Halong Bay is a Unesco World Heritage Site where some 3.000 islands create a picture perfect get-away in the Gulf Of Tonkin. The scenery is very romantic and your camera will snap many pictures during the cruise.
Your first contact with Halong Bay is with Tour Agents in Hanoi or other cities in Vietnam. The Tour Agents have themselves never visited Halong Bay or stayed at the accommodation they recommend. They purely base their opinion on commission and the information sent to them by the Cruise companies, hotels and resorts. The Tour Agent will show you several books with pictures of both cruise ships, accommodation and suggested itinerary. After careful screening and many questions to the Sinh Cafe Tour Agent we selected Asia Cruise 2 nights tour including an overnight stay at Monkey Island resort. We wanted to splurge so we opted for the $10 extra Deluxe accommodation at the resort. The Superior bungalows, a downgrade from Deluxe, also looked great with large rooms and nice ocean views. We paid $94 for our package which included a $11 discount. All tours except for Hanoi Backpackers ($130) are excluding drinks on the ship or in hotel/resort. They allow you to bring your own water, but soda or spirits will be confiscated or you must pay a surcharge (approx. 100.000 dong). The average party-goer will spend 2 million dong per person and others 300.000 dong. The prices range from 50.000 dong for a cocktail, 35.000 for a beer and 25.000 for a soda. There is only one ATM in Cat Ba and you have to request a stop there. Its best to go to an ATM in Hanoi or Halong City before you depart.
At 8:30 am we where picked up by a tour representative at our Guest-house. Once on the bus we where informed that Asia Cruise was fully booked and we had been transferred to Hapro Travel. The representative ensured us that the ship was in the same condition as Asia cruise and our experience would be the same, or even better than the one we had paid for. We had no problems with this transfer as the ships seem to all look the same from the pictures we had seen at the Tour Agent. One thing we did ponder over was if we had actually ended up with the correct tour group since we had specifically requested a ‘No Party’ cruise (see party cruise here) and the people in our bus where already drinking Vodka from bottles. But early into our transfer to Halong City, where the ships depart, we where told that the party crowd where going on another ship. The party crowd went on the Asia Cruise ship that we initially booked. Make sure when you book that you do not end up on a party cruise, if you do not want to of course. Most cruises are geared towards the party crowd since they spend equal value in spirits to that of the entire cost of the tour. We met a group of English girls on the day after their party cruise and they said it had been “a very, very messy cruise”.
Halong City is the gateway to Halong Bay with hundreds of ships waiting near shore for their tourists. The hotels in the area are high-rise, plain and empty.
Once on the ship we settled into our small but nice cabin. Dinner was served at 6 pm and we got acquainted with our fellow travellers. After dinner we did some squid fishing and sang Karaoke. At 10 pm the crew turned off the Karaoke and most guests went to their cabins.
Last song for the evening: Dreams with Fleetwood Mac. Did we do this song justice? Think not 🙂
The sea food dinner experience was average and the entertainment below average. If you do not eat sea food then request with the Tour Agent that you get other food. The squid fishing was more of a joke among participants as the crew stuck a long bamboo rod into our hands, pointed to the water and said “Squid”. The Squid fishing lasted in total 10 minutes as we all had a turn for 1 minute before happily giving up the bamboo rod. The Karaoke was an IKEA set-up where you make your own fun with the equipment provided. A smaller group stayed and sang favourite songs from the extensive selection provided. Our ship anchored in a bay together with 32 other ships for the overnight stay.
In the morning we where awaken at 7 am for a transfer to Cat Ba island and new adventures. In Lonely Planet Cat Ba island is described as “something straight out of Jurassic Park”. I am very sure that the author never visited Cat Ba as the island is more accurately described as “one long asphalt road connecting the other jetty”. Before we took off to ‘explore’ Cat Ba we had to wait for another group to join ours. When they did arrive, one hour late, it was the party crowd that we travelled with on the bus from Hanoi.
On the way to the other Jetty we stopped for hiking or biking near the Cat Ba National Park which was such a disappointment. We opted for the biking and where given very bad bikes near total breakdown. Most of the bikes did not have working breaks. With these bikes we cycled on one straight road, stopped, waited and turned around and cycled back on the same road. It is very unclear what the actually intention was with the biking. Maybe the Vietnamese believe that we do not have bicycles in our countries so cycling on the road, turning around and cycling back again satisfy our sense of adventure. The biking lasted for 1 hour and if you opted for the trekking they take you into to park for 1,5 hours. You where also given an option of visiting a cave which was used during the war as a hospital. For a quick walk into the cave you have to pay 20.000 dong. The entry fee is not included in the package.
From Cat Ba we where hurdled onto a smaller boat for our transfer to Monkey Island and its exclusive resort.
Monkey island resort is nothing like the pictures in the Tour Agents book or on their website. The pictures must have been taken more than 10 years ago and optimized by a Photoshop wizz-kid (see pictures on their website and compare to above). On Monkey island we went Kayaking, swimming and trekking to a nearby beach where we fed some monkeys. Monkey island is average for Vietnam standard and a dump compared to islands in Thailand. On the beach there is construction on both sides and a concrete sand-wall in the middle. The water was dark and murky with a funky smell.
The return journey to Halong City gave camera-trigger-happy travellers several opportunities for beautiful snaps of cliff formations. Its amazing what mother nature can do when we do not intervene.
Is the 2 night tour worth $94? No its not, but the most comfortable way of exploring Halong Bay is by package tour. How do you rate the accommodation? If you ignore words like ‘Deluxe’ or ‘Superior’ and just go with the word ‘room’ then you will not be disappointed. The room value is somewhere between $8-$12 per night and we give it 3/10. Are the ships in good shape and do the feel safe? The boats are average and provide basic accommodation (bed, cold shower). Safety is not really a concern since you are always surrounded by a minimum of 30 ships. If something goes wrong with the one you are on, its a 20-50 meter swim to another one. Is the information given by Tour Agents and Lonely Planet really that inaccurate? Yes, the information given is inaccurate. Keep this in mind when you book the tour so you do not get disappointed.
One of our Tour representative, Mr Ty, explained the Vietnamese view concerning ‘what you see at the Tour Agent you do not get’. The words “same, same but different” is a fun joke for tourists to have printed on their T-shirts but for the Vietnamese its serious words. They really mean it when they say “same, same but different”. For them a room is a room, deluxe or not deluxe. For them a ship is a ship and the name or standard of the ship is not important. When we book a tour and are shown pictures of accommodation and activities we take it to heart and are truly disappointed when these pictures are very far from the actual experience. The Vietnamese cannot understand our feelings since we were given accommodation, we sailed on a ship and cycled on mountain bikes. The lesson for all tourists is to enter into a Halong Bay journey with no expectations and treat every step as a naive child would. Then we can guarantee that you will have a great time.