Wednesday, June 4, 2014
I was motivated to write this post for anyone who may be planning a trip to Halong Bay and might find it as confusing as I did. There is a huge amount of information about Halong Bay on the internet and a large proportion of it is contradictory. After spending a couple of evenings reading reviews I was convinced that no matter what we did there was a good chance we'd have a terrible time and spend the whole trip wishing we'd chosen something else... it almost made me want to cut it out altogether.
Can I just say, if you're thinking about going to Halong Bay and feel the way I felt, don't give up! Halong Bay is AMAZING and completely worth the time and effort to plan. Having said that, do put some time and effort into choosing what tour you do, as this will make a big difference to whether you come back raving about your trip or warning others not to make the mistakes you did.
There are literally hundreds of boats floating around Halong Bay every single day, catering to all interests and budgets. But to find the one that caters to you, you need to know what it is you are looking for. That means:
1. How much do you want to spend?
Of course, everyone's budget is different, but I recommend spending a bit extra and going for a mid-range boat. Remember you are going to be stuck with it/on it, spending a little bit extra for a bit of comfort, good food, is probably worth it.
A tip: If you like a bit of luxury, consider upgrading. We chose a mid-range cruise and upgraded to a suite which I personally thought was better value than the basic cabins on the more expensive boats.
2. How long do you want to go?
There are basically two options here: 2 days/1 night or 3 days/2 nights. In my view, you absolutely should go for the 3 day/2 night option, you won't regret it. If you do go for 2D/1N, be aware that you will spend less than 24 hours actually on Halong Bay. The first day you will make the four hour trip from Hanoi and arrive at the boat after 12 noon, after spending overnight on board, you will then disembark at around 11 am before making the four hour trip back to Hanoi while asking yourself why you didn't go ahead and do the 3 day tour. On most boats the 3 day tour does the same itinery as the 2 day tour, with an extra full day added in the middle where you will get the whole day exploring some of the further out areas, away from the tourist hordes.
3. How many people do you want to go with?
How many people do you want to share your tour with? In my opinion anywhere up to 30 people is good, but I would steer clear of the huge boats.
4. What do you want to eat?
It may sound silly, but you are going to be stuck eating what they give you for two or three days. The quality of the food will largely be determined by your budget, however there is quite a range of options depending on the boat. Some are predominantly buffets, however there are others (like ours) that serve you individual courses, or even ones where you can choose your main course from a menu. This is especially important if you have special dietary requirements. I've read so many reviews from non-seafood eaters or vegetarians saying that, although they specified their requirements when booking, there were very few options for them. The Boy doesn't eat seafood so this was a key factor for us when choosing a boat and I have to say that the team on our boat did a brilliant job of providing a variety of tasty non-seafood options for him.
5. Where do you want to go?
In broad terms there are two basic options: Halong Bay (to the west) and Bai Tu Long Bay (to the east). Both are spectacularly beautiful, however, Ha Long Bay has many more boats giving you many more options, whereas Bai Tu Long Bay has less boats making it less busy and less crowded. Many people also claim that the Bai Tu Long Bay is cleaner. If you go to Bai Tu Long Bay you will miss out on seeing some of the more famous caves but you might get to visit some more untouched caves. Most boats provide a description of where they go on their website so check it out. We opted for Bai Tu Long Bay because we didn't fancy the idea of being shuttled through various sites with hundreds of other tourists, and we were very pleased with our decision. If you'd prefer to go to Bai Tu Long Bay, check out some of the boats listed at the end of this post.
A third option is a tour that spends one night on Cat Ba Island. These tours are generally less expensive than the other options, however, be careful to check out not just the boat but also the accommodation offered on Cat Ba to make sure it fits your requirements.
6. What's included?
Do you want to go Kayaking? If so, many boats charge extra. Does the price include transport from Hanoi and pick up from your hotel? Also, depending on the boat there may be extra activities offered on board such as cooking demonstrations or squid fishing. It's worth finding out exactly what's offered and what extra charges there will be.
7. Do your research
Most boats have a website so check it out. Also, look for reviews but be aware that many reviews are posted for a Company rather than a boat so double-check that the review is actually about the boat you are looking at. For some reason, a lot of people seem to post reviews for the wrong boats, so read carefully. Also beware of suspiciously good or suspiciously bad reviews, fake reviews are not unheard of.
A good travel agent can be very helpful. Make sure you tell them what's important to you and then ask for recommendations. If you've found some boats yourself, run them by the travel agent to find out if there's anything you should know. In particular, agents will know the age of most of the boats and the size of the cabins. They can also get extra information from the boat for you if needed.
Book early. Of course there are some good deals offered to last minute customers, but booking early will give you a better chance of getting the boat you want. The popular boats do sell out.
Make any special food requests. (Keep in mind that most boats offer a predominantly seafood menu so if you don't like fish and seafood speak up now.) Also be clear about what you can eat (e.g., no seafood but fish is fine, or no seafood and fish but meat is fine).
ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA would like recommend Kayaking Halong Bay tour.Halong Bay, located in the Gulf of Tonkin, covers an area of 1500 square km. with more than a thousand limestone peaks soaring from its crystalline emerald water. The calm sea provides an ideal location for sea kayaking as we paddle through a maze of islets amid dramatic natural scenery. With our modern kayaking equipment, we are able to maximize on speed and maneuverability as we explore the open sea and the many hidden lagoons and stalagmite caves that are difficult to access by any other means. After a day of paddling we unwind on our boat and enjoy dinner. This tour offers longer kayaking expedition of Halong Bay. We will paddle amongst islets, visit hidden caves, lagoons, unspoiled beaches, floating fishing village and talk with local fisherman.