We knew we had to see Halong Bay. It’s tall limestone islands poke out of the water creating a breathtaking scenery. Its hard to imagine we discussed taking Northern Vietnam out of our travel plan. It felt like time was running short and we hate to rush. We are glad we decided to keep it in.
Booking a Ha Long Bay tour is a crap shoot. We arrived in Hanoi and planned to book it somewhere, we just didn’t where or how. Its not hard to find a place, every hotel and tourist agency (literally on every corner) will be happy to do it for you. You just don’t know what you will get until you’re loaded on the boat. Package tours don’t appeal to us much anyway. It is possible to tour the bay and book everything individually but we weren’t sure the hassle was worth the reward in this case.
Unless you pay big bucks for high end luxury, what you will find are the same basic options everywhere. Castaways Tour is an exception to this rule, its a highly recommended, booze fuelled, young backpacker party cruise. An expensive option at around $220 CAD but sounds like a blast if your looking for a party. The tours are almost always on a “Junk Boat”, a traditional Chinese sail boat turned cruise boat. We decided to take our chance with a mid range tour suggested by our guesthouse. You can pay as low as $50 for a 2 day trip, but we paid $105 per person. We were advised not to go with the cheapest, jumping up to the next price bracket supposedly gets you a worthwhile increase in food and service quality.
Our trip included transportation to and from Hanoi (3 hours), all our meals, one night stay on the boat, one night stay on Cat Ba Island and all the fun activities thrown in. Of course the boat didn’t match the pictures or description provided by the guesthouse. But it wasn’t horrible. We had a group of about 20 people, close to what a typical Junk Boat can accommodate. The food was decent. Overall no major complaints, we made the best of it. The crew was good and our ship mates were fun. We will let the pictures tell the rest of the story.
Of course the highlight was the views while cruising the waters.
Onboard cooking class.
Kayaking around a floating village and oyster farm.
A long sweaty mountain hike in Cat Ba Provincial Park.
Walking deep inside massive caves also on Cat Ba Island.
Exploring Cat Ba Pier area during our one night stay on the island. Its low season there so its kind of a ghost town. Bonus is we got upgraded to some sweet hotel digs.
Being dropped off at a beach on Monkey Island. Watching tourists feed or run away from the gangs of monkeys that roam the beach. These guys have definitely been exploited by the tourism. We are their source of food, and they are a source of entertainment. It was weird, yet funny. These guys even developed a taste for beer. No surprise that bites are common here. We were lucky.
Ha Long Bay is something you have to do. But surprisingly it didn’t leave us with the urge to ever do it again. There is a revolving door of travellers and the tour operators don’t need to focus on quality. We made the best of being shuffled through a cookie cutter schedule, looked past the negative things that come with big tourism, and were able to appreciate Ha Long Bay for what its meant to be.