21 Mar Cruising Halong Bay and Turning 30
The entire morning of my birthday was spent on a coach battling through choked roads to Halong Bay. One thing’s for sure, I never expected to be living this kind of uncertain, transient, exhilarating lifestyle when I turned 30. Like most people, I thought I’d have submitted to societal norms and gotten myself weighed down in responsibility with a mortgage and a steady job by this point. Instead, Andrew and I have only each other and the possessions we carry on our backs and our once plump savings account is now starting to look pretty lean.
If you’re heading to Vietnam then you’ll probably need an invitation letter for your Visa On Arrival, we recommend Vietnam Visa as they provide a professional, efficient and transparent service.
Often in Asia, local people ask us how long we’re ‘On Holiday’ for. Each time when we reply that we’ve been travelling for many months, I have the guilty need to hastily add something to the effect of: “But we spent years saving up for this trip before we left England.” I feel this is necessary because while we’re relatively poor by western standards, I’ve become painfully aware of how rich we are in comparison to most people in the world, if not always in monetary terms, certainly in terms of opportunities.
Travel has taught me that we’re so lucky to have been born in England, to have taken the basics in life such as food, shelter, a good education and free healthcare for granted. I know that as a woman I am so fortunate to have been born in a place where I have the right to learn, work and exercise control over my body; a place where I can choose whether to marry or have children. The majority of women in the world do not have these basic liberties and their lives are constrained by cultural, religious, reproductive and economic factors.
I could go on about these cultural disparities but we’d be here for hours. The bottom line is that Andrew and I have enough, more than enough. Our lives are rich in experiences and opportunities; we have the luxury of being able to spend time working in Asia and to continue enjoying the benefits of travel before returning to England one day to build a home. This is a truth I would not have fully understood or appreciated had I not travelled, mostly through Asia, over the past year. As I turned 30 I finally realised that, whatever we may have materially:
We are so lucky.
Our Boat Trip to Halong Bay, Vietnam
All meaningful reflections aside, as we arrived at the harbour we started to get an inkling that my birthday cruise might not go to plan. We were shuttled via a small wooden boat towards our ship, the Dugong Sails, which had looked so shiny and impressive in the sales brochure. The boat itself turned out to be slightly shabbier than we’d expected but the really confusing matter was the big sign in our cabin that read: “Dragon Pearl (with a missing ‘P’) Cruises.” Weren’t we on the wrong boat?
By this point a few of the other guests had suspicions that this wasn’t quite the cruise they’d booked either and when we compared notes, we found out we’d all paid different prices for the same trip. Since our grouchy tour guide evasively refused to answer our queries about the issue, we eventually decided to just go with it and climbed onto the upper deck to enjoy the misty views of the bay, which was dotted with limestone mounds rising from the depths of the paper-flat sea.
After a buffet lunch our guide announced that we were going to visit the ‘Surprising Cave’. The inside was indeed pretty surprising; I’ve been in a fair few caves since we set out on this trip but this was one of the biggest, made up of huge sweeping caverns filled with centuries-old stalagmites and stalactites; bats fluttering around the high-ceilings. The cave would have been incredibly beautiful had there not been so many boat-loads of tourists visiting at the same time. We all filed through in one, long, noisy stream, camera flashes rebounding off the stone walls.
Our next stop was a small island, where we were given about an hour to either sit on the beach, swim in the sea or climb up to the view-point. Given that it was actually pretty cold and the water looked less than sparkling, Andrew and I made the steep climb up to the viewpoint. Again, in conveyor-belt fashion every tour group had stopped on the island at the same time and we found the top platform crowded with people all jostling to get a photo of the sun setting over the bay below us, its beauty marred by the tens of boats crowding the waters.
Back on our ship we settled down for dinner, which would have been nice had my ‘vegetarian soup’ not had chicken floating in it. The bar on board was so expensive that everyone boycotted it in favour of buying from vendors who sailed by on small fishing boats; our crew were so annoyed by this that they cancelled the evening’s squid-fishing activities. So far, this wasn’t quite the experience we’d been hoping for. The cruise wasn’t all bad though as the next morning we headed out early for the highlight of the trip: kayaking across the bay. The early-morning sun sparked off the water as we gently cut a path across it, craning our necks up toward the looming limestone peaks so we could watch huge dark eagles swoop overhead.
We moved slowly past a floating village of tiny wooden houses where people lazed in hammocks; unbelievably, we even saw a few dogs trotting around the bobbing platforms. It was peaceful in the bay, with just a few other tourists kayaking around amongst the local fishing boats and we finally appreciated the true beauty of the place – we felt glad to be there.
The Problem with Cruises in Halong Bay
Unfortunately, it felt to us that Halong Bay has been somewhat ruined by bad tourism. From what we saw, the waters were crowded and polluted by boats, far too many people were being shunted from one attraction to the next causing crowds and congestion and party boats boomed music throughout the night. It’s such a shame as the bay itself is a naturally beautiful place; comparable to Milford Sound and the Bay of Islands in New Zealand and the Whitsundays in Australia, all of which we had great experiences visiting. The difference is that in New Zealand and Australia there are strict regulations in place to ensure these areas are protected.
Judging by other stories we’ve heard, the general quality of most Halong Bay cruises is pretty poor too; companies seem to concentrate on selling as many cheap tours as they can, providing as little customer service as possible. Like us, you may well not end up on the boat you paid for and you might not get the full range of activities that you expected. If you do want to cruise Halong Bay, it seems that you’ll get the best experience by paying substantially more for your trip.
We went for a mid-range cruise option recommended by our hotel, so we were disappointed that the boat was different from the one advertised, our tour guide was lazy and unfriendly, I wasn’t given the vegetarian food I pre-ordered and we weren’t offered all the activities promised. Luckily, the manager of our amazing hotel in Hanoi was so horrified by our story that she negotiated a $60 refund for us off the original $180 cost of the cruise, so we can’t complain too much.
Have you been on a cruise around Halong Bay; what was your experience like?