Tips for Halong Cruise Trips
“Halong” means “Bay of Descending Dragons”. This unique UNESCO World Heritage Site is a popular place for tourists and it is good to know that large parts of Halong Bay are officially protected from development. The islands vary greatly in size and shape as well as structure.
The Best Time to Visit Halong
While you can visit Halong Bay at any time of year, you should schedule your cruise carefully. Bad weather reduces visibility and may even ruin your journey. The best time to visit Halong Bay is from March to June, when it is less busy due to public holidays (30 April 30 and 1 May). From June to September is the low season, so you can get decent discounts, but keep an eye on weather predictions. It’s high season again in October and November, and it’s always sunny. December is mild and gloomy, but dry, while January and February are damp, foggy, and rainy. The showers will obscure the beauty of the bay.
How to book a Halong Bay tour
A day cruise will give you a taste of Halong Bay, but if you want to make the most of your journey, leave at least two days. You will be able to witness some of Halong Bay’s most breathtaking moments, as well as its greatest wonders: the sunset, dawn, and a starry or moonlit night.
Booking a Hanoi Halong Bay tour package is simple: simply contact a travel agent, a cruise ship operator, or your Hanoi hotel. It is best to shop around and inquire specifically what is included (and, most critically, what is excluded) in the kit (e.g: kayaking & transfers). If something seems to be too good to be real, it most likely is. Often, whether you book with an agency or a hotel, make sure you get a hotline number to call in case of an emergency (e.g.: prohibited cruises due to storm warnings.)
From here, a plethora of sluggish ‘junk’ tour boats for package tourists from Hanoi depart for Cat Ba Island. The piers are not set up for individual travel and most passengers taking these boats are on pre-booked tours; you will be surrounded by hawkers looking to make a fast buck by selling you tickets at a premium: avoid these guys. You want to purchase a ticket from a row of counters inside a building by the waterfront. Tickets for ‘route 1’, the most popular way to cross the Cat Ba, cost 80,000 VND. Wait with the locals (the party that is easily identified as “not lost looking western tourists”) before something happens.
Individual tourists who are not on a tour package from Hanoi will be approached by “registered” agents upon arrival at Bai Chay Wharf to sell cruise packages to them. Prices start at 500,000 VND for a 4-hour cruise (which includes an 80,000 VND cruise ticket) and 800,000 VND for a 6-hour cruise (for non-Vietnamese Asians).
If you want to escape the hassle of purchasing your own tickets and avoid feeling like a wandering sheep unsure of which cruise to take, do your hardest to negotiate. If you have a Vietnamese-speaking guide with you, you should approach the ticket counter directly, and the prices would be even lower (remember, it’s an 80,000 VND ticket). However, be willing to spend more than the specified value of your fare due to additional surcharges such as required insurance.
The tourist boats simply stop at an island with two badly preserved caves, and passengers are suckered into overpriced drinks and kayaking (“the water cave”) along the way; the whole ordeal requires four to five hours and is better avoided whether you’ve never seen a cave before or want to hang out with incompetent gap-year visitors. You will speak with the guide who leads a tourist party to the pier about purchasing a cruise or transferring to Cat Ba with him directly.
If there are any available rooms on the cruise, they would gladly accept you. A two-day, one-night all-inclusive cruise costs less than $40 USD. According to an old article, “there is another government-run ferry that leaves the tourist wharf at 12:00 daily for 100,000 VND per person and takes 5 hours.”
A medium-quality, three-day/two-night cruise that includes one night on a boat (which may or may not be air-conditioned) and one night on Cat Ba island in a two-star hotel, as well as bus transfers to and from Hanoi, all other transfers, access to a cave, kayaking, admission to Cat Ba National Park, and all meals. (which are adequate but not exceptional) should cost about 145 USD when booked through a credible travel agency in Hanoi (or you could try to book through your hotel in Hanoi).
There are solutions for less than $100 USD, but the majority tend to be shady or outright scams. Do not book organized tours from Halong Bay because they would overcharge you due to a lack of competition. Many taxi drivers would attempt to drop you off at an entrance away from the main terminal where they have mates waiting to try to give you overpriced tours or transfers when you take a taxi to Bay Chai Wharf in Halong Bay (be wary of the taxi driver makes a call on his mobile as soon as you are in the taxi).
Touts may be wearing identification around their necks to make themselves look official but they are not to be trusted – you are likely to end up on a cheap tour with nothing included (e.g.. no admissions, no transfers on Cat Ba) despite the touts insisting that everything is included. The touts at Halong Bay pier will say anything to get your money and should be avoided if you don’t want to be scammed. Pre-booking through a travel agent in Hanoi will be safer and cheaper.