By the time I booked a Ha Long Bay cruise for an upcoming trip to Vietnam, I had devoted as many days to researching the options as I planned to be onboard. As fiercely independent travelers, my husband and I tend to avoid organized tours. The idea of spending two nights and three days on a cruise with 20 or 30 strangers held little appeal. On more than a dozen past trips to Southeast Asia, if we wanted to travel by water, we went down to a lake or riverfront and hired a guy with, one hoped, a not-too-leaky wooden boat. We had done this in Myanmar, Laos and Borneo, among other places.
This approach wouldn’t get us very far in Ha Long Bay, the dramatic limestone islands and outcroppings in northeast Vietnam that have been designated a Unesco World Heritage site. And in the 23 years since we had last been in northern Vietnam, many other options had emerged. They ranged from retro or restored sailing vessels, called junk boats, to steel encasements that resembled luxury hotels, complete with picture windows and Jacuzzi bathtubs.
Based on what we read, it seemed that the most desirable itineraries would take us beyond Ha Long Bay, to Bai Tu Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay, which are at least as beautiful and less crowded. All offered the chance to go kayaking or swimming among the limestone outcroppings – weather permitting, since we would be there in winter, when the water can be choppy. An excursion to a native village was also included, but as one who seeks out authenticity, I didn’t have high hopes for indigenous people visited daily by hordes of cruise ship passengers.
What we wanted most was comfort, avoiding the crowds as much as possible and maximizing our time on the water. Knowing that the weather can be unpredictable in February, we looked for boats with large cabins, picture windows and sheltered terraces from which we could enjoy bay views even if it was cool and cloudy.
How to choose from among what seemed like hundreds of offerings? Not content to rely on recommendations from a Hanoi hotel or travel agent, and approaching online reviews with a dose of skepticism, we cast a broad net through various social media groups before leaving home. Most of the dozen or so people who replied appeared to be travelers who, like us, paid their own way for a bucket list trip. I also heard from a couple of what the travel industry calls “influencers” – writers who get free voyage, and sometimes payment, in exchange for generating positive press.
Next, we contacted the sales agents for a handful of cruise companies to get quotes for the most promising possibilities. We figured that bypassing the tour operators in this way would result in a better deal.
The bids, all slightly discounted from the off-season list price, came in at between $700 and $800 for the two of us, for what cruise operators call a three-day, two-night program, but really lasts only a total of 48 hours. Prices included almost everything except the bar tab. (Some charged extra for ground transportation for the two-hour ride from Hanoi to Haiphong harbor.) This was more on a per diem basis than we have ever spent in this region, but seemed reasonable compared to what such a package would cost elsewhere in the world.
To make our selection, we went back to each company’s website to scrutinize the photos, looked for negative information in recent online reviews and cast the dice with Era Cruises, which has been operating in this market for only about a year. Their two boats, each with 20 cabins, seemed to offer more personal space than others we considered. The cabin we chose, with a king-size bed, measured 570 square feet, including a private balcony with two chaise chairs. Even the bathtub had a view.
On the afternoon of our arrival, all 16 passengers onboard passed up the option of swimming or kayaking – the weather was not conducive. We spent that time instead on our sheltered porch. Situated on the first deck, it gave the sensation of being at water level. And for the next couple of hours we didn’t hear a soul – not any of the other passengers, or the crew, who by our rough estimate outnumbered us by a ratio of at least two-to-one. That gave us a chance to admire the exquisite natural phenomenon that we had come to see: turquoise waters, massive limestone outcroppings, naturally formed beaches and stalactite-hung caves.
More sobering was the glimpse we also got of subsistence living on the bay. While cruising in what to us seasoned Asia travelers was once unimaginable luxury, we passed floating fishing villages in which people have lived in shanties for generations. We also saw the live-aboard boats used by the many squid fishermen. One could spot these vessels, painted crayon-box blues and reds, because they are hung with glass lamps. Squid fishing, we learned, is a nocturnal activity, since this species feeds at night and is attracted to the artificial light. Though these days it’s done with nets, the traditional method was to use a bamboo pole with a line and multipronged hook attached.
From the stern of our boat, we sampled how hard this must be, bobbing our lines in the water and catching absolutely nothing. This was after an elegantly plated, five-course fusion dinner that began with creamy corn chicken soup and moved on to papaya salad with pork cake; stir-fried chicken with vegetables; and a gorgeous assortment of barbecued seafood (including squid).
Before dinner, our boat had dropped anchor for the night in Lan Ha Bay, the least touristic of the three bays. Our view from bed there the next morning, of the limestone outcroppings, silhouetted in shades of gray and shrouded in mist, made us want to never leave.
Under the cruise ship program, though, we were scheduled to do just that – right after breakfast on Day 2, and not return for eight hours. The time would be spent on what cruise companies call a “day boat” – a much smaller and less appealing vessel. The agenda included a visit to one of the fishing villages, lunch on the day boat, and kayaking and swimming in a cove along the way. Meanwhile, the big beautiful boat would go back to Haiphong harbor, off-load the one-night cruisers, and pick up additional passengers.
This is standard operating procedure for Ha Long Bay cruise companies – a way for them to maximize profitability and offer cruises leaving every day, while giving passengers the choice of booking for one day or two. There were dozens of online comments about it from irked travelers. And none of them suggested that the schedule was negotiable. As events unfolded, we discovered that it was.
The night before we boarded the boat, I developed what seemed to be food poisoning. No matter how hard I wished it away, while plying myself with Imodium, by our first evening onboard it was clear that I couldn’t spend the next day sightseeing.
When I shared my concerns with Tam, the manager onboard, he quickly offered such a perfect solution, that we suspected we were not the first ones to request a midcourse correction. We could remain on the boat while it returned to Haiphong harbor, he said. Then, while we awaited the next group of passengers, he recommended that I have a one-hour aromatherapy massage in the boat’s spa. Though this service, for $35, would have been a bargain by U.S. standards, Tam offered it at no charge since we would not be taking that day’s excursion.
I was sorry that I couldn’t join the 6:15 a.m. tai chi session on the deck the next morning, but consoled myself that there couldn’t be a better place to recuperate.
As bright sunshine burned off the morning haze, the views burst from gray, to many shades of blue and green. We spent most of the day out of doors, and for a couple of hours were the only passengers, stretched out on the sun deck. The least attractive portion of the ride was entering, and then leaving, Haiphong harbor, when the parade of boats reminded us of New York Harbor during fleet week.
We were grateful that our boat quickly veered off on a different course – another benefit of the particular company we had chosen. Good weather that afternoon enabled us to travel to the relatively secluded and dramatic area around Ba Trai Dao beach, where some passengers went kayaking. We sat on the sundeck until the light faded, making the water and the cliffs turn once again gray.
The only excursion I took during the cruise, before breakfast, on the day we disembarked, was a visit to an over-water cave. It was a chance to travel through one of the narrow stalactite-studded alcoves we had observed from onboard.
We got there by taking a launch boat to the ranger’s station at the edge of Cát Bà National Park, and from there transferred to smaller bamboo boats rowed by local fishermen. I was glad our cruise operator had gotten us off to an early start for the one-hour round-trip, since there was a crowd of people waiting for boats when we got back to the ranger’s station. Nor would I have wanted to be on one of the cruise ships that had anchored in this particular spot for the night, since passengers on them must have been disturbed by the arrival of all those motorboats.
Having passed these and many other cruise lines during our two days on the bay, we concluded that we had chosen well with respect to the physical plant, because of the route our boat took and considering where we anchored for the night. On the question, “One night or two?” – a query that comes up on travelers’ chat forums – here’s my answer: It took two mornings of waking up to that gorgeous view for us to feel satiated. And having had a taste, on the early-morning cave visit, of how one is herded during excursions, I was glad to have avoided the longer one on the itinerary. Those who opt for the one-night cruise would not have this issue.
But for travelers who want two nights onboard, I think others could replicate our experience. Though it’s true that dire circumstances gave me some negotiating power, the Ha Long Bay cruise market is a hotly competitive one, and operators really do aim to please.
As so often happens with travel, things didn’t work out the way we had planned. But being forced to slow down gave us a chance to savor the journey. This was an opportunity, borne of an unfortunate twist of fate, to see a natural wonder close up for 24 hours, in all of its glory. And it’s somewhat bittersweet to know that cruising Ha Long Bay is no longer an item on my bucket list.
Deborah L. Jacobs is the author most recently of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.