Kayaking in Halong Bay, Vietnam

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. Kayaking in Halong Bay, Vietnam

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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.

Us in Halong Bay, Vietnam

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?

Halong Bay Boat Cruise

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.

Cruising Halong Bay in Vietnam

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.

Suprising Cave, Halong Bay Vietnam

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.

Boats Crowding Halong Bay in Vietnam

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.

Floating Village in Halong Bay

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.

Sunset over Halong Bay

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?

Like what you've read? Then give us a share!

44 Comments
  • Nomadic Boys
    Posted at 11:27h, 21 March Reply

    Happy birthday Amy and what a lovely way to celebrate 🙂

    My family abroad ask me the same question – “how long are you going on holiday for” and really irks me each time I try to explain, then get into the whole “I’m not going on holiday, I’m travelling” debate….!

    The question I hate most is “so what will you do when you return?” Er, “if I come back?” I reply… Did you get this?

    • Amy
      Posted at 11:56h, 21 March Reply

      Thanks! Yes, we do sometimes find it hard to explain our nomadic lifestyles to people back home and I think some of them worry more than we do about our ‘long-term’ prospects! I think the only answer is just to continue living the way we love to live; I know we’ll never end up completely destitute and that one day we’ll return to England, we’re just not sure when!

      • stefan
        Posted at 02:03h, 12 May Reply

        So I year after I wrote my comment – I get the whole “how long is your holiday for” replying with “we’ve been travelling for almost a year now and may be able to continue doing so for several more months”, which then has to be qualified with the whole “BUT we’ve been saving for many years…”

        A pound goes a long way out here and really does make you realise how fortunate we are to be from ‘the West’.

        • Amy
          Posted at 04:54h, 12 May Reply

          True, a pound does go a long way here. I try to remember that especially now that we are lucky enough to earn such a good wage here from teaching.

  • Charlie
    Posted at 14:57h, 21 March Reply

    I absolutely love this post! It’s so easy at times to forget just how lucky we are in life to have the opportunity to do these things, even if we have to work hard to get them at times – there’s few things quite like travel for reminding us of this. Seems like a great outlook to have as you turn 30, happy birthday!

    • Amy
      Posted at 17:24h, 21 March Reply

      Thanks Charlie, travel has really made me see and understand just how lucky we are – I doubt I would feel this way had we not been travelling this past year. I hope to keep hold of this message wherever we go in our lives.

  • Kellie
    Posted at 20:17h, 21 March Reply

    We’ve had the ‘how long are you on holiday for?’ question a few times too and we also guiltily follow it up with but we saved for years. I feel incredibly lucky to come from somewhere that has given me all the opportunities that have allowed me to do this. We are very fortunate.

    Sorry your birthday cruise wasn’t all it was sold to be. Hope there was at least cake to make up for it!

    • Amy
      Posted at 13:57h, 22 March Reply

      Thanks Kellie, I did have an extremely good massage and pizza back in Hanoi to celebrate too so that definitely made up for the bad aspects of the cruise, as did the partial refund! I’m glad we’re not the only ones who feel guilty about the holiday question too 🙂

  • Jo
    Posted at 23:24h, 21 March Reply

    Happy Birthday, Amy! Sounds like a beautiful experience despite the sub-quality of the cruise. Reading this makes me miss Asia. Love your thoughts on turning thirty and the spectacular scenery. Vegetarian soup with bits of chicken floating in it – people do seem to like serving you up this specialty! Hope you didn’t go too hungry. All the best x

    • Amy
      Posted at 14:13h, 22 March Reply

      Hi Jo, great to hear from you, i hope you got my email from Burma. I certainly didn’t have the best luck getting veggie food in Vietnam, that’s for sure! It was a great experience despite the bad points.

  • Catherine
    Posted at 00:00h, 22 March Reply

    Happy birthday! Love your reflections, it’s so true. Just to have the internet to see this and the linguistic ability to read it and write a comment, puts me well ahead of too many people on this planet.

    • Amy
      Posted at 14:16h, 22 March Reply

      That is also very true Catherine; we all need to try and remember how lucky we are.

  • Michele
    Posted at 01:10h, 22 March Reply

    We spent a night at Halong in Feb and were fogged in. Luckily for us the food was excellent and they even had a birthday cake for me. I agree it is overcrowded due to the fog we did not get to do any activities except the cave which may have been a bonus

    • Amy
      Posted at 14:18h, 22 March Reply

      Sounds like you had good service Michele, shame about the fog though. It’s great that you got to see the cave and I bet it was atleast pretty atmospheric seeing the bay so covered with mist.

  • James Long
    Posted at 02:13h, 22 March Reply

    Great post Amy, We did the cruise on Halong Bay way back in 02 (yes we are old I know LOL) and spent the night on an island. Can’t remember the name but it was great. Spent 2 nights there and did the cave plus we went swimming off the boats and the beach. It certainly wasn’t crowded back then. Can’t remember what the boat was like but it didn’t sink :). $180 seems a lot. Again it was over a decade ago but it was more like $30 but that didn’t include the accommodation on the island which was peanuts. Vietnam like everywhere seems to have changed. I wonder how going back will be. Don’t want to be like old parents and use that dreaded line….back in my day!
    Cheers James

    • Amy
      Posted at 13:54h, 22 March Reply

      Ha! Wow, I can’t believe how cheap your tour was and it sounds like you had a much nicer experience than we did, still we made the best of it I think and the kayaking was great. I heard of people staying one night on the island too, we were interested but it added a lot to the price.

  • Jamie Newman
    Posted at 08:04h, 22 March Reply

    I couldn’t agree more with the “holiday” statements. We have so many people describing us as on Vacation for a long time. I say we are on an adventure. I’ve had people tell me I am very lucky. Although I agree we are lucky, I think we are all lucky from the western world, we just choose to forgo a fancy car and western comforts to afford our adventures! My wife describes us as students of the world. I can also relate to reflecting back on my life as I had a milestone birthday in Cambodia (although 40 for me…)

    Our adventure has an end as we are back home in September of this year, but this will only be temporary, as we will hit the road again long term.

    If you and Andrew find yourselves in Ontario Canada after September of this year, please keep in touch. We would love to host you guys and share stories.

    Jamie

    • Amy
      Posted at 13:51h, 22 March Reply

      Thanks for the offer Jamie, that’s really nice 🙂 We likely won’t get to Canada until 2016 as our rough plans stand at the mo! We will certainly look you up when we do get there although it sounds like you’ll be off on the road again by then – maybe our paths will cross one day 🙂 Students of the world is a great expression by the way!

  • ben
    Posted at 17:18h, 22 March Reply

    Belated Happy Birthday. I love how you spend your birthday heheh 🙂 the manager is so generous to give refund you know.

    • Amy
      Posted at 06:24h, 23 March Reply

      Thanks Ben, the manager at Posh was great, we’d definitely recommend staying there if you’re ever in Hanoi.

      • ben
        Posted at 15:24h, 23 March Reply

        Yes I would definitely visit Hanoi soon!

  • Kerri
    Posted at 05:33h, 23 March Reply

    Happy Birthday Amy. I love your reflections and very eloquently said. Travel really does make me appreciate so many of things that I had taken for granted. I am so sad to hear about the cruise, as we are thinking of heading up that way when we go to Vietnam.

    • Amy
      Posted at 06:26h, 23 March Reply

      Thanks Kerri, don’t let this put you off booking a cruise as the bay is really worth seeing; you might get a better experience if you can afford to pay a bit more though. I’ll be interested to hear what you guys think of Vietnam, we loved it and also found it great value once you get over the initial visa costs.

  • Carmel
    Posted at 06:23h, 23 March Reply

    Happy 30th! Welcome to the 30-year-olds exploring the world crowd. 🙂 Before you were just another lost 20-something. Hee hee…just kidding.

    We opted to stick to southern and central Vietnam, so never had the chance to do Halong Bay, but we heard some similarly bad experiences. It’s too bad when a great place gets overrun by bad tour companies.

    • Amy
      Posted at 06:28h, 23 March Reply

      Ha, thanks Carmel 🙂 It’s interesting that you also heard bad reviews of Halong Bay, the only really good review we heard was from a guy who booked an expensive luxury cruise so I think that’s the way to go if you can afford it!

  • Simone
    Posted at 09:28h, 23 March Reply

    We too feel the need to say that we have save for many years and worked 3 jobs, etc! Loved the post. We head that way in the coming weeks and plan to do some type of cruise. Did you see any that looked any better or more off the beaten path? We too went to Milford, Bay of Islands and Whitsundays and loved all three.

    • Amy
      Posted at 10:58h, 23 March Reply

      Hi Simone, thanks for commenting. The cruise company we went with were called Dugong Sails; needless to say we wouldn’t recommend them! If you can afford a more expensive cruise you may have a better experience; I’d also advise looking on Trip Advisor for positive reviews and asking around at your hotel. We didn’t take a lot of time to research our trip and I wish we had. Have a great time in Vietnam – we loved it there 🙂

  • Patti
    Posted at 00:31h, 24 March Reply

    For sure, Amy, you will never forget your 30th birthday and you’ll have an amazing story to tell. Happy belated Birthday to you!

    • Amy
      Posted at 04:44h, 24 March Reply

      Thanks Patti, you’re right, it certainly was a memorable birthday!

  • Paul Johnson
    Posted at 01:06h, 24 March Reply

    Hi

    Wow, when I turned 30 it wasn’t as exciting as this! You are both very lucky to get this experience and these memories while you still can.

    Incredibly enough I had an ex – boss who travelled all around Vietnam and Asia in a boat he built, and now houses himself somewhere around Thailand.

    Restores your faith in human nature with what the Hotel Manager did in Hanoi for you as well 🙂

    Travel safe!

    • Amy
      Posted at 04:45h, 24 March Reply

      Hi Paul, thanks for commenting. What a great story about your ex-boss, that must have been an incredible adventure. We were definitely lucky to have stayed in such a great hotel in Hanoi, the staff were awesome.

  • Louisa
    Posted at 18:24h, 16 April Reply

    Oh, that’s such a shame Amy. I had a divine time at Halong Bay. My sister and I had 2 nights/3 days on an amazing boat. We went further out than some of the other tours, where there were less boats – it didn’t feel touristy or crowded. It was probably about 4 years ago. We used Buffalo Tours to arrange it. I’ve always hoped I’ll be able to go back with my husband one day – it would really blow him away!

    • Amy
      Posted at 11:52h, 17 April Reply

      Hi Lousia, it’s great to hear you had a good cruise in Halong Bay, sounds like things were a lot less hectic a few years ago.

  • Victoria
    Posted at 09:41h, 04 May Reply

    Happy Birthday Amy! I’m so sorry that your cruise was not as nice as it could have been but luckily, your hotel refunded a part of the trip. Phew!
    Nope, I haven’t been on a cruise in Halong Bay. We were supposed to do an overnight cruise on a sleeper night at the time but all water activity was cancelled due to a typhoon! I did however go on a river cruise in Nha Trang. Our was a typical snorkelling boat with wooden seats that was later converted to a long dining table. You could even have a manicure and pedicure on board too, which I did! Our cruise included docking at an exotic aquarium, visiting a fishing village and riding in a basketboat paddled by women that you see dotting around.

    Perhaps I was lucky but it was one of the best cruises I’ve been on but this was back in 2007 and there weren’t as many travellers back then. In fact, in one town we went to – Khanh Hoa – we were the only travellers there and practically everyone knew which hotel we were staying at!

    • Amy
      Posted at 14:55h, 04 May Reply

      Thanks 🙂 Your cruise sounds amazing Victoria, I wish our Halong Bay trip could have been more like that; I’m still glad I saw the bay though.

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  • Maria
    Posted at 11:38h, 08 January Reply

    I took a year out when I was 24 & travelled around Australia & South East Asia, and then at 32, I backpacked around India. The memories and stories I have created are priceless, so don’t feel guilty about travelling !!

    I’m now 45 and about to set off again, this time to Vietnam, Cambodia & Laos. Your blog is amazing, I’ve been turning to this more than my lonely planet guide.

    You write beautifully Amy !!

    Well done x

    • Amy
      Posted at 06:07h, 09 January Reply

      Thank you so much Maria, I really appreciate your comments and I’m glad you’ve found our blog useful. I hope you have a great trip to Asia, if you find yourself in Hanoi, let us know!

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  • Rachel
    Posted at 16:06h, 30 October Reply

    I’m coming to this feed a little late in the day but as I’m moving to Vietnam in a couple of months so stumbled across your blog from various online searches. I visited Vietnam back in 2015 and was put off doing a tour to Halong Bay by stories very similar to yours, so I wanted to add my experience in case anyone else stumbles across the blog and is wondering how to get there without being completely ripped off. The answer is to use regular Vietnamese public transport and go to Cat Ba Island instead; it was really cheap and relatively easy (or I’m sure we wouldn’t have managed it!) We took the train to Haiphong from Hanoi which was ridiculously cheap and full of Vietnamese people, no tourists in sight. We booked the train the day before with some planned translated phrases to take to the counter. Once at Haiphong we headed for the quayside to find out about ferries and paid about £7 (yep seven pounds) for a direct boat to Cat Ba, again full of Vietnamese people. We were dropped off right by the accommodation/bars etc and enquired at a few before settling on a midrange place with wifi. The next day we booked a boat and kayaking trip around the karsts from one of the many tour companies on the island (in our case Asia Outdoors) who don’t sting you with the transport costs from Hanoi. It meant we knew what we were getting the whole time and could be more flexible or walk away, and actually we felt like we had the whole place to our small friendly group when out on the boat. Being in a tour sometimes seems like it takes all the hassle away but actually results in some pretty bad (and expensive) experiences!

    • Amy
      Posted at 18:39h, 30 October Reply

      Hi Rachel, thanks for your comment. In fact, I have been meaning to go through and update these posts. When we returned to live in Hanoi a year after I wrote this post we also travelled to Cat Ba by local transport as detailed in this blog post:https://www.ourbigfattraveladventure.com/2015/01/10/escape-cat-ba-island/. We actually got a combined bus/boat ticket from Luong Yen bus station that took us to the main strip in Cat Ba too. This (and the train you used) are great cheap options if you have a lot of time, if you don’t then an overnight trip from Hanoi is probably still your best bet.

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