Consisting of approximately 1600 islands and inlets and providing a landscape of limestone pillars rising out of an emerald bay, Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) protected site. Most of the islands are uninhabited and of great biological interest. Because of this, Ha Long Bay is one of the ‘must-see’ areas when visiting Vietnam. Approximately 4 hours’ bus ride from the capital Hanoi, there are literally thousands of tour operators offering everything from day trips to luxury cruises around the area. Planning and picking a company to travel with can be a bit of a minefield – prices range from the dirt cheap ($40 for a 2 days 1 night cruise) to high-end luxury, including everything that one would expect from a 5-star hotel chain (I didn’t even look at the prices for these!).
As with most things in life; you get what you pay for. When scouring TripAdvisor reviews and online forums discussing the options and people’s experiences, its very apparent that if you pay bottom-dollar, you will get exactly that in terms of seaworthiness of the vessel you sail on, service, food and general experience. Despite managing most of our 10-month trip on a backpacker budget, travelling with kids means safety is one of the most important aspects for us. Second to that, a booze-cruise with partying and disco music until 4am probably isn’t what we had in mind either.
The other consideration is where does the junk boat you choose actually sail within the bay? The cheaper company boats literally leave port, travel 5- 10km over to some smaller islands that you can actually see from the shore, they then ply you with alcohol so hopefully you don’t notice that you are only a stone’s throw from land and could actually swim home; and on the following day, cruises the same distance back to port. So much for a ‘tour’ of Ha Long Bay. The more expensive options take you further away from shore and travel in and amongst the smaller islands. As with most things, the more you pay, the further you go and the more you see. We felt that if we were going to pay for a trip that had the potential to be a highlight of our stay in Vietnam, we wanted it to be worth it!
Booking tip: ask the tour company what is the actual route the boat takes into and around Ha Long Bay and ask them to show you on a map.
All companies operating on Ha Long bay generally include a transfer from Hanoi as part of the deal. You can choose from 2 day/1 night on the boat options, 3 days/2 night on the boat options; as well as split breaks with a night on the boat and a night on Cat Ba island, which is the biggest inhabited island in Ha Long bay and houses a large part of the national park. There are also much longer cruises available offering all sorts of other variations, but these weren’t affordable on our budget!
We finally narrowed our search between Indochina Junk, which was recommended as a family-friendly cruise company and used by various families we have been in touch with on our travels; and Fantasea Cruise, recommended by our hotel. The guy at the hotel had preciously worked as a guide on the Fantasea junk boat and was able to explain in great detail which cabins on the he would recommend to our family group, the activities offered and what kind of food they served. In the end, he managed to get us a good price and we went with his recommendation.
We opted for the 3 days/2 night option, staying 1 night on the boat and 1 night in a hotel on Cat Ba island. We were collected at 8am from our hotel in Hanoi and within 3.5 hours, we were at the port. Including our family, our boat had just 14 guests, consisting of travellers from all over the globe, all of different ages and occupations. We were the only family group travelling with kids, and all the staff and guests made us feel very welcome.
This next section is written by Ruben, aged 10:
I was really excited when Mum and Dad told us we were going to Ha Long Bay! One of the best bits was that Rosie and I had our own cabin on the boat! As the boat set sail, well-dressed staff started bringing out posh-looking food for our lunch. There were spring rolls, prawns, omelette, soup, a chicken dish and rice. By the time it was all gone, we definitely weren’t hungry anymore! Our tour guide then told us that we were going to visit a cave and we had to meet in five minutes and be ready to get onto the small boat attached to the main ship, which we used to get ashore.
It was a small walk to get to the entrance of the cave, but a very steep one! It was worth it though, as the cave had a nice cool breeze and lots of stalactites and stalagmites to look at. I found it amazing how the rocks formed in such a way that it all looked hand-made. In the rock formations I spotted a heart and a scary face, which the tour guide said he hadn’t noticed before! Yay! The guide pointed out that one of the rocks in the cave looks just like a turtle, which is one of the four sacred animals in Vietnamese culture, and means longevity and is a creature linked to the wet rice fields which provide food (the other three sacred animals are the dragon, phoenix and unicorn). On this turtle rock in the cave, people have left money and gifts.
Once we got back on the junk boat, the tour guide then told us to change into our swimming things as we were about to go kayaking! I wanted to go on my own kayak, but in the end Mum and I had to share. We paddled off and followed the guide who led us into what looked like a water cave and soon the cave made way into a beautiful bay – a large open area surrounded by rocks and with trees and flowers growing everywhere. As you paddled closer, you could see monkeys! There were loads of them, jumping from tree to tree and making breathtaking leaps over the water. Everyone appeared bewildered by these monkeys and so was I, especially when I saw a couple of them climbing across the cave exit of this magical place. They made it look as easy as walking!
Eventually mum and I paddled back to the boat and then Rosie and I set up a little business helping the tour guides to collect all the oars from the kayaks, putting them back in the correct place on the boat. It was a non-paid business, but it was still fun!
To be continued….