A cruise through Halong Bay is certainly the one don’t-miss thing to do when you are visiting Hanoi or northern Vietnam in general. When you research these trips you’ll quickly learn that the whole thing is a minefield full of crooked touts, broken promises, rip-offs, as well as truly amazing experiences. The bottom line always seems to be: By all means, do a trip, but don’t be surprised if things don’t turn out the way you were promised they would.
In that spirit I wanted to completely break down my recent cruise and try to answer many of the questions that aren’t handled in the overoptimistic brochures and sales pitches. There are a few things that were far nicer than I imagined, especially for the price, so let’s go over it all from start to finish and you can skip around to what interests you.
For the record, I took a trip with Cristina Cruise, which is the name of a company with several ships rather than the name of a single ship. My trip turned out great and all the price and itinerary details are below.
The main choices for Halong Bay trips:
- Day trip: You get picked up at your Hanoi hotel at 8am and get back around 8pm
- 2 days/1 night, sleeping on the boat
- 2 days/1 night, sleeping in a hotel on Cat Ba Island
- 3 days/2 nights, sleeping one night on the boat and one night on Cat Ba.
Sleeping on the boat vs. a Cat Ba hotel
Based on reading reviews and opinions from like-minded independent travelers, I eventually settled on the 2-day/1-night sleeping on the boat version. Most people agree that a day trip is better than nothing, but it’s a LONG 12-hour day, about 8 hours of which are spent on the bus ride there and back. The overnight trips are similar in price to spending another night in Hanoi anyway, so don’t think of a day trip as a money-saving device.
Most people also seem to agree that the hotels on Cat Ba are nothing special, and the novelty of having a private cabin on an “oriental junk” seemed like a big part of the appeal of the trip as well. I’ve also heard from multiple people who’d chosen the Cat Ba option that there isn’t much to do on the island, aside from quite a nice national park and nature area. If you want to experience the nature stuff then a 3-day/2-night trip with one night on Cat Ba seems very worthwhile, but if you mainly want to experience the amazing beauty of Ha Long Bay itself then the night on the boat is the better option.
Cheap trips, mid-price trips, and luxury trips
After doing tons of research (I spent two full weeks in Hanoi before going to Halong Bay), I figured out that there are 3 main categories of trips, price and luxury-wise.
- 1-star trips
- 3-star trips
- 4- and 5-star trips
All trips include: Roundtrip bus ride from Hanoi, all meals starting with lunch once you arrive in Halong Bay, the cruise itself, entrance to one of the two caves, the fee for entrance to the Halong Bay area in general, and sometimes a kayaking session and/or a swimming session.
These are the equivalent of a floating hostel, from both a price and luxury stand point. The food will be basic and the boat might be crowded and not fancy at all, but aside from those things everything else is likely to be the same as the others.
Prices: When I first arrived in Hanoi I got drunk with a British guy who worked at a hostel there and he revealed that the 1-star trips go for as little as US$30 per person if you share a cabin, though they always try to get more if they think they can. In other words, if you want the cheapest trip possible then offer $30 each and someone will eventually say yes.
Prices: I booked a 3-star overnight trip for US$53 in the end, plus $15 extra for a single supplement to get my own cabin instead of sharing one with a stranger. Another woman on my trip said she paid $68+$15, and she got the exact same thing. I haggled quite a bit in a few different places, so I’m guessing US$53 is close to the bottom (and this was in the off season), but you might get it for a bit less if you are crafty enough.
4- and 5-star trips
Once you get to this level the price jumps considerably and you get mostly package tourists and rich folks who don’t mind paying a lot more for the best of everything. Cabins and food will be even nicer and the on-board staff will be large as well.
Prices: From what I saw these started at US$100 and went way up from there. If you care about this sort of analysis then you are probably going for a 1-star or a 3-star trip anyway.
Booking online in advance vs. booking in person in Hanoi
After checking out many websites and reading various stories, it’s clear that (unlike most other travel booking) signing up for a Halong Bay trip online means paying absolute top dollar. These websites, and even the brochures in Hanoi that include prices, seem to list only the infamous “starting price.” Once you are negotiating with someone in person the price starts coming down, and you feel good about getting this “discount.”
If you want the best price then definitely book in person once you arrive in Hanoi. It seems that there are hundreds of boats available, and probably only on the absolute busiest days of the year are they anywhere near full as a group.
Where to book in Hanoi
There are literally hundreds of travel agencies in the tourist district of Hanoi, including one at the front desk of the hotel where you’ll be staying. If you walk around Hanoi you’ll find about 30 or 40 different places calling themselves Sinh Café Travel, and most of them have official-looking signs out front. Some blocks in the Old Quarter have as many as 3 of these Sinh Cafes within 20 meters or so.
The conventional wisdom is that booking at one of the travel agencies is better than booking from your hotel, partly because the agencies are experts at this and are more familiar with what is available. I actually booked through my hotel, partly because they offered me the best price on the exact same trip I’d looked at in one of the Sinh Cafes, and partly because I’d been staying there for a while so I thought they’d be unlikely to knowingly screw me over, while a random agency has little reason to be this honest.
Maybe I just got lucky, and which exact agency to book from seems to be a whole other debate. I stayed at the Prince II Hotel in the Old Quarter, and I’d recommend them as a hotel in general as well.
The full itinerary explained in detail
My cruise: Cristina Cruise – 2 days, 1 night, sleeping on the boat
Price: US$53+US$15 extra for a private cabin as a single
The bus ride
They tell you that the bus comes “at 8am” but you might be waiting until 9am depending on where you are on their route. During this hour the Old Quarter and other hotel districts are jammed with similar tour buses trundling around picking up passengers.
I piled into a 26-seat bus that was mostly filled with people going on the day trip from the same company. By the time we’d picked up the last people the bus had about 28 passengers, but a few jump seats appeared so everyone was seated with no room to spare.
As we drove, the main tour guide introduced herself and welcomed us to Vietnam, and then after a short speech she awkwardly asked each passenger to introduce ourselves with our name and where we were from. The bus was too noisy to properly hear people more than a few rows from you, but I suppose it did give us a bit of a group feeling anyway.
After we crossed the river to leave Hanoi proper, we were on a 4-lane highway for about 30 minutes more, and then we turned off onto a 2-lane road that passes combinations of rice fields and towns all the way to Ha Long City. This main road technically had two lanes, but of course in Vietnam, like so many other places, lanes mean nothing. Honest to god, our driver spent at least half the drive in the oncoming lane, only moving to the right when something bigger than a motorbike was coming in the other direction.
It was almost 9am before we left Hanoi for good. Around 10:15am the bus pulled into one of those large air-conditioned souvenir malls that will be very familiar to people who’ve taken tours anywhere in the world. We all disembarked and had about 20 minutes to use the toilet, buy snacks or drinks from the snack stand, or buy generic Vietnam souvenirs for about double what you’d pay anywhere else.
Back on board around 10:40am and then it was just before noon that we pulled up in front of the main passenger entrance to the harbor. Even with the stop and the pleasant scenery along the way, I’d been in the bus for well over 3 hours and it felt every minute of that. I immediately felt a bit sorry for the portion of the bus who’d be riding back the same way only 4 hours later, which is another reason I’m glad I didn’t go the day-trip route.
Getting on board the boat
The main harbor is small compared to cruise-ship harbors, but still it’s very busy at this point in the morning as there are literally hundreds of boats moored there, some about to pull out and others just tied up off shore waiting for another day.
The day-trip boats and boats that only take people to Cat Ba seem to be small enough that they can pull right into the landing area, but the larger boats that people sleep aboard seem to be too large for the landing area so many of them take their passengers out on tenders (smaller boats used to shuttle people and things out to larger boats).
The day-trip group from my bus had gone on a separate boat, and my overnight group had been given a guide of our own. He herded us down the harbor-front a bit, and then pointed to the tender that we’d soon be very familiar with. The weird part here is that the tenders pull up to a series of steep steps, which closely resemble an Indian ghat, and can seem a bit treacherous if you have much luggage. We all made it onto the tender safely, and within a few seconds we were on our way out to our main boat, which we’d reach in about five minutes.
Getting settled on board
Our boat, which is one of the Cristina Cruise ships, had a maximum capacity of 24 passengers and 9 cabins, but we only had 11 in our group. We were instantly seated at two tables for six, and our guide introduced himself, frequently saying that we “had a small group but would have a big adventure.” We each were presented with a small glass of orange soda, and a few minutes later we were each given the key to our cabins.
My cabin happened to be right behind the bar at the back of the dining room, but most other people were on the level below. We were told to put our stuff away and then report right back for lunch. I was quite happy with Cabin 7. It was small, as you’d expect on a boat, but the bed was very comfortable, one wall was all windows, and the bathroom was fairly large.
The photo to the right is of my cabin. It felt somewhat fancy inside and having the amazing view out the windows while lying in bed was wonderful. I saw a few of the cabins on the lower floor later on and they were larger than this by quite a bit. Some rooms had two or three twin or double beds, but mine had just this queen-size bed. There’s also quite a large bathroom through a door just to the right once you walk into the room (so the bathrooms are all en-suite). It was one of those where the whole room becomes the shower, even though it was about 2 meters long by 1 meter wide.
A 3-star lunch
In spite of there being four 6-seat tables in the dining room, we always used only two, keeping the same seats at each meal for our group of 11. After putting our stuff in our rooms we came back for lunch, and I was pleasantly surprised. After we each got a small bowl of soup, things turned buffet-style, with a series of dishes being put into the middle of each table, and diners being able to serve themselves whatever they fancied.
I’m known as a big eater, and this was seriously a lot of food. It was all freshly cooked in the kitchen downstairs, and it seemed almost comical how much food kept coming out. There were pork and chicken dishes but also several seafood courses, including one large baked fish for us all to split up.
In my two weeks in Hanoi before this cruise, I’d had many great and simple meals, usually spending around US$2 to US$4 for my main course. By comparison, this meal alone would probably be worth between US$10 and US$15. I’d heard several times that the difference between a 1-star and a 3-star trip was a nicer boat and better food. This lunch definitely felt a bit posh so there is definitely a difference.
By the way, while the passengers ate at our tables, our guide and the ship’s crew (a total of 5 people) ate their own basic lunch at a round table nearby. We were still anchored out in the harbor, with the tender tied up alongside the big boat.
Right after lunch, probably a bit after 1pm, the boat began moving toward the small islands that were already visible in the distance. I went up to the open-air (and large) deck on top of the boat, to take in the scenery and begin taking photos. I didn’t want to miss a thing so I was a bit surprised that many in my group stayed in the dining area and some actually played cards.
The islands went by at more than a kilometer or so away. I took quite a few photos anyway, but it turns out that I could have waited. The boat isn’t fast, so about 10 kilometers and an hour after getting into motion, we entered a very dense area filled with islands, and this is really where the fun begins, scenery-wise. It was a bit foggy and hazy on this February day, but from what I hear it’s foggy and hazy nearly every day of the year, and the haze makes the place look a bit more magical and unusual anyway.
The photo to the right is the upper deck of my ship. Since I was there in mid February and it was about 18C/66F outside and a bit windy, it wasn’t utilized too much, but I believe that like 8 or 9 months of the year have quite warm weather in Halong Bay so most of the time it would be great to be up in the breeze with fantastic views in every direction.
The activities begin
The itinerary for this trip, and for all the trips that I saw, said it included a visit to a cave, kayaking, and swimming (though all were optional). I was a bit surprised by how it went down, which is one reason I thought I’d explain it all here for anyone who was curious.
The boat cruised past a small beach area on one island, and a few minutes later stopped near one of the famous floating villages in the area. The crew put the anchor down, and within a minute or so two small rowboats had come up alongside us with local women wanting to know if any of the passengers wanted to buy any extra food, drinks, or souvenirs. No one did, though I imagine it would have been cheaper than the alcohol on board (we’ll get to that below).
We were then instructed to climb back aboard the tender, which had been towed alongside the main boat the whole time. It turns out that these 3 activities (cave, kayaking, swimming) would all be done consecutively, and they are all very close to each other. We were told that we’d spend about an hour doing each, or waiting for others to do them, so we’d be gone for about 3 hours.
Visit to Surprise Cave
Its real name is Sung Sot Cave, and it’s located on Bo Hon Island, but it’s commonly called Surprise Cave. This was a cruise and it included a cave tour, so I had no idea just how it would go down. Would the boat float through the cave? Would we get in a smaller boat that would float through the cave? Would we walk through it or kayak though it?
It turns out you walk through it, but it’s not quite that simple. The tender dropped us at a small dock in front of the cave entrance, and after our guide got us all past the ticket window, we climbed up maybe 100 jagged stairs without the help of hand rails. It seems safe enough, especially in dry weather, but if you don’t get along well with climbing, or you take your grandparents, then be warned that it’s a bit of a challenge. We past a few people in other groups who were struggling.
Once you enter the first part of the cave you climb down some stairs and then back up and down over the course of the one-hour visit inside. There are 3 different “rooms” inside Surprise Cave, the first being the smallest and most modest.
At least to me, the surprise was how amazing these caves were. I’ve toured quite a few caves and these are some of the most impressive I’ve ever even heard of, much less seen. Considering this was a compulsory part of a budget bay tour I didn’t expect much, but this was actually even more impressive than the crazy scenery that surrounds it, though it’s only an hour tour inside so it’s over before you know it.
Our cruise guide was also our tour guide in the caves, and it was a bit of a problem dodging the dozens of other groups inside at the same time. To me the worst part of this experience was that our guide spent the entire time discussing Vietnamese legends and pointing out rock formations that vaguely resemble animals if you squint and use your imagination, and he never discussed anything about the caves mind-boggling geological features or its age or how it came to be or anything else like that. I’ve been on other cave tours that also focused on rock shapes instead of earth science, so I guess many people prefer it that way.
After we finally exited the cave we were still way above water level, and a series of wooden walkways leading to piers where the boats are docked provide the best views of Halong Bay available anywhere. The photo below is one you might recognize, as it’s sort of the cliché shot, but it’s a stunning location nonetheless.
Now on to kayaking
The tender cruised only a few minutes over to a spot on one of the floating villages in this small bay area. We docked and jumped off, and anyone who was interested was able to put on a life vest and hop in a two-person kayak for a paddle around the area. We were told we’d have about an hour, and two groups of two decided to do it. The others in the group had a seat on the main dock area, where a vendor was selling drinks and snacks, and another was trying to sell some polished conch shells.
This day was fairly cool and misty, which is normal for February in Halong Bay, so splashing around in the water was not as tempting as it might have been on a steamy summer day. Also, with maybe 45 minutes in the water at the most, it seems like you can’t really get too far, so it’s kind of kayaking for the sake of kayaking. If you could rent a kayak for half a day then it might be really fun to go off and explore some hidden parts of the area, but in this short of time it was just doing a few circles in this fairly crowded part of the bay.
In around an hour, it was about 4pm, and we were climbing back aboard the tender for our ride to the beach.
Optional swimming at the small beach
Less than 10 minutes later we arrived at this small, and possibly man-made beach area. We docked at the small pier and then walked a short distance to an area that had tables and chairs under shade and a nice beach with a volleyball court next to it. Being that the outside temperature was maybe 18C/64F, obviously no one was going swimming.
There’s a staircase behind the beach that evidently has about 450 stairs up to a viewing area near the top of this little island, and one person in my group did the climb and said it was quite a nice view up there.
While we were hanging out in the pleasant covered area a volleyball game started up among the various boat crew that were stopped there. A few of them were dressed in fancy “cabin boy” outfits, so I guess those are from the 4 and 5-star cruises.
Back to the big boat for dinner
A bit after 5pm we got back in the tender and took the short ride to where our boat was anchored out in the open water. We were told that dinner would be served at 6:30 so we could get drinks and relax or do whatever we wanted until then.
A few of us had some beers, and then we climbed into our regular seats at the tables for dinner service. It was basically an exact repeat of the lunch service, except dinner had many delicious deep-fried courses while lunch didn’t. More serving plates kept coming out so we’d all pile things on our own plates, buffet style, and once again it was an excellent meal that was embarrassingly abundant. Several seafood courses were served, but also plenty of vegetables and other meat items so even a picky eater would probably do well considering the quantities and choices.
The photo to the right is of the actual Cristina Cruise junk that I took. You can clearly see the top deck, and on the level below that is the main restaurant/lounge/bar area plus a few cabins, including mine. On the level below that were 6 more cabins. There’s a wide-open area in the front of that level where you can see the scenery ahead of you with no obstructions, and many of us hung out there quite a bit when we were going through the most scenic parts.
Drink prices on the boat
All the food plus water, tea, and coffee are included in the price of the cruise, but alcohol is extra. There was a proper bar in the corner of the dining room and it looked very well stocked, but due to the prices and the crowd on my trip, they pretty much only sold some beers and that was it.
- Beer – $2
- Wine – $35/bottle and up
- Mixed drinks – $5
Those prices are about double what you’d pay in Hanoi at decent restaurants, by the way.
After dinner activities – Fishing and karaoke
Dinner wrapped up around 7:30pm and it was long dark outside so it feels like there isn’t much to do. There’s a huge sofa by the bar and a TV, but it only was ever tuned to Vietnamese channels with a crappy picture anyway.
Our guide mentioned that fishing was possible, which sounded interesting, so we had a go at that. Basically it was 3 bamboo poles with lures on them, and a dim light shining from the back of the boat into the water. Evidently the light (cruelly, in a way) attracts fish from the area, and the lure closely resembles a tiny fish, so you can just jiggle it out in the water a bit and then hopefully yank a curious and hungry fish right out of the water with it.
I was pretty sure it was pointless, but about 10 minutes in one of the passengers who was trying actually hooked a small fish, maybe 3 inches long, and excitedly took it into the dining room. The whole fishing thing wound up shortly after that, so we were again all seated near the bar area pretending to watch local TV.
I’d read that karaoke, which is hugely popular in this part of the world, was the de facto evening activity on all of these cruises and ours was no exception. Several of us wanted to see it in action, though it was only the Vietnamese passengers who actually took part.
The guide took a few minutes getting the karaoke system to show up on the bar TV and then getting the two mics working, and it began.
We heard about 6 or 7 songs, one in English (called Boulevard – a current local hit for some reason), and then the batteries in the mics were dead. There were many English-language classic hits, including many newer songs, on the menu, so if you like karaoke and you have a good crowd then this could be fun. But in our group everyone had gone to their cabins by this time, and it wasn’t yet 9pm.
The video below shows part of the karaoke and also shows you the interior of the main restaurant/bar/lounge area. Our karaoke crew was very tame, but I’ve heard that with the right crowd (and properly working equipment) it can be very raucous.
My bed was very comfortable and there are electric outlets in the room so I plugged in and watched some things on my laptop and then did some writing. The water was calm so it was easy to get to sleep just a bit later.
We were told that breakfast was served at 7:30am and about half the group was in the dining room at this time. There was a pot of coffee and another of tea, and once seated we were presented with a mountain of white-bread toast and a plate with a stack of 1-egg omelets on it. That was all we were served for breakfast, and there was plenty of food, but it was still a little disappointing after the two incredible meals the day before.
Check out time
The boat began cruising again right after breakfast, and we were told that we get back to Ha Long City around 11am, but still we were asked to move out of our rooms by 9am so they could be cleaned. I guess since the boat is only in the harbor for an hour or so between cruises, they have to get a jump on cleaning.
The cruise back to Ha Long City
It was yet another misty day out there, so we didn’t get any nice morning lighting, but still the scenery of the little karst islands was stunning. We spent almost two hours going around Cat Ba Island (though we didn’t get close to the harbor or the hotel area), and the scenery highlight for the Vietnamese people on board was just near the very end.
Our guide pointed out a famous island that didn’t look special at all until we got part way around it, and then it actually did look like two cocks fighting, just as promised. The Vietnamese on board all snapped a bunch of photos of them with the cocks in the background, so I guess it’s a big deal in this country.
Back on dry land
We all took our luggage and climbed back into the tender for one final time, and about 10 minutes later we pulled up to the steep steps where we’d climb out and head toward a nearby restaurant for lunch. The place was maybe 100 meters down the road, across the street, and once we walked in it was obvious that this place was there only for the big tour groups.
This restaurant had probably 100 big tables that each seat 8 people, in a total of three rooms. We were herded to a table in one of the smaller rooms, and then given the chance to buy cheap drinks from a cart that came by. The lunch was included but not the drinks.
We were seated around 11:30am but lunch wasn’t served until noon. The service style was exactly the same, with each person having a small plate and a bowl, and then serving dish after serving dish coming out with various appetizers and main courses.
To me it seemed like this food was a step down in quality and freshness from what we were served on the boat. They must have an enormous kitchen in the back so they probably make these dishes in huge quantities in advance instead of freshly in small quantities on the boat. Still, there was more than enough food for everyone so no one would go hungry.
The bus ride back to Hanoi
By around 1pm we were outside waiting for our bus back to Hanoi, and we didn’t know what to expect. We came the day before on a day-trip bus, and by this point our group was down to only 6 people thanks to some people having other plans, but still we ended up on another packed bus going home. Evidently the company that runs the Cristina Cruise tours is called AST, and our guide works for them and they own quite a few buses and run quite a few other boats, so we were mixed back in with people from other cruises for the ride home.
The ride home was exactly like the ride there in reverse. At about the halfway point we stopped for 20 minutes at the exact same souvenir warehouse/snack bar place.
Once back in Hanoi we stopped at all the needed hotels, and I was among the last off.