When you visit Vietnam you are probably considering a trip to Halong Bay (We’ve also talked about our experience during a short interview with Halong Hub .). Now recognised as a Unesco Site, the beauty of those limestone karst mountains rising up out of the water will likely have stuck in your mind if you’ve ever happened upon images on television or the internet. But here is the deal… Halong has been getting a bad rap in the past few years. Due to massive (and careless) tourism, the water has become polluted and the boats departing each day have multiplied, and all seem to take the same route. Add to the picture the many scams and dubious tour operators, that could well leave you with a seafaring experience unparalleled in it’s misery since the day Calamity James the Titanic survivor boldly booked his ticket aboard the Lusitania. You really need to choose carefully. So should you still consider Halong as a must-do when visiting Vietnam and is it worth your time and energy? It is, there are just a few things you need to consider.
Luxury cruises are the way to go.
I know. Here at Orient Excess we usually do all we can to extol the virtues of budget travel, but trust us, this is one part of your adventure where cheap does not equal cheerful. And when you’ve already come so far to experience such an incredible place, don’t throw it all away to save a few pennies. Especially when the monetary difference between sublime luxury and crushing disappointment will likely be less than $100.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you should take the most expensive option either. If you happen to be a Saudi Prince or a Russian oil baron, then doubtless there are tours available for you, resplendent in the provision of their gold plated lavatory seats and raw silk toilet paper. But for us mere mortals, meaningful luxury is available, and at prices that won’t necessarily mean re-mortgaging your home or selling both of your kidneys.
Around $200 per person will get you a two day cruise in one of the world’s most picturesque locations, a plush private cabin with a bathroom and ocean view, and high quality meals included (drinks are however, not included in the price. This goes for most of the tours we looked at and drinks prices aren’t cheap either, so keep this in mind and either budget for it or fill your backpack at the supermarket before boarding). These more expensive tours usually also feature a different itinerary, meaning you’ll get to see the sights before or after the hordes of cheaper tours, and might mean anchoring overnight in a more scenic and secluded location, away from the party boats.
The tour will also include visits to some impressive caves, floating pearl farming communities and various activities on board ship such as cooking classes, night-time squid fishing, and tai-chi lessons in the morning as the sun rises.
If you really do insist on taking a cheaper option however, do some research online. We met with so many travellers recounting horror stories because they’d just gone for the lowest price offered on Ha Long pier. These included; dirty cabins with no view and shared bathrooms, terrible food (or being made to pay for meals despite being assured in advance that it was included in the price), noisy boats with all night discos (maybe that’s your thing though. . . ), and others that visited no sites whatsoever but simply sailed a few miles in to the bay, and stayed there until the next morning. Read reviews online from other travellers, look for established tour companies with a real ‘bricks & mortar’ office, and be sceptical of the photos shown to you by touts, they often bear no resemblance to the boat or cabin you’ll end up with.
Head to Cat Ba Island.
Located not far from Halong town, Cat Ba Island is a cheap and great option for a view of the bay. From there you can find a few companies offering day trips kayaking around the nearby bay. Off season, the island is somehow quiet and if you come with your own transport or rent a motorbike (as little as $5 per day) you’ll get a chance to go find some secluded beaches, observe a few caves or even hike for a while in the national park that covers a large part of the island.
Cat Ba is more attractive for a bit of adventure or party life and might sound awful to people that are just looking for a relaxing time, but with nights at less than 15USD for a room, you might as well give it a shot if all you want is a cheaper look into the limestone scenery of Vietnam.
Getting to Cat Ba is fairly easy from Hanoi, get a bus but make sure to buy a return. If you are coming by motorbike then be aware that you’ve got to get to the proper ferry in Halong to load your bike. Further from Haiphong you’ll find a second ferry terminal that will load you up for a cheap price. Be also aware that on the way back you might have to take a few different ferries to get back to Halong (we ended up riding on 2 different ferries, one much smaller than the other and clearly there just for motorbikes).
We really enjoyed Cat Ba. After our cruise we decided to go check it out an hopped on a big ferry surrounded by buses loaded with Vietnamese tourists that were happy to check out our good old bike and take a few photos with us.
Once on the island, we spent our time exploring on the bike and checking out remote beaches used by local fisherman. Robb’s favourite experience was probably finding a cave and being handed a key and a torch by the local guard, who then pointed us in the direction of the entrance and left us to navigate this six kilometre long subterranean labyrinth by ourselves. I’ve seen too many horror movies and didn’t stay down there for long, but Robb as usual ventured forth humming the Indiana Jones theme tune, and fully prepared to do battle with any Molemen, Morlocks or prehistoric troglodytes that might be encountered.
A few things if you are considering going to Cat Ba:
If you can avoid it, don’t bother spending a night in the town of Halong, there is really not much to it.
Shop for hotels once in town and make sure to check the room and haggle over the price when off season.
Spend a few days there, take a trip kayaking and maybe enjoy the beach for a day or two.
A conclusion? If you’re in Vietnam then don’t skip Halong on account of the bad press it’s been getting, simply plan this part carefully and come back home with some wonderful memories. Vietnam is a fantastic place that deserves happy stories and better publicity. Halong will forever have a special place in my heart.
What about you? Have you ever been to Halong Bay or are you considering a trip there? Tell us everything in the comments!
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