Choosing a Halong Bay Cruise
A boat cruise through Vietnam’s Halong Bay, an archipelago of almost 2,000 islands and rock formations is a must do item for nearly all travelers. So much so that some halong bay cruise ships spend multiple days at the UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s often forms one of the many highlights of a Southeast Asia itinerary.
With so many options to choose from knowing exactly how to view the bay, however, can be a little frustrating. The “junk” boats used at the bay differ in quality when it comes to cleanliness, service and itineraries. Getting the right cruise is even more important should you decide to opt for an overnight cruise. While it would be a magical experience waking up surrounded by such beautiful scenery, the last thing you would want is to have your perfect cruise dampened by an inferior cruise.
Read on to discover some important tips of what to consider while planning your Halong Bay cruise. Keep in mind that most of these suggestions concern day cruises, not overnights, although some of the same guidelines apply to both.
Set Your Expectations
We have all seen those gorgeous Vietnamese cruise boats with large picturesque sails. Reality check: If you planed a one day tour of Halong Bay and you opted for a lower cost cruise you won’t be traveling on one of those. A typical one day tour takes place on a duel level junk capable of transporting around 46 passengers. You will find that most junks provide the upper level for relaxing and viewing, you’ll have to fight for a lounger if the vessel is full; most loungers also lack cushions.
One other consideration when choosing your one day Halong Bay cruise is to check what is included as part of your tour. It is not uncommon to find that most day trips do not allow time for swimming or kayaking. As with many tours, generally itineraries are subject to change should the weather not be suitable. If your cruise is between November and March be prepared to forsake more summer type activities.
An unpleasant surprise to many travelers is that on an overnight Halong Bay cruise the Vietnamese government requires junks to drop their anchor in a specific spot. So if you are hoping for a sunrise or sunset among the limestone peaks in complete seclusion then i’m afraid it’s unlikely to happen. Although, the boats don’t actually sit on top of one and other. We found that the other boats provided a pleasant addition to the scenery when it went dark.
Overnight or Day Trip?
This is a very tough choice. Personally i have been on many types of cruises. My preference was the 3d/2n cruise as I felt this allowed enough time to completely unwind. However, this is subject to your personal time restrictions. If you’re only option is a single day Halong Bay cruise then your time will be limited to a four, six or eight-hour cruise. Again, your choice of boat is also dictated by these time constraints. Only a few of Halong bay’s operators provide luxury junks for day trips, these of course come at a higher budget. Activities such as kayaking or swimming is often reserved for late afternoon when the vessels put down anchor.
The Finer Details
As with all things in life, the vessels here can vary slightly in condition, as well as amenities. We recommend double checking everything on the itinerary. Also take the time to look over the “Inclusions / Exclusions” part of your cruise, these often vary wildly. Not all cruises include a hotel pick up / drop off service, these can be an added extra on the price, always ask! The same applies for V.A.T, surprisingly the advertised price doesn’t always include this tax, usually at 10%. Any special dietary requirements should be made well in advance and unfortunately in this part of the world there are never any guarantees. Although, as a vegetarian myself, all my included meals were catered perfectly.
Of course, you can always wait until you arrive in Vietnam to book your cruise, there are many small ticket shops. However, you are not always provided with the most trust worthy information. This is simply due to the pressure on the people selling the tours, usually they are on a very low income so any sale is a sale for them. Helping you plan the perfect, memorable cruise is not always at the forefront of their mind.
Booking ahead allows you the time to sit in the comfort of your own home relaxing while you make a more informed and measured choice. You will be able to check how big the vessel is, look at room choices for an over night cruise, check itineraries fully and see the photos of the actual cruise you will be going on. To find a good booking agent, read reviews on TripAdvisor and Cruise Critic. Send an email to the operators and ask for specifics on the cost, the length and what’s included.
A typical one day Halong Bay cruise normally includes a stop at a cave, such as “Thien Cung” Cave (Fascinating Cave)Also a Vietnamese lunch will be provided, followed by a visit to a traditional Vietnamese fishing village. You will also be provided with several hours of scenic cruising with excellent photo opportunities. Some day cruises also may offer kayaking excursions, although these are limited at the.
Hotel Transfer Services
As detailed above, check your cruise “inclusion / exclusion” section carefully. In such an aggressive market, low prices are often advertised simply as a “hook” to get your custom. If you require a transfer service and it is not clearly indicated that it is included then simply ask. It is not uncommon to find that you are asked for an additional amount for your transfer.
How Much Time?
Probably the largest difference between many of the one day Halong Bay cruises is the amount of time you actually spend on the water. If you have selected a 4hr cruise, the trip will of course cost less. However you may only remain in the more busier parts of the Bay. This means sharing most of your time in the water with a whole host of other vessels. You also may or may not visit one of the bay’s caves.
The majority of the one day Halong Bay cruise tours last for approximately six hours. You should also most definitely have the opportunity to explore one of the bay’s caves, as well as a Vietnamese fishing village. Unfortunately many of the communities that once lived in the fishing villages no longer reside there. However they are still used as base camps for short term stays and it’s extremely scenic. Usually as part of your visit to the fishing village you have the opportunity to experience a bamboo boat for a paddle around the islands. If you enjoy relaxing in the sun, you’ll relish the additional time an 8hr cruise offers.
Overnight Cruise, Go Small
As a rule of thumb, you’ll be provided with a higher service level and more luxurious accommodation options by selecting an overnight cruise with fewer cabins. Of course, these can range in price. There are however many more budget friendly options to choose from than in the past.You will find a selection here. As always read the descriptions of your cruise carefully when you’re making a decision, and don’t be afraid to email the operator with specific questions or dining preferences.
Choosing a Halong Bay Cruise – Written by Huyen Thi Tran
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