud bird watching: From waterhens to witchcraft
- Ubud shopping guide
- Village trekking in Tana Toraja
- Weekend in Nusa Penida
- Yogya's student scene
- Laos (18)
- All stories
- A breeze through Luang Prabang
- Best budget rooms in Luang Prabang 2013
- Elephant trekking in Laos
- Exploring Laos' Bolaven Plateau
- Huay Xai to Pak Tha by slowboat
- Is Lao Airlines safe to fly?
- Laos' vanishing elephants
- Luang Prabang escape
- Luang Prabang for kids
- Muang Ngoi Escape
- Photos of Luang Prabang, Laos
- Pi Mai Lao in Luang Prabang: In 1999
- Southern Laos by scooter
- Temples in Luang Prabang
- The Gibbon Experience
- The Phonsavan adventure
- Vientiane's Chinatown
- What to buy in Luang Prabang, Laos
- Malaysia (10)
- Singapore (9)
- Thailand (79)
- All stories
- 10 Bangkok galleries worth a look-see
- 10 Thai treks aside from Chiang Mai
- 24 Hours in Bangkok: Sukhumvit to Siam Square
- 31 Thai islands
- 5 Southern Thai towns to lose time in
- A Thai homestay in Ayutthaya
- A weekend in Phra Phradaeng
- A weekend on Ko Samet, Thailand
- An extra day in Krabi
- Andaman Sea island hopper
- Are Thailand’s cheap guesthouses disappearing?
- Ayutthaya temple tour
- Bangkok for art lovers
- Bangkok's Charoen Krung Road
- Bangkok's Thonburi: exploring the west side
- Brilliant Bangkok
- Chiang Dao getaway
- Chiang Mai's temples
- Corruption in Thailand
- Eating on the edge
- Elephant's World Kanchanaburi
- Exploring Lamphun
- Exploring the Lungs of Bangkok
- Far southern Thailand: Go or not?
- Five days in Khao Lak, Thailand
- Floating markets around Bangkok
- Great Thai food blogs
- Highlights of Chanthaburi province
- How to do Khao Yai National Park
- Khao San Road safety and scams
- Ko Mun Nork: a nearby paradise
- Ko Pha Ngan 7-day detox:Colonic fast
- Ko Pha Ngan's best beaches in 2013
- Ko Phi Phi on a budget
- Ko Tao for non-divers guide
- Ko Yao Noi or Ko Yao Yai?
- Ko Yao: the islands you're looking for
- Learning Muay Thai in Bangkok
- Motorcycling the Chiang Rai loop
- Narathiwat: residence of good people
- Navigating Bangkok: The BTS Skytrain
- Phuket by night
- Phuket for Kids
- Phuket heritage walk: Car parts to saris
- Phuket's secret beaches
- Planning around Thailand's civil unrest
- Roll your own Kanchanaburi
- Should I book for the full moon party?
- Should I cancel my Thai holiday? No.
- Should I cancel my trip to Thailand? No.
- Soi Thong Lo, Bangkok
- Sorting out Suvarnabhumi Airport
- Staying at a Thai monastery
- Thai islands for nature lovers
- Thai islands to lose yourself on
- Thai visa FAQ
- Thailand tsunami wrap
- Thailand's Full Moon Party
- Thailand's Mae Khlong market
- Thailand: Where to from here?
- The best beach on Ko Samui
- The best places to stay on Ko Kut, Thailand
- The bridge over the River Kwai festival
- The road to Sangkhlaburi
- The road to Sangkhom
- Travelling through north-east Thailand
- Trekking in Thailand
- Trisara -- decadent luxury at its best
- Two days in Kamphaeng Phet
- What are the alternatives to Bangkok?
- What is the best beach on Ko Tao?
- What is the best island in Thailand?
- What's a good beach on Ko Pha Ngan?
- What's a good beach on Ko Samui?
- Where to stay at Railay Bay, Thailand
- Where to stay in Sukhothai?
- Where to stay on Ko Samet, Thailand
- Which beach on Ko Samui?
- Which island in Trang?
- Vietnam (32)
- All stories
- A short break in Nha Trang
- A Weekend in Can Tho
- Being fed Fido: Eating dog in Vietnam
- Buying a touring motorbike in Vietnam
- Con Dao escape
- Do nothing and see the best of Hanoi
- Doing the DMZ from Hue
- Exploring Kon Tum
- Exploring Vietnam's Mekong Delta
- Great Hanoi cafes to chill out in
- Ha Long Bay conclusions
- Ha Long Bay for backpackers
- Ha Long Bay for budget-busters
- Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
- Hanoi escape
- Hanoi or Saigon?
- Hoi An -- Walking over the dragon
- How to do the Dien Bien Phu loop
- How to enjoy your time in Vietnam
- How to pick a good Ha Long Bay cruise
- Is the Hoi An culture tour worth it?
- Motorbike Vietnam's Central Highlands
- One day in Hanoi
- Responsible shopping and eating in Hoi An
- Saigon's top 10 cafés
- Sapa or Bac Ha?
- Saving Vietnam's bears
- Street food safety
- The DMZ: Traveller tactical briefing
- Travel tips for Tet in Vietnam 2013
- Two Wheels & Ricefields: A review
- Which is the best street food tour in Hanoi?
- Accommodation guides (21)
- All stories
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Chiang Mai
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Hanoi
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Phnom Penh
- 2006 Top guesthouses on Ko Phi Phi
- 2006 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top Bangkok airport guesthouses
- 2008 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top spots on Phu Quoc Island
- 2009 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2009 Top Phnom Penh guesthouses
- 2011 Best places to stay in Kuala Lumpur
- 2011 Best places to stay on Ko Phi Phi
- Best places to stay in Hanoi 2012
- Cheap Phuket guesthouses & hotels
- Five special hotels in Cambodia
- Ko Lipe's best budget guesthouses 2012
- The best hostels in Bangkok 2014
- The best places to stay on Ko Chang, Thailand
- The changing face of Khao San Road
- Where to stay on Koh Rong Samloem
- Travel with kids (7)
- Opinion & advice (16)
- All stories
- 10 reasons to do an adventure tour
- 10 reasons to travel independently
- A year's worth of travel for 2013
- Beach hideaways in Asia
- Christmas and New Years in Southeast Asia
- Do I need reservations for my holiday?
- Evil man of Krabi
- Fifteen tips for a great holiday in Asia
- Getting a cheap airfare to Asia
- Hotels should never charge extra for WiFi
- Long distance buses in Southeast Asia
- Mass tourism in Southeast Asia
- Nine Asian upcountry hideaways
- Planning a Gap Year? Some advice.
- Ten Southeast Asian trips for 2008
- Ten thoughts on ten years with Travelfish
- How do I? (11)
- All stories
- Bangkok to Ko Samui, Pha Ngan & Tao
- Bangkok to Siem Reap
- Catching a train in Thailand
- Catching a train in Vietnam
- Cheap flights with Discovery Airpass
- Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang
- Crossing the Cambodia Laos border
- Ko Chang to Phu Quoc Island
- Siem Reap to Ko Chang
- Stops between Bangkok & Chiang Mai
- Visa run from Thailand to Burma
- Cycling Asia (13)
- All stories
- 24 hours in Bangkok
- An Angkor cycling guide
- An introduction
- Battambang, bamboo trains & guides
- Confessions of a "cheating cyclist"
- Cycles of all sorts
- Ha Long Bay independently
- Ko Samet Vs Pattaya
- Muay Thai night
- Phonsavan and Luang Prabang
- The hills of Vietnam
- The road less travelled
- Tubing in Vang Vieng
- Health and safety (6)
- Money and finance (4)
- Diving guides (6)
- Photo essay (3)
- Guest blog (2)
- General (15)
- All stories
- 10 Christmas days in Asia we're yet to have
- 10 dumb things I've done while travelling
- 34 ways to travel greener
- Asian animal experiences
- Call me Mr Massage Magic
- Chefs Without Borders
- Flying is fun!
- Mr Golden
- On being a travel writer
- Teaching ESL in Asia
- The 211 country honeymoon
- The Boxing Day Tsunami: 5 years on.
- To Teach or Not to Teach
- Travel writing scholarship 2012
- Tuk to the Road Charity ride
- Book reviews (5)
- Interviews (8)
- Explore Bangkok by BTS (18)
- All stories
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ari
- Bangkok by skytrain: Asok
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chid Lom
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chong Nonsi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Mo Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: National Stadium
- Bangkok by skytrain: On Nut
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phaya Thai
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phloen Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phrom Phong
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchadamri
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchathewi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sala Daeng (S2)
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sanam Pao
- Bangkok by skytrain: Saphan Taksin
- Bangkok by skytrain: Siam
- Bangkok by skytrain: Surasak
- Bangkok by skytrain: Thong Lor
Sign up for Travelfish Burp!
Our weekly wrap on Southeast Asian travel.
Click here to see a recent newsletter.