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 go to Ninh Binh 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!