Halong Bay cruise

Halong Bay is listed as one of the natural wonders of the world and in our humble opinion it does live up to the this statement

The Cruise with Sails of Indochina

Turning up at the harbour we were pleasantly surprised when we saw our “small” 15m wooden boat, our home for the next 24 hours. What a treat, just the two of us, the captain and the first-mate.

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The private boat we were on with the traditional sails

Around an hour after we set of from Ben Beo pier the lunch is served. As I am a big seafood lover I was in for a treat. The table was laid with prawns, squid salad, deep-fried mussels, rice and fresh fish. All tasted delicious one of the better seafood lunches I have ever had.

Cruising for a while amongst the islands and the 1000s of limestone karst we were in awe of how beautiful this landscape is. This is one of the most beautiful natural wonders, it doesn’t get much better than this. Stopping for a bit of swimming in the clear waters is the ideal way to cool of in the humid weather.

The captain drops the anchor and it’s time to take the kayak out for a spin in and around the exotic caves in the clear waters. This is one of the highlight of the trip, so much fun. The captains just point in the direction to go in, however it’s not hard to find the caves as this is one of the more touristy spots as all the boats stops here. We stayed for ages, kayaking into the caves, around them and back again. The water is super tranquil the ideal way to get up close and personal to these sheer cliffs of the islands.

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Setting sail we cruise toward the sunset, enjoying a cold beer sitting on the front of the boat taking it all in. Once again for dinner a seafood feast is served. This was just as good as lunch, just different types of fish and a bit of chicken as well. Coffee was served after dinner and we were then given the choice to sleep inside or outside. As it’s still monsoon season we opted for inside, but enjoyed sitting outside all evening listening to the silence. This is so different from being in the nearby Hanoi, with all the motorbikes, street vendors and music all going of at the same time. Here, it’s just silence. Sometimes we can hear a fish jump out of the water but that’s about it when it comes to noise.

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Some of the seafood you can get onboard with Indochina

Waking up at 5am we were very happy with the decision of sleeping inside. Heavy rain, thunder and lighting is upon us. We are enjoying being inside the boat, lying in the bed listening to the weather.

Around 7am we get banana pancakes, at this point the rain has stopped and again the boat starts and we are on deck enjoying the early morning in Halong Bay admiring the fascinating rock formations in the bay.

We sail through the Beo floating village which is an impressive sight. The houses, the markets, everything is floating. The kids go to school on bamboo boats in the mornings and we see both dogs and chickens running about on the platforms. It’s a simply but different life to what we are used to.

Yet again we are served up a feast for brunch, the full shibang of fresh seafood from the floating market. A lot of tour companies can try cut costs by trying to serve less meals, however as soon as we got on the boat and the last thing we did before we hoped off the boat, was eat, and it was delicious.

After this it is unfortunately time for the trip to end. We thanked the captain and the first-mate before they dropped of us in Ben Beo harbour, 24 hours after we set of.

Choosing the boat

This is probably the most important part of the trip.

What to consider:

  • Budget
    • There are so many different options including luxury cruises, small sail boats, private boats, party boats and many more. There are lots of cheap tours which cut corners where the boat just doesn’t live up to the standards of having people on board. Some of the boats are really old, don’t have the best facilities. Of course this all depends on your budget and the need for luxury. We met plenty of people who booked the cheapest boat available and regretted it and also the other way. Ensure you see photos of the boat before you commit.
  • Size of the boat
    • Another thing to consider is how big the boat is. Some of the boats we saw had hundreds of people on them and others like ours were smaller with only one family or a couple.
  • Time
    • The different trips also has different lengths, going from a single day on the water to 4 days. If going for more than 1 day there is generally an option for trekking to the peak in Cat Ba national park.

Some boats are dedicated booze cruises and the people on these boats generally have no intention of sleeping and just want to party all night long. One of the more “famous” booze cruises can be booked through the Chien Hostel for $85 per person, this comes with 2 days, 1 night on the boat and sleeping on a private island. If travelling alone this is a good option, as long as boozing is something you like doing.

Booking the boat

Tours operators

This is the most common way to book. There are plenty of tour operators across Vietnam, not just in Hanoi. Be careful here, many cheap places just looking to make a bit of money but don’t care if you have a good experience or not. We saw some signs advertising the cruise for as little as $65 for 2 day, 1 night. However this boat will not be a luxury boat and probably won’t have the best facilities or good food. The more expensive boats were around $300 for a luxury boat.

Of course the cruise can also be booked in advance online, this is the option we went for. As we wanted a private boat this seemed to work our the best for us.

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Local Vietnamese making her way back to the Beo floating village

Boats also offer the option of sleeping on one the many private islands, if this is not something you want to make sure to double check this before booking.

If there is a particular boat or company that you would like to book through the best option is email them directly, this way you cut out the middle man and the prices should be slightly cheaper as well.

Alternative Halong Bay tour:

Another way of doing this is a slightly cheaper way would be to get a bus and boat to Cat Ba island, stay in cheap accommodation here and go on day trips around Halong Bay. A day cruise is around $20 for the day, but this also means of course missing out on the opportunity to sleep on the boat and enjoy the evening on the water.

Our choice:

We opted for Sails of Indochina.  The cruise takes you through both Halong Bay and Lan Ha bay. On their website they say you will be taken to places away from the general tourist track. This of course is hard to achieve when there are so many boats around. For the most part they did deliver on this. We were sailing most of the afternoon not seeing many boats around. As we dropped anchor for the night we can see other boats around but none too close.

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We wanted a private get-away, so the Classic Junk worked perfectly for us. The boat is like one of the classic sail boats you see in a typical Halong bay photo. Most people on other boats that saw our boat would be taking photos of ours as it has more character than the typical ferry/people mover type boats. It’s not super luxurious boat but has everything you need. Somewhere to sleep (possible to sleep up to 4 persons in one cabin), a toilet/shower, seating area as well a place to lounge about on the boat enjoy the spectacular views. The crew also bring out cushions for lounging on the bow to take in the views.

The crew didn’t speak any English but us this wasn’t a problem, hand gestures turned out to be sufficient. En english speaking guide can be hired for additional costs.

This company also has another boat which is slightly fancier than the one we went on, one with a/c in the cabin.

Check out Sails of Indochina here

The Verdict

We have heard plenty of people saying Halong Bay is too touristy these days and how it’s so overcrowded. For us this was not the case and we would have hated to missed our this amazing area. We would certainly recommend people to go, just book the cruise boat that suits you and your budget.

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