But there were a few things I really should have taken on board, before I got on-board. (Pun wasn’t originally intended.) After two days and one night cruising along the bay, picking a cruise liner that some would think as ‘a budget option’, it turned out to be a really nice boat with a useful, albeit sometimes too quick guide. So after doing the cruise, like so many before me and as so many will after, here’s my run-down for how your day will most likely go from Hanoi and how to make the most out of your two days. My tour company I haven't named on here, but anyone who's interested I'll happily provide details.
Anytime between 7am-8am: Pick-up
Of course, we’re running on Vietnamese time here, which could be 15 minutes early, or 15 minutes late. So be prepared that they’re probably not going to be picking you up smack-bang on time. But if you’ve been through Vietnam before reaching Hanoi you’ll no doubt be used to that. Remember that your morning will be spent picking up the rest of your group in Hanoi, which is always a joy running through the one-way streets in Old Quarter in Hanoi traffic. So you’re not leaving Hanoi until about 9ish. Give or take.
Anytime between 9am-10:30:
So half of the long drive begins, and they start talking about themselves and the company and a bit about the itinerary. You should (hopefully) get water at this point. Unless you booked a tour with drinks included (which I didn’t), this is the only free water that you’re going to receive. I should have listened to the various people who told me this: BRING WATER. Buy yourself two big bottles of water and save on the extreme drink prices on the boat.
Of course, you also stop off at rest-stop-shop where you can get a huge vase along with a toilet break.
More driving to the dock. It's a long drive. At this point, half your day is already gone in the drive, so be aware of that when booking the tours from Hanoi. If you want to spend more time on Halong Bay, think about doing a three day, two night tour or heading out to an island like Cat Ba. I was recommended this particular tour by a friend, but you really need to think about what you want to do and see and the time spent there. For a quick stop and the morning sunrise and sunset on a clear set of days, one night should be fine. But if you want to have a full day on the bay, then two nights and three days is looking better. Two days and one night was actually one day and one night on the bay and another 6 or so hours driving there and back.
Prepare for bedlam as you step off the bus for the tourist dock and there’s literally people and tour guides everywhere. At this point in my journey it was pouring with rain and I was feeling slightly defeated. I was expecting crystal blue skies against the limestone peaks, but even without the sun it still was an incredible sight to behold once I got out there. Also if you can wait, use the bathrooms on your ship. It costs you 2000VND to use the ones in the ferry dock. It isn't a steep fee in any sense, I just found fishing for small notes slightly inconvenient.
1:00pm - 2:30pm:
Once you've checked-in, you’ll hopefully see a quaint, clean and nice cabin. If you’ve been hosteling for a while, a cabin will be a lovely break from dorm rooms. Copious amounts of lunch will then be delivered and hopefully be delicious. If you like Vietnamese food, then you’ll be having a great time with lunch!
After lunch is a stop at this cave, where you'll be lined up along with lots of other people also on a Halong Bay tour. I just tried to keep to my group to learn about the stalactites and stalagmites which were beaten down by bored fisherman. Otherwise I tried to imagine I was in a smaller group and looked at all the rock formations that look like humans, or other human body parts…
Finally the highlight of my Halong Bay experience, kayaking around the area. It was so peaceful, just floating around and seeing the amazing limestone rock formations again the cloudy sky. The overcast air couldn’t even ruin this experience for me - it was simply incredible. Even though there’s a few other kayakers around you, you can easily paddle away to find your own place of solitary paradise. I would have liked to spend longer on the kayak, but we were only given 40 minutes.
Dinner is served, and at this point you’ll be able to experience a lovely hot shower after the kayaking. The bathrooms were actually really nice and dinner was again really delicious. After this, my fellow travellers indulged in karaoke, conversation and reclining on the sundeck to watch the lit-up boats against the limestone. I did enjoy the boat watching. You can easily find the party boats which are blaring noise and are shining neon colours against the peaks. But it was nice to just sit back with a good book in the boat. With the overcast weather it was a bit drafty on the sundeck, but on a nice night I envisioned it being great with a drink... If you can afford the drinks on the boat.
Breakfast: A mixture of western-style and Vietnamese breakfast food of fried rice. Also with the Vietnamese coffee? Heaven. I actually woke myself up at around 5:15am to see the sunrise, but unfortunately I was greeted to a whole bunch of rain instead. But if you’ve got a clear day... Even with the cloud, the scenery here is just wonderful. I always enjoyed looking out the window at the limestone peaking out from the ocean.
You’re then taken to visit the pearl farm in Halong Bay after breakfast. Although it is just another tourist trap in terms of you being personally delivered to the pearl shop to purchase pearls, learning about how they get the oysters to grow pearls and how many oysters actually grow genuine pearls was really interesting. I was pleasantly surprised about the farm... But the pearl shop isn’t really suited to the budget traveller. Although the 195,000,000VND necklace was pretty… One can dream.
A good spot of relaxing time before your cooking class. This boat I was on was definitely not a party-sailing experience, but if you ask around in Hanoi, you might be able to find that particular boat… Or hear them from your boat!
Cooking class. We made spring rolls. I improved on my last spring roll-making experience back in Saigon, which didn't end well. The lovely Vietnamese lady gasped when she saw my creations back on the Mekong Delta. I really enjoy the simplicity of the food here, so a cooking class is always a different way to indulge in the cuisine.
Lunch. Always delicious. The food on the tours in Vietnam, even the day tours, has never been disappointing.
12:00pm - onwards
Bus back to Hanoi. It’s another long trip with a stop in-between and by the time you drop everyone off, you might be the last one off the bus and not reach your accommodation till 5pm… So be prepared for the long afternoon on the bus. It's also a bit of a wait once you get off the boat at the ferry dock. In the rain, it was a little bit unpleasant.
Overall, I think when booking a tour on the most visited site in Vietnam, make sure you know what you're getting out of it. I was prepared for the long car ride, as well as the expensive drinks on the ship, but I hadn't really paid attention to what we would be actually doing. I would have liked to have done more kayaking, and maybe something else at night rather than just being left to our own devices. But then again, everyone wants something different.
My advice before heading out to Halong? Research. In Hanoi there are hundreds of travel agencies that can help you book a Halong Bay tour. Do your research about what you want and where the best place to get that experience in Halong will be. Also be prepared for the long ride to get there.
Have you done Halong Bay on a tour? Let me know about it as I would love to hear from others about the tours and whether they did it another way.
~ Olivia (WM)