A cruise through Halong Bay is certainly the highlight of any visit to northern Vietnam. The phenomenal string of jungle-covered karst islands rivals the surreal beauty of similar landscapes in Thailand, Laos, China and the Philippines. To the south of Halong, stunning Cat Ba Island beckons travelers with limitless possibilities for kayaking, hiking, or lounging on white-sand beaches.
Thomas and I had the extraordinary luck to share our amazing Halong experience with a fantastic group of fellow travelers on the Imperial Deluxe Junk. Beautiful suites, excellent food, and great company, what more could we ask for? Our three day trip through Halong Bay and neighboring Lan Ha Bay featured stops at the Hang Sung Sot caves and the national park on Cat Ba Island as well as an overnight stay on the idyllic hideaway of Monkey Island. Our experience was superb.
But don’t plan that trip without seriously doing your homework. Halong is certainly one of Southeast Asia’s most amazing natural attractions, but there’s one major caveat. Vietnam’s most beloved destination is also one of its most hated due to the endless tour scams which plague travelers to the region. For some reason, the Vietnamese government continues to allow this mess to worsen causing major damage to its tourist industry.
Tips on Organizing a Halong Bay Tour
1. Determine which type of tour is best for you. Essentially, there are four basic classes:
- Super-budget party tours are best for people interested in very low-cost drinking tours. 2-day tours can be as low as $25.
- Budget tours are low cost options for people who want to see Halong Bay, but require less luxury. 2-day tour $40-$50, 3-day tour $60-80
- Luxury tours emphasize beautiful boats and good food in addition to natural attractions. 2-day tour $80-$90, 3-day tour $110-$150
- Super-luxury tours offer increased luxury and unique itineraries. You can spend as much as you want in this class.
But remember, price never guarantees quality. Insist upon seeing pictures of your boat and cabin before booking. (Also, be sure to read about 3-day tours below.)
2. Do your homework and ask for recommendations, but keep some important things in mind.
It is important to research companies online and ask your friends and fellow travelers for recommendations before choosing a tour company. However, remember that Halong tour operators regularly post fake positive reviews of their own companies and negative reviews of their competitors.
Similarly, each traveler’s experience with a particular company can be quite different. Some people pay for a budget tour but are upgraded to luxury boats without their knowledge. These travelers may tell you not to waste your money on a luxury tour because the budget boats are so nice. In reality, they might have been on a luxury tour without even knowing it.
3. Be specific when booking your cruise and get details in writing.
Insist on having a cabin which is away from the dining room as well as the generator. Never assume anything. Ask whether you will have electricity (fan, air con) during the entire trip or only at night. Are all meals included? What will be served? Is kayaking included? How many kayaks will be available? Will there be karaoke on board? (I personally hate karaoke and did not want to listen to people screeching for three days.)
As annoying as it may sound, if booking agents recognize that you know what you are doing, you are more likely to get a good booking. Low maintenance people often discover that they end up getting bad cabins, bungalows, hotel rooms, etc.
If booking agents refuse to answer your questions or have no pictures of the boats, go somewhere else.
4. Report any problems immediately.
When you board the boat, report any problems (bad cabin, broken air con) immediately. The longer you wait to resolve a problem, the less likely it is that the problem will be resolved.
5. Never pay in advance.
Many tour booking companies insist on full payment before the tour. We booked the Imperial Deluxe Junk tour through Hotel Thien Trang in Hanoi and they allowed us to pay after the tour was completed. Not surprisingly, our tour was perfect while those who paid up front experienced several problems.
Many of these problems are not caused by the tour company itself, but rather by unscrupulous booking agents who book lower value accommodation while charging their customers for premium cabins. (Remember that within each tour class, there are still quality differences between cabins, bungalows, hotel rooms, etc.)
Unfortunately, if you book from abroad, you may be required to pay in advance to ensure your booking.
6. Extra attention is required for 3-day tours.
In our opinion, 3-day tours of Halong Bay represent much better value than the 2-day packages. Travelers on 2-day tours spend much of their time traveling back and forth between Hanoi and the port. However, booking a 3-day tour requires a bit of extra attention.
Most 3-day tours spend the second night in a hotel on Cat Ba Island or in a bungalow on one of the islands in Lan Ha Bay. Many travelers fail to focus their attention on the quality of the accommodation they receive on this part of the trip.
We specifically booked a premium bungalow for the second night, a beautiful piece of island eye candy backed by towering cliffs with a panoramic view of the bay. Several travelers, many of whom paid far more than us, were packed like sardines into shanty-like huts with no view at all. Make sure you know what you are booking and demand a refund if you don’t get what you have been promised.
7. If you discover you are on a bad tour, sit back and enjoy it.
Many travelers discover that despite their best efforts, they end up on a bad tour. If that happens, give up, sit back, and enjoy the scenery. The main reason you’ve come to Halong is to see the incredible landscape. Don’t let unprofessional tour operators ruin that as well.
UPDATE Feb.18, 2011
Many people are coming to our site after the recent tragedy in Halong Bay in which 12 people on a Halong cruise died when a cruise boat sank during the night.
Clearly, safety is an additional factor that must be considered when arranging a Halong tour. Tourists should make it very clear that boat quality and safe procedures are an essential requirement before booking with any company. Also, when boarding, take time to consider potential escape routes should an accident occur. Again, refusing to pay until after the tour gives you the option of leaving should the boat look unsafe.
Cabin on Imperial Deluxe Junk
The bathroom in our cabin
Beautiful premium bungalows on Monkey Island
Interior of premium bungalow on Monkey Island
Discount bungalow on Monkey Island