Halong Bay is the highlight of a Northern Vietnam trip. For anyone who has been to Hanoi and found it as stressful as I did, a breathtaking boat ride through this UNESCO world heritage site will make it all worth it. But here’s why you shouldn’t do it on the cheap.
To begin, choosing a cruise company to host the adventure is daunting. The amount of information I found on how to pick the right cruise for what I wanted out of Halong Bay seemed limitless, and I completely agonized over the final decision. If you are backpacking through Southeast Asia, I think it’s important to narrow down what you can and can’t live without on a cruise in Halong Bay.
I strongly believe this is the one experience you shouldn’t rough it through.
Not to say that I can throw money away on a luxury cruise company. I understand wanting to budget, probably more than anyone. But I wanted this particular experience to be relaxing and I am so happy that I decided to spend a little money. My experience was a nice break in the middle of dorm hostels and overnight bus rides.
Don’t Go For Less Than Two Days
I booked a 2 day and 1 night stay on Glory Legend Cruise through Blue Dragon Tours for about $315 total. This is a mid range cruise that offers van shuttle to and from your hotel or hostel. You literally have to do nothing but wait for them to show up, then sit back and relax.
It’s also a small enough cruise to get an intimate setting for a few days in Halong Bay.
One of my requirements on the cruise was a full view room on the upper deck, but was unsure if I should splurge while traveling on a budget. But I had fantasies of waking up with an uninterrupted view of those massively gorgeous limestone islands.
I knew that once the sun started to set and the boat docked, I’d want to bask in the scenery for as long as I could. And I wanted to do that from the comfort of my room. I was so glad I didn’t go cheap.
Like A Queen
Even though to my disappointment, I found out once I got on the boat that my friend and I were in a lower deck room due to a booking error. Fortunately the company handled things very well. Our guide had it worked out that after the first day of activities and dinner, we would be shuttled by boat to another larger ship.
That’s how I found myself staying in the Royal Suite on the company’s 5 star Pelican Cruise. A room with a private balcony, plush terry cloth robes and free champagne.
And I got to feel like a queen for one night in Halong Bay.
Other than being upgraded to a luxury cruise, this was also good because I got to experience a small part of both types of cruises. I’m here to tell you that the luxury cruise is nice, like really nice. But unless you really care about exceptional service, the Glory Legend Cruise is fine.
I looked up the Royal Suite on the Pelican Cruise site after we were back in Hanoi and found out the room was about $490. And that price didn’t include transportation to and from Hanoi to Halong Bay.
That night in the Royal Suite was exactly what I needed in the middle of my trip. After dinner, I spent the entire night in the room with my best friend. We drank our free champagne while we lounged in our robes and watched a movie on my laptop. We couldn’t enjoy the patio because it was raining but I wouldn’t take back any of it.
Being Waited on Hand and Foot
What stood out the most on these two cruises was the customer service provided. On the mid range Glory Legend Cruise, there was nothing wrong with the service. But as you can expect, it just didn’t compare to the service on the luxury cruise. The food alone was like dining in a five star restaurant, complete with a show of pineapples lit up by candles and brought to each table before dessert.
Service isn’t something that would make or break a cruise for me. I am pretty easy to please when it comes to being a customer or guest at any place of business. I think that probably comes from being in the bar industry as long as I have. But it doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the experience for what it is.
One thing I will note is the overall vibe of both cruises. While the mid range cruise had a lot of young people close to my age, it was mostly couples. The luxury cruise had a range of ages (mostly older) on deck. However, the vibe was much more welcoming on that cruise from both staff and guests.
If you’re looking for a party cruise, neither of these cruises are for you.
Just Skip TI TOP Island
There is nothing I try to avoid more than telling anyone to skip a particular destination. Everyone has their own experience and everyone has their own taste. And I do think it’s important to experience everything while traveling for yourself.
However, I can not stress enough how much I didn’t enjoy this particular part of the trip.
The island itself isn’t so bad if you want to get off and look around. It’s climbing to the top of the mountain with countless of other travelers. Only to see the same view you can essentially see everywhere you look. The winding stone stairs are packed with people in every direction. Some going down, some going up, some stopping for photos or pushing passed you.
Like most highly sought out tourist destinations, this place was a zoo. The view is nice, I’m not going to deny that. But I pushed through crowds and attempted in vain to get a decent photo at the top. After that, I wished I had just stayed on the boat.
One of the overall highlights of the two day cruise was kayaking near the Halong Bay Pearl Farm. The only thing I regret is that it wasn’t longer. (And that I left my good camera in the boat and didn’t get the amazing photos I wanted to.)
After Ti Top Island, a small day boat took our group from the ship to get to a secluded pearl farm in the middle of the sea. It’s a pretty quiet part of the water and the serene atmosphere made this easily my favorite activity. But maybe that was in comparison to the anxious experience at Ti Top Island.
You can get a kayak for yourself or two people, and there’s no guide. You can just roam freely in the water at your own pace and get close to the limestone islands. Most two day cruises I researched had this activity on the agenda, so you’re most likely going to get to experience this.
I had rainy weather while I was there. That, combined with the splashing of kayak paddles left for minimal photos as I wasn’t prepared to risk my camera or my phone. I suggest trying to plan a trip when the weather is guaranteed to be sunny.
There are a number of caves to visit in Halong Bay and most cruises go to a least one. The most popular is Sung Sot (or surprise cave). After my Ti Top island experience, I was a little apprehensive about this attraction. I had no desire to stand elbow to elbow while I was pulled through another tourist trap.
This one however, wasn’t so bad and you should absolutely not skip it.
The cave is massive and is can be found right in the center of Halong Bay. Thousands of people could fit in the cave’s two chambers at once so be prepared to walk. Our tour guide moved our group through both chambers with ease, providing information as we went along.
Spend the Money
At the end of the day, I am very stingy with how I spend my money. Especially when it comes to guided tours and attractions. I am always weary of what is being offered and I’m always convinced I can do it cheaper on my own. But with the growing crowds of tourists that swarm Halong Bay, I wasn’t going to take any chances.
There were too many reviews I read of people standing on platforms forever or waiting for buses. I think it’s important as a traveler to know when it’s okay to treat yourself to a better experience. I wanted the time I had in Halong Bay to be valued and relaxing and that’s exactly what it was. The money I spent was totally worth it.
Being such a huge tourist attraction, this destination is also a magnet for scams. Another reason not to go cheap and also do thorough research of your tour company.