Choosing the Right Cruise in Ha Long Bay
Cruising through Ha Long Bay and into Bai Tu Long Bay, past towering limestone, tiny islets, across calm, emerald waters, in a traditional wooden junk boat is an unforgettable experience. For us it was the highlight of our time in Vietnam. Before booking the cruise with Indochina Junk, I put a lot of effort and time into researching the best cruise options for us. This was not an easy task, as anyone who has done a similar trip will probably know. The sheer quantity of companies offering cruises in Ha Long Bay can make the task of finding the perfect cruise option a difficult and tedious one. Of course you have the option of just asking an agency to book a cruise for you but they usually receive commission from the cruise companies and are therefore biased and may not deliver the things you need. I want to help you find the right one by sharing our experiences and give you tips and hints that should help you finding the perfect one for you, plus how to prepare once you have booked. Here is my list of things you should consider and keep in mind before booking:
How Long Should the Cruise Be?
Cruises through Ha Long Bay last from anything from a few hours to a few days. Keep in mind that unless you are already in the area, transport from Hanoi takes around 6 hours by car each way so the actual cruise is reduced by at least half a day each end, if you allow travel time from Hanoi as well.
1 Day Cruise
Day cruises usually last about 4-6 hours and while they give you an insight into the beauty of the bay they are nowhere near long enough to experience this magical place for real. Day cruises usually include a visit to a cave and sometimes a short kayaking trip.
2 Day Cruise
Keep in mind that a 2 Day/1 Night cruise really is less than 24 hours of actual time on the boat due to the travel there and back. It will give you the feel of a real cruise as you have the stay of one night on the boat and is a good alternative to a longer trip if you are time poor. You will almost certainly visit a cave, go on a kayaking trip and enjoy dinner and breakfast on the boat but it may leave you wanting more.
3 Day Cruise
A 3 Day longer cruise will certainly give you a real feel for the area and is probably the right amount of time for many to spend on a cruise through Ha Long Bay. Depending on the itinerary for the cruise, you might be able to experience kayaking, visit a cave and fishing village, explore a pearl farm and have a barbeque on the beach. Some companies also offer a water puppet show on your trip from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay. Food will be served on the boat, I would recommend to check what is and is not included before booking. We had the chance to experience all of the above and I have to say we enjoyed every minute of the travel. If we could do it again I would go for an even longer trip on the boat, as it is such a unique and incredible adventure perhaps considering taking a 4 day trip or longer on one of the smaller boats. I am sure that would be a truly off the beaten track experience to admire the spectacular landscape in the bay.
Where do You Want to Go?
Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay stretches for over 100km towards the geological border with China. Most boats and cruises only venture through the immediate area near Ha Long, this means that this part of the bay can be crowded with boats and therefore might spoil any trip. There are up to 500 boats in action at any one time.
Remote Bai Tu Long Bay
The North Eastern part of the Bay, however, called Bai Tu Long Bay is just as beautiful as its famous neighbour. In some ways it is actually more stunning due to the lack of boats that can be found in Bai Tu Long Bay. There are only very few companies that have permission to sail into this remote part of the Bay so be careful to check them out. The serenity in Bai Tu Long Bay is every bit worth the extra money and time you have to invest into getting off the beaten track to this little piece of paradise.
Cat Ba Island
Cat Ba Island, the largest of the islands in Ha Long Bay has seen a surge of tourists over the last few years. If you are planning a longer stay in the area or prefer to not to sleep on a boat, the island is a good starting point to explore the picturesque coastline. Part of Cat Ba Island is a national park and you can still find unspoilt fishing villages, sandy coves and beaches there.
What is Your Budget?
Depending on your budget and timetable you might be limited in your choice of boats and actual cruise time. I would recommend if you are serious about exploring Ha Long Bay to not compromise your money, you are most likely going to be disappointed. If you have to be careful with the amount of money you are planning to spend on your trip, I would choose to stay in a cheaper hotel for the rest of your vacation balancing the costs across the trip. If you are just there to have fun and party then it probably will not matter if you are spending little money, but be careful to not also find that you compromise on safety. The fee of your cruise might also vary depending on the overall quality of the boat, food, excursions and service. Always double-check what is included in the package. We have also heard of unwelcome intruders on some of the cheaper cruise boats, and pushy hawkers that are hard to escape. What you pay for you will get, as they say!
Size of the Boat Matters!
Do you prefer to be on a larger or smaller boat? This will not only have an impact on the facilities and space but also on the price and intimacy of the cruise. While larger boats most certainly lack in charm and are not able to cruise into the more remote and hidden areas of the Bay, they may offer extra luxury like bathtubs, outdoor whirlpools– some even have gyms and spa treatments. Smaller boats are a great option if you want a more exclusive experience and service, with less people. If you are travelling with kids you might prefer to be on a larger cruise ship, it not only gives them more space to run around, it also is more likely to have other families with kids on board.
The Dragon’s Pearl 2
We sailed on a small, wooden vessel, the Dragon’s Pearl 2, with 12 rooms and we found it was the perfect size and had a lovely bunch of other guests including two families with kids and couples on their honeymoon. The crew was very friendly and accommodating. Treat it like choosing a hotel – if you like small and friendly places you are more likely to be happy on a smaller boat, if you like resorts then gravitate to the bigger options perhaps. Of course if you really have the money there are some options to book a small boat just to yourself…
With or Without Kids?
A cruise in Ha Long Bay a memorable event for the whole family. There are some cruise companies that are more child and family friendly than others. Some offer extra beds for kids and infants or even family cabins and additional services for children. It is advisable to check in advance if the cruise of your choice offers special meals for kids if they are fussy eaters, some boats have limited choices of food and mostly local. Also you surely would not want to take your kids onto a party boat…
Other companies do not allow kids on their boats at all, which might be the right choice for those who want to get away from the kids for a few days or are on their honeymoon and seek a peaceful environment!
What Activities do you Want to do During Your Cruise?
There is a large array of activities on offer. Kayaking around the myriad if islets, swimming, cooking classes, fishing, tai chi and visiting one of the many caves can make your cruise through Ha Long Bay not only more interesting but also a lot more fun. Kids will love the visit to the fishing village, watch a water puppet show, exploring ancient caves and jumping off the boats into the emerald sea. Jerome loved flying the kite of our bar man and watched the stars with the other kids at night from the top deck of our boat.
Kayaking and Swimming in Ha Long Bay
Expect that and make sure a guide will accompany you during the kayaking trips to show the way and also for safety. I would also warn you not to expect to go on any lengthy swim as the bay – the water is full of patches of jellyfish and while most of them are not poisonous a few sting enough to make a long swim rather unpleasant. Staff on the boats will keep an eye out for jellies during swimming times, and you will be usually restricted to diving off the side of the tender and swimming only a few metres to climb out again. The nastier variety of jellies will sting but not cause any harm to your health, however, some children and adults might avoid swimming altogether. Swimming off the beaches is mostly forbidden due to the national park laws and regulations.
When to Go on A Cruise in Ha Long Bay!
A cruise in Ha Long Bay is possible all year around. The weather in the summer months can be very hot and humid and therefore be a bit unpredictable. It is not uncommon that a cruise might be cancelled or altered during bad weather, including typhoons, poor visibility or heavy thunderstorms. As a result it is important to check the cancellation policy of the cruise before you book. November’s sunny blue skies plus the lack of crowds make it one of the best months to visit Ha Long Bay. Be aware that the months of January to March can be quite cool and foggy and it may be too cold for swimming or lazing on the top deck, however, you might find a bargain during these months of the year. We went in the hot summer and were lucky but a storm had cancelled many cruises the week before.
What to Take and Wear:
Most cruises in Ha Long Bay do not have a dress code and you may wear the clothes you feel most comfortable in. However, it goes without saying that no one should turn up for a meal in a bikini or baring too much, unless you are having a bbq on the beach of course. Women should leave their heels at home, they are just a nuisance on the boat. During the day on board bare feet, or a pair of flip-flops will do. If you are visiting an island or cave it might be advisable to have a pair of trainers or similar although the steps and caves can also be easily managed in good flip-flops from our experience. In the cooler months in the winter I would add warm clothing!
Swimming clothes are essential, whether you are going for a swim or just lazing on the lounger. Life vests are available on the boat but if your kids prefer their own swim aids you should consider bringing it. Especially for the very young kids and toddlers I would advise to consider bringing your own.
Suntan cream is essential, I would recommend a high factor. Plus for most people a hat or head protection and sunglasses will also be essentials. Also with the sun in mind a UV vest especially for the little one can be useful, especially if you are planning on going kayaking.
Snorkel equipment can be left at home! The sea in Ha Long Bay is too murky to see much of the underwater life in general. Underwater /waterproof cameras can be a safe alternative to risking your normal equipment if you are going on kayak trips.
Do not forget also to pack:
- Essential medications
- Insect repellent
- Cash and credit card
- Plus card games, books and colouring books to keep little ones happy and occupied
Other things to keep in mind or consider:
- There is no wifi or internet access on the boats! Mobile phone signals are patchy at best.
- Drinks and food can be overpriced on some cruises relative to what the average is in Vietnam, check what is included.
- Check whether any of the crew and/or guides speak English or other languages.
- Safety is important! Always wear a life vest during kayak trips or journeys on the tender boats. The main boats also have procedures posted so take time to understand them when you board just in case.
- Finally check with the cruise company in advance if they accommodate any special food requests, like vegetarian, nut or seafood free…if you need them.
Sadly littering is a huge problem in Ha Long Bay. Make sure your cruise operator is a considerate company. On our boat for example we all kept our water bottles and refilled them from a water dispenser every time it was empty to save plastic and reduce waste. Also do you really need fresh towels and a change of bedding after one night?
Tipping on a Cruise
Assuming you had a great stay on board and the crew had been friendly and helpful then make sure to show your gratitude by giving a tip. Tipping is not a common or expected gesture in Vietnam but we felt that the crew and guide deserved a thank you from us. As a guide we gave them 20$ or 500.000VND per person on the boat to divide amongst the team.
We Loved Our Cruise in Ha Long Bay
I would have never dreamed that I would enjoy our cruise through Ha Long Bay as much as we did. In fact I am happy to admit I am hooked on the idea of small sailing cruises now! You still will not be able to get me onto a large cruise ship, but I would come back to Ha Long Bay and do the cruise again. The same applies for Chris and Jerome.
Thank You Indochina Junk
A huge thanks goes to Indochina Junk, I am not sure we would have enjoyed our time in Ha Long Bay even half as much on another boat than the Dragon’s Pearl. It was perfect for us, small and intimate but big enough to have good facilities and cabins. They went out of their way to make the food, experiences and time on board a special memory, plus they are one of the few companies to be able to offer the longer trips into the less busy parts of the archipelago. Find out about our adventures in Ha Long and Bai Tu Long Bay in our upcoming posts.
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