How to pick a good Ha Long Bay cruise

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First published 28th October, 2006

The first thing you need to know about Ha Long Bay is that it's beautiful and well-worth seeing.

The only real question for the traveller in Vietnam is how best to see it and, like many things in Vietnam, things are never as clear a they could be.


Travel agents who promise the earth, but fail to deliver combined with travellers whose expectations are totally unrealistic makes for a volatile Ha Long Bay cocktail.

The overwhelming majority of travellers experience a Ha Long Bay cruise via a group tour that begins and ends in Hanoi, where there's a dizzying variety of tours, with prices ranging from about US$12 a day to $70 and up per person.

Ha Long Bay is cluttered with some 500 licensed junks, and on any given day, up to 300 of them may be plying the waters -- that's basically one boat for every ten ticket offices in Hanoi!

Competition has driven prices down to absurdly low levels and as corner cutting, cheating and bare-faced lies become par for the course so do travellers leaving with a bad taste in their mouth... but it needn't be that way.

Doing your research and asking the right questions -- not just of the travel agent you're dealing with, but also other travellers you meet along the way -- can go a long way to making sure your junk ain't sunk.

So, how do you know which Ha Long Bay tour is the one for you? We'll get to that, but first, here's some background on the site.



Junks at anchor in Ha Long Bay


Ha Long Bay


Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site -- and you'll be reminded of this several times throughout your tour. UNESCO has picked out 830 World Heritage sites around the world, chosen for their cultural and historical importance, and also for their geological uniqueness. Ha Long Bay offers a little of all three.

It's not the cliffs themselves that make Ha Long Bay unique, but rather their sheer number. A huge bay, dotted with nearly 2,000 mostly uninhabited limestone cliffs, the breathtaking scenery is very similar to that of the Andaman coast of Thailand, Vang Vieng in Laos and Guilin in China.

Created over millions of years, tectonic forces slowly thrust the limestone above the water-line. During this process waves lapping against the stone carved out a number of vast, striking caverns, as well as other geologically interesting formations, such as tunnel caves and uniquely shaped massifs. Unfortunately the geological forces at work were not too flash in the beach-making department, so most of the beaches tourists are taken to in the bay are man-made with the umbrellas and the sand in which they stand are all shipped in.

Over the ages, Vietnamese fishermen with too much time on their hands began to see shapes in the stone massifs atop many of the islands, and named the islands accordingly -- Turtle Island, Human Head Island, Chicken Island and so on. In what constitutes one of the most fascinating cultural features of the area, some of these fisherman still live on the bay today -- on floating fishing villages, where houses are set atop barges year round, the inhabitants catching and cultivating fish throughout.

So what is a Ha Long bay cruise like?


The primary purpose of a Ha Long Bay tour is to savour the tranquillity and beauty of the water. But two or three days of utter tranquillity can get a little too tranquil -- luckily the natural and cultural endowments of the bay provide activities -- in some cases with a heavy helping hand from the Vietnamese government.

They're slow
Boats ply the waters slowly and take scenic, circuitous routes. They often stop and put down their anchors while the passengers are eating lunch.



A floating house on Ha Long Bay


You may visit a floating village
Not all tours make a stop at a fishing village -- some just cruise by. If you do stop, you'll be able to view the seafood being farmed, have the opportunity to buy some, and have it prepared for you free-of-charge on the boat.

You'll get to swim
Every tour stops for a swim at least once a day. Sometimes these swims take place near local fishing villages, leading to jokes and apprehensions about the toilet situation on fishing villages. All tours also include a stop at one of the beaches.

You may get to kayak
All the boats bring kayaks and, weather and tides permitting, stop to let passengers paddle around. Sometimes the opportunity to kayak through one of the tunnel cave systems will present itself. Other times passengers are simply expected to paddle in circles around the boat -- not surprisingly the caves and tunnels are far more interesting.

You'll get to go caving
All tours include at least one cave visit in the price of the tour (admission on your own is 20,000 dong). The two most popular caves are the Dragon Cave and the Surprising Cave. You won't know beforehand which cave you will see -- that decision is made on the boat.



The many caves of Ha Long Bay


You may sleep over on the bay
Two and three-day tours always offer a night in a cabin. On any given night, about 80 boats are allowed to drop anchor in one of three designated areas -- that means each area is filled with 20 to 30 boats. Sometimes they anchor very close to one another, other times they'll find a more private spot away from other boats.

You may overnight on Cat Ba Island
Most two-day tours offer one night in a two-star hotel on Cat Ba Island. Activities including a hike in Cat Ba National Park, a kayaking trip through some offshore tunnel caves, and/or a lunchtime-visit to a local fish farm, where you catch your own fish before it is prepared for you, are usually offered as a part of the tour.

You'll be fed and transported
All tours offer three meals a day, starting with lunch on the first day and ending with lunch on the last day. The quality of the meals varies tremendously depending on the price of the tour as does the transport to and from Hanoi.

So, no matter how much or how little you pay, all of the above, at least in theory, will be included in the tour. Judging the differences between tours, then, is not so much a matter of what they do, but how well they do it -- and if they actually deliver on what they promise.

To get the skinny on the inner workings of the Ha Long Bay cocktail, we tested out three tours of Ha Long Bay -- one budget, one midrange, and a more luxurious option -- and had three very different experiences of the same bay -- read on to learn how we fared.

Next: Ha Long Bay on a budget



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Read 20 comment(s)

  • We had a lot of hassle trying to book the "right" trip form Hanoi to Halong bay as we had heard about a lot of the bad experiences. To make it easier for others I would easily recomend Vega Travel. (The real one!!) It cost us $106 for the 3day 2night option so it's not very budget but it is by no means the most expencive. The company as a whole were brilliant. The focus was very much on customer satisfaction to the point of the sales guy we spoke to saying that if we have anyone on the boat over and above the 14 stated, or if anyone on the boat paid less or more for the trip to return, complain and get a refund!

    We had the best few days of our trip so far and apart from the main dock (which is always going to be busy...it's a dock!!) the main bay was a lot less busy than I had come to expect. In some places we were the only boat we could see! The food was great and the rooms and crew were lovely.

    I can't recomend this company enough. So if anyone is feeling as dubious about the trip as I was after reading the forums etc. I hope this helps.

    Vega travel are on the corner of Ma May and Hang Bac.

    Have a good trip!!

    We went on 02/05/09.

    Posted by Ben Turner on 7th May, 2009

  • Handspan Adventure Travel (www.handspan.com) based in the Tamarind Cafe in Hanoi's Old quarter on Pho Ma May were fantastic - not the cheapest, but provided an absolutely superior experience at a fantastically reasonable price. Don't miss these folks. Ensure you stay at least overnight - you'll regret it if you don't!
    The fresh seafood feasts were awesome!
    [btw the food at the cafe was great as well ! ;-) ]

    Posted by Jet Black on 28th May, 2009

  • Anyone have experience with Explorer Tours. We - a family with grown daughters - are especially interested in kayaking - one daughter is an experienced sea kayaker.

    Will be there beginning of Dec 2009

    Posted by jankak on 19th October, 2009

  • Hi just back from Halong Bay. Booked an upmarket junk 3D/2N and were spoiled by the crew and food but not by the state of the Bay waters. It was full of rubbish and doubtful to swim in. Enjoyed kayaking thru the caves but the Yaks are old and bashed up plastics not to my sea kayak standard. Ha Long in a world heritage site that very soon the world will be ashamed of.I thought it was me but other forums are saying the same thing.

    Posted by ross bowen on 21st October, 2009

  • In my trip to Halong Bay I've used two cruise companies. First was Bhaya Cruises which was a bit expensive but perfect service, buffet meals were served, cabin is luxuriously designed, hair dryer is provided upon request at the receptionist counter, crew speaks English good enough to communicate, and organized activities (which I don't like because when on holiday I want to do things at my own pace). With the lovely view of Halong Bay, you can't help but long to visit it again, so on my second cruise I went with Pinta Gold because it's cheaper for two days and one night, it only costs me $99 booked in advance. The boat is not as handsome as Bhaya but a typical Vietnamese style junk, cocktails were offered upon arrival on the boat, meals are served in Vietnamese style, around eight dishes brought to our table one by one, fruits were served after, cabin's ok with two free bottled water, kayak is fun, quite extensive paddling around three small caves, crew can't speak much English but a guide will always jump and save them for our inquiries, nice airconditioned van traveling to and from Hanoi, and the thing that I like most is I can do my things at my own pace, a bit laidback, as opposed to orgazined activities. As for rubiish yeah, I've seen some but it is expected with the hundreds of boats you'll see around.

    Posted by mic2 on 22nd October, 2009


  • When I saw my wife and 9 year old daughter enjoying their holiday, I thought I made the right choice of cruising with Bhaya Cruise. Discover Mekong offered other choices like Hailong Junks and Emeraude but the video clippings of Bhaya I’ve seen in Youtube convinced me. I don’t want to hassle myself with complaints from my wife and indeed I was right. I have a peaceful holiday and seeing the two of them happy was more than enough. What is $50 difference from other boats compared to the happiness you have seen in the eyes of your loved ones? I didn’t hear my wife nag about unclean bed sheets, nor my daughter’s “ewwww” expression every time she hears her mom rant about unhygienic surrounding. Bhaya’s bed is quite soft, the toilet, and the bathroom has its own separate door. There is a telephone and little fridge inside the cabin. Bhaya employees are very friendly they took care of my daughter. My wife enjoyed the sumptuous meal they offered and the spa room is spacious that I’ve slept well for a 30- minute massage. I won’t hesitate to recommend Bhaya Cruise, it’s worth the money you’ll spend for a holiday.

    Posted by hasherjoe34 on 16th December, 2009


  • When I saw my wife and 9 year old daughter enjoying their holiday, I thought I made the right choice of cruising with Bhaya Cruise. Discover Mekong offered other choices like Hailong Junks and Emeraude but the video clippings of Bhaya I’ve seen in Youtube convinced me. I don’t want to hassle myself with complaints from my wife and indeed I was right. I have a peaceful holiday and seeing the two of them happy was more than enough. What is $50 difference from other boats compared to the happiness you have seen in the eyes of your loved ones? I didn’t hear my wife nag about unclean bed sheets, nor my daughter’s “ewwww” expression every time she hears her mom rant about unhygienic surrounding. Bhaya’s bed is quite soft, the toilet, and the bathroom has its own separate door. There is a telephone and little fridge inside the cabin. Bhaya employees are very friendly they took care of my daughter. My wife enjoyed the sumptuous meal they offered and the spa room is spacious that I’ve slept well for a 30- minute massage. I won’t hesitate to recommend Bhaya Cruise, it’s worth the money you’ll spend for a holiday.

    Posted by hasherjoe34 on 16th December, 2009


  • I went for a cruise to Halong Bay onboard Bhaya II, one of the best junks there in operation in mid November 2009.
    Although Halong City is a three-day service bus ride from Ha Noi, passing through more cities and towns give you a feel of experience of the countryside.
    There are sprouting hotels and restaurants there in that northern city but the concentration of the activity there is in the cruise. The package will cost about $300 to $100 per person, depending on the kind of services that a cruise company can offer. The area is teeming with thousands of limestone islets. The waters of Halong Bay is always calm.
    I was with 39 other guests from 14 different countries on board the beautifully crafted French-inspired boat. This particular cruiser has 20 doubled-bed cabins on the first and second decks. The third deck is the dining area. The view from all around was amazing at the sun deck. Like all the other junk cruisers, we headed towards the fishing villages. The service crew prepared a sumptuous international lunch buffet. The menu was superb – seafood, vegetable salad, fresh food, cookies for the desert, chicken, beef and pork. At about 2pm, most of the guests opted to relax on the upper deck. At 3pm we were transported from the cruiser and grouped into four on the boat ride to the fishing villages. We saw the floating houses, floating schools, floating stores and all that you could imagine in a community. At 5:30pm we were invited to a cooking lesson for a local delicacy as part of the activities offered by the cruise company. Dinner was served at 7 pm. In the distance, we could hear laughter and classical music from other cruisers. After dinner, the 1992 movie classic “Indochine” was shown for the night. It introduces you to Viet Nam’s social-cultural past. Set in colonial French Indochina the 1930s, the movie revolves around the story of a French plantation owner starring Catherine Deneuve and of her adopted Vietnamese daughter, played by Lin Dan Phan. This movie is a special presentation because some of the scenes were shot here in Halong Bay. At 6:30 am the next day before the 7am light breakfast, most of the guests were invited to join a master of tai chi exercise at the sundeck. But the second day’s main activity was a visit to the Hang Sung Sot (literally means astonishing cave), one of the largest among the hundreds of caves in the area. After cave tour, we were served a hearty breakfast. The guests were then transported by bus back to Ha Noi.

    Posted by theCATALYST on 4th January, 2010

  • Hi All,

    I am going to Hanoi for literally 36hrs in April and was wondering does anyone know the best day trip tour to Halong bay? Ideally, I would need to be collected at my hotel in Hanoi as early as possible, and then be dropped back to Hanoi for around 6pm because I fly down to Ho chi Minh around 8pm. I am happy to cut this as close as possible but ideally the tour guide would drop me direct to the airport, asking a lot I know. Also I understand people will tell me that I am planning to do too much but its see it quickly or not all , hopefully some day I will get back and do it properly but just to be safe. Thanks for any help!

    Posted by Kieran on 20th January, 2010

  • I was wondering does anyone know the best day trip tour to Halong bay? Ideally, I would need to be collected at my hotel in Hanoi as early as possible, and then be dropped back to Hanoi for around 7pm

    Posted by graeme on 6th March, 2010

  • Visiting Halong Bay was among the highlights of my trip to Vietnam this time last year. Because we were staying at Hanoi Backpackers' Hostel we booked our tour through them. They offered a number of differently priced options from different tour operators but we decided to go with the tour company that they practically run & recommend. For about $80 (memory is sketchy) we got:
    - comfy bus ride from Hanoi during which a Vietnamese guide with great English gave us some insight into the history & geology of Halong Bay
    - canoe trip in the bay, visit to some pretty amazing caves & floating village then swimming & diving off the junk
    - really good food!
    - first night aboard the junk, nice room and hot shower
    - second day hike on Cat Ba island
    - motorbike tour of the island
    - second night stay at a surprisingly posh hotel, great food again then lots of evening entertainment from the ace tour guide
    - return trip to Hanoi!

    I'm aware that the formulas for the trips have changed but I was always impressed by the standards delivered by Backpackers'.

    People are gonna start thinking that I work for these guys but to be perfectly honest, I was such a happy camper after that trip I will recommend it to death!

    Only 'negative' thing worth mentioning is that the whole tour did have quite a party atmosphere so I'm not sure how family friendly others might find it.

    TTFN,
    FSH

    Posted by francesstella on 12th March, 2010

  • We read these comments before going to Vietnam and now we are happy to put a comment for followers.
    Truly speaking, Halong Bay is remarkably beautiful with islands and people here. We had been to Phong Nha cave before so in compare with this cave, Halong bay caves are not so special. We love the rising islands from the sea and the people including staff on our boat. Their English is not so excellent as we expected before but they are very friendly and helpful. It seems that they really love aussies. It was also hard for us to choose what is the best cruise in Halong Bay, but with help from a recommended travel agent in Hanoi called Vietnam Sunrise Travel (www.vietnamsunrisetravel.com), we selected the Red Dragon Cruise. There were only 8 of us on the cruise so much space to enjoy. There are 2 Vietnamese professionals travelling with us so we learnt a lot about the Vietnamese culture and history of this land. Food is excellent and I love the fresh seafood here so much! It is different with what we got in Bangkok last month. Although my wife is kind of sea sick but she is fine this time and she loved this bay too.
    Now we are in Hanoi and will fly to Hoian tomorrow. We will report our trip when we are in Hoian if possible!

    Cheers,
    Ken

    Posted by Ken on 22nd April, 2010

  • My boyfriend and I are planning a trip to Haling Bay in July. I have been researching different tour companies for several days and am still undecided. We would like to do one night on a junk and one night on Monkey Island. We are interested in kayaking, but are concerned about the safety. My boyfriend is still recovering from a wrist injury he sustained in November, so probably won’t be able to kayak for more than an hour or so. We are looking for a tour between 100-200 dollars. Could anyone recommend a reliable company that does to these two places?

    Also, does anyone have any experience with a homestay?

    Thanks

    Posted by beangirl on 3rd June, 2010

  • 2 choices I could recommend that are worthy of a look. 1. Ecofriendly Vietnam.
    2. Blue Swimmer Kayaking. Both boast enviro credentials, and are getting good reviews on Trip Advisor. Both are small and can tailor to your needs.
    Cheers Ross

    Posted by ross bowen on 3rd June, 2010

  • As you probably already know, be careful when booking a tour! Ask as many questions as possible and know exactly what you are getting yourself into. We used Sinh Cafe (pretty sure it was a "fake" one though) in the backpacker district of Hanoi and were completely ripped off- it was also the only time I was ever scared for my safety in SouthEast Asia... my fellow female traveller and I were dropped off on CatBa Island at a strange dock/port after the Halong Bay cruise with nothing else around it but a bunch of aggressive male moto drivers trying to rip us off taking us the 30 km into the town. Also at this point, the captain of our ship pretended as though he didnt speak English although he had been talking to us the whole time, and abandoned us on the island. We eventually paid too much to get into town but we would do anything to get out of a scary situation...long story short, know where you are being taken and how you are going to be taken there. We somehow found the travel agent who ripped us off when we got back to Hanoi and he barely even listened to our story before giving us or money back- He knew that he had scammed us and we had called him out. Anyways, the fast boat-bus combination is a winner and only takes about two hours to get from Hanoi to CatBa. My advice, however, go to Railay in Southern Thailand, similar but more beautiful scenery, lovely people and great food... Halong wasnt worth all the hassle that we put up with...

    Posted by sunny82285 on 20th July, 2010

  • I'm a little late, but I went with Vega Travel (No. 24A Hang Bac Street Hanoi) in August 2009. My friend and I each paid $72 for two days one night, and thoroughly enjoyed the trip. Our guide was knowledgeable and spoke English well, the food was good (and they were good at accommodating vegetarians), the staff were friendly, and of course the bay was beautiful. We kayaked, swam, went caving, and hiked to the to of titop island.
    The only negative - We had hoped to go for three days, but when we went to book the trip, they were full for the following morning, so we couldn't leave until the day after that, which only gave us two days. If your timing is tight and you want to go for three days, you may want to book in advance or have a few companies in mind.

    Posted by eb on 22nd January, 2011

  • Thank you, Don, for the great information posted here. We're headed to Vietnam for Christmas, and your page has helped us make educated choices regarding Halong Bay. Any updated advices from you and others would be appreciated!
    The Dwyer's

    Posted by katia on 25th November, 2012

  • Helpful post for first time visitor. I have cruised in Halong three times, booking directly with operator and through agent: Agoda, Booking.com, Best Price, etc, but I found Visit Wonders always had better rate than others, even better than what the operator offered me. It was quite a surprise for me but that's the benefit of dealing with an agent. They can negotiate best price for us in such competitive environment.

    Posted by Irmen on 27th December, 2012

  • Hi,
    I'll be with my sister in Hanoi in December and we would like to go to Halong bay for one day trip. As I've read all the comments, I couldn't find anyone was there just for a day. I would like to know are there any recommendations for a day trip, we wouldn't waste our time if it's not worthwhile...

    Posted by ivareinwein on 30th September, 2013

  • The reason you don't read about one day trips to Ha Long Bay is because there isn't really enough time. Its a 4 hour trip each way.
    This thread is very old and a lot has changed for the worse in Ha Long. The waters are heavily polluted with garbage thrown in the waters by some Junk operators and ground based activities. A respected world heritage area it isn't in my opinion.
    Cheers Ross

    Posted by ROSS BOWEN on 30th September, 2013

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