With huge towering islets piercing through disarmingly tranquil waters, most people agree that Halong Bay is a highlight of any trip to Vietnam. But with hundreds of boats jostling for your dollars and promising you a trip of a lifetime it is becoming harder and harder to pick the right boat and know where to start. Many of the top-end junks will let you book directly through their websites but majority of tourists are left trying to book something last minute in one of the many “Sinh Cafes” in Hanoi, unsure how to distinguish between all the pretty boats they are being shown.
So, if you are not sure how to pick the best Halong Bay cruise then read on, here’s my ultimate guide to picking the perfect junk.
1) The Tour Agency: If you are booking through a tour agency quiz them about what boat they have been on and what they liked best. The best tour operators will have been on the boats they are selling – personally, I’ve taken about four cruises of Halong Bay and I have stepped on board about another 15 boats. I can tell my customers the pros and cons of each one with confidence. If you suspect your tour operator hasn’t even seen the boat they are trying to sell you then that is really not a good sign.
2) The route and itinerary: Ask to have a look at the route and itinerary of the boat – does it go very far out into the bay? Is there one that takes a different route to the rest and will avoid the crowds? Most cruises will include a trip to a cave, a beach or kayaking – is one more important to the other to you? Also, some will stop for a night on Cat Ba island, which is the only populated island in Halong Bay, if you are really into trekking or what some more time on the islands rather than just sailing around them, perhaps this will appeal.
3) Check what is included: Most cruises include breakfast, lunch and dinner – and a few, like the very exclusive Paradise Peak, include alcohol although most don’t. It’s worth asking if it is a buffet or set menu and how many courses there are. Food is generally very good throughout Vietnam and the cruises are no exception but if you are a foodie then it is worth doing your research on this. It’s also worth checking if kayaking is included, as some will charge you for the kayaks, and it is definitely worth checking whether the shuttle bus is included. Most cruises have a return ride in a mini-van included from Hanoi.
4) The Cabins: Ask to see pictures of the cabins and check whether the one you are booking is a single, twin or double – and whether it has windows or not. The travel agent may show you some general pictures of the boat but fail to mention that your cabin is the airless one in the bottom of the boat with no windows. Also, you might be able to upgrade for not all that much money. I know of a few boats where it is only £20 a night to upgrade to a suite, which is about twice the size of a normal cabin.
5) The size of the boat: Ask how many cabins are on the boat as that will give you a good idea how small it is. Would you prefer a more intimate experience on an 8-cabin boat or all the facilities and size that comes with a 50-cabin boat, that feels more like a big floating hotel? If you’re after something very intimate you can even private charter a junk of your own – some of them are really quite good value. Personally, I tend to prefer the smaller boats.
6) Length of the cruise: Think carefully about how long you want the cruise to be – do you want to do a day cruise, a one-night cruise or a two-night cruise? Unless you are in the Monsoon or travelling during the winter months then I would really recommend taking the two-night cruise. It is a four-hour drive to Halong Bay from Hanoi and so it is nice to have enough time to actually relax into it on the boat. If you take the one-night cruise then you have just under 24 hours on board, which flies by. Most cruises start around noon and finish around 11am the next day, if you have a second night then it means you get a full day out on the boat, not just an afternoon and short morning.
7) Do your own research – Don’t rely on me or another travel agency to tell you which one is best, get the names of a few you are considering and then check them out on Tripadvisor. Are there common complaints? Do they say the food, staff and service is good? It can be dangerous to believe everything you read on such review sites but they will often give you a very good indication of how things are.
But ultimately, Halong Bay is still 110% worth seeing. Sometimes people say to me they are not sure if it is worth it because it is so touristy, but to me that is just all the more reason to do your research and make sure you pick a cruise that will get you away from the hordes and offer you a completely unique experience. It is no exaggeration to say it is one of the most beautiful places in the world – and yes, that unfortunately means others have heard about it too.