Travel planning can be overwhelming. I’ve literally been spending hours and hours every day for several weeks planning my upcoming Vietnam trip. Choosing a Halong Bay tour, with literally hundreds of options, and also many scams, is one of those things that has taken me days. I can understand why some people would rather just pay someone a handsome fee to just get everything done for them in a trustworthy and stress-free manner. That’s why hopefully we as bloggers can help share some of the circles and arrows to help make such things easier. Since Shelli over at Travel With Grant already covered how to get a quick and easy $25 tourist e-Visa as a US citizen, all you need now are some flights, hotels, and some things to do! One of which is a tour of Halong Bay! (P.S. a lot of Halong Bay Tours provide free visas so you could save another $25 per person)
I used the power of crowdsourcing on Facebook to ask my well-traveled friends (many whom are Vietnamese-American) a few questions:
- Is it really worth it? I read reviews that it was trashy, and others that it’s amazing. Is it both trashy and amazing???
- Is a 2 night cruise or 1 night cruise better?
- In my research, I quickly discovered there are actually three bays (Halong, Bai Tu Long, Lan Ha), with the “usual” Halong Bay tour being very dirty and trashy because it’s just in the Halong Bay area and doesn’t venture to the other two, more pristine bays (technically still part of the larger Halong Bay). What would you recommend?
- There are hundreds of cruise lines. How do you go about picking one without going crazy?
Let’s round up the advice and address each of these questions:
Is it worth it?
The unanimous vote was yes. Some parts of the bay are dirty and trashy (“swim with a school of plastic bags!”), but not all of it is, and it is still beautiful and awe-inspiring overall.
I figure, I’ve already been to Vietnam once, I’m going on a longer trip this time which includes Hanoi, so who knows when I’ll be back? I’ve still got a lot of other trips on my bucket list. So might as well see this UNESCO site while I can (and it still exists), and furthermore, my trip is in March, which I also found in my research is the best time to visit northern Vietnam and Halong Bay. Done. This tour is happening.
How many nights?
My friends were split on this. Some said “one night was definitely enough” whereas the ones who said two nights said that they felt it was totally worth it. Day trips? Please. No.
I was glad that I stayed in Halong Bay for two days. Between strolling and motorbiking around the islands to excursions around the bay, there’s more than 2 days worth of adventures there. –BF
Also stayed for 2 nights (one was for a wedding) and I thought that was the best amount of time, to kayak, go to the secluded beaches, relax on the ship, and enjoy the food. The cruise company did amazing BBQ feasts on the secluded beaches. –CW
I talked to some people on Tripadvisor and various other blogs, and found that the general trend was that the 1-night people were quite frankly a little disappointed in this hyped up natural wonder of the world, whereas the 2-night people thought it was amazing and well worth doing.
What was the difference?
I think it comes down to the fact that the 2-night people got a little more time to relax and enjoy the cruise, rather than constantly being shuffled and herded around on a strict time schedule. Many of the 1-night people complained that they barely had 18 hours or whatever. You usually have to check out of your cruise ship room right after breakfast, and stand around on the deck for another few hours. There’s a lot of time spent waiting around for everyone else. The 2-night people have the same issue on the final day, but at least they had a full day of awesome activities in between.
The first and last day (which, for the 1-night people, is literally the whole trip) has a lot of “hurry up and wait.” First of all, for the majority of cruises, you are picked up at 8 am at your hotel in Hanoi and have to sit in a van/car for 4 hours to get to the port. That is a LONG DRIVE. And don’t forget, you have to do that in reverse on the way back!
Two cruises now leave from Hai Phong, which is a 1.5-2 hour drive from Hanoi on a new long highway. More about that later.
Another problem with the 1-night cruises is they often can’t get out far enough to the nicer, cleaner, more pristine parts of the greater Halong Bay — Bai Tu Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay. So that could also affect the 1-night people’s view of Halong Bay. I found this blog post very helpful in convincing me that a 2-night cruise that included Bai Tu Long Bay was the way to go. There’s also Cat Ba Island to consider, which could be a whole trip in itself. My Facebook friends agreed:
Really loved Bai Tu Long Bay because there were way less people around, really serene. –CW
Which cruise line?
Omg. Where to even begin. Just google “halong bay cruise” and it’s overwhelming. Then you start reading about scams, like people booking a cruise through an agent (who often gets better prices than directly through the cruise operator itself due to contract rates) and getting sent to another boat, and the agent claims it’s an “upgrade.” Or someone’s reservation getting cancelled due to “overbooking.” Or what about travel agents who just take the money and disappear?
My friends gave me a few tips here too:
The cruise that we used was the Au Co, 3 days/2 nights tour that gave us a great experience, fantastic food with cooking demonstration, and time to spend on small islands in Ha Long bay.
We booked through Vega Travel for about $100 per person for 2 days and 1 night on the boat. We first flew into Hanoi and then they shuttled us 4 hours to Ha Long Bay and back. All meals are included and you sleep in your own room on the boat. http://vegatravel.vn/ — BV
First, I guess you have to decide what your budget is. These tours can be very cheap, or very expensive. “You get what you pay for” kinda applies here, in terms of how nice the room is and how good the food is. I found this blog very helpful because it reassured me that most of the cruises had very similar itineraries and activities (kayaking, squid fishing, caves, swimming, cooking classes, etc) and often sailed alongside each other. Their inclusions and exclusions were all the same – they always include all meals and always exclude beverages. They all offered van transfer from hotel to port, but you had to be careful to get a final price including this transfer. As I went through the itineraries of several cruises, it became apparent that this was quite true. Some would throw in a few extras though, like a free walking tour, free visa, free massage, free airport transfer, etc. These things are cheap/unnecessary; try to stay focused on the actual cruise itself.
Interestingly, my friends happened to give me a good mix of cruises in terms of budget. Au Co Cruises was in the $$$ range (> $400 per person, they even have a seaplane transfer package from Hanoi so you don’t have to ride a car for 4 hours each way), Indochina Junk was $$ (~$200-300 per person), and Vega Travel was $ (< $200 per person).
My process of elimination and final selection
As we all know, I’ve become quite spoiled in luxury hotel stays, so I ruled out the super low budget ones, as attractive as the price was, based on the style and design of the room and the boats. As I browsed through pages and pages of cruise operators on Halong Bay Tours (a travel agency run by Blue Dragon Tours – tripadvisor reviews) and BestPriceVN (travel agency – tripadvisor reviews), my superficial requirement made it easy for me to close a lot of new tabs I had opened. I also didn’t want to spend nearly $1000 on this experience, so it quickly became apparent that the mid-tier cruises would be the right choice for me.
I also realized that I liked new things, so I wanted to be on a newer, more modern boat. That helped me eliminate a few more. I think by the end, I was down to a few tabs open, which included Signature Cruise Line, Azalea Cruise, Pelican Cruise, Dragon Pearl Junk, Sealife Cruise, and Indochina Sails.
One of these really stuck out to me, which was Azalea Cruise, advertising “Only 1.5 hour drive on a brand new highway from Hanoi to Hai Phong City – Comfortable and save time.” I looked at this on a map and then looked at Tripadvisor reviews of Azalea and the photos of their boats and rooms on their website and I liked what I saw.
My strategy with Tripadvisor reviews lately has been:
- Look at reviews in order from 1 stars first to 5 stars last. I want to see the complaints first and filter them out as needed. Azalea is a new cruiseline that just started in November 2017, so not a ton of reviews on Tripadvisor yet, and I read them all. Fortunately, no reviews below 4 stars either.
- Try to filter out not-a-big-deal complaints from significant issues. This is actually different for everyone. For example, hovering attentive service is not important to me, so if someone rates poorly and complains that staff wasn’t all that attentive, I don’t take that review into account. If someone complains the food is mostly Western food and caters to American tastes, that’s a big deal to me because I’m going to Vietnam to eat Vietnamese food, don’t give me American food.
- Finally, contact a couple of the reviewers and ask follow-up questions. Some of them will ignore you, but others will be super helpful (give them some upvotes on their reviews to help them out too).
- Extra credit: Maybe post a public question if you want as many people to weigh in as possible about something that not all the reviews addressed. For example, I saw some people complain on Azalea’s sister cruiseline, Orchid Cruises’ Tripadvisor reviews that even though the time driving was cut in half, they ended up wasting a lot of time waiting around at port and being transferred to the cruise in an uncomfortable tender boat in which they were swindled into paying for drinks which they thought were free, etc. So I asked if people who took Azalea experienced this and if they thought the time savings in the car was worth it. I got one answer that said it was worth it and I also got a private message from another helpful user that said it was too.
I quickly discovered there are a few ways to book a cruise:
- Directly through the cruise operator
- Via a travel agency in advance
- Via a travel agency in person upon arrival in Hanoi
A few of my friends went with option 3 because it allowed them more haggling power since the travel agencies and cruiselines want to fill up the boats at the last minute. One of my friends said that on the boat, she asked some other people what they paid, and she had paid nearly half of what they did! Score!
I decided not to wait till the last minute for several reasons:
- I cut my time in Hanoi by 1 night in order to make this cruise happen for 2 nights. So I only have 2 nights in Hanoi now, and a lot of things to do. I don’t want to be sitting in a travel agency’s office haggling over a few bucks for an hour.
- I generally don’t like to make expensive decisions like that at the last minute anyways.
- I want a slightly more luxurious boat, which I think could actually stand a chance of being sold out earlier, and my dates were not flexible. thorrnydevil (super thorough, helpful, and nice reviewer, btw) on Tripadvisor told me that his Azalea cruise was sold out. His trip was on New Years Eve though, so that made sense (also, Azalea has a surcharge for special holidays like that; check for fees like that in your research).
So I contacted the following for a quote including the van transfer from Hanoi to the port at Hai Phong:
- Very professional response. They actually gave me the highest price. However, it was good to know what the maximum price was for a non-scam.
- They do have special promotions on their website, which I saw included airport transfer from HAN to your hotel, and even a spa voucher onboard. However, an Uber or Grab generally costs around $10, a bus is like $2, and I didn’t think the price differential was worth the extras.
- Darian was quick to respond, very professional, patient, and thorough with my questions. His website is pretty good and easy to use also. You can get a quote easily and can check/uncheck various add-ons. He actually offered me the best price, and I ended up booking through him. He sent me a 30% deposit invoice via Paypal (I had to cover the Paypal fees), and the rest will be paid at the cruise in either cash or credit card (3% fee if credit card). Payment is made in USD or VND.
- Cancellation policy:
- Refund 100% if you cancel 30 days before check-in
- 50% total price will be charged if cancel from 15~29 days before check-in
- 70% total price will be charged from 4 days ~ 15 days before check-in
- You pay full 100% if you cancel from 3 days before check-in
- Tripadvisor reviews were great!
- I corresponded with Lily and Duong. They were very professional, nice, and thorough. They provided me with many options at first before I chose Azalea. They gave me a very good price as well, but it was about $50 more than Darian Culbert. Payment would be in USD or VND at the equivalent exchange rate (no gouging). I forgot to ask if they absorb the 3% bank fee.
- Cancellation policy: If you cancel at least 15 days before, no charge.
- Tripadvisor reviews are also phenomenal, and they seem extremely popular.
Halong Bay Tours (Blue Dragon Tours)
- I started a booking request online and then corresponded with Senior Travel Consultant Emma. She was also very professional and efficient. Their website is highly polished, definitely the nicest looking website of all the agencies, in my opinion. They gave me a better quote by email than on their website.
- Lemme tell you, I was highly tempted to go with them because they were the only company to offer me a free 60 minute massage for 2 people (in Hanoi, not on the cruise), no bank fee on credit card payments (save 3%!), and a 50% discount on the van transfer from hotel.
- This special deal they quoted me was within $10 of Darian Culbert, but there was one catch, this discounted package would be non-refundable and non-changeable. The less restrictive package would’ve been closer to Lily Travel Agency’s price.
- I read a couple poor reviews on Tripadvisor regarding being “upgraded” into a cruise other than what they booked. I asked Emma about this, and she reassured me:
Regarding about decline any “upgrades” to other cruises: As you know we are travel agent and sometimes the cruise is over booked and they ask us to ask our customers to do them a favor that moving to another cruise. But the fact that, all of the cruise we upgrade for our customers are always the nicer cruise and we always ask you if you would like to take this upgrade or not. If you do not want to take the upgrade, we surely keep the original cruise for you. Thus kindly no worry about your booking, I will keep the Azalea cruise for you and decline any upgrades to other cruises.
Overall, Darian Culbert and Halong Bay Tours were within $10 of each other, all-in, and about $40-50 less than Lily’s Travel Agency. Technically, Halong Bay Tour had the most enticing package with the massage. Everyone I corresponded with at every company was very professional and not dodgy. I think I could’ve really gone with any of them. I decided to go with Darian not only because he offered a competitive rate, but because I didn’t really need the massage package (I’ll just go pay $5-10 for one in Hanoi if I even have time, and my husband doesn’t like massages anyways) and even though the trip is pretty much set in stone now, I generally prefer not to book completely non-refundable travel-related things. As a courtesy, I notified all the other agencies that I was booking with Darian and I promised to still recommend my experience with them and consider other tours with them if needed.
Hopefully my thought process on booking a Halong Bay cruise has been helpful (sorry if it was a bit long), and hopefully you find the linked websites handy too. I’ll let you all know how the cruise goes afterwards!!