A note to my dear readers: this post was not sponsored by any third party – it was written based on my experience and honest opinion only.
Hello again, guys!
I recently went to Ha Long Bay for 2 days/1 night for a weekend getaway (first week of March). Guys, it was much better than my initial expectation, and I would definitely recommend everyone to visit Vietnam for this unforgettable trip. That said, if you are coming to Hanoi, make sure you spare one day or two for Ha Long Bay. Here’s a review of my experience in Ha Long Bay, and hopefully, it will give you a pretty a good idea of what’s waiting for you on your next expedition.
1. Picking a Tour
Let’s get this out of the way first: if you are traveling to Ha Long Bay, you tour the place on a cruise ship. It’s the best way to explore Ha Long Bay, end of conversation.
So before embarking on this trip, I had to look around for a (cruise) tour that would last for 2 days & only 1 night – starting from Saturday to Sunday. The most famous Ha Long Bay tour company is definitely Paradise Group since they have been around for the longest and garnered a lot of attention from international tourists.
I believe that Paradise Group had two types of ship, the premium ($800 ~ $1000/room/night) and the standard ($200 ~ $400/room/night). Based on the photos posted on their website, the rooms are comparable to those at 4 & 5-star hotels. I definitely did consider them at first, but apparently, despite the good service and reputation, they are still a bit overpriced in my humble opinion.
In the end, I followed a recommendation by a friend, who worked at Exotic Voyages and have experience in planning luxury tours for American tourists in Vietnam, and went with Indochina Sails. To be honest, they are the underdogs in the competition, fighting against giants like Paradise. But I trusted the recommendation from my friend and wanted to give Indochina Sails a shot. The price for a double room (2 people + breakfast + amenities on board) was approximately $370. The latter also included a 2-way car pick up at $34/person.
Finally, March – April – May are the best times to visit Ha Long Bay due to the ideal weather and amount of tourists on site.
2. Prepping / Packing
Well, as you might have heard, there were some unfortunate cases in which cruise ships in Ha Long Bay actually caught fire and sunk. And just like any ordinary human being, I was nervous about that for a while. That’s why I decided to pack really light and googled up techniques on how to escape from a sinking ship. But hey, everything turned out to be just fine as I am here, editing photos from the trip and writing this review. You can breathe now.
Basically, try to only pack the essentials for this trip (as the longest cruise tour on Ha Long Bay will only last for 3-4 days at max). By that, I mean, not too many clothes and unnecessary accessories as you will be spending most of the time taking pictures and visiting various islands in the bay.
Oh yeah, and don’t forget to bring your camera and GoPro. Just want to make sure!
3. Road Trip and Boarding
At 7.00 am on the first day of our trip, I woke up for breakfast and last-minute packing.
At 8.00 am, I took a cab to meet everyone else on the tour at Hanoi Opera House, Hoan Kiem District to be picked up. Surprisingly a pretty decent 7-place car (sorry, I forgot what type of car it was – probably a Toyota) and it was super comfy. Each one of us had a wet towel and a bottle of water at our disposal.
At 10.30 am, the driver stopped mid-way at a huge souvenir shop for tourists for everyone to rest and grab a snack for 30 minutes. Just like every other typical shopping locations, the stuff here were sort of overpriced (especially the food). Nevertheless, they had pretty decent and beautiful Vietnamese crafts (accessories, paintings, bags), like this bracelet that I bought.
At 11.00 am, we hit the road again.
Finally, at 12.00 pm, we arrived at one of Tuan Chau port in Ha Long Bay to board the ship. Upon arriving, we also learned from the driver that people can actually travel from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay via helicopter (~40 minutes). However, the helicopter will land at Noi Bai Airport (which is super far from downtown Hanoi) – so definitely keep that in mind.
At around 12.15 pm, we were on the boat and the overall ambiance was great. The ship had 4 floors, and the guests stayed on the 1st (no balcony) and 2nd (with balcony). Dinner room and common area are on the third floor, while the top floor is the ultimate place to relax (and practice Tai Chi in the morning).
We were warmly welcomed by the captain as well as the cruise members with a quick briefing about ship safety. Afterward, we were given the keys to our rooms and went there to relax for a while before lunch. Since my room was on the 2nd floor, I got to contemplate the amazing scenery in Ha Long Bay on my own balcony. This must be one of the best features on the ship. Here comes the review of the room.
They were a lot better than our expectation. Usually, we would expect amenities on a ship to be only so-so, but the entire place was very clean and neat; Everything was sanitized and carefully covered. The bathroom also looked pretty chic; However, according to my travel buddy, the water for showering on the boat will likely make your hair tangled and dry.
According to the captain of the ship, it was the longest ship made from wood in the region (that said, other steel ships are bigger). Although the ship looks old from the outside, its interior is pretty nice with modern (and relaxing) furniture.
At 1.30 pm, we all went up to the 3rd floor for lunch with the rest of the guest. The lunch menu was decent and tasty, while you would have to pay for extra drinks. Our servers were very kind and so the service was excellent. After lunch, we get to rest for a while, relax on the top floor, discover Ha Long Bay as the ship cruised through the area. I heard that the massage service was also available throughout the ship so that’s a plus for those who need one.
4. Surprise Cave (“Hang Sửng Sốt”)
At 4.00 pm, we arrived at Surprise Cave (“Hang Sửng Sốt“), one of the largest and most stunning grottoes in the Ha Long Bay on Bon Hon Island. I don’t disagree. The interior of the cave was majestic and impressive.
On entering it, you will see strange rock formations and structures throughout, as if you were in an Indiana Jones movie. Our tour guide previously said that each one of us will see different animals and “things” in the same piece of rock. He was right, and it was fun imagining what the structure looked like. In some areas, the inside wall of the grotto (or more specifically the “ceiling”) had multiple curves that made it look like the sea waves.
The largest area in the grotto was definitely the highlight of this expedition. There is, of course, one perfect spot for an almost panoramic view of the place (you can see that in the picture below). While standing there, I heard other French tourists saying that “Well, this is one hell of a view”. My photos doesn’t do it justice – you will want to be there and see it for yourself.
Upon exiting the cave, I noticed a familiar sight; It is the Ha Long Bay that we always see when we google it up. I had to stop and grab some picture of this iconic scenery. After returning to the cruise, we slowly surfed around the area to watch the sun set. It was mesmerizing and unforgettable scenery.
Ensuite, we had the chance to participate in a quick cultural immersion experience with one of the chef. I believe that it is different for each tour – some did fruit-carving while others prepared “nem” (Vietnamese Spring Rolls). I was too busy making them so I forgot the take picture of the experience so I’ll leave you in suspense.
At 7.00 pm, a buffet-dinner was served. Again, the food was delicious with a wide selection of dishes – from BBQ squid to Sweet-&-Sour Clams. However, it would have been better if they swapped the lunch with the dinner menu, since most people would prefer a light meal instead of a huge buffet at the end of the day.
5. Night Activities and Squid Fishing
Then some of the post-dinner activities are tea, board game (chess, Chinese chess, mahjong, domino) and squid-fishing. As you can already guess, most people went for squid fishing, although the majority of them quit after 15 minutes. There were absolutely no squid in sight, which left everyone sad and disappointed. The key to excel in squid-fishing is patience, everyone.
Me and my friends, after leaving our spot to some other guests in the middle of the race, came back near the end of it to test our luck once again. First, we caught two jellyfishes, because we got too bored. After having a close-up look of them, we let them back in the water.
After patiently waiting for another 30 minutes, we finally saw one baby and two “parent-squids” lurking in the area. They were sneaky and boy were they smart. After playing mind-game with them for 5 minutes, one of them finally suck on our hook. We were palpitating with excitement as we slowly pull it up to the surface. However, as we were making the final pull, the ninja squid lash out its ink in defense and escape into the water. That’s how we lost to the squids. I told you they were smart. What a day to remember!
6. Day Two & Dawn in Ha Long Bay
After a good night sleep, we woke up at 6.30 am the next day to watch the sun rise in Ha Long Bay. It’s a fascinating view you won’t want to miss. Then at 7.00 am, my friends and other guests joined the cruise Tai Chi master on the top deck. It’s a great opportunity for a breath of fresh air and healthy way to start your day.
Light snack and coffee/tea were also serve (from 6.00 to 8.00 am) while the main brunch would be served at 9.30 am.
7. Titov Island & Some Time on the Beach
At 7.30 am, we board the small board and head to Titov Island, named after a Russian pilot friend of the Ho Chi Minh president. It is always crowded with American and European visitors. At Titov Island, you will want to climb up the few-hundreds steps rock stairway for a magnificent panoramic view of Ha Long Bay. However, the way up is pretty steep and narrow, so do consider that before jumping in.
Titov Island also has a cozy beach filled with people lying in the sand and bathing in the warm sunlight. It is honestly a great place to relax, as it is not rowdy at all despite a great amount of daily visitors. Some of the other guests on our cruise even decided to dive in for a quick swim at one point. They were so excited after coming back and gushed over the stunning view to the entire bay.
8. Wrapping Up
After visiting Titov Island, we board the Indochina cruise ship again and prepare for check out at 9 am. At 9.30 pm, we come back to the 3rd floor for the brunch-buffet. The last meal on board was very satisfying, with bacon, (delicious) Vietnamese Pho noodle soup, fruits, cereals, many more, along with a bar of made-to-order omelette.
For the rest of the morning, we tried to grab some last-minute photo of the exquisite Ha Long Bay and sit down for a Chinese chess match. At 11.40 am, we reached Tuan Chau port and hopped on our private car back to Hanoi. And that’s a wrap!
Now, the fun part:
Overall Experience with Indochina Sails in Ha Long Bay – 8.5/10.0
Food – Good
There is a wide selection of dishes, even for vegetarians (yes, there was a family from India who was vegetarian and they seemed satisfied with the food – so I take this as a good sign). 90% of the dishes were tasty (some of them simply didn’t suit my taste – either to dry or bland). However, one thing that I need to point out is the temperature of their food; I don’t think they did a very good job at heating their food before serving the guests (buffet only) as it was just warm. However, they did manage to bring out a pumpkin soup heated with candle for each guest during our first meal; Was that just for a good first impression?
Tour Destination – Excellent
Their destination picks were the typical ones, but the also good ones. Both destinations are must-visit places for everyone who comes to Ha Long Bay, and they both have stunning scenery. Both of them are well-managed, well-organized, and not very crowded. I think this is mostly due to the fact that the majority of the visitors or either European or American, who tend to keep things in order more often (no disrespect intended). When people stay in line, don’t push each other around, and put their trash in their pocket or trash bin, we all get a better overall experience! This is just an universal fact.
Safety & Cleanliness – Very Good
As soon as we boarded the ship, the captain showed us everything we need for an emergency escape, from hammer to life jacket in the closet. During my stay, I didn’t notice anything that would be dangerous to the guests or any technical issues on boat. However, if you are traveling with your pet (not sure if you can) or little kids, you should definitely keep an eye on them.
As for the cleanliness, well, the bedrooms are clean (as I have mentioned above), the common and dining areas are clean. However, its level of cleanliness is not comparable to that in a 5-star hotel on land since everything is made of wood can deteriorate faster due to unavoidable contact with sea water.
Service – Excellent
The service by Indochina Sails is probably the second best thing about my entire experience in Ha Long Bay; It comes second after the beautiful Ha Long Bay itself. The captain as well as the young waiters and cruise members are very dedicated, hardworking and nice. They are always there for you with a big smile on their face and the willingness provide the best service possible. Beside the captain and the female tour guide, the rest aren’t very good at English – but still, they can still communicate with and support the foreign visitors.
Value – Very Good
Honesty, I think it got a pretty good deal with Indochina Sails. Everything was better than my expectation (so that may impact my evaluation of the overall value to some extent). But if you’re not looking for the most luxurious tour to Ha Long Bay and simply need a good and friendly service, definitely check these guys out!
Life is a journey.
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