Trust me, there are hundreds of shady outfits out there, dodgy tour operators in Hanoi who will take your money and happily let you board a chunk of rotten plank, and feed you dog as you do your best not to fall overboard your ‘cruise ship’ in Halong Bay. If you want to see this place, it pays to do it properly. We heard several horror stories and did some extensive research before booking with Blue Dragon Tours and the Paloma cruise liner.
Halong Bay, which literally means “descending dragon bay”) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and pretty much a must-see on the backpacker or traveller route from north to south Vietnam. The highlight is the thousands of limestone karsts and isles you get to see from your cruise liner, poking out of the water like black and brown chipped teeth of various sizes and shapes. It’s a bit like being on a movie set – you can see how a period drama of some sort might be set here. It was raining on our visit too, which added to the mystery and adds a touch more drama to the piccies!
Anyway, the Paloma cruise liner was great, we had reeeeeally comfy beds with pristine white sheets and fluffy pillows, air-conditioning, a free fruit platter and bottles of water, a fridge and a safe in our cabin! Plus, the wooden decked bathroom was the best bathroom I’ve ever seen on any boat.
We opted for the two-day, one-night cruise. You can do a two-night one but to be honest, we didn’t really see much point. You basically just cruise around the limestone karsts some more on that trip, maybe do some kayaking. Also, they might put you up in this minging tower block type hotel on Cat Ba island, which looked like an ageing Bates Motel-esque disgrace in the brochures.
We did get to see a cool cave and a floating village, but most of the time was spent eating the excellent food and making the most of the buy-two-get-one-free cocktails on the boat (ahem). They really did an awesome job on this one – we had fresh seafood, beef and chicken dishes all cooked to perfection, and the breakfast was eggs any way we wanted them, and Laughing Cow triangles, which is always a fave. They had more things than that but I just get excited about Laughing Cow and don’t tend to notice much else.
We paid $100 each for this cruise, with a bit of a discount for booking last minute. I wouldn’t pay more than that, but if you’re looking for the best option with great food, great cabins, great service and of course, the amaaaazing views of Halong Bay in Vietnam, you can’t get much better than this for the price.
Next stop, Sapa!