Everybody goes to Halong Bay, and for good reason. It’s one of those places, like the Grand Canyon or Soi Cowboy that really need to be seen to get a hold on them, pictures just don’t cut it. Halong Bay is a UNESCO site, and also one of the “Seven Natural Wonders” of the world, according to New Seven Wonders. Of course, so is Jeju Island, which, ahem, works just fine in photographs.
The problem with Halong Bay, of course, is that it is hard to see on one’s own. Seeing it the right way, from the water, essentially requires one to book a cruise. Dealing directly with the Vietnamese tourist industry clearly means that getting ripped off is part of the process. I overpaid for my cruise, more than anyone else aboard the boat. Plus, to maximize profit, my tour cut corners at every opportunity. The minibus from Hanoi to Halong town was cramped to the brim with people sitting in the aisle. The rest stops on the way to and from the port were not at the usual roadside joints, but at grossly overpriced tourist traps. On the boat itself, the “welcome drink” promised in the brochure was a half glass of orange juice. No drinks are free after that. Beer costs 40,000 dong, or four times the price on land. Water is 30,000, or six times the normal price. Air conditioning is only turned on from around 9 p.m. until 6 a.m. Everyone expects tips, even though this is not a tipping culture. We were allowed to bring water on board, and in my case I also smuggled some vodka.
That said, other than these expected nuisances, the cruise was quite nice. The tour guide was kind and funny, and managed to pull off his jokes like they were fresh when we all knew he said the same thing to a new group of people every other day. The food, while hardly gourmet, was decent and plentiful. The rooms were clean and comfortable. The cave we visited, Surprise Cave, was truly astounding. Kayaking was included as well, which was a definite highlight of the trip. There are a lot of horror stories online about Halong Bay cruises, but my boat (Dugong Cruises by the way) did not fall pray to any of the really shady stuff mentioned online.
At the beginning of the cruise, we all sat down to lunch. There were around 24 tourists on the boat. I sat down at one of the tables, and then ended up sitting in the same seat for every other meal, as did everyone else. The other five people at my table ended up being pretty much the only other people I talked to for the rest of the trip.
As I was a solo traveler, I was given a roommate, the only other solo traveler on the boat. Luckily, he was a cool American who lived in Korea before going on a megatrip, so we had much to discuss. The other people at our table were a Dutch couple and a French couple. I spent a lot of time with the Dutch couple as well. Later at night, the four of us sat around on the deck pretending to fish and listening to Splitlip Rayfield, Girls Generation, and Weird Al.
I wasn’t sure if I would go to Halong Bay. Vietnam has been exhausting, visiting 10 places in three weeks. I considered just being lazy and staying in Hanoi for five days. I’m glad I went though, it would have been a shame to miss it. However, I was also equally glad I took the two day one night cruise rather than the longer one. That way, I could spend more time in Hanoi and be reunited with the travel amenities that I hold most dear – good food, wifi, and cheap beer.