We opted for the most inexpensive 3-day, 2-night Ha Long Bay cruise that we could negotiate. When the day came to leave, we were on pins and needles worrying whether we just made a terrible mistake.
That morning, we left our hotel and headed to the travel agency we booked the cruise through so they could store our large bags. At 8:15am, a tiny, wiry Vietnamese man representing FantaSea Cruise popped inside the office, “Ha Long?” We nodded and he motioned for us to board the waiting minibus. The vehicle was half full when we boarded, but after a few more stops, it was at its 18-person capacity. The man who collected us introduced himself by saying that we probably could not pronounce his name and so we should call him Peter. He would be our tour guide for the ride to Ha Long Bay pier and for the second and third day (FantaSea runs several boats each day with their own tour guide, so Peter was going on a different boat for the first day).
The ride from Hanoi takes roughly four hours with a break halfway. The rest stop is a glorified attempt to sell goods to a captive audience, but the bathrooms were clean and new and had plenty of toilet paper (always a plus in our book). The building itself had a wide array of items for sale, with an open area dedicated to workers hand-stitching patterns and images on large canvases. Scores of tourists milled inside the building as our minibuses waited outside.
After 20 minutes, we jumped back in the vehicle for the remainder of the drive to Ha Long pier. This was our first introduction to the only downside of the tour: the waiting. Although our minibus held 18, we were divided into three groups, destined for three separate boats. More people showed up where we waited, only to be eventually whisked off. Finally, an hour or so later our group (25 of us total) was gathered up to board our vessel.
The first thing you notice when you arrive at Ha Long Bay is the sheer number of boats. It is staggering how many are staged along the pier and anchored slightly further out. They were all covered in peeling white paint, and there appeared no difference between any of them. (The government ordered all boats – or junks, as they are called – to be painted white to help reduce the number of boat collisions.) Same same, not different! Perhaps choosing the least expensive option was a solid decision, Tara and I said to one another. While the outside of our junk seemed in dire need of a paint job, the interior was swank. Finished wood paneling and a modern vibe made this budget cruise feel immediately luxurious. Minutes after climbing aboard, we were on our way. Unfortunately, we were not alone.
Due to the large number of visitors, boats churn out tours faster than a meat grinder. Instead of empty open waters, we were surrounded by what looked like a Vietnamese armada. After an hour of sailing, err, racing to Thien Cung Grotto (Heavenly Cave), our junk literally pushed its way to the dock (we witnessed two instances of boats colliding when trying to jockey for better positions).
Our new tour guide, Vu, did an excellent job explaining the geological and historical background of the cave and the surrounding region (there are 1969 islands, a number Vietnamese citizens can easily remember if they relate it to Uncle Ho). However, once we got inside the cave, madness descended upon our group as we strolled along a narrow walkway overflowing with visitors. Within minutes our group had splintered in pairs and Vu tried to talk to whomever was nearby. Heavenly Cave is fantastic due to the exceptional lighting job done inside. I thought it was cool, but other visitors thought it looked like a discothèque.
Luckily, Tara and I linked up, albeit it inadvertently, with another English-speaking guide. Along the way, our eyes were directed to phallic stalagmites, shadows of camels urinating and women taking showers. It ended up being one of the better tours we have crashed. Overall, we spent 45 minutes inside, but waited another 45 minutes on the dock for our boat to jostle its way up front (ultimately, it pulled up behind the front row of tightly moored ships and we walked through another junk to get to ours). After leaving the bumper boats behind, we sat down for lunch.
Our fears about the food were assuaged as soon as the first dish arrived. The presentation of the seafood spring rolls seemed straight out of a five-star restaurant. The rest of the meal followed suit. Not only was everything delicious, but they had enough pescetarian-friendly food for us to fill up our plates with tasty delights. The crew seemed fine with us drinking our land-purchased beverages so we did not buy anything (beverages on board were not included in the cruise fee and were double to triple their usual prices).
Another hour of sailing brought us to a little inlet near caves where we were allowed to kayak. Sadly, if you wanted to go up to or inside the caves, locals were demanding 100,000 dong or $5USD. Ignoring them and going into the caves anyway apparently gives them an excuse to charge you a hefty fine. So we opted to kayak away from the caves. Limestone karsts that rose straight out of the water like mountains circled the area. This majestic area made it most apparent why Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The kayaks they provided seemed straight out of the 1970s and were recreational, not sit-on-tops. Recreational kayaks are not so good for open water or use in heavy wind or currents and capsize easier than sit-on-tops . A strong current made navigating difficult, and Tara and I paddled gingerly, trying not to tip. Ahead of us, two French tourists from our tour raced their kayak, with the guy in the back capturing their action on a GoPro Hero2. Much like most accidents, Tara and I watched in horror as their kayak quickly flipped. We slowly paddled over to try to help, aware that our kayak could just as easily capsize. Although the guys were able to right their vessel, the fiberglass shell was still submerged. We helped as best we could, and then some the locals came out and brought them back to the dock. Fifteen minutes later, we paddled back without incident.
Once everyone had a turn to kayak, our boat took off for our next destination, which would be the last location of the day. We anchored just off the Cát Bà Island dock (on the far side of the island, far from Cát Bà town), where Tara and I would be dropped in the morning. The majority of the group was staying on the junk that night, but a few Aussies were signed up for an alternate tour that allowed them to spend two nights in a hotel. They piled off and our group shrunk to 14. Of the people remaining on the boat, it was a mix of pairs from various countries (Spain, France, United States, Singapore and Vietnam), but one thing was certain: all of us were there to have fun.
The ship we were on had three levels (four, if you include the engine room/floor). The top floor had a sun deck with chairs, the middle floor had the dining room with a couple bedrooms and the bottom level housed the kitchen and remainder of the bedrooms. Our room was at the front of the ship (my dad, who is a Coastie, would chide me and say, “the bow”), and away from the noise and smell of the engine. It was an optimal choice, and when we saw the beautiful interior, we were further validated that this cheapo selection was a solid decision.
After dropping anchor, Vu asked if we wanted to swim. Within seconds, all of us were topside jumping off the boat. At first, Tara was nervous, but peer pressure took hold of her and we were vaulting from the second level. I worked up the courage to launch myself from the third story and it was exhilarating (see video of us). All told, we probably spent an hour jumping and splashing around—until dinner was served.
Another meal, another nice surprise. The selections were plentiful and portions were enormous. By now, several of the others on the boat had broken into their smuggled-aboard alcoholic beverages, and Tara and I followed suit. The evening evolved into a fluid conversation about African politics, favorite Vietnamese dishes and a million other subjects. The ship’s crew was not having any part of this and converted the dining room into a karaoke bar, blasting the latest hits over the blackened water (“My Heart Will Go On” is a favorite “contemporary” song). Eventually, everyone succumbed to the booze and retired to air-conditioned rooms.
We woke up early eager for a morning swim, but the desire to jump in was quickly replaced with horror and disgust when we saw our junk (and a dozen others surrounding us) emptying its waste directly into the water. This was the same water we dove into the day before, and got in our orifices, and swallowed. Cue the dry heaving. Amazingly, this did not temper our breakfast appetites and we were rewarded with another delicious meal.
Tara and I packed up after breakfast. The rest of the group had only signed up for the 2-day, 1-night tour, so we offered our goodbyes and disembarked. On dry land, a minibus filled with FantaSea Cruise tourists from other boats waited for us. Vu remained on the boat, but the good news was that we rejoined Peter. Once we sat down, the vehicle took off through windy roads to Cát Bà National Park, known for its breathtaking view from the peak of a nearby hill.
Since my body has never adapted to humidity (and in particular to the extreme moisture that SE Asia is known for), I was drenched within a couple minutes of beginning our ascent up a trail that was a mix of stairs, rocks and ladders. After a half hour, we arrived at the top only to find the small outcropping overcrowded with people. The view is amazing, but when you are fighting for space on the edge of a sheer drop, your experience is slightly diminished with concern for your personal wellbeing. After enjoying the view, taking some videos and pictures and inhaling as much fresh air as possible, we scrambled down the path back to the minibus.
Our next stop was Cát Bà town, where we would check into the FantaSea and Queen Hotel (a really nice boutique hotel). We were given the opportunity to shower up before returning downstairs for lunch in the hotel’s dining room. Again, I cannot say enough about the quality and quantity of food we received. Instead of being ready to take on the day, our long night and early morning combination was catching up with us, and we felt exhausted. Instead of going to Monkey Island (it was included for free on the tour), we opted to take a nap and then walk around Cát Bà town.
Cát Bà was crawling with tourists, but many were Vietnamese. Therefore, it has the feeling of a waterfront tourist town, but it has not gone over the edge when it comes to price gouging and begging. Dinner was also provided, and unfortunately it was our most disappointing meal because of a lack of pescetarian options (it was a meat-centric meal with few veggies). After our meal, we opted for Cát Bà Rose Bar, a hangout that specifically caters to foreigners (as noted in their ads plastered everywhere). Several other members of our group joined us and we had another enjoyable night.
The next morning, Tara and I soon discovered we had stopped drinking far earlier than the others. Apparently, the group had broken into the remaining booze they had brought with them (several bottles of rum and vodka) and drank all of it. A couple of them literally looked green around the gills. This also meant there were a few empty seats at breakfast as they slept off their drinks, and therefore more food for us!
By 9am we rolled out and headed back to where we had jumped ship the previous day. We got there only to experience more waiting on the dock for our ship. Then we boarded and waited for at least another hour. Finally, at 11am, the crew grabbed our lines and we were headed back toward the mainland. We stopped near the Pair of Chickens Islands for another delicious lunch, then went to the pier for our four-hour minibus ride back to Hanoi.
Our expectations were so low that the cruise exceeded all of them. Paying double, triple or any multiplier more probably would have meant some nicer amenities and perhaps less time waiting around in-between activities. Ultimately, so much of the experience is based on enjoying the scenery and the people you are on the junk with. We had a good group of people, and a great experience. Your time in Ha Long Bay is what you make of it, not how much you spend for it.
Top tips for a good Ha Long Bay experience:
Bargain hard and shop around.
There are tons of travel agencies selling the same cruises, but it is up to you to get the best deal. Find the cheapest cruise that suits you, and ask for a discount (whether it is a low season discount, a group discount, a honeymoon discount, or just because-you-say-so discount).
Check online for reviews.
Before going with FantaSea, we were looking at higher-priced options, but upon reading some of the reviews, we could not justify paying more with some of the issues other reviewers had (For instance, one of the higher-priced cruises turned off the A/C in rooms at 3am to conserve power. There is no fan, and the heat requires you to have the A/C on at night. With the number of mosquitos buzzing around, you cannot just open your window to cool down.).
Be aware of bait-and-switch cruises and get everything in writing.
For the most part, we received everything we wanted, but we heard of some tourists who found they had to pay entrance fees or on-the-spot “upgrades” to do what they thought was included. Your best option is to get everything in writing (the more reputable travel agencies will print out detailed itineraries that bullet point exactly what is included and excluded).
We booked through Green Mango Travel.
There are tons of other travel agencies in Hanoi (and we are not receiving any kickbacks from Green Mango), but our experience with this juice joint + travel agency was overwhelming positive. They beat the competition’s price and made the booking process easy. We were introduced to the agency because one of their representatives jumped on our Luang Prabang to Hanoi bus when we arrived in Hanoi and offered a super cheap minibus to take us to the Old City.