A Halong Bay cruise was something I really wanted to do. I had been drooling over the pictures for a long time and it was the most important sight for me in Vietnam.
I went with Halong Phoenix Cruiser on a Halong Bay cruise for 3 days/2 night on July 9th to 11th 2016. I paid $300 for the trip but later found out I it could have been significantly cheaper. But more on that later.
Before deciding on who to take the tour with I read a lot of reviews and looked at TripAdvisor, Booking, Agoda and Halong Bay Cruises No Limit. I didn’t find TripAdvisor useful at all. I wasn’t sure if Halong Bay Cruises No Limit was legit or a scam and I did several different searches to try to find out. Except for a few posts about people who had booked through them and were satisfied I couldn’t find anything else. A few posts was not enough to convince that it was legit. The prices were significantly lower than Agoda and Booking though, which I wasn’t sure how to interpret.
So, I was left with Booking and Agoda. While reading through all the reviews on all the sites for all the cruises I was interested in, I quickly realized that no matter what, I was going to be either scammed or ripped off. No matter what I wouldn’t get anything remotely close to what I was paying for. I was left with a decision to save money and have a crappy tour or pay way too much for a good tour.
Halong Bay was significant for me and I most certainly wouldn’t want to be scammed or have my trip ruined, so I chose the later – the expensive, overpriced option. And I’m glad that I did. I had a great tour despite all the things you could point your finger at.
The boat was small, charming and nice. My room, shower and bed was all great and looked new. It wasn’t prestine as one would expect from the price, but it was certainly clean enough. It wasn’t dirty, but there were stains on the sheets and on the wall. Even on some of the napkins in the restaurant. I would rate cleanliness 8/10. 10 being no stains and no hair and looks, feels and smells clean and new. 8 is still clean, but it doesn’t necessarily smell of soap and there are some (old) stains.
There were no rats, cockroaches, bugs or insects on the boat (of what I could see or hear). No problems with the boat either and except for a few outages, the A/C and water was working all the time. (All of those issues were mentioned in the various reviews I read.)
The food was pretty good. It was beyond excessive. On the first day at lunch and dinner, I was sitting with 2 other people and we were served; fish, shrimps, pork, chicken, beef, rice and a salad. I don’t like sea food so I was also personally served another batch of pork, chicken and beef. I had a total of at least 8 dishes to choose from and afterwards we had a bit of fruit for dessert. The food was very well presented, it tasted pretty good (not the best I’ve had, but nothing to complain about at all) but it was very heavy on meat. Way too much in my opinion.
In their defense it seemed they took it down a notch the next day as if they were gauging how much we actually ate. Otherwise the waste was simply way too high and should be considered a con and not a pro. I think they do it because it caters to some people who feel it’s a nice luxury to be served in such abundance. I think it’s stupid however. Most other people on the boat felt the same way.
The crew and our guide were not particularly enthusiastic and didn’t seem particularly happy. The 2 guys in the bar who were serving us were the only exception. They were both smiling and seemed to have a good time. Our guide seemed to run off the same script all the other guides used as well. I had been on a trip to Cu Chi Tunnels, and the Mekong River from HCMC, so it was the 3rd time I heard the same jokes. (Such as asking if anyone on the bus is supposed to go to Cambodia, China or another city or tour in which case they are on the wrong bus, because this one is going to Halong Bay/Cu Chi Tunnels/Mekong River/whatever.)
He made an initial explanation of the day and that was it. I personally don’t want a guide who keeps chatting all the time. I usually don’t care much for what they have to say so I’m fine with that. But several times we were just sitting around doing nothing when we were supposed to go kayaking and he never explained what was going on. So a few times I asked him why we were waiting.
There was one time in particular were we had sailed to some sort of kayak center to pick up kayaks for our trip but instead we were just sitting around on the deck. After 30 minutes or so I asked him what was going on, what we were waiting for. But I didn’t get a very clear answer (which I usually didn’t). If it was because he didn’t understand my accent or didn’t care answering I don’t know.
It would have been nice if he had given us a brief explanation of what was going on every now and then. If I had to choose a guide who never speaks and a guide who speaks all the time I still take the former, and I’d rather ask than having to listen to endless babbling. It certainly didn’t ruin my trip, but it’s something that could have been improved.
Perhaps the main reason I chose Halong Phoenix Cruiser was because the rating was decent but more importantly because their itinerary was slightly better than the others. I go to beautiful places such as Halong Bay to experience the beautiful scenery. This company had made an itinerary with more time kayaking and exploring caves than the competitors. However, the itinerary was followed very loosely and was more like a suggestion than anything.
We were supposed to go kayaking 3 times in total but only went on 2 trips. And one trip was supposed to be 2 hours but was only 45 minutes. We were also supposed to spend 2 hours in one of the caves but only spend 30-45 minutes. In the end there wasn’t really a big difference from the competitors.
I find it sad that all tours are so identical and with so little interest in the actual beauty of the area. All tours have cooking classes (everything is pre-made, so the “cooking class” is basically just a “how to roll a spring roll” class), squid fishing (which seems to be a joke) and karaoke which has absolutely nothing to do with what (I assume) most people go there to experience.
Doing a “how to roll a spring roll” class while cruising past one of the most beautiful areas in Halong Bay just shows how clueless they are about the reason people go there. For people who wants to learn Vietnamese cooking there are an abundance of options and it doesn’t have to cost more than $10. Rolling a spring roll while missing out on on the parts were you get really close and are surrounded by karst is a total joke to me. Fortunately you can choose not to participate. I did that and sat and watched the wonder passing by instead. Most people were participating in the cooking class so I’m probably wrong about what people want. Most of the time people didn’t even look at the surroundings anyway so maybe I’m the weird one.
I would have loved to be able to choose an itinerary focused on experiencing the nature. Kayaking, trekking, perhaps climbing (if possible and allowed) and exploring the caves would have been amazing. Which brings me to the next thing.
The caves are beautiful, particularly the Surprising Cave (Sung Sot), which is truly impressive. Unfortunately Halong Bay is crowded (even though I went in low season) and everywhere is so packed that you literally are walking in a line, very slowly with frequent stops because someone just coughed up one of their lungs.
The Surprising cave was packed to the brim and was the epitome of everything wrong with tourism. Worse yet were all the guides waving around laser light on the walls and pillars to point out different places. They saw elephants, unicorns, dragons and monkeys climbing trees. I saw a cave that looked like a nightclub with lasers in all directions.
Simply enjoying how amazing the cave is is difficult. You have to phase out all surroundings and just go on your own, if the guide will let you, and then meet the group outside. Normally at crowded attractions I spend some time waiting around so I can get a picture without any people in it. That was completely impossible in the surprising cave when I was there. The only exception was the pictures where I pointed up above people’s head or took pictures of the areas you aren’t allowed to go.
It was the same problem at the beach and the viewpoint. It seems everyone goes to the same places at the same time, so perhaps check out a bunch of itineraries and see if you can find a tour where they go at odd times, it might be worth it.
The water is also pretty polluted, that won’t be new to you if you’ve traveled to developing countries before, but it’s certainly not as bad as I was expecting from other reviews, and certainly not as bad as other tourist attractions elsewhere in the world. Since I did the trip in low season this might have been less of a problem than in peak season.
Drinks are not usually included in the cruise and has to be bought on the side. I read a lot of people complain about this and several said it was expensive. I had brought water and snacks because of this. However I didn’t find the drinks menu to be unreasonable. Things were only slightly more expensive than normally. A small water was $1.5 and a coke was $2. Since it’s only a few days trip this is not where the bulk of the expenses are spend. (Unless you drink cocktails all the time.) I never needed the snacks I had brought because the food was more than enough.
I think the trick to enjoy Halong Bay fully is to be prepared for all the things that are likely to go wrong and expect them as part of the deal so you can let go of it instead of being surprised and bothered by it in the moment.
This is Vietnam after all, it’s a developing country with a different culture and different standards. I had a great trip and was never bothered by any of the things I’ve mentioned but I was also prepared for it.
Would I recommend Halong Phoenix Cruiser? Not particularly. Would I advice against them? Not really. Can you find a better trip? Possibly, likely. Is there a risk of getting on a worse trip? Absolutely! I think all the things I’ve mentioned are general for any cruise in Halong Bay and with some companies you will have more of the bad and other companies less.
You can choose a 5 star tour and probably have a higher standard, yet it will still be a rip off, compared to the rest of the country, simply because it’s a world wonder in a developing country and Vietnam’s most visited tourist attraction.
In the end it’s not so much about what you do, it really is about simply being there in my opinion. And being there is worth all of it. Cruising around and watching the scenery is worth any problems with the boat, the crew, the guide, the itinerary, the pollution, the crowdedness etc. Forget about the world around you and soak it all up while you can, you only have a few days to enjoy it. It’s worth the overpriced cost in my opinion.
So, here are my recommendations for finding a Halong Bay cruise:
- Don’t book online. Research extensively online, find a good host (based on reviews) who will be happy to help you out. Ask the host for honest local tour operators and book the tour with them. Otherwise you will end up spending another $100 like I did for nothing if you book online.
- If you are a traveling with a big group then make your own itinerary.
- If that isn’t possible or too expensive look for a cruise where you go to the caves at other times than what is common.
- Consider going in low season.
- Go for 3 days/2 nights. You will quickly learn from reading reviews that everyone recommends this. 1 day is simply not enough if you like to soak in the surroundings.
If you don’t want to go through the hassle but prefer the convenience of booking online you can take a look at the tours on my Viator partner page below.