If you're travelling independently through Vietnam but you've a bit more cash to flash than the norm, you still want to know when it's worth spending that bit extra or not. When it comes to Ha Long Bay, tours are priced from very cheap through to reasonable, then there's the splurge take.
We tried Alova, and paid US$115 for our two-day, one-night trip through the gorgeous bay, about $40 more than the flashpacker trip we tried. (You can spend into the hundreds more if you must.) As with all trips, the adventure started with an 08:00 pick up in Old Quarter. First impressions were good: the guide was young and chirpy and the bus was well air-conditioned, spacious and peaceful. We stopped en route at a large souvenir store for a bathroom break and, wondering if anyone ever bought anything, downed a quick coffee.
Having left a sunny Hanoi, it was disappointing to see the sky cloud over and turn grey, and soon after leaving the rest stop the heavens opened. This did not make for a pleasant drive. The rain continued as we disembarked the bus and walked into a crowded waiting hall at the dock. Thang passed us our tickets and we walked to the tender which was to take us to our boat.
Thang insisted we wear life jackets, explaining it was now a regulation when travelling on a tender in the bay. Fortunately it is not a regulation to have to wear one on the junks, or that could have made for some uncomfortable dining and sleeping.
The outside of the boat looked as we’d expected from the company website, although it was quite weather-worn. Boats in Halong Bay used to be mostly unpainted or brown painted wood, but, so the story goes, a government official returned to Vietnam after a trip to France and decreed all boats must be painted white. That might look good from a distance, but close up it’s more prone to look dated – and it’s hard to identify your boat among a crowd of other white ones.
That aside, we went into the dining area for a welcome drink, an introduction to the boat and then lunch. The boat has only nine cabins so the dining area was intimate, with guests split across two long tables. Just 14 of us were on board.
Lunch was excellent – a plentiful mix of tasty meat, fish and vegetable dishes with rice. Plates of food were placed in the centre of each table so it was a case of helping yourself and passing plates to other guests. That broke the ice, and by the end of lunch we were all on first name terms. Drinks were extra, and while pricier than backpacker joints weren’t excessive, such as 50,000 VND for a beer.
After lunch, we checked out the rooms, spread over the upper and lower decks, with all having large windows. Ours was on the lower deck, with its door facing out onto an external corridor, and it had a rather romantic feel to it.
The room was very pleasant. It was small but with enough space for the two of us to move around and had reasonably sized comfortable single beds, hanging space and a shower cubicle in the en suite bathroom. It was also equipped with life jackets and a wet bag – useful for our island trip later. It should have had a hammer (to break the windows in case of emergency) but didn’t.
Next, despite the rain, we took the tender over to Titop island. The island has a small beach and a peak reached by climbing 412 steps for splendid views across the bay. The water was clean and inviting, and the rain stopped, so after the walk we took a dip. We seemed to be the only foreigners on the island with the other visitors – lots of them – all Vietnamese.
Then it was back to the junk and time for kayaking. The kayaks were new and good quality two-seaters — definitely better than the others we saw people paddling in the bay. We paddled around a couple of the nearby karsts and past a number of fishing boats, which also serve as homes. We asked about swimming but were told it was no longer permitted.
After some relaxation time, and a spring-roll making class, a delicious dinner was served. We indulged in some happy hour cocktails over dinner and later, on the deck. Some of the guests went squid fishing, with no success, but we were content to just sit and chat with other guests. It was an early night for all on board.
Next morning, after a very decent breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes and fruit, we took the tender over to Surprise Cave. My companion opted to stay on board and read her book, which didn’t please Thang – he was keen to show off the cave.
Maybe I’m a bit jaded and have seen too many caves, but it wasn’t a great experience. All boats seemed to have dispatched their guests there at the same time, making it difficult to move around, get a good look or take any decent photos. It’s an impressive enough cave – in that it’s large and has some interesting formations – but if it had been a sunny day I would have wished I’d stayed on deck with my friend.
Back on board, and after lunch, we had some time to relax on deck as the boat cruised back to Ha Long City, but as we neared the dock we were summoned to watch vegetable carving. We groaned, but it was more impressive than expected.
After docking we went to a large restaurant over the road and ate average food before our bus took us back to Hanoi, via a different cafe and we were back by 16:30.
All in all, if you're not on a tight budget and prefer a few bells and whistles, this was a great trip with the creature comforts a midrange traveller would expect.
Tour: Two Day/One night budget tour
Just about any travel agent in Hanoi can arrange to get you onto a tour of Ha Long Bay aboard the Alova. Alova can also be booked via Agoda.com.
By Sarah Turner
Last updated on 21st May, 2015.