Halong Bay is one of the “must dos” in Southeast Asia. Located in the Gulf of Tonkin, the bay is famous for abrupt karst rock formations caused by millions of years of geomorphology (thanks google) that jut out of the sea beautifully and randomly. The rock formations and resulting caves are uninhabitable and have thus been largely untouched, which adds to their appeal.
What haven’t been untouched, however, are the surrounding waters littered with cruise boats shuttling armies of tourists to visit the region from nearby Hanoi. The second we set foot in the Vietnamese capital, we were inundated with hoards of booking agents, intoxicated by the sight of fresh tourist blood to generate commission fees from booking a cruise trip. After spending 20+ hours and an overnight on two buses en route from Hoi An, we were anxious to find a room and crash for a few hours and were thankful when we found one fairly quickly.
But the hounding didn’t stop at our guesthouse…
After agreeing on a price for the night and settling in to our room, the guesthouse owner proceeded to tell us we couldn’t stay there unless we booked our Halong Bay cruise through her. Alison and I immediately laughed in her face, which did the trick in conveying how ridiculous this was and that we would book through whoever we damn well pleased if she wanted us to stay there. If we weren’t so exhausted we would have immediately left, but we didn’t have the energy to repack and reluctantly handed over our passports (most Vietnamese guesthouses require them as payment insurance) after getting past the cruise hocus pocus.
You should go to Halong Bay, but realize YOU ARE GOING TO BE SCAMMED
Booking a cruise in Halong Bay is a crap shoot. There are literally hundreds of booking agents and dozens of operators offering primarily one, two, and three day options ranging from $25/ day up to over $200/ day per person. We spent a fair amount of time researching the operators to decide on the handful of companies we’d be comfortable with and went to 5 or 6 booking agents until we found one that booked cruises for one of the options we liked.
We’d soon find out this was a complete waste of time.
As it turned out, we ended up on a cruise with a completely different operator than we’d booked, on a boat that couldn’t have been more different than the pictures showed to us by the booking agent, and the majority of the activities that were “included” in the trip were definitely not included. Such is Asia.
What we were told the boat would look like…
Actual pictures of our boat…
After getting past the initial feeling of being scammed, the only thing left to do was enjoy the beautiful scenery and make some new friends, which was easy to do given the surroundings, affable cruise mates, and copious amounts of Crown Royal.
SO HOW SHOULD I GO ABOUT BOOKING A CRUISE TO HALONG BAY?
If you book a Halong Bay trip chances are very high you are going to get scammed. But you have to go there because it’s gorgeous. And you have to accept the scamming as part of the experience. Ignore the pictures in the catalogs, the review forums on tripadvisor, and even the advice of fellow travelers. The more you pay, the more relative luxury you will receive. Negotiate heavily as the agents take heavy commissions. You will inevitably end up on a different boat with a different company than you expected. But if you pay more, you will get more (generally). Most importantly, just go with whatever happens and if you don’t like the boat, just look around at the amazing scenery with a cocktail in hand. And try the muddy oysters.