I heard so many horror stories about terrible cruises through Halong Bay, so I was really nervous to embark on our two night, three day cruise.
We’d read tons of Tripadvisor reviews and splurged a bit on a more expensive cruise to avoid all the awful stories we’d heard, like overcrowded boats, dirty and insect filled cabins, unsanitary food and even boats sinking and accidents. Some of the cruises costs as cheap as $24 per night per person, and we realized that that was just a disaster waiting to happen—no thank you!
In the end, we went with Paradise Luxury Cruises, which weren’t the most expensive, but were on the higher end of the cruises. We spend about $400 each, and that included pickup and drop off in Hanoi via van (the drive is almost 4 hours each way), two nights and three days on a “luxury” boat in a deluxe cabin with balcony, excursions, a visa approval letter (this took the visa cost down from 85 dollars a person to 45 dollars, so worth it) and all meals provided.
The shuttle promptly picked us up at 7:30 to start the (harrowing) drive to Halong. People in Vietnam drive like complete nutcases, so I simply closed my eyes and prayed for the best. 4 hours and several bumps, horn honks and driving on the wrong side of the road later, we arrived (safely) to the Halong Bay docks and boarded our boat.
We were escorted to our cabin, which was lovely. It was small but clean and modern, and the balcony was great. The bathroom was much larger than I had expected, and I was pleased with our accommodation. They even tossed ross petals over as we boarded haha—cheesy but fun. The rest of the boat was also nice. There was a big dining room to fit everyone in for meals (maybe 25 people or so max) and a rooftop deck area with lounge chairs.
The cruise took off and we started with a buffet lunch. The food was amazing on the cruise, a great mix of Western and Vietnamese dishes. It was definitely luxury, with dishes like sea bass, steak and a variety of tasty Asian food as well.
The scenery started to amp up and Jorge and I were in awe. Really, it’s difficult to describe the peaceful, beautiful cliffs jutting out from the green water, and photos don’t do it justice. Pure zen is the best way I can describe it, just so peaceful and calm.
We enjoyed the scenery for awhile until the first excursion started. We docked the boat and walked up and down several steps to see a natural cave. It was cool and reminded me of the Neptune Grotto we had seen just last summer in Sardinia. However, it was packed with pushy, obnoxious tourists shoving everyone (dude, relax, you will see the damn cave!) which rather irritated me, but I tried to enjoy myself despite the annoyance.
After that, we boarded the boat again and had the opportunity to kayak around a few of the islands. It was the first time I had been kayaking in years and it was pretty amazing. Then we headed to a rather touristy beach on one of the islands.
Both excursions were fun, but extremely crowded and touristy. However, I knew we’d be getting a little further into the cliffs and away from the tourists on day 2, so I didn’t really care too much.
Following this, we headed back to the boat for happy hour, where we indulged in some overpriced but well deserved glasses of wine. We watched and participated in a cooking demonstration, where we learned how to roll spring rolls in rice paper. Jorge competed against a 6 year old girl to make the best looking roll. I am sure I don’t need to tell you who won, for those of you who don’t know, Jorge is skilled at many things, but cooking is not one of them!
Eating the spring rolls was fun, and then we headed down for a delicious seafood dinner filled with clams, mussels, lobster, crab, squid and more underwater delicacies. We were then presented with our cooking class “certificates” in which they had artfully destroyed both of our names, which you can see below. Where they got Jan Vanderbosenback (or something like that!) from Jorge Ortega Villanueva, I have no idea! But it was pretty funny.
We were exhausted by this point and headed to bed. Breakfast was served at 8 am the next day, followed by several excursions and we wanted to be fresh (needless to say, we did not wake up for the 630 am Thai Chi class!)
Day 2 started off with a fulfilling breakfast (I wish I had an omelette station in my house!) followed by a rowboat trip to a trip to a traditional floating village, where 200 people actually live on floating houses on the river. It was extremely interesting but also a bit of a shock seeing how they live. Jorge immediately integrated himself by playing hacky sack with the locals, and I roamed around checking out the one room school house. I took a photo of two little local kids and then showed it to them, and they were fascinated to be able to see themselves on the camera screen.
We headed back to the boat and spent a short while checking out an oyster pearl farm. We saw how they grow pearls and extract them, which was really cool. Then of course there was an opportunity to buy pearls, but I wasn’t super interested in that…pearls aren’t really my thing, but it was nice to see.
Then we cruised for another hour and the scenery just got better and better. We ate a nice lunch on the boat, again, excellent food. The sun came out (hoorary!) we anchored and were given the opportunity to kayak to small secluded beaches. This was by far the best part of the trip.
The beaches were absolutely stunning and there was no one else there! Jorge and I explored a couple of the beaches and kayaked around. A couple hours later, we returned to the boat, and enjoying the sun and scenery with some iced coffee.
Everything was going just splendidly until the dock boy handed me a 80’s nokia phone and said “for you”. I said hello and it was our cruise ship manager, telling me she had to switch us to a different boat (a little context, for the excursion we had boarded a day boat from about 9-5 that was smaller in order to be able to get to the sites faster. The four main cruise ships, Luxury 1, 2,3 and 4 all had people on them, most of who headed home on our Day 2 as they had only booked a one night cruise. Anyone who was leftover on the four boats came to the Day 2 excursions on the day boat with us—maybe 20 people max from all the boats. We were originally on Boat 4, and the cruise manager wanted to move us to boat 1). I said it seemed a little weird, but I didn’t want to make a big fuss, and said that when we re-boarded the main boat after the excursions, we would pack our things and move. This is where things got fishy. She said she would call me back.
The next call came and she told me that no problem “We’ve already packed all your things and moved them”. This is where I got pissed. I explained it was completely inappropriate for them to have entered our cabin, packed our things (including moving the entire safe with all our “valuables”) and moved them WITHOUT ASKING US FIRST. We docked to the new boat where I again chatted with the new manager, where I pleasantly explained to him how this was ridiculous. We checked all our things, and luckily nothing had been stolen, but still! Picking our underwear off the floor and shoving in into our suitcase without our permission is just NOT OKAY.
The new manager Jimmy, sympathized with us and had already placed a bottle of wine in our room (how did he know wine fixes everything?!) and also offered us both 30 minute complimentary massages in the spa onboard. I figured, nothing was missing, they obviously knew it wasn’t okay to have done that, and they tried to fix it, so I graciously accepted the massages, uncorked the wine and let it go. I didn’t want to ruin what had really been a beautiful day enjoying the bay.
Jorge and I relaxed on the balcony sipping the wine and enjoyed the perfect views. Finally, a chance to just chill out. It was perfect! We headed up top to see a clouded sunset, and then enjoyed another great dinner. Jorge then tried his hand at squid fishing unsuccessfully when we realized how much cooler fishing SOUNDS and in reality, it is boring as hell. So we went to enjoy our massages and hit the sack.
The next morning was an early one, and we enjoyed a rowboat ride (a rainy one!) to see a cave and some monkeys that live inside—they were so cute! Then it was another breakfast and check out and head back to the shore. After paying a ridiculous amount of money for the few glasses of wine and a bottle of sparking water we consumed at dinner the first night, we checked out and waited for our shuttle bus to take us back to Hanoi.
Despite the mix up with moving boats, I loved the cruise and Halong Bay is a fascinating wonder of nature that I can’t believe I was lucky enough to see in this lifetime. I think EVERYONE should do this at some point, just may sure to do it when you can splurge a bit, because I saw some of the other boats and some were ghetto. If you do choose Paradise, it is definitely a great time, I would just make sure things are clear and organized when you arrive to avoid any confusion or boat changes.
Halong Bay, I will miss you and your beauty, but it’s onto our next adventure, meeting our favorites Marisa and Eric at the beach in Thailand! Koh Samui, here we come!