Not far away from Hanoi (about 3,5 hours by bus) is Halong Bay, a UNESCO world heritage site. It is famous for its over 3,000 limestone monolithic islands. The scenery is similar to the one in Yangshuo with its karst mountains, except it’s on the water.
Going to Halong Bay is one of the two most popular activities among tourists in Hanoi. The other popular thing is going to Sapa. There are hundreds of travel agencies in Hanoi which sell tours to these two sites.
There is one travel agency, the most famous one, which is recommended by Lonely Planet and other guide books. It’s called Sinh Cafe. The problem is that today most other travel agencies in Hanoi also name themselves Sinh Cafe. There is only one real one, the rest is fake. So be careful when you want to find the real Sinh Cafe.
Together with friends from the hostel, a guy from Chilly and two girls from Holland, I was planing to do a 3 day boat tour at Halong Bay. We looked at some of the travel agencies (we didn’t care if it was a real Sinh Cafe) and asked about their prices and about what they had to offer. We found several tours, which basically all offered the same, but the prices ranged from 38 USD to 90 USD. The offers included one night sleeping on a boat and another night in a hotel on Cat Ba Island. We had heard from several sides that you shouldn’t go on one of the cheapest tours, because you pretty much get what you pay for. So we decided to take a tour for 50 USD, which still sounded ok for a 3 day tour. Other people in the hostel decided to take a tour for 38 USD, so I was curious about what the difference between their tour and our tour was going to be.
The bus to Halong Bay picked us up at the hostel. It was a small bus, which was totally jammed. The people and the luggage were stacked in it like tetris blocks. Interestingly, the guys who payed only 38 USD were picked up by the same bus. Cramped in the bus I was hoping that at least our boat would be much nicer than the one at the 38 USD tour but I had a bad feeling it.
Once on the boat, our Vietnamese guide Duc welcomed us and informed us about the tour. He was talking English, but in his own Vietnamese way, so you had to have a great imagination to guess what he was talking about. At the end of his speech he tried to excite us and asked us: “Are you happy?”
Well, my happiness wasn’t quite on its maximum at that moment, because I had just realized that we really were on exactly the same tour as the guys who payed only 38 USD. Actually, most other people on our tour payed less than we did. And it’s true what they say, on this tour we really got what the others had (and what we should have) payed for. The rooms were in the worst condition I had ever seen. Dirty, little animals in the bed, a broken window lock in a ground level room, and so on. To give you an idea about what I mean with dirty: In my room on Cat Ba Island I found an open condom package on the ground. And next to the package I caught sight of very suspicious stains. Or for example, here is a picture of my blankets.
Anyway, I still tried to enjoy the trip. And most parts were really quite nice. The highlights were visiting the caves, going kayaking, and going to monkey island, a gorgeous little island with monkeys on it. Unfortunately though it was hazy most of the time on our tour.
There were also nice people in our tour group, and together we explored the night life on Cat Ba island. However it seemed like end of october was far away from high season and the town was pretty deserted. Still we found one bar which was open until late in the night, especially for us.
One disadvantage of being part of a tour group was that whenever we got to a sight it was instantly completely overcrowded. For example when we walked up one of the limestone mountains, we had to walk very slowly in a single file, and once near the top it was so crowded that people had to wait in line for quite a while until they could go all the way up. Once our group left, the top was completely deserted again.
So altogether my Halong Bay tour was an pretty average experience. I was being reminded about why I don’t like to go on guided tours, besides the reason that they are more expensive. Therefore I will keep avoiding such tours. Other than that Halong Bay is quite beautiful and definitely worth the trip.
I heard from other backpackers that it is not such a problem to just take a bus to Ha Long city, and from there do the same kind of trip on your own. And it should also be cheaper this way.
Some of the more expensive guided tours to Halong Bay are probably much better than the one I was on, but it’s hard to know in advance which tour is good and which one is bad, and as in our case, the price isn’t always decisive.
I can only recommend you to avoid this travel agency (Warning):
Sinh Cafe Travel
9A Dinh Liet Str., Hoan Kiem – Hanoi
The 3 day tour to Halong bay offered at the central backpackers hostel is 90 USD, which is in the upper price range, and I only heard good things about this tour from other guests at the hostel.