By the time we started planning our trip to Halong Bay, we were a tad weary of Vietnam. Exhausted by hawkers and disappointed by the Mekong River Delta, and Hoi An tailors, fed up with being pushed around like cattle and generally treated with minimal respect. But unlike My Son, over-touristed Sapa and Ninh Binh, we weren’t willing to skip the UNESCO World Heritage beauty that is Halong Bay. So we took a hard look at our budget, spent a few days living cheaply in a sleepy mountain town not too far from Sapa, and booked a 3 day, 2 night “luxury” cruise with Indochina Sails. It was, without question, the highlight of our time in Vietnam.
Halong Bay is home to more than 2000 islands jutting up through the Gulf of Tonkin, many with caves created by years of erosion. The easiest way to visit is by taking a tour from Hanoi. It takes up to 4.5 hours to make the drive from Hanoi to Halong City although it can be done in less than 3 if there’s no traffic and the vehicle you’re in can drive safely at speed. It is possible to take a bus to Halong City and join a day tour of the bay but then you risk spending a night in Halong City. From what we could see and the people we spoke with, there isn’t much to do there other than hit the tiny litter-covered beach. The options for tours from Hanoi are myriad: budget 1-night cruises that start with a ride in an overcrowded bus and continue to rat and cockroach-infested junks serving bad food and stopping only at litter-strewn caves crawling with tourists; party boats with drinking games and karaoke that cater to the under-25 crowd; mid-range tours that are safe, travel a standard route of the bay hitting the most-visited caves, and provide some form of evening activity or entertainment; luxury cruises with well-appointed cabins, high quality meals, morning tai chi lessons, and access to quiet overnight mooring areas; and the even more expensive private charters.
Indochina Sails falls into the luxury category and, especially if you can get a reduced price like we did, is well worth it. We ate more food each day than we had since New Zealand, kayaked into and through caves with no one but our fellow cruisers in sight, tried tai chi, attempted squid fishing (ok, Jen tried that, I didn’t), climbed up Titop Island for stunning views, learned how to make Vietnamese spring rolls, and talked well into the night with new friends. For two other couples on the boat, this was a splurge not within their standard budget and the six of us had a great time comparing notes. There were only 14 passengers the first night (16 on the second) so we had time to talk with just about everyone on board. David, our Vietnamese cruise manager (not his actual name but the one he provides to English-speaking customers), was attentive and friendly, chatting with us about Halong Bay but also his career path, life in Vietnam, Buddhism, and more. From the moment we were collected in Hanoi to the time we were dropped off, we were treated with respect, addressed as people instead of walking cash machines, and given adequate space and privacy to feel human.
The natural beauty of this place speaks for itself and can’t be ignored no matter what boat you take. But if we had chosen a larger boat, one with karaoke, or anything that isn’t classified as luxury, I doubt we’d have had the moments of peace amidst the cliffs that we enjoyed, the excellent two nights of sleep (best beds we slept on in Vietnam), the sumptuous meals, and overall sense of well-being that Indochina Sails provided. In a country where safety, privacy, and comfort appear to be luxuries, it’s worth paying extra to unwind on Halong Bay.