Well, to make a long story short: both, actually… The views are stunning. So much that I can’t come up with any word to describe it that doesn’t sound like a cliché. The bay is like nothing I’d ever seen before and left me speechless. The organised tour I booked, however, was a different story… Here’s the whole adventure.
We booked our tour through Kim Tours in Hanoi. I’d done quite some research on the internet because I’d read about all the scams and didn’t want this to happen to us. Little did I know that EVERYTHING in Vietnam is a scam and that my patience would be tested many, many, many times!
We made the reservation in advance and went to pay once we arrived in Hanoi, the day before the tour. We took the 3-star 2-day-1-night tour, which costs € 70 per person in a double room. We compared prices from many tour operators and this was an average price for a “standard” overnight tour.
It is possible to get there without a tour operator, which could reduce part of the stress, but once you’re there, if you want to sleep on a boat, you’ll still have to pass through one of them. Just make sure not to pay too much for a ‘standard’ tour. All the boats are the same, people from different tour operators are on the same boat so you can’t rely on that. There was however a couple on our boat that had payed more than 3 times the price we’d paid for the same package!
The minibus picked us up at our hotel at 8am. It was less luxurious than promised: the places were tiny and there was no airconditioning. It was about 37°C outside, so needless to say it was hot in there. There was only one other couple in the bus, so we had to pick up all the others before we could leave the city. More than an hour later we were on our way to Halong Bay. The bus was packed, some people even had to sit on folding chairs in the aisle. Every free space was filled with luggage. Luckily we only took 1 bag, we left our other luggage at our hotel in Hanoi.
We stopped 2 times at a so-called shop, that was clearly a tourist trap, and stayed about 30 minutes at both of them. It really wasn’t necessary to stop twice on a 4-hour drive, so everybody was just standing there waiting for the bus to drive on and getting frustrated about losing a whole hour. On top of that, we were traveling with 2 middle-aged Australians who obviously thought they were king of the world and didn’t stop swearing, being rude and talking way too loud. We heard all kinds of insults about Vietnamese people, about “those fucking Europeans”, about women, etc… And as if that wasn’t enough, they brought along a Cambodian woman they’d clearly never met before and who didn’t seem to have understood exactly what the men wanted from her. This was confirmed when we got on the boat and she found out she’d have to sleep in a room with both men… (right next to ours, of course…)
Anyway, we were still feeling adventurous and excited to see Halong bay (and the Australians were not the tour operators fault, of course), so we stayed positive. Around 12.30pm, we arrived at our boat, the Black Pearl Junk. We weren’t allowed to go to our room yet, we had to eat first – without even washing our hands. According to the schedule, the boat would leave the port as soon as we started eating, but this wasn’t the case. Instead, we just ate in the harbor, with the ‘magnificent’ view of countless other boats all anchored close together. The food was really bad and only after more than an hour, the boat finally set sail into the bay. We got the keys to our room but obviously we weren’t going to stay there while sailing and miss the views, so we quickly put our bag in the room and went to the roof terrace.
Our first – and only – stop was Sun Got cave. It was really beautiful, although it was really crowded and the colored lights were kind of kitsch. We stayed about an hour before getting back to the boat and sail on.
We sat on the terrace and admired the view. It’s spectacular. The karst mountains seemed to rise out of the water, the sky was perfectly blue, and we seemed to be the only tourist boat in the bay. The only other boats we saw were those of the people living in the local floating villages.
After about 2 hours the boat stopped and we had the choice to go kayaking, swimming or just stay on the terrace. We decided to stay on the boat and go for a swim. However, by the time we put on our swimsuits, the whole place was filled with jellyfish, so it was impossible to swim. We went back to the terrace and enjoyed the sun and the view. We stayed there until after sunset and went back to our room to take a shower. The room was disgusting! The sheets were dirty and we didn’t even dare to take a shower barefoot. On top of that, the remote control for the air-conditioning was only distributed after dinner, so it was about 40°C in the room. Needless to say we were sweating again before we even left the room.
OK so time for dinner. We’d been sitting with a French couple from Marseille at lunch and we’d spent part of the afternoon with them as well and had great fun, so we had dinner together as well. The food was horrible but we had a great time talking and were the last on the boat to go to sleep, around midnight. The girl was born in Vietnam and was adopted by a French couple at the end of the Vietnam war. She came to Vietnam in an attempt to find her family, without even knowing where they could have lived or even if they were still alive. They’d already spent 3 weeks in the country but hadn’t found anything, so they decided to take a few days “off” to relax a bit before going home.
It was only when we went to bed that we realized our room was right on top of the power generator, which made a terrible noise all night… (plus the Cambodian woman in the room next door, that seemed to have given in to the wishes of the 2 men, at least that’s what it sounded like…). Needless to say we didn’t sleep all night…
On day 2 we had to be at breakfast around 8am. We simply picked one of the available seats, but soon after we sat down, one of the Australian guys arrived, all agitated because “the European pigs were sitting at “his” table”… We thought it was too sad to react to, so we just ate what turned out to be the best – or should I say least bad – meal of the trip. The boat headed back to the harbor and we had a last chance to admire the splendor of Halong Bay. We arrived at the harbor around 11.30am and went for lunch in some kind of huge cafetaria. The food was even more disgusting than the food on the boat.
After the horrible night we’d spend, I must admit we were a little bit cranky, so we were really hoping the bus ride back to Hanoi would be better than when we came. Instead, it was even worse… The bus was even more packed and there was not one decent place to sit – except the guide’s seat in the front of the bus. The guide started assigning seats: the seats with the most leg space (let’s not get carried away, they were still tiny) for the smallest people in the group… By that time I’d completely had it and didn’t really care about staying polite anymore, so I decided to simply take the guides seat. I can’t say he really agreed but I simply refused to move. On the way back to Hanoi, we stopped again at a tourist trap shop and after 30 minutes, when we were waiting to get back on the bus, the driver decided it would be a good time to wash it… This time it was our new French friends that stepped in, with succes: we continued in a dirty bus! Arriving in Hanoi we were lucky: we were the second couple to be dropped off at their hotel.
So after all this, would I recommend going to Halong Bay? Yes, definitely! OK, it’s a tourist trap, but there’s a reason why soo many tourists come here: the views are so breathtaking, you really shouldn’t miss them!