A Ha Long Bay cruise is a must on any visit to
North Vietnam. There are ubiquitous boat tours, mostly caught from Hanoi. This involves a shuttle drive about 4 hours North, then you get loaded on your cruise – you get a lunch break at a tourist shop both ways. The trips range from a single day to 4 days generally – 2 days seems the most common. You cruise through Ha Long Bay & possibly Cat Ba Bay taking in a variety of sites depending on your precise tour.
Booking Options for Your Ha Long Bay Cruise
There are a wide variety of boat options, mostly determined by price – but other factors should be considered, such as your fellow travellers. The big hostels in town run some of the boats which are apparently pretty big party boats – Castaway Tours – I know at one point we could hear music from another boat anchored not too far from us. Other boats might have more children, that sort of thing. Food, drink & room quality varies with price, and there are apparently some shady ones out there as well – so safety is a factor.
Generally the tour consists of a cruise out among the karsts and a few activities. Mine included a kayak tour, beach visit with hill climb, and a chance to check out some very large natural caves. My cellphone camera wasn’t up to cave photography, but you can find some good photos on flickr – my favorite is this one. I highly recommend checking it out if you like caves – both the photo and making sure your tour includes the caving expeditions. Several of the prime spots are frequented by many boats at a time, as you can see from the photo below. My boat had 8 cabins, 16 people. Some boats had more like 40 – and different luxuries such as a sundeck, outdoor dining, karaoke, a bar…
Much of your time will be spent cruising through the karsts, where you can admire the outstanding views nature has provided, and catch glimpses of the locals living off the sea. Beyond the crews of your boat there will be fishermen & women, pearl farmers, tour guides and I’m sure many beyond that.
Some practicalities about cruising Ha Long Bay
Book ahead if you are short on time, but leave yourself some leeway in case of weather. Food is generally included, but any restrictions or preferences need to be clearly described beforehand – there isn’t a great selection of food. I spoke to a vegetarian who was fine having told them in advance, but this is definitely an area where what you pay will make a difference. The woman who didn’t particularly like fish on my boat was pretty disappointed, because most of the meals involved fish to some extent. Drinks are not included, so be prepared to pay extra – also a bit of a tip is appreciated for the guides and bartender. My boat had a sundeck with chaise lounges, but only a bit of it was shaded, don’t forget sunblock! Each cabin had a private bathroom with showed, boats vary though. We got a swim on the second day, but unfortunately unless it’s on the schedule, no swimming allowed – plenty of chance for sunning though. My boat also had outlets for recharging devices, and I got cell service throughout the Bay through Viettel.
Before & After Your Cruise
If you have a few days extra you can book sidetrips out of Hanoi like Sapa, which is beautiful and very different, or just explore Hanoi more in depth – I had a great time when I ended up spending some extra time there thanks to a typhoon. Great coffee shops, great food, fun to explore on foot, and some of the touristy sites, like the Temple of Literature, are really worth it.