Thursday, May 6, 2010

It pays to pay in Halong Bay

Halong Bay is probably the biggest tourist attraction in Vietnam. That means many hungry tourism companies looking for your dollar and here in Hanoi the competition is strong. In the Old Quarter every second shop will sell you a tour to Halong Bay, some shockingly cheap. Many shops act purely as ticket sellers, passing on the unsuspecting tourist to another company. They are all about sales and don’t care about your trip, there is no after sales customer service... Once in the hands of the actual company running the tour you are at their mercy. I have heard many negative stories from people going there and feeling like sheep, constantly herded from one place to the next, even sometimes being told at the last minute there is not enough room on the boat to sleep so sorry but we'll drop you off at a cheap hotel on the mainland. The cheap tours more often than not have bad service so be aware of what you might be getting yourself into.

We recently booked a tour through 'Eco-friendly Vietnam' and it was great. We skipped the main touristic area inside Halong Bay and spent our few days on and around the nearby Cat Ba Island. The landscape and the scenery are just the same, the difference being the lack of other boats. Most of the other boats don’t want to spend the fuel moving away from the Bay or can’t keep the cheap rates with the cost of the speed boat getting to Cat Ba Island. The other main point was that it was a private tour, so we had the boat just for us four. We paid $105 per person for two days and one night, everything (except beers) included.

The whole area felt as if it was ours for this couple of days, we only once briefly passed one or two other boats. The swimming was amazing, jumping into the emerald green water with not a soul in sight is a great feeling. We went kayaking too, and that was so peaceful (apart for Celine's muttering that I didn't know my right from my left). Our kayaking was uninterrupted except for some disappointing rubbish lurking in the water. We collected this, a part of the eco-friendly tour suggestions, and enjoyed the peaceful surrounds. We explored a cave, which used to be inhabited many thousands of years ago as the thousands of sea shells layering the cave's floor showed us that they were once someone's main dinner ingredient... the cave felt and probably was untouched from the tourist masses.
The sunset was beautiful and we enjoyed a bottle of dalat red wine as the sun slowly descended over the limestone karst horizon. The setting was photogenic.

The seafood meals, three in total, were delicious. They were perfectly cooked by our very own on board chef, and without a doubt were as fresh as you could get; we stopped 30 minutes before eating at the fisherman village to collect our dinner/lunch each time.

The morning after the night on the boat, my personal favourite, was perfectly tranquil. With no one around, except a distant lone worker on a small row boat and a few jumping fish, I could dive into the bay and float around staring at the mountains above. It was calm and peaceful and mine. That was the moment of my trip and that alone made it worthwhile.

I am always willing the pay more for an authentic experience. In this case I don’t think it is always the money, as some crowded disaster stories have cost similar amounts, that needs to be considered. Do your research on the tour company before hand and go with the good reviews. The area is amazing and shouldn’t be missed so if you have the chance to go their don’t ruin it by choosing a dodgy company.


  1. very welcome perspective of a small tour and what can be achieved compared to a larger boat. My wife and I went on Pinta Gold last October and I dont think we had as good a time as you. Being away from the herd is not always a lonely experience. I have great concerns over the future of Halong Bay unless UNESCO does an enviro audit on how it is going since being granted World Heritage Status.

  2. It was definetly enjoyable and felt authentic. I would welcome an audit, sooner rather than later, because Halong Bay is one of the main attractions of Vietnam and people are pouring through there everyday. That is only going to increase as Vietnam gorws in popularity as a tourist destination.

  3. Hello! We are about to book a tour with Eco-friendly Vietnam-- 3d/2nights for me and my husband. We are looking for that "off the beaten path experience" which I think this company can offer, but we're a little nervous because we can't find many reviews on this company. They have asked us to "wire" them money for our reservation. Did you do this? Should I trust them? Thanks for the info... your trip looks amazing!!

  4. Here we are in 2012 and I picked this blog up from a forum contibution by Dave Rose on Trip Advisor

    We are considering booking a tour operated off of Cat ba Island so this is most helpful - thank you for taking the time