Halong Bay is one of those must do magical places when travelling in northern Vietnam. A UNESCO world heritage site and one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, it is home to about 1,960 craggy, limestone karst islands.
Cruising is the best way to appreciate this spectacular seascape as you slowly make your way in and around the bay, admiring the pillar-like islets and red-sailed cruise ships dotted around the bay. But with so many Halong Bay cruise operators to choose from and even more variety of in terms of budget, length, type, and itineraries, the process can get quite overwhelming!
So, how do you choose the cruise for you?
Here are some quick and dirty tips you can use, taken from my experience of what helped and what I wish I knew prior to booking a cruise.
1) To booze cruise or not
To booze or not booze? This will be your first determining factor to consider. My friend and I chose against it and went with a social but quieter, family-friendly cruise. Luckily, we had a few travellers we got on well with, including a young English backpacking couple and an older American expat living in Thailand. On a non-booze cruise you can still enjoy social drinks with others on board; you just won’t have the buzzing party atmosphere. The downside of going on such a cruise is that you can’t control what kind of group you will end up with (it will most likely be a mix of backpackers, retirees, couples, and families).
On a party booze cruise, however, do expect an early 20-something crowd, extreme forms of intoxication, drinking games, and generally a loud, rowdy atmosphere. We talked to a few at our hostel who had just come back from one, and on hearing the craziness that ensued on the boat (including some unpleasant accidents) and the lack of sleep and peace they had, it reaffirmed our decision to not go on one since we were looking for a chilled-out, mellow vibe. It may have been a choice if I was still in my early 20s but I know my present self would have regretted it.
2) Shop around for quotes
Hanoi is the best place to coordinate your Halong Bay cruise, and there are many tour agencies located in the Old Quarter (the touristy area) that you can book through. Have a walk around the streets and pop in a few of them and ask what they have available. Often, cruises departing soon will have spots left that they want filled, and if your schedule is flexible it can work to your advantage as you can score some great deals. I’ve found that if you can afford to, it’s always a better to show up to a location and book last-minute rather than in advance.
Also, decide if you want a budget (not recommended), mid-range, or high-end cruising experience. Here, the rule of thumb is that price will usually dictate the quality of the experience.
3) Skip the 1-day cruises
If you have the time, I recommend going on multi-day cruises and avoiding one-day types. For one, Halong Bay is about a 4-hour drive from Hanoi (where most of us will be departing from), so if you are visiting for just a day, you will spend most of this day in the van getting to and from the cruise. That leaves not enough time on the boat, and definitely not enough time to appreciate this beautiful place! Even for backpackers and budget-minded travellers, you can easily find overnight or 2-night cruises at reasonable prices, with many decent options under $200 per person for a multi-day trip.
This handy website allows you to check out all the Halong Bay cruises, read reviews and photos, search by type, price, and duration. (Note: I’m not in any way affiliated with the website.)
4) Compare itineraries & activities
Halong Bay is huge, and there’s no way you’ll be able to see everything on one cruise. Cruises will vary on the itinerary, which islands you’ll be visiting, and the routes they take. Depending on the type of cruise, the activities offered on board will vary – some will have spring roll making classes, some tai chi classes, massages on board, squid fishing, etc.
Most multi-day cruises will include popular itineraries like cave touring, kayaking, visiting the floating fishing village, perhaps a pearl farm, and passing by the Fighting Cock Island (pictured above).
Stay overnight on an island in Halong Bay, and you may have biking, hiking, and rock-climbing options too. When you shop around, you’ll start to see a few major trends in the itineraries that the cruises tend to offer (ie. hitting certain popular spots or passageways) . Decide which itinerary is most appealing to you to help you narrow down your choices.
5) Make sure you know what you’re getting
Because the cruises vary greatly in prices and offerings, you should find out exactly what your cruise includes and doesn’t include. Ask the tour agent lots of questions. What kinds of questions should you ask? Now that I’ve been on one of these cruises, I know it pays to ask:
– if you’ll be on the same boat the entire time, or be transferred to a smaller boat later on
– if they will fill up your boat with extra day passengers who are not going to be sleeping on the boat
– the price for beverages on board, such as bottled water (it’ll be expensive… just bring your own!)
The key here is to be informed about the smallest details, and to not assume anything! Speaking from experience, this will save you from disappointment and stress. I would describe our cruise as only decent and nothing more because although the food and service was wonderful, we felt deceived about the room we had booked. Maybe this could have been avoided had we asked some more questions; we would’ve been happier to know exactly what we were paying for!
Keep these pointers in mind and you’ll be better equipped than most tourists who are trying to navigate through the different cruise options available. Once you have chosen your cruise, sit back, relax, and forget about it — be satisfied that you’ve done the best you can do, and prepare for an absolutely amazing time soaking in the beauty of Halong Bay.