***This post is part 7 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***
Doing research on which overnight cruise to book in Halong Bay was probably the most frustrating aspect of the entire Vietnam itinerary. Whether it was by design or not, it seemed like there were a million different websites all hawking the same cruise lines, and they were all offering varying prices. It's very difficult to make out the official websites since many of them don't actually have official websites, instead opting to depend on local travel agencies to do the selling. And many travel agencies set up websites that appear to be official - except they are not. Confusing to say the least.
I'm very wary of randomly selecting an online travel agency to book tours or hotels, since going directly to the source usually results in a much better deal and not to mention a more secure reservation. Third party bookings have a higher likelihood of having mistakes, mischarges, and other problems down the road. However, with Halong Bay, I ended up taking a leap of faith and booking with the Cruises Halong Bay travel agency based out of Hanoi. The main reason for this was both the hotel and what looked to be the "official" website of Paradise Cruises were quoting prices higher than Cruises Halong Bay. Also, I emailed a number of different online agencies, and the lady from Cruises Halong Bay, Ms. Nga, seemed to be the most helpful and responsive.
I chose Paradise Cruises based on the numerous positive online reviews. There are now many luxury cruise lines sailing Halong Bay, including Violet Cruises, Bhaya Cruises, Indochina Sails, etc. Paradise Cruises was not the most expensive, but it was definitely one of the newest and best options available. They are currently sailing with 3 large junks, with the oldest being built in 2008. A 4th ship is nearly complete and we were able to see them putting the final touches on it at the dock. They also offer a number of smaller ships for charters and private bookings. One of the benefits of Paradise Cruises was that they seemed to offer more inclusive activities that others charged extra for, such as kayaking.
Both Cruises Halong Bay and Paradise Cruises turned out to be extremely legit and well-run, and we got exactly what we booked for a very good price. Pickup directly from our hotel was at 8:00 AM for the 3 1/2 hour drive to Halong Bay. The driver was noticeably more careful than most taxi drivers in the city, probably due to the fact that there used to be a number of fatal accidents involving tourists on the route to Halong Bay.
Once there, we began to see the benefits of booking with Paradise Cruises. Unlike other companies, they have their own private dock and arrival area for check-in. I've heard many horror stories of the chaos at the main Halong Bay docks where most ships are stationed. A welcome drink and plenty of seating in an air conditioned waiting hall was very welcome, and they even had a couple of computers for internet use. You could also order food and drinks there.
After waiting about 40 minutes or so, all the guests were directed to the three ships ready for sail. I had made sure to tell Cruises Halong Bay to book us on Paradise Luxury III, the newest ship, and we were glad to see our request was fulfilled. There were other large tour groups that were directed to the other ships - thankfully. Once on the boat, we were free to explore our new surroundings until lunch time, when we all gathered in the dining room. It was then that we noticed our ship was actually only about 1/2 to 2/3 full. The low density made the cruise feel a lot more private and enjoyable.
I must say the rooms were spectacular for a cruise ship this size. Two extremely comfortable beds and a full in-suite bathroom with shower greeted us upon entering. And I was pleasantly surprised at how strong the shower head pressure was and the fact that there was always warm water. The air conditioning in the room was a welcome respite from the heat and humidity outside. The rooms on the 1st floor don't have private balconies, but luckily we decided to splurge for the second floor instead. The private balcony isn't really needed, but having the area to yourself and just staring out at the thousands of limestone islets was one of the most unforgettable parts of this trip.
The food was delicious, with the lunch being a large buffet that was more than enough for everyone there. Dinner was a set menu that was decent, but not spectacular. All alcoholic beverages on board cost extra, but as we found out later, there was really no accurate accounting of how much we drank. Breakfast the next morning was also a buffet, with an omelet station and all the fruits, cereals, and hot selections you could eat.
Halong Bay itself was absolutely stunning. I had heard some disappointing stories prior to going, including the increasing crowds and pollution that is plaguing this UNESCO World Heritage Site, so I set my expectations accordingly. However, once I got there, I was very surprised at how few ships there seemed to be sailing the bay. In fact, it was 2 of the most peaceful days I had in Vietnam. The scenary is jaw-dropping at times, and the stop at Sung Sot Cave (Surprise Cave) and the kayaking trip into Luon Grotto were things I will never forget. It was noticeable that the water is fairly murky, and in all likelihood pollution from the cruise ships and tourist activity has a lot to do with it. While we are all guilty of contributing to the problem, I really do hope the government takes the steps necessary to curb any further degradation of water quality and enforce stricter environmental controls. Although understandably, it's hard to do so in a developing country when there is so much money to be made from tourism.
Sung Sot Cave
Kayaking in Luon Grotto
After 2 days and 1 night of absolute peace and tranquility, we were all a little sad to leave. I would say Halong Bay is not only still worth seeing, it's a destination that must be experienced by anyone visiting Northern Vietnam. And I would highly recommend Paradise Cruises as your means of doing so.