April 14, 2017

How to Choose a Halong Bay Cruise

View from the top of Titop Island
Seeing the breathtaking limestone karsts of Halong Bay was the number one reason I decided to visit Vietnam recently, with the food coming to a very close second.  So when it came time to choose which cruise company to use, I looked at every possibility and read up on all the reviews before making my decision.
Surprising Cave (Sung Sot Cave)
How many days?

Unless you're chartering a private boat, your choices are: one day; two days/one night; or three days/two nights. Likely, you will be based in Hanoi and most companies offer a shuttle for an extra fee to pick you up from your Hanoi hotel to Halong City, where the boats are docked.  This is a four-hour drive, each way.  That's 8 hours driving total, which would make the one-day cruise a very long day indeed.  You will be very limited in what you can visit, usually Titop Island and/or Surprising Cave (Sung Sot Cave). 

The two-day/one-night option gives you a bit more time to relax.  But it is not a full two days of activity.  You are picked up from your hotel at around 8 a.m., arriving at Halong City by 12 noon, where you are served lunch onboard as your boat cruises to the Bay.  After lunch, you either visit Titop Island or Surprising Cave (Sung Sot Cave), after which you spend the night on the boat.  The next morning you will probably be offered a kayaking option or visit to a fishing village/pearl farm then the boat goes back to Halong City by 12 noon and you will be shuttled back to your Hanoi hotel by 5 p.m.

As you can guess from the above descriptions, the one-day and two-day options leave little time to visit quieter parts of the Bay.  Which is why in the end, I decided to do the three-day/two-night option and I was so happy that I did.  In addition to the most popular attractions of Titop Island and Surprising Cave, my cruise offered a visit to Dark and Bright Cave and Tieng On Cave, as well kayaking in a very quiet cove, which was my favorite part.  Most visitors choose the two-day cruise so there are fewer people in the more remote areas like Lan Ha and Cat Ba. 

Which Cruise?

After deciding on how many days, the next decision was which company.  In considering which cruise to take, I knew that I wanted to visit both Titop Island and Surprising Cave, as well as do some kayaking.  Titop Island is the only place one can go to get a view of Halong Bay's numerous karsts from above (unless you take a seaplane tour). Note that there are 427 steps to get to the top.  You are only allowed 45 minutes to an hour to spend on island total so I would suggest going to the top first before doing any sunbathing on the beach.

Most cruises offer a cooking class in the afternoon (egg rolls), Tai Chi class in the morning, and squid fishing at night.

At first I was attracted to the romantic-looking wooden junks with the full sails, which also offered lower prices.  I'm glad I decided against these because in real life they look quite old and jenky and none of them have their sails out at all - only for pictures I guess.  I ended up choosing a newer boat, only a couple years old, which was sleek and modern and whose pictures looked exactly like reality.  In terms of comfort and luxury, I felt quite pampered. The staff went out of their way to make my cruise amazing. The breakfast buffet had myriad options. Lunch and dinners were six-course affairs.  Not only did they offer everything in my must-do list, but extra activities as well.  I knew I had made not only the right decision, but the best one.

Carefully read the reviews on Tripadvisor and Booking.com to make your final decision. 
A pearl farm
How and when to book?

Many book upon arriving in Hanoi either through their hotel or with the numerous booking agents in the Old Quarter.  I have heard that one can get really good prices with this method, as the cruise companies strive to fill all their spots for a full boat every day.  Other methods include booking directly online or through a third party booking site. 

Having decided which cruise I wanted, I didn't want to take a chance that it would be full for the days I preferred so at first I contacted them directly two months before my trip to Vietnam.  However, I ended up booking through Booking.com because the price there was a couple hundred dollars less than on the company's website and "the deal" I was quoted via e-mail.  Also, I wanted an additional avenue to write a verified review should the cruise experience fall below my expectations. 

Definitely shop around for the best price online.
View from Surprising Cave (Sung Sot Cave)
What to expect:

If you book the shuttle with the cruise company, expect to be picked up in the morning anywhere from 7:30 a.m. - 8:00 a.m.  The road to Halong City can be rough so if you're prone to motion sickness, you might bring along some pills or the motion sickness bands.  I did the bands, put on my headphones and chilled out.  I couldn't nap because of the poor conditions of some of the roads.  Midway through the ride, the shuttle will stop at marble company/warehouse with everything from marble statues, to food and drinks, clothes, jewelry and other souvenirs for sale.  You are not obligated to buy anything.  Just use the free restrooms and browse for a half-hour.  After that, you go on for another hour or hour-and-a-half to Halong City.  The shuttle makes this stop (at another marble company) on the way back as well.  Shuttles to and from Halong City are a standard $20. 

Once in Halong City, you either board your boat right away or are taken to a hotel lobby area where you can relax after your drive, check in and are offered some drinks and snacks.  Once everyone arrives for the cruise, you are then taken to your boat and given more welcome drinks during the briefing. 
Titop Island
After some downtime, lunch is served while the boat cruises along to your first stop.  Note that bottled water during meals and any drinks, either alcoholic or otherwise, is charged to your final bill.  Most cruises offer free bottled water in the rooms and pass them out during activities. Also depending on the company, use of a kayak might incur a fee. 

You are usually taken by tender to whatever attraction you are disembarking upon, whether to Titop Island, Surprising Cave, a pearl farm or fishing village.  If you are on the 3-day/2-night program, for the second day, you are taken by tender to a dayboat, which you will use for the entire day because the big boat goes back to Halong City to drop off the 2-day/1-nighters and to pick up new passengers. 

There is a director for each activity so you can either go off on your own or stay with the group.  The directors for my cruise somehow always hit the attractions when they were quiet and there were not that many tourists.  It really made the difference in the enjoyment of Halong's natural wonders.

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