If you ask a travel agent or your hotel tour desk what the differences are between the various cruises to Ha Long Bay, they will all tell you the same: the more expensive it is, the better the boat and the better the food. But how different are they and what's going to suit you and your budget?
We went on three package tours of two nights and one day, as well as going it alone, and paid US$52 to US$115 per person, including transfers. You can easily pay much more than that if you have the means and the desire but we stuck with budget to midrange tours. You also have the option of a three-day, two-night tour. We enjoyed all of the trips, but that was in part due to the opportunity to meet new people and also because this is, after all, Ha Long Bay, which is a remarkable spectacle no matter which boat you're on.
The tours all had some things in common. They all leave and arrive back in Hanoi at about the same time, all stop at a shop and cafe for a rest break, all include two lunches, dinner and breakfast, a bed for the night plus kayaking, a visit to a cave and swimming. Cabins across all three were similar in terms of size and decor too. Rooms -- and beds -- were small, but adequate for a night -- the one we had on the priciest trip, the Alova, did slightly have an edge on the others. All had large windows. Air-con on the budget trip -- with White Pearl -- cost an extra US$10 but was included in the others. All bathrooms were compact but both the flashpacker (Dugong) and midrange options came with a spacious shower cubicle and rain shower. The budget bathroom was just a wet room.
Food notably varied across the three boats. On the budget boat, and the flashpacker boat to a certain extent, food was more about sustenance than gastronomy, although to be fair it was tasty enough. More of an effort was made on Alova, particularly in terms of presentation, but also quality: think crab and mounds of meat versus tofu and a pork stir fry heavy on onions. Breakfast was much better on Alova; the eggs and white sliced bread on the two cheaper boats may have kept us going until lunch but did little for our tastebuds. Drinks were more expensive on the more expensive boats. All had a happy hour.
Decks varied the most between boats. White Pearl's deck lacked sufficient, functional deckchairs; Dugong had an almost adequate number of basic chairs and loungers; and Alova's even came with fake grass, although not as much seating as Dugong.
Kayaks on Alova were new and open topped -- easier to get in and out of -- and we kayaked directly from the boat, rather than being transferred to a floating platform; the kayaking cost extra on White Pearl; the budget tour went to a different, less impressive cave; and the two pricier tours included a trip over to one of the small islands for swimming and the option to climb to the island peak for great views. However, swimming off the boat was not allowed -- so if that's your vision for Ha Long Bay you'll need to book on a budget tour. Finally, the budget tour didn't include the spring roll cooking class and only Alova included a vegetable carving demonstration -- so if that's your bag, you'll have to pay the price.
Although there are no hard and fast rules, bear in mind that you will find different types of guests on different tours. In general, expect a younger crowd with singles on the budget boat, more couples on the flashpacker and older guests on the midrange.
Three other things are worth noting. Firstly, the transfer. The bus journey to Ha Long is never going to be a pleasant experience but we did notice an improvement in comfort the more we paid. You'll also find a difference at the harbour: for some reason, on the budget tours they leave the registration process until you are squeezed into the departure lounge, requiring you to balance a form on a neighbour's back to fill in your personal details before herding you to the boat. On the other two tours, the paperwork is completed in advance by the guide so you walk straight through to your boat.
Secondly, the guide. This may just be the luck of the draw, but the guide on Alova was leaps and bounds better than the guides on the other boats in terms of level of English, provision of information and, importantly, engagement with guests.
Finally, further to fatal accidents in 2011 and 2012, safety regulations have been improved and it seems that most boat operators take it seriously. We were required to wear life jackets on the tender by both Dugong and Alova and rooms came with life jackets and hammers. Life jackets were notably absent on White Sails. We were only given the “safety briefing” mentioned in the itinerary on Alova but it was common sense stuff anyway. We couldn't judge the seaworthiness of the boats.
One final note is for single travellers: consider the single supplement. Neither White Pearl nor Dugong will charge a supplement, assuming you are happy to share a room, or you can choose to pay extra for your own room (US$22 on Dugong). Alova charges $35 extra for a single room with no sharing option.
So in summary: it all comes down to how much you want to spend, your expectations and the level of comfort you want.
Do not go on the budget tour unless you are happy with a basic level of service, food and comfort. Yes, Ha Long Bay is a remarkable spectacle no matter which boat you're on, but you still need to consider your personal requirements. If you wouldn't stay in a budget hotel in Hanoi, why would you do a budget tour to Ha Long? If, however, you are on a tight budget, it's ideal. Nothing was promised that wasn’t delivered on, which is a welcome change from some of the less scrupulous operators in Hanoi and beyond.
For something that feels a bit classy, you'll need to go for a boat like Alova or above. While not luxurious, the small details made a difference, such as the stylish deck, the high quality food, excellent staff, layout of the boat, quality kayaks and who could forget the vegetable carving?
Our flashpacker choice, Dugong Sails, was -- as you'd expect -- somewhere in between. At US$40 less than Alova we thought it was a good deal. The food wasn't as good -- but it was tasty enough -- while the guide wasn't as engaging and the transfer was less comfortable, but rooms and activities were as good -- tatty kayaks notwithstanding -- as Alova. Although we overnighted at the same place, it took a longer, and more attractive route back to harbour. We'd suggest considering an upgrade from the budget if you can afford it.
And what about the DIY? We wouldn't recommend it for two-days, one-night, but if you have longer and want to explore Cat Ba Island or Ha Long City, it's worth considering, otherwise there's little benefit over a package tour.
Do remember that the boats we went on were only representative of different price ranges. All boats differ, guides will change and itineraries vary. Bon voyage!Just about any travel agent in Hanoi can arrange to get you onto a tour of Ha Long Bay. Ha Long Bay tours can also be booked via Agoda.com.