Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
Why is it so difficult to choose a company with which to do a cruise of Ha Long Bay?
It’s almost enough to make you change your plans, do something else instead. (In fact, that’s exactly what happened to me the first time – I decided to visit Trang An rather than deal with the hassle.)
The problem is not that there isn’t enough choice – it’s that there’s too much choice. And it’s never really clear what exactly you’re choosing.
In the hectic streets of Hanoi, all around the tourist areas, are stalls with cheap t-shirts, cafes with little wooden tables, bars with small plastic stools, souvenir shops, and noodle trolleys.
And from almost every single one of them you can spot a travel agency selling Ha Long Bay tours.
“2 days, 1 night – $49”
“Romantic Ha Long Bay”
…And so on. Everywhere sells some kind of trip to Ha Long Bay. And most will sell you anything, whether it’s what you actually want or what you actually get.
I walk into one of the shops and ask what kind of trip they offer. It only takes a few seconds before brochures and books are out on the table and I’m being shown photos of different boats, each one with a justification of why it costs what it does.
I walk into another shop, to start getting a comparison. More photos of boats, more explanations. Some seem to contradict what I had just heard. Some just don’t seem to make sense.
And herein lies the biggest issue you have with buying a trip for Ha Long Bay in Hanoi.
None of these travel agencies actually own the boats they are selling you a place on. They work on commission and they get more commission from certain companies – so they’re the ones they’ll push.
They also don’t really know whether there will be a place on the boat they are selling you. It’s entirely possible (and happens very often) that you actually just get on-sold to another boat without realising until it’s too late.
In the end, still knowing all of this, I choose one of the trips relatively randomly. It’s the night before I want to leave and I’ve run out of time to do too much research or consideration.
After sitting on the bus for a few hours, I end up at the port where the boats leave from.
I join the group of tourists who will be on the boat with me. About 80 per cent of them look like young party backpackers.
This isn’t what I expected – my tour had been sold to me as a more luxurious one and I had paid a bit more than needed so it would be relaxing and not crowded.
The other passengers are a family from China with young children. Clearly they had also been misled (or are secret ravers!)
The boat itself is what I expected. And, by that, I mean it looks nothing like the photos I had been shown… but I was already resigned to this.
Paint peeling on the outside, old wooden chairs, small rooms. While the backpackers are put into groups so they can share rooms together, I at least get the single room that I had paid extra for.
The thing is – no matter which boat you’re on, you’re still going to get the same scenery. And that is, after all, the main reason why you come to Ha Long Bay.
It doesn’t disappoint (although I quite often hear from people that it doesn’t live up to the high expectations that be be set unrealistically by tourism marketers).
Personally, I love the views – the enormous limestone karsts covered with green amongst the water. From a distance they’re like an armada of stone and, close up, like the tips of Neptune’s trident rising up.
The boat cruises around and we’re all able to get different views.
Sometimes it’s a wide perspective of the bay, at other time you’re close up, sometimes you go through a channel of stone. It’s beautiful and I take plenty of photos (I hope you’re enjoying some of them here!)
By the evening we’re at anchor and I enjoy the food for dinner which does seem better than some of the stories I’ve heard.
I’m at a shared table and I start chatting. I get on well with these backpackers.
The thing is, even though I’m now in my mid-30s, I backpacked through Asia a lot when I was younger. I loved it and I think it’s still in my blood.
But by the time I arrived here at Ha Long Bay, I’ve been in Vietnam for almost a month and I’m a bit tired. I didn’t think I was in the mood to drink all night and tell ridiculous travel tales.
It’s funny how you change your mind after a couple of drinks. Suddenly the whole evening needs to be filled with more beer and increasingly-raucous conversations.
I stay up much later than I planned, meet lots of great new people, and actually have a really fun time. My concerns that I had ended up on a bad trip were forgotten.
My main concern now, though, is trying to give you a good recommendation so you can save yourself some of the hassle.
One thing I can suggest is to book ahead. There are some great options here:
My experience turned out well – but more by accident. The good thing about booking one of the tours I’ve suggested above is that you’ll be going through an international company, so it’ll be much easier to get if something does go wrong.
But, also… what I would like to do is crowdsource some recommendations.
If YOU have been to Ha Long Bay and are happy with the way you booked a trip, please let me know. I would love it if you could drop me a comment below and I’ll add it to a resource for other travellers.
The less people who wander confused and desperate into travel agencies in Hanoi, the better!
20 thoughts on “Choosing a Ha Long Bay tour”
Ha, I was looking forward to seeing tips on how to choose a tour company but I guess like with most tours it’s the people that make it fun! I guess you’ll just have to be lucky when picking a tour 🙂
Haha this is kind of funny. The first time I went to Halong Bay (in 2006) I had a very similar experience. My friend and I chose a trip that sounded good, got shuffled from one boat to another to another with more people than we’d been told, etc. Others on our boat had paid double what we did, and even we knew we’d been ripped off. But we had a good time (helped by Vodka Hanoi), hiked on Cat Ba Island (NOT helped by Vodka Hanoi), kayaked and swam.
I then lived in Hanoi for 3.5 years, and heard that IndoChina Junks is good, so maybe try that. A bit more expensive though! When my mom visited we took a bus/boat combo to Cat Ba Island and stayed there, and did a day trip on Lan Ha Bay (the other side of the island), which was less crowded and less polluted. Another good option if you don’t care about sleeping on the boat!
I had a similar experience. It seems like no one gets what they think they’re getting. But that’s okay. I had one night in the bay and another on Cat Ba, which turned out to be a surprising highlight.
Glad it turned out to be fun after all! I agree that fellow travellers can make or break your experience. We booked a 2 day 1 night tour to Halong Bay with Galaxy Cruises and pretty much got what we were told to expect. Our hostel arranged the booking for us. We took the medium expensive option, costing us $125 per person. We went kayaking, visited the Surprise Cave (too crowded), got a Tai Chi lesson in the morning and made Vietnamese spring rolls in a short cooking class. We had a great time, but a cheaper option might have been equally satisfying. We’ll never know. 😉 We have an entire blogpost dedicated to this on our travel blog, if you’re interested: http://wandering.world/a-two-day-trip-to-halong-bay-with-galaxy-cruises/
when it comes to adventure lol one can never really know what to expect:D lovely read sounds like a good time
Been to Halong Bay, but only for a half day cruise. Would love to visit it again and spend a nite there. I will remember this story when I book the cruise and dont give high expectation haha! 😉
I am glad I spent the night – but there’s definitely a wide range of ways to do it! It’s been good to see some recommendations from people here. That might help other people next time!
This large Vietnqmese city is stuffed with an abundant culture and history there are plenty of activities to do and places
to visit. I asked an area what she kepot takinbg a lolk att and was informed
she was looking for his husband. People today are traveling a growing number
of, often eschewing the conventional resort-type
of visi to favor of vacations oof a more adventurous sort.
I did spend a lot of time in Halong Bay Vietnam.
Thanks for your post.
I got what I expected. I booked with Oriental Sails via trip advisor before I went. Having heard stories I thought it best to book beforehand. It was a little pricier and definitely quieter than I hoped (just 6 of us on the boat) but relaxing and well worth it.
Thanks for the tip! It’s really interesting to hear the experiences people have had with different companies. I think booking ahead definitely means you’re more likely to get what you expect.
Normally when I want to take a trip to Halong Bay, I don’t wait till I get there to book a tour. Basically, I don’t want to be passive in every situation and I don’t trust any tour seller there. What if you just had one day in Halong and they ask for a 3 times higher price?? Anyway, it also depends on what kind of tour you wanna have. Last month, my boyfriend from the Netherlands came and we got a recommend from a friend to experience kinda fancy tour of a credible group. I gotta say, it’s completely worth the money. But sure, you have to book in advanced. at the end of the day, I still strongly recommend to prepare everything up front and just enjoy the whole day without rushing.
Are you mentioning this eh?
I laughed at the end of your article. I was really expecting for a travel agency or boat suggestion. But it’s a good thing that the tourists you’re with made your cruise fun and memorable. I’m crossing my fingers now to whichever boat we’d choose. We want a mid to luxury cruise suitable for a couple who wants peace!
your article made me smile and happy that I had done a lot of research before booking our cruise through Ha Long Bay. The people are important, especially when you are thrown onto the same boat for a few nights and stuck with them. We were lucky to have both, an amazing cruise and lovely people…
It certainly didn’t come cheap but from reading a lot of articles about cruises in the area it might pay off to dig a little deeper into your wallet and not go for the cheapest option.
Hope you will get a chance to go back sometime…
Oh my god just realised I called you Matt for some reason…apologies, Michael is a much better name!
Ha ha. No problems. Matt isn’t that bad – I’ve been called worse things! :0
I’m so pleased to hear that you enjoyed your cruise. I agree with you completely – doing some research beforehand and paying a little extra can make a big difference. I also recommend booking with an international company that has more accountability than a small local operator.
Hi. Any chance you can remember the name of the boat/company you did go on in the end? As your cruise sounds OK and kind of what I’m looking for. You’re right – it’s so hard to choose from the many options! Thanks! Rachael.
Very informative article as always! Everything depends on your budget when choosing a Halong Bay tour. If you have the serious cash, go for the 2/3 night cruises on Emeraude or Indochine for a serious cruise of the karsts. I got the best experience there. If you are there for just one day, you will get what everyone is selling inside shops, Sinh cafes, and hotels: a four-hour ‘cruise’ aboard one of the junks at the Bai Chair tourist dock for something like $100.