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
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