Yes, Halong Bay is a place of sheer beauty. Unique! The tree covered limestone outcrops rising from the emerald ocean create such a spectacular seascape you want to inhale it, so it won’t leave you.
Needless to say, to explore this splendor you need a boat. The options are numerous. Since most tourists travel in groups, their cruises are pre-arranged. Individual travelers have a wide choice of anything from a private junk to the typical packed cruise boats. Whatever you choose, the tours are organized by “Travel Agencies” all offering the same itineraries, taking everybody to exactly the same places, at the very same time, to a very limited part of the very vast Halong Bay! Imagine there are almost 2.000 islands and islets waiting to be discovered…
Cruising Halong Bay “En Masse”
What could and should have been an inspiring cruise through a fairytale-like landscape was really a mediocre medley of unexciting activities. Swimming or paddling around in kayaks are surely nice breaks during a three-day cruise, but why together with 20 other boats, why not in more remote parts of the Bay? Also the other stops at caves and beaches, even a visit to a pearl farm, followed the same pattern… No escape from the masses!
We would have preferred cruising to the more remote parts of the bay. True, a 3 days / 2 nights cruise including Cat Ba takes you to areas further out, but even there we felt rushed. We never got to see the more secluded places, the true gems of Halong Bay…
The concentration of tourists was mind-boggling and for us, a real turn off. In January, the slowest season of the year, we counted 38 (!) boats anchored in one of the bays! What it’s like in the high season, when most of the 1.000 boats based in Halong City & and the 100 boats from Cat Ba are at sea, we simple do not dare to envision.
Is it lack of creativity that drives Vietnam’s tourist industry? Is it shortsightedness to focus on cheap mass-tourism? Whatever the reason, it made this cruise a frustrating and somewhat disheartening experience. We left with the bitter feeling that what could have been a truly unique experience, an experience in a lifetime, was somewhat average…
Visiting Halong Bay Differently
We met an Austrian couple in Cat Ba that chose a much more rewarding and even cheaper way, we did not know of. They went straight to Cat Ba, the biggest island in the bay. The ticket Hanoi – Cat Ba (bus – boat – bus) was only 10 USD. The small town of Cat Ba is much nicer and far less touristy than Halong Bay City, especially in the winter months. From there excellent day tours take you to the more remote, more Off The Beaten Track places of the area, might it be Halong Bay or Cat Ba Bay (there is no difference between the two but for some imaginary borderlines).
In the low season, a mid-range hotel room in Cat Ba can be less than 10 USD a night, a day tour about 30 USD. Do the Math! It is far cheaper than a tour from Halong City (a 3 days / 2 nights tour ranges from 140 to 190 USD, more if you want something more exclusive, of course!) and much more flexible, authentic, genuine…
Think Global – Buy Local
This was the second time we booked a tour with one of those “Travel Agencies” (in 2015, to My Son near Hoi An). Our advice to those exploring Vietnam independently: avoid those “Travel Agencies”, and if you need to, book tours locally with the actual operator.
Why? They are the ones really familiar with the area and offer a wider spectrum of trips to places untouched by the masses. Besides, your money is much more needed in more remote areas than in big travel agencies in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City or wherever. This is a much more sustainable way of traveling. Last but not least, as this Austrian couple showed us, this is much better value for your money. So yes, booking a cruise of Halong Bay through one of those travel agencies in touristic epicenters should be avoided it at all cost!
Let’s Also Look At The Antithesis…
Maybe, but only maybe, do those cruises cater to certain kind of consumers! It was creepy sharing a boat with some passengers who would not even look at the stunning scenery. One couple was watching a movie on their iPad …Is that the very subtle difference between tourists and travelers?
Of course, those cruises can also be a great opportunity for serious partying. In 2003, during our first trip to Halong Bay we had our bit of that, rather unexpectedly though. With a fun group of travellers we chatted, danced and drank late into the night. So much, that the crew had to fetch more Dalat wine by swimming across the bay to the other boats anchored there. Why the effort? A bottle of this Vietnamese wine was 10 USD. A fortune back then!
Because of this adventurous wine shopping we remembered exactly that we shared the bay with only a few boats that night. Yes it was different then! In mid-summer, the weather was cloudy and hazy, the worst for taking good photos, but the bay was as scenic as today. The main difference was the number of boats and tourists in the area.
Other Interesting Reports
Wild Junket: Halong Bay – When Tourism Goes Wrong
Cook My Photo: Halong Bay With No Tourists – Here Is The Secret
Great pics…we want to go to Vietnam sometime. How long should the trip be…we want to do Halong and Mekong delta both.
I think you should plan 3 weeks for Vietnam if you want to cover the “highlights”. I have now spent 5 weeks and went out of time and could not really discover the north (SaPa, Hac Ba, Ba Be, …) Plus I haven’t been to Dalat and to the coast. Less than 3 weeks, you would have to make some clear choices about where to go.
For both, I would definitely do it independently: Halong Bay from Cat Ba, and the Mekong Delta from Can Tho. Both are pleasant cities, and great bases to discover everything. Do not book one of those tours!
I will write a Travel Guide for Vietnam in the days to come
Hiedi and Gilles I loved your recount here. The pictures are stunning and I’d be swimming across the water too – or sending someone lol – for a cheaper alternative 😉 Well, we missed Halong Bay when we did Vietnam 2 years ago. We were on a tight sked and just couldn’t fit it in after doing Hoi An for 2 months, and then Danang, Hue, Ke Bang Area, Ninh Binh and Hanoi. On our return trip it’ll be a no brainer for us; love the karsts and the amazing beauty of the area. We’ll just set aside a few days so we can enjoy the experience as we should.
Thanks for the inspired share guys! Have a fab week 🙂
Glad that you are now inspired 😉
But with Danang, Phong Nha & Ninh Binh, you also covered the less visited places.
Also check Bac Ha in the north, I will post about it in the coming days (if the Internet connections are acceptable, which is challenging in Myanmar 🙁
I stayed on Cat Ba for 5 days after having decided to skip the “tour offers” and it was grwat! First you see all the same while getting there ( I took a boat), 2nd- I arranged private kayak tour from Cat Ba and was the only person- we kayaked through local peoples homes, talked to families and went to some very secluded beaches… I saw Halong Bay in all its beauty, but without the tourism hassle… 😉
Thanks for sharing this experience, Sanita!
Hope it will inspire other people to do so…
Great advice Gilles and everyone! Thank you!
I was also looking into basing myself in Cat Ba for Halong Bay visits. My question is… How did you find the tours once you got to Cat Ba? Just talking to people on the street? etc? any strategies there?
there are many agencies and people with boats in Cat Ba. There are, if I remember well, 130 boats in Cat Ba (for tourism – versus 1.000 in Halong).
Any hotel will be able to help, any restaurant, and people will approach you anyway. So “do your shopping” or talk to fellow travelers who just came back from a day on a boat.