Cruising a World Wonder: Halong Bay
As you may know, there are seven destinations ranked as natural “wonders of the world”. Seven—that’s it. And Halong Bay in Vietnam is one of them.
It’s no wonder that visitors to SE travel the lengthy distance just to see this incredible spot. Comprised of 2,000 gorgeous islands, Halong Bay stretches 200 km in length and is located roughly 4 hours from Hanoi, Vietnam. One of the best ways to see Halong Bay is by cruise and thankfully, there’s an impressive variety of companies and types of cruises to choose from that will suit any age and budget.
Prior to booking, I had heard horror stories from friends and peers of tours that leave the unprepared traveller perplexed when they realize that they had signed up for a sex and booze filled party cruise instead of a relaxing luxury cruise. To avoid this, I did a fair amount of research on which tour to book that would match my age group. In the end we went with Oasis Bay Party Cruise, which seemed to promise an attractive balance of socializing, sightseeing and outdoor activities.
Day 1: Welcome aboard!
Almost all Halong Bay tours, including Oasis Bay, leave from Hanoi where the adventure begins as you drive 4 hours southeast to reach the coast. Unfortunately, even after you reach the port, you’ll still have to wait between 30-60 min while your tour guide coordinates with the port officials to sort out the formalities of each passenger.
Once sorted, you’ll be taken to the cruise where you can check into your cabin/room on the boat and have lunch around 2 p.m.
All of the meals are included in the cruise, but alcohol is not, so if you wish you start drinking early on in the day (we had a few casuals after lunch), you’ll have to buy your beer/cocktails from the bar for 30k and 70-90k dong. Meals are served family style with a variety of Vietnamese dishes. If you’re vegan or vegetarian the staff will accommodate you, but make sure you write out exactly what you don’t eat in Vietnamese. Since three different sets of kitchen staff will be cooking for you throughout the trip, it’s best to be prepared and organized before they start serving the meal.
Next, you’ll be taken to a bay where you can kayak for an hour and take in the views. Here, you can also swim and jump off the boat, but if I’m going to be honest, the water isn’t exactly clean in this area. Of course, when you imagine Halong Bay you probably expect a pristine natural wonder, undisturbed by human activity and well, waste. But unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Halong Bay is gorgeous, but because of the recent explosion in tourism, Halong Bay feels somewhat polluted and even smoggy in some areas. If you’re okay with waiting to swim, I’d wait until day two when you’ll be taken to a better spot.
The rest of the afternoon is fairly low-key. You’ll have the evening to relax and even nap if you need to. The captain will drive to a different bay where your boat will be tied up to another group on a different Oasis Bay Party Cruise. In other words, your group will double in size and you can hang out with everyone on the other boat as well.
Unlike other party cruises (i.e. Castaways, which many people book through Vietnam Backpackers Hostel), Oasis Bay is smaller (roughly 20-25 people on each boat vs. 60-70 on Castaways) and much less booze oriented. This doesn’t mean that your group won’t party and drink, you’re just not forced to by any means. Everyone in our group drank that night and most people were also down to dance and play drinking games.
Depending on how much sleep you want, you can hop back and forth between boats for the evening for as long as you’d like before heading to bed in your private room. Day two is an early wake up call at 7:00 a.m. for a 7:30 a.m. breakfast time.
Day 2: An Island Getaway
Breakfast is pretty simple on day two. If you’re vegan, unfortunately you might struggle a bit at breakfast. We were given white bread with jam and apple slices while everyone else had bacon and eggs and bread. If you’re like me and you usually eat a massive breakfast, you’ll probably still be hungry after. If so, try to speak to your guide and see if they can whip up some fried rice or anything else substantial. Don’t expect the guide to be too forgiving; when I requested more food after choking down a couple of pieces of dry bread I was told to “have some milk” to fill me up. Sometimes, the only thing you can do is approach these situations with patience and determination.
On day two, the group will split in half. All the people who booked the one night cruise will be leaving on the original boat and all of the two nighters will join into one group from both boats.
At this point you’ll pack up your bags, check out of the party cruise and get transported to a smaller boat. This boat will take you to a cliff jumping and swimming spot. When we were told by our guide what we were doing that morning we got a mixed answer of “rock climbing” and “cliff jumping”. Turns out it was a combination of both. If you want to jump, you’ll have to climb up the side of a rock first. The cliff is 12 meters high, so if you’re not a huge fan of heights I would stick to jumping off the boat instead.
Afterward, you’ll be taken to Freedom Island, the private island owned by Oasis Bay Cruises, where you’ll have a similar lunch (don’t expect a massive variety in food, especially if you’re vegetarian or vegan) and relax for the rest of the afternoon. You’ll have time to check into your hostel style room, play volleyball, kayak, tan on the beach, swim, or read in a hammock. Many people chose to nap as well so they could recharge. Forewarning: the beds on the island are pretty sub par and have decently hard mattresses. Take time to wind down and even have a couple of drinks before dinner.
That night, you’ll essentially do the same thing again, but with a smaller group that you will get to know even better.
Day 3: Departure Day
You’ll have another early wake up call on your last day before beginning the journey back to Halong Bay port, and eventually Hanoi.
After breakfast, you’ll take all of your belongings with you on to the small boat, which will cruise for an hour and a half before reaching one of the party cruises. You will have lunch and a short cooking demonstration on the party cruise before reaching the port at 12 p.m. At roughly 12:40 p.m. you’ll be picked up by a bus that will take you back to Hanoi.
Tips and tricks:
Bring water and alcohol: Neither are cheap on the boat. Beer: 30k dong; cocktails: 90k dong; mixers: 70k dong; small water: 20k dong. If you want to save money, BYOB but be quiet about it. If the staff catch you drinking your own alcohol they’ll try to charge you $1 USD per can and $10 USD for a bottle of wine or hard alcohol. To avoid this, drink in your room and bring your own red solo/plastic cups.
Bring earplugs: The boat can be noisy and if people choose to stay out late, the music will be bumping on the boat and on the island until people decide to finally go to bed. Ear plugs will be your best friend if you’re a light sleeper.
Bring snacks: If you’re a snacker like me, you’ll want to bring your own snacks for the daytime and evening. There are snacks you can buy on the island and boat, but I’m fairly certain they only offer Pringles and they cost 60k dong.
Book in advance: Unlike a lot of other tours in Vietnam/SEA these tours usually fill up in advance. Book beforehand to save yourself the hassle of having to use your plan B.
Pair it with a trip to Sapa: The best way to book Oasis Bay is through Hanoi Rocks Hostel. They offer a better price than booking directly with Oasis Bay Cruises online. If you book Halong Bay through the hostel, consider also booking your Sapa tour with Hanoi Rocks as well. Read my post here on the H’mong the Hills Sapa Tour. If you book both through the hostel they’ll give you 5% off your Halong Bay booking and a free night stay after your Sapa tour.
Leave your big bag at your hostel in Hanoi: Lock up your big backpack at the hostel and take only what you need in a day bag. This will save you a lot of hassle as you move from the boat to the island and back to the bus over those short three days.
Bring more money than you think you’ll need: It’s better to bring more money and spend less than find yourself on the boat or island (with no ATM) with less money and have to bum off your new friends. Keep in mind that you will need to buy water in addition to alcohol.
Choose the three-day, two night cruise: Oasis Bay Cruises offer two choices; the one night, two-day cruise or the two night, three-day cruise. Opt for the latter. You’ll want to experience the overnight stay on the island. Also trust me when I say one night in Halong Bay is not enough, especially considering how far it is from Hanoi!