How to pick a good Ha Long Bay cruise
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.
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.
Boats ply the waters slowly and take scenic, circuitous routes. They often stop and put down their anchors while the passengers are eating lunch.
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.
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
Story by Don Morgan
Related readingHa Long Bay conclusions
Ha Long Bay for budget-busters
Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
Ha Long Bay for backpackers
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