Halong Bay is one of the main attractions every tourist in Vietnam visits. We decided to book a tour to Halong Bay from Hanoi, like most other people do. We asked the reception at our hostel ( Little Hanoi Hostel) for some information and tips. They had lots of tour companies to choose from and gladly arranged the booking. If you book two tours (we also did a tour to Sapa) and dare to ask, they may give you a (small) discount as well.
Of all the tour companies and tour packages our hostel suggested, we chose a two day (one night) trip with Galaxy Cruises: medium length, medium expensive. You can also book a day trip or a three day (two night) trip, depending on the time you have and the things you want to see. We paid $125 per person, which included pickup from our hostel, transportation to Halong Bay, one night on the boat, food (not drinks) and some activities.
Between 7h30 and 8h00, you will be picked up at your ho(s)tel by a small bus that will take you to Halong Bay. It is a four hour drive with one stop at a workplace for disabled people where you can buy handmade works of art of all kinds, clothes, jewellery and of course food and drinks. There is a (free) clean toilet and a lot to see. Hung, our guide, told us a lot about Halong Bay on the way over there, such as the best time to visit: September till November. Later, it will be wet, and from June to August there’s a lot of chance on tropical storms (up to 12 a year). He also told us some random facts, like what the yellow patches on the street are (drying rice). He was passionate and eager to answer all our questions, even the silly ones.
At about 12h we arrived at the Hon Gai Pier from where we took a small boat to the “cruise ship”. We had time to quickly freshen up before enjoying a lunch buffet on the boat while leaving the port. The food was OK, there was plenty of choice, but no drinks included. We got a free bottle water before each activity and a bottle each in our room, but maybe not a bad idea to bring some water of your own, like we did. When you buy a (small) bottle of water in the bar on the boat, it costs you $1, a coke $2 and a beer $2.5. After lunch we had some free time and did some reading on the sundeck. In the meantime we were cruising between the little islands spread all around Halong Bay, so we could admire the view and take some great pictures.
At 15h30 we were ready to do some kayaking. Best to bring as little as possible. We only took our bathing clothes, each a T-shirt and our (waterproof) GoPro camera, no flipflops. You get a life vest and a bottle of water and that’s all you need. We went kayaking for about 45 minutes, alongside the limestone islands, through dark tunnels and into a kind of lagoon, surrounded by green. Someone even saw a monkey there (or at least claimed to have seen it). We had a great time! At least when Brecht wasn’t juggling the kayak.
When we arrived back to the little pier where we started our kayaking trip, they told us to take a swim there if we wanted. A bit of a strange situation, just jumping of that little pier in the (unfortunately not so clear) water. Nevertheless a cool dive was welcome, so we and a couple of others from our group jumped in the water. The fun lasted only 15 minutes, it was time to head back to the boat.
We got about 40 minutes to take a shower and get ready for dinner. At 18h10 there was a “party” at the sundeck. We got a (small) glass of delicious Vietnamese red wine and some fresh fruit while getting to know the other passengers on the boat. Dinner was again an elaborate buffet in the restaurant, the food was nice. We found out there was WiFi on board, but the 3G connection seemed to be faster. We drank a beer on the sundeck, enjoying the beautiful lights and other boats in the overnight anchorage. We tried our luck with squid fishing, but never caught one. We did catch some shrimp! From dinner. Together with some coriander, tomato and a plastic bag.
Time to get some sleep, as we wanted to join the Tai Chi lesson at 6h30 in the morning. They told us to be on the sundeck at 6h10 to see the sunrise. When we woke at 6h00, the sun was unfortunately already shining. The Tai Chi lesson took only about 15 minutes. Probably not worth loosing sleep over. At 7h00 breakfast was served: toast, cornflakes, cookies, fruit, juices, water, coffee and tea.
At 7h30 we boarded the tender to head to the Surprise Cave (Hang Sửng Sốt). Wear comfortable shoes you can walk an hour on and bring a camera. You get a bottle of water from your guide before entering the caves. They told us we had to go early to avoid long waiting times. Don’t know what the waiting times at other hours are, but there were an awful lot of people and we climbed the stairs to the cave one step at a time, more waiting than ascending. Our group got split up and we wandered through the caves, following the stream of people, stopping here and there to take a photo. The Surprise Cave was a cave. Nothing more to say about it actually, not really an added value to the trip as it was way too crowded.
Arriving back at the boat, it was time to pack our things and check out of our room. At 9h45 there was a cooking class where we made Vietnamese spring rolls. There were a lot of people and only a small table, but enough stuffing for everyone to make a spring roll or two. While we were rolling, the lunch buffet was being set up. Our last meal on the boat, while cruising back to the pier through Bai Tu Long Bay (I didn’t notice the difference).
We had to wait a while for the bus that would drive us back to Hanoi to arrive, but luckily we’d made some friends and could talk the time away. Arriving back at our hostel somewhere between 17h00 and 18h00, we had little more than three hours to get ready for our next tour: hiking in Sapa. More about this adventure in our next blogpost.
Overall we were pleased with the service of Galaxy Cruises, but a cheaper option would probably have been equally satisfying. The itineraries of all tour companies are more or less the same anyway. We presume the “big” difference is the quality of the food and the cabin. We met a couple of guys that went with a cheaper tour operator and they were very pleased about the food, as well as their cabin. Most people we talked to thought the Surprise Cave a bit disappointing, but liked the kayaking. We felt like the tour was a (weaker) copy of our trip to Ang Thong National Marine Park in Thailand. There the landscape was similar, but the water was clearer, we snorkeled, and we hiked to a viewpoint instead of visiting a cave. The fact that we’ve seen Ang Thong first and the weather was nicer there, has probably a lot to do with our preference. Conclusion: when you’re traveling through Asia and want to save money, best to choose one and not do both Ang Thong National Marina Park and Halong Bay.