If you’re a fan of cruising around on a boat while enjoying beautiful scenery then Halong Bay is for you. All around Hanoi there are probably a hundred different tourist offices offering packages to Halong Bay. These packages come in three levels, standard, deluxe and luxury. For a three day two night cruise with a stopover on Cat Ba island (only inhabited island located within Halong Bay), these all inclusive packages can range anywhere from 37 to 300 dollars a person. The daily itineraries are pretty much the same regardless of what you pay and the nicer packages typically include better accommodations and food. At each tourist office you go to agents show you brochures of brand new boats that are called junks (traditional style Chinese sailboat). They all tell you that your boat will look exactly like the picture but in actuality unless you splurge for the luxury package your boat will look very little like the photos. Nevertheless we (I booked the trip with 9 other people that I knew) decided that for about twice the price of a standard boat it was worth the extra money to upgrade to the deluxe package.
Halong City (jump off point for Halong Bay cruises) is located about 170km from Hanoi and all of the packages usually include the 4 hr. bus ride there. When we arrived in Halong I was surprised to see that there were over a hundred boats in the bay. Its no wonder there were so many different options in Hanoi. Our junk, called the Black Pearl, was located about 300m offshore and we had to take a smaller 30ft boat over to it. On the way over to the junk we discovered that with the exception of two other girls, our group would be the only people aboard. In essence we had our own private cruise. Once aboard we were given our rooms and served a bountiful 7 course lunch. Though the quality of the food throughout the trip was only average, I could never complain that it was lacking in quantity.
Each meal was served family style and typically included 2 seafood courses, rice, a vegetable, a western dish (french fries or onion rings), chicken or beef and a fruit. After lunch we then began our cruise over to “Surprise Cave.” The cave itself was really cool and discovered only 100 years ago but it has lately become so touristy that it distracts from its beauty. The whole cave is lit up by large electric lights, there are man-made sidewalks and at every turn there is a different vendor trying to sell you something. During the short 30 min that we were there I probably saw over 1000 tourists. Following the cave we were given the chance to kayak around the bay and visit a floating fishing village. After that we returned to our boat for some swimming and an incredible sunset.
Dinner was served around 7 and was followed by an attempt at karaoke by our guide Tim. It was kind of sad because he was so nice and wanted to everyone to join him but at that point everyone was lacking the necessary liquid courage. However, we brought out some playing cards and got everyone on the boat to play Kings. Three hours later we were dying to sing but the crew told us it was already too late so we were forced to make it an early night.
The next day we were woken up early to heavy rains and reluctantly forced to leave the boat and make our way to Cat Ba island for our second day and night. When we got onto the island we were told that in spite of the rain we were going to do a short 2 hour hike into the Kim Giao National Forest for a panoramic view of the island. The majority of Cat Ba is a National Park so at the top we really did get a pretty spectacular view. Coming back down however, I broke off from my group and ran into a group of about 20 Vietnamese high schoolers. I couldn’t tell if they were making fun of me or were just amazed at the novelty of a westerner but either way they made me take like 30 photos with them. As we made our way over to our hotel we soon discovered that besides great views there really isn’t that much to do on Cat Ba. While there are a few beaches, considering the rain it really didn’t sound that appealing. The rest of the day was spent doing pretty much nothing and if I could do it again I’d probably recommend skipping the extra day on Cat Ba.
On our last day we didn’t really do much either and the majority of the day was spent making our way back to Halong City and then Hanoi. We returned to Hanoi around 5 and spent the rest of the day around the city before catching an 11pm overnight train down to Hue.