21.0333° N, 105.8500° E
We just got back from our Ha Long Bay Cruise and the experience was pretty amazing, but not without a couple hiccups.
We went during the rainy season in February so the normal contrast of green cover karst cliffs with the beautiful blue water you normally see in pictures wasn’t quite the experience we had, but even clouds and fog can’t mask the beauty of this UNESCO World Heritage site.
In some ways the rainy weather made for a beautiful scene you don’t normally see. The scenery reminded me of Hawaii meets Seattle.
Cruises to Ha Long bay is quite the industry in Vietnam and from my own research and experience it’s very clear not all tours are created equally nor all prices the same (even with the same company.)
How can you make sure you aren’t being taken advantage of here is a list of some Do’s and Don’ts.
Research. Ask around. While you are in Hanoi, take the time to stop in a couple different offices. You’ll quickly see most people are offering the same tour. Go with the best one you see at the same price or relatively the same price ($120 vs. $130). If you find one company offering something spectacular for much lower than you’ve seen and it seems too good to be true it probably is.
Ask your hotel.–Or Don’t. If you stay in a hotel in Hanoi (which I highly recommend if you are a couple $20 can get you an amazing room and is the same cost as a double room in a hostel.) ask your hotel for their prices. If they are higher than what you’ve previously been quoted show them what you’ve found and they may match. If its a bit higher ($5-$10) it may still be worth it to go with your hotel as they may guarantee the trip. We ended up being unsatisfied with the final day of our trip due to the guide yelling at fellow tour members. We reported this back to our hotel (The Golden Palace) and were refunded a small portion of the trip cost ($20).
This refund, however, came at a cost. First we had to talk to another guide from our trip apologize for her co-worker for 20+ minutes. She was basically just repeated herself and justifying his actions. Then next day, the tour manager who happened to be our third guide came and apologized some more. After another 20 minutes he asked us to give the refund back as he explained it would come out of our guide’s pocket.
So long story short, the hotel may protect you, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have to work for it and at the end of the day $20 wasn’t worth hearing the justification of their actions for another minute.
Do a booze Cruise.–Or Don’t. If you plan to drink on your cruise a booze cruise may help save the wallet. We weren’t planning to party on our trip, but some festive Germans quickly influenced us otherwise. 1 night of partying on a boat with inflated drink prices can quickly add to your overall cruise cost. Our total bar bill (+ the hidden cost of the James Bond Cave) came to 2 Billion Dong (about $100). Even if we knew we would have partied the first night we would have stuck with the cruise we did or another more mellow one. We definitely didn’t feel like drinking on day 2 or 3 and from what I’ve read that’s basically impossible on the booze cruise + the other tourists on the booze cruises tend to be a young rowdy backpacker crowd. I wouldn’t call myself old, but I definitely don’t fit the later category anymore.
Stick with your gut. When you find the cruise you want to go with, make sure that’s the one you do. We originally planned to do a 3 day 2 night cruise with the 2nd night being on Monkey Island. After booking we were told the Monkey Island bungalows were unavailable for our dates but that we could stay on Cat ba island and do a day visit to Monkey Island. Another tour company had the trip we wanted, but we went with our hotel because they guaranteed that their cruise company was very highly respected. (Obviously their guarantee wasn’t worth much in the end!) In hind site I would have done Monkey Island. We hated Cat Ba. The town seems to be set up just for tourist cruises and isn’t very nice. The hotel we stayed, while not the worst we’ve seen was highly disappointing and the food was pretty mediocre. We’ll never know if Monkey island was better, but I would have felt better knowing what I wanted was lame vs. being let done by my 2nd choice.
Bring extra cash. The ATMs in Ha Long bay and Cat Ba island are unreliable. Some only take Visa (our debit is a MasterCard). Another was broken. If you can’t pay your bills you will either be threatened and yelled at the whole way home, or actually thrown off the bus. We saw both happen.
Don’t: Try to out think the Vietnamese. If you have a bill, pay it. They will not hesitate to throw you off the bus. It’s too bad because most of the guides are very honest, but a few walk a fine line. We got charged 100,000 dong to go through a James Bond Cave we didn’t go through. Its unclear to me who we were actually paying this fee to as we never saw our guide pay anyone. At the end of the day though it isn’t worth arguing, because as I said we saw tourists get thrown off the bus and left to fend for themselves.
Don’t: Switch up your Itinerary. The gentleman who got thrown off the bus made the mistake of upgrading his tour from a 2 day/1 night to a 3 day/ 2 night. He was thrown off the bus when he refused to pay the fare to Cat Ba town for what he claimed to be the 3rd time. If you upgrade, rather than having a package the guides will work to nickel and dime you and apparently aren’t honest about the money they collect.
Don’t: Be afraid to skip your free meal and eat at a local restaurant. By the 2nd day, we were pretty tired of the poorly cooked western food being served on our cruise. Rather than eat fried fish with green flakes again, we opted to buy some local Pho for 60,000 Dong ($3). I’m happy to say we’ve gotten over eating something just because it’s free! 🙂
Anyways, there are some do’s and don’ts. I probably sound like a debbie downer, but that’s only because we were slightly let down. Maybe it was the time of year, maybe we should have sprung for a better tour. I think the biggest issue is we should have not trusted our hotel. The Vietnamese are good sales people and I definitely got taken. I don’t think we got ripped off as everywhere else offered the same trip for the same cost, but I should have trusted my gut and gone to Monkey Island.
Regardless, Ha Long Bay is gorgeous and you should definitely do it if you are ever in Vietnam!
We arrived at Ha Long Bay after a very long (4 hours!) bus ride from Hanoi. Per Vietnamese tours, we had a stopover at a very expensive souvenir shop. Tom has a theory that all tours are taken to these over priced souvenir shops to price anchor “cheaper” inflated prices back in the city.
Anyways, we were a little disappointed by the flat white fog hiding all the Karst cliffs, but still excited to set sail. We boarded a smaller transport boat and were quickly taken to our Ha Long Junk!
Within a few minutes of boarding we were off, and happy to see the fog was beginning to burn off.
The first stop of the day was Surprise Cave.
Anyways, we retired from our kayaking adventure and returned to the boat just in time for Happy Hour (buy 2 get 1 free) and dinner. Happy Hour turned into happy night as we had a great time switching up playlists with the French and German group on board. It was definitely a fun dance party!
The second day, after breakfast and a short sail we hit Cat Ba island.
We were shuttled to shore and waited for about 10 Vietnamese minutes (45+) for a bus to take us to Cat Ba National Park where we did a “rather unexpected, but difficult hike” -King Tom on the Road another blogger described it pretty well. It really wasn’t that bad. Pretty short, but it was basically straight up and given that it was written no where in our itinerary it was kind of unexpected. I was wearing Jeans and flip flops and would have dressed otherwise had I known. We saw an older woman and slightly overweight man swearing and cussing on the way down.
The hike is optional, but rather than sit an have a Vietnamese Coffee we set off with the group. 1000m down the road we found a restaurant selling Pho. Having had a very mediocre breakfast of 1 egg and a slice of white bread, we were starved and still a little hungover from our night of dancing with our French and German tourmates. We decided to break from the group for a proper lunch. Finishing up, we hurried to catch up and summited a little bit after our group.
Reaching the main town of Cat Ba, we were a little disappointed. The town itself was pretty dinky and obviously built as a place to bring tourists. We did enjoy a Vietnamese coffee at a local coffee shop.
The highlight of day 2 was our quick visit to Monkey Island. We took a short 15 minute boat from Cat Ba to what supposedly was Monkey Island. I didn’t see any bungalows so I have no idea if it was the same Monkey Island we were supposed to visit, but we saw monkeys and the view was gorgeous so I was happy!
The last day we were given a “cooking class!” We were briefly shown how to mix up the ingredients and roll spring rolls!
The bus ride home seemed to be never ending, especially because at this point the guide had begun yelling at the Germans every 3o minutes to pay up. They weren’t able to pay their bar bill because the atm’s weren’t accepting their card. They had explained this to the guide, but it seemed get lost in translation. I’m not sure where he thought they would randomly get money as our van was driving, but it didn’t stop him from yelling at them every so often, which would cause them to start talking loud and fast in German followed by the guides talking loud and fast in Vietnamese. Overall it was pretty miserable. I wouldn’t recommend going with Halong Dugong.
Have you been to Ha Long Bay? What was your experience like?
Would you like to go? Leave us a comment below and tell us what you think!