For those who are put off by the tales of woe from the cheapest of the Ha Long Bay cruises, but don't want to pay top dollar for a luxurious boat, there is a selection of mid-range vessels to choose from. For our flashpacker tour of Ha Long Bay we went with Dugong Sails, the most commonly recommended boat offering tours in the price range of around US$75 to $85 -- we paid $75 for our two-day, one-night trip.
We arrived at the travel agent's office at 08:15 to meet the Dugong Sails' bus, which pulled up at 08:45. Last to board, we were stuck with the fold down chairs in the centre aisle, but at least it was better than a plastic stool or squeezing three onto a seat made for two -- it happens. Our guide Hung introduced himself and said a few words about Hanoi and our itinerary. His attempts to get us involved in a Q&A were met with silence -- it was too early to engage in camaraderie with strangers. After this point his engagement with guests was limited beyond supply of practical information.
The drive to Ha Long included a stop at a shop-cum-cafe where we drank terrible coffee, stocked up on snacks and avoided the embroidered pictures and cheap looking jewellery. Overall the drive took around three and a half hours and although not comfortable -- on the centre seats at least -- it was bearable.
Once at the Bai Chay pier in Ha Long City we moved swiftly through to board the ship's tender -- and don life jackets -- which took the 22 of us the few hundred metres to our home for the next 24 hours.
First impressions of the boat were reasonably positive. As with other boats in the bay, the white paintwork was a bit tatty -- all boats plying Ha Long Bay's waters are painted white following a directive a few years ago. But the dining area was spacious and light and bedrooms were big enough for a short stay, though we'd suggest limiting your luggage if possible.
Our room was downstairs and had a large window, two small beds and a smart bathroom with shower cubicle and rain shower. Air-con and fan were installed but only the fan was necessary given the cool temperature -- it'd be essential in summer. The room also came equipped with life jackets, a fire extinguisher and a hammer -- to break the window we assume. It was good to see sufficient consideration had been given to safety.
The deck was equipped with a selection of chairs, tables and wooden loungers. While weatherworn, they were functional and sufficient for the number of guests on board.
Our lunch of pork, tofu, seafood, vegetables, fries and rice was hardly a gastronomic delight but was tasty and plentiful enough. Drinks were available at 42,000VND for a local beer, less for soft drinks. On tables of four or five we had a chance to chat and get to know our fellow guests. We were a mixed crowd: mostly foreigners in their 20s and 30s, travelling in couples, along with some single travellers, a family with a four-year old son and a group of Vietnamese men.
By this time the boat had moored and we were informed that we'd all be heading off on the tender to kayak, visit a cave and go to the beach to swim. Those who didn't want to do one or more of the activities still had to join.
Kayaking took place off a floating platform where the equipment was stored. The kayaks didn't look seaworthy but every one got back from their 30 minutes of paddling around the nearby islands in one piece and off we went to Surprise Cave. It's the largest and apparently most impressive in Ha Long Bay, though not so surprising when you've been three times before, as we had. Those on their first adventure in Ha Long seemed to enjoy it.
By this time it looked like our boat was running a bit late, as we were the last to leave the cave and twilight was kicking in by the time we got to the beach on Soi Sim Island. We weren't in the mood for a swim so instead stomped up the 389 steps to the top of the island -- views were better on the way up than once we got to the top -- and on our return settled by the beach with a fresh coconut juice to watch the sun slowly set.
Despite being later back than expected, we had time for a drink on deck before dinner -- better than lunch -- and an evening spent chatting to fellow guests over a beer or two. The promised karaoke never materialised -- thankfully -- though some had a go at net fishing. The Bay was busier than it had been on previous visits but still peaceful.
On our second day we were up bright and early for breakfast, with the three-day-two-night people leaving at 07:30 to be whisked off to Cat Ba Island for their second night. The rest of us had a few hours to relax on deck as we cruised back to the harbour. Although we had moored within sight of the city, we cruised back the long-way round, giving us ample opportunity to see more of the bay and some of the more impressive boats... or read our books. It was overcast on both days, so no blue sky photos, but Ha Long was nevertheless beautiful.
Unlike many boats that eject passengers at the harbour to eat at a soulless restaurant on terra firma, after a spring roll-making session we were able to enjoy lunch on board. We may not have had much of a view, but it was a more enjoyable way to finish our trip.
After lunch we paid our bills and were carted back to various buses, arriving in Hanoi after a slightly scarier but more comfortable journey, at around 16:00.
All in all, this was an enjoyable trip and we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the boat and the rooms. On the downside, the food isn't likely to impress the gourmets, and being carted around on a tender all afternoon on day one won't suit those who just want to hang out -- it's all or nothing -- but at least there is time to relax on deck the next morning. This is a worthwhile upgrade from Ha Long Bay's budget option if your finances aren't too tight.
Tour: Two Day/One night budget tour
Operator: Dugong Sails
Just about any travel agent in Hanoi can arrange to get you onto a tour of Ha Long Bay aboard the Dugong Sails. Dugong Sails can also be booked via Agoda.com.
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