* We were in Halong Bay from June 15-17, 2015
When we got to Hanoi our number one priority was to go straight to the front desk of our hotel to ask for help in booking a cruise on Halong Bay. Halong Bay is a bay in the Gulf of Tonkin that features thousands of limestone karsts, a fancy name for limestone rock features. Some karsts are as big as islands and some are just spires of rock jutting out of the water. Fancy name or not, we had heard rave reviews of the beauty of Halong Bay and wanted to make every effort we could to book ourselves on a 3 day cruise to see it for ourselves.
Similar to most of our hotel experiences in Vietnam, the staff of our little, amazingly cheap (but 4 star quality) hotel in Hanoi was incredibly, over the top nice, so much so that we thought they were too good to be true. They helped us book a last minute cruise, advised us on itineraries, and prices and went so far as to even call and bargain down room prices for us. Eventually we settled on a 3 day/2 night cruise on the Signature cruise line, on a small ship that accommodated only about a dozen guests at a time.
Just some quick advice for others who want to book a cruse on Halong Bay: Halong Bay is about a 3 hour drive from Hanoi and all the cruise companies offer pickup and drop off in Hanoi as a part of their price. But, they stop for an hour at arts/souvenir factory on the way out and at another one on the way back. So that’s pretty much one full day of driving that is a part of the “3 day” cruise. That means, you have to book a longer cruise (longer than the common 2 day/1 night cruise) in order to actually get some time out on the water! We found the 3 day/2 night to be a perfect amount of time for us. Additionally, there are a ton of ships out there on the bay doing the same exact itinerary and anchoring in the same area each night. We were a part of this caravan of ships[,] and although we loved our time in Halong Bay, it would have been nice to get off the beaten wave for a bit. There are cruises that offer alternative itineraries, they are just more expensive and booked out more in advance than our 2 days notice.
Back to our experience with Signature Cruises….
We had quite a mixed bag of fellow guests, from a crazy duo of 40+ year old German sisters who loved their wine and bikinis, to a slightly nerdy family of 3 originally from Vietnam who is raising their teenage son in northern California. The ship was nicer than we had anticipated, Our room was quite large and sunny, with a huge bath tub and shower. The meals on board were maybe not as delicious as our night market food stall finds, but still quite tasty and the staff were surprisingly sensitive to my vegetarian needs.
Our 2 days on Halong were packed with activities. On board the ship we had gorgeous ever-changing views while cruising around the bay, and also a spring roll cooking lesson and a morning Tai Chi session. And of course sunset wine was a requirement. We visited a pearl farm/floating fishing village where we were shown a demo on how cultured pearls are made. It was actually quite interesting. Although, we have doubts as to whether the fishing village was real, or just staged for tourists. We had a great day of kayaking in a lagoon inhabited by giant jellyfish. They would float near the surface of the water and we could see their long tentacles. We would try and hold them up with our paddles to get a better view. We did some swimming in another, non jellyfish lagoon and even visited a beach on one of the karst islands. Unfortunately the beach was over run by Vietnamese tourists coming for a day trip, arriving in boats by the hundreds. But there was a cool hike up to the top of the island with an amazing view of the bay and lots more karsts. On the last morning, before hopping into the shuttle back to Hanoi, we cruised out to an island with famous caves of stalactites and stalagmites. Again, it was a bit crowded, but the caves were huge and we really enjoyed our time there.
Although we were at times disappointed by the crowded itinerary we were paraded through, we did love the scenery of Halong Bay. Our favorite times were sunset when we would lounge on the roof of our ship and watch the light change on the beautiful scenery laid out before us.
Other Halong Bay Highlights…
- The scenery! The views from the ship and from the short hike we did to the top of one of the karst islands was just gorgeous. We had clear days and sunsets, which apparently is rare.
- We had some quiet time alone on the decks of the ship, and the setting was quite romantic. We didn’t often stay in luxurious accommodations throughout our trip and this ship was definitely classier than most places we had stayed in the previous 6 months.
- We saw a green flash at sunset! It was a first for both of us. We tried to photograph it, but it was difficult to capture. The green hue actually did linger for at least a minute!
- The kayaking with jellyfish was really neat. Neither of us wanted to fall in though!
- The culmination of our Friday Night Lights TV show watching happened! We had binge watched all the seasons during our trip and had recently finished. We saw a tourist at the caves wearing a Tim Riggins Panther’s jersey!
To see the full album of Halong Bay photos click here.