It all began in the chaos of the Old Quarter of Hanoi, Vietnam. It was a struggle to walk around to various tour companies, searching for the best rate and attempting 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 and everything else until you are dropped off back in Hanoi.
After asking around and getting frustrated and confused due to all the crafty Vietnamese salespeople 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. The list went on forever, and they were all priced slightly differently.
Each tour company had old photographs of each class that were impossible to see, offering little help in deciding.
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 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 convinced if he spoke truthfully or was looking for a tip.
Nevertheless, we were ushered to a different boat, supposedly a VIP boat (whatever that means in Vietnam).
We boarded the Chinese-style junk and started slowly cruising 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, or the annoying shrieks of the tour guides. Life was good once again!
Relaxing on the boat's top deck 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 limestone pillar, bouncing off the calm 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.