Halong bay is stunning, it feels like you’re floating among ancient statues that have proved their worth through the tests of time.
The only thing is that you’re also floating with hundreds of other junk boats full of every kind of tourist. We thought we’d do a tour of this UNESCO site which isn’t my usual thing but I wanted to try the typical ‘Halong bay experience’ on a junk boat. Because the fact is that this place attracts every kind of tourist you feel yourself generalized as an one of those idiot foreigners. I for the first time in my life found myself following a peppy man with a little flag on a extendable pole…
Picking a tour in Hanoi
Trying to pick a tour in Hanoi is like dealing with a thousand sleazy car dealers all selling the same brand of car just in different conditions. We ended up going with an operator in our hostel because the hostel had a good reputation they probably wouldn’t tarnish. That didn’t mean he didn’t try to screw every extra penny out of us. We went and got our quotes, bargained a little then went back with names of boats places and activities and did our research. Then went back to him and negotiated further. Before you hand over any money be sure the get in writing whats included. Get the boat name, the activities, food, entrance fees to avoid any unexpected surprises onboard. We negotiated for $90USD with a boat company called Fantasea cruises a 2day/1night package with everything but drinks included. be sure to hustle your salesman because we all paid a different price from us at 90USD to others at 130USD
The Junk Boat
The boat while not the biggest or fanciest boat in the harbor was perfectly lovely. We had a nice firm bed with big windows and ensuite bathroom. Not quite luxury but way more then I’m used to considering I live a vast time of my life in a bunkbed in some hostel. The boat had its own dining area which they turned into karaoke in the evenings. This may have just been for the staffs enjoyment but either way was fun. But the best part was the top deck which it seemed that all the overnight boats that we passed had. The whole top of the boat was full of deck chairs and offered a great place to view the mountains pass by.
We were breakfast lunch and dinner when appropriate and its was lovely food with more then enough to satisfy even any backpacker and on the second day included a cooking class (well more of a spring rolling class) The drinks on the boat weren’t cheap though but not overly expensive either 1.5USD for a beer and 5-6USD for a cocktail. Or you could just sneak a bottle of whiskey in 😉
Tours in Halong Bay
The activities for the two days kept us very well entertained. First up they just let us all stare in awe as we floated out of the dock and to the first port 3 hours into the islands. The first port for us was a clusterfuck of boats jostling to dump passengers on what seemed like a floating staircase leading to a beach, shops and then up to a view point. It was so touristy that they had installed ticketing barriers for direction. But the view from up the top was stunning and really gave us an idea of how many islands and boats surrounded us.
After that we went for a kayak in a bay with no real direction where to go from ‘Banana’ our boat guide but somehow we managed to find a beautiful cave plastered in graffiti. The evening finished with a little squid fishing which was mostly just us sitting on the back of the boat drinking a few beers and playing with bamboo sticks. One squid was caught.
The following morning we were up at 7am fed and off the boat to get to ‘Surprising Cave’ early before the hoard of people arrived. Even with this we were among hundreds of people but when you looked past the disco lighting inside and guides with little laser pointers the place was absolutely stunning! The cave is enormous and full of natural formations and despite the railings walkways and coloured lighting you can appreciate the sheer grandeur of the space. From there we cruised back and had a little lesson in spring rolling and we were off the boat by 12 for them to flip it for the new arrivals in the coming hour. we finally headed back to Hanoi in the same kind of minibus we were picked up in.
Halong bay was such a beautiful place but I just wouldn’t look too close. The footprint heavy unregulated tourism has left there is disappointing but It was the experience I expected, like seeing the great wall or the pyramids. You go there, hopefully with the understanding that this is sadly going to be ruined by tourism but is still an amazing place to experience.
Costs of the Tour of Halong Bay
Tour inc food & tours = 90usd
Beer = 1.5-2USD
Cocktail = 5-6USD