It all began in the chaos of the Old Quarter of Hanoi, Vietnam.
It was a struggle to walk around to various tour companies, trying to search out the best rate and attempt to make sense of all the different classes of boats offered for a tour to Halong Bay.
The usual procedure is to book an all-inclusive single or double night aboard a Chinese style junk to enjoy the beauty fully.
The tour usually includes the pickup and van ride from your guesthouse in Hanoi, as well as everything else until you are dropped off back in Hanoi.
After asking around and getting frustrated and confused due to all the crafty Vietnamese salesmen trying to pitch their tours, we decided it would be best to drink a few cups of Vietnamese coffee and think about it.
There seemed to be so many random options: the party boat, the 2nd class boat, 1st class, the Dragon fancy boat, the VIP boat, the extreme honeymooner's boat.
I think the list went on forever, and they were all priced just slightly differently.
Each tour company had old photographs of each class that were impossible to see, offering little help in the decision process.
Tip: it's also possible to book Halong Bay luxury cruises online, so you can ensure you know which boat you're getting.
So, in the end, I just sort of went with my gut feeling and booked the 1st class boat for the price of about $30 from a woman who I thought looked the most honest.
Everything went according to plan, the van picked us up and zoomed us along with the masses of other tourists to the gorgeous Halong Bay.
The scene morphed into a dramatic landscape of limestone pillar mountains jetting vertically up from the water below.
We got dropped at the standard boat loading dock along with the hordes of others.
Everyone was eager to board their boat while at the same time getting frustrated by the long lines and the harsh rays of the mid-day sunshine.
Everything was confusing and disorganized.
Tour guides scrambled in every direction leading their pack of sheep through the mess of humanity.
After waiting for about one hour, our guide said, “the boat is broken, you will be upgraded to the VIP boat.”
I wasn't so convinced if he spoke truthfully, or if he was looking for a tip.
Nevertheless, we were ushered to a different boat that was supposedly a VIP boat (whatever that means in Vietnam).
We boarded the Chinese style junk and started slowly cruising our way around the surreal landscape.
Once on the boat, things were opposite; I couldn't hear the piercing sounds of honking motorbikes, the clammer of large amounts of humans, nor the annoying shrieks of the tour guides.
Life was good once again!
See also: How to Book a Last Minute Cruise to the Galapagos
Relaxing on the top deck of the boat at sunset was unbelievable – this was the picture of Halong Bay that I wanted to see.
The sunshine became softer and softer as it wrapped its rays around each pillar of limestone, bouncing off the calm moving water.
It was peaceful and supremely gorgeous.
The next day we floated back to the harbor point, back into the scurry of everyone else and back into the racing van.
We were dropped off as promised back at our guesthouse, all safe and sound.
Though the lack of organization and the dishonesty of so many tour companies made things a bit frustrating to arrange, the escape onto the top deck of the peaceful boat floating in the middle of Halong Bay was a priceless experience!
Mark was raised in central Africa before migrating back to the U.S. for University. After graduating, he decided to continue traveling the world. On Migrationology, he shares the cultural side of travel from a slow-paced local perspective that often revolves around his love for eating all forms of food. Join him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @migrationology.
Planning a trip? Go Backpacking recommends:
- G Adventures for small group tours.
- World Nomads for travel insurance.
- Hostelworld for booking hostels.
- Rail Europe for train passes.
Tuesday 22nd of April 2014
I have done the day trip and I don't believe there is really any difference in what price you pay. I would suggest you not be upsold on the food, it is just average fair for Vietnam. All alcoholic drinks on the boat are at least 3X what you would pay in Hanoi.
I asked a few people on my boat what they paid and everyone quoted a different price. The upsells are just extra money in the brokers pocket. Don't pay in advance for any activities like kayaking as you can pay the same price when you are out on the bay directly to the operator.
I would recommend going to Halong Bay, just keep in mind that it is about 4hrs travel each way on the bus and less than 4hrs on the boat. But hey, you have come this far and its a nice 4hrs.
Thursday 1st of November 2012
I luv the photos very much. i've had a trip on Halong bay on a cruise. And remember it.
Monday 13th of February 2012
Wow... Your photos are so beautiful. I love them. I myself just comeback from Halong Bay but the weather is not as perfect as your trip. Is your cruiser Halong Phoenix? Look like the same as the cruiser I did stay.
Thursday 19th of January 2012
Just returned from a trip to Vietnam. We chose an excursion trip out to Halong Bay travel with AST Travel where AST stands for Affable-Safe-Trustworthy, which it was none of. We opted for the luxury trip and were extremely dissapointed in all aspects, lodging,food,service and the guides provided absolutely no information. It was a shame that we had such a bad experience in such a fantastic landscape. Buyer beware of ASTTRAVEL NOT Affable-NOT Safe-NOT Trustworthy
Wednesday 21st of December 2011
I'm not sure where the author obtained an overnight stay on the boat for this price. You might pay ten times that for two nights, but the cheapest trip on this same boat comes in around five times that price booked online. Perhaps he has a sweet face or a giant "I work for Lonely Planet" sign on is head!