Hanoi is a travel agent maze! There are numerous companies offering a multitude of tours making it extremely difficult to choose amongst them. Tours starting in Hanoi are a lot more expensive than those in Saigon. A half day walking tour through the city can easily cost you up to 300,000 dong (approx. £10) per person which by Vietnamese standards is a lot of money. To save some money and to spend some more time in Hanoi itself we decided to dedicate only one day to a day trip to get us out of the city.
Having read really bad reviews about the day trip to the Perfume Pagoda we eventually agreed on going to Halong Bay. The majority of people book overnight trips but neither of us really fancied spending too much time on a boat especially since we had the gorgeous hotel suite overlooking the cathedral and so much more street food to discover. We booked the day trip through our hotel (operated by Khanh Sinh Tour) which was completely hassle free. The trip cost us around 700,000 dong (just over £20) each and included the minibus, water, lunch, kayaking and fresh fruit. We saw places that offer similar tours for around £15. However, be warned that you always get what you pay for in the end. There are tons of horror stories online about low safety standards on boats as well as serious problems with food hygiene and resulting food poisoning. Luckily, our £20 got us a safe boat and a perfectly edible lunch consisting of prawns, chicken, veg, a crab soup (that had no crab in it), rice, spring rolls and some chips. Whilst the food wasn’t overwhelmingly amazing it was still a decent enough lunch that didn’t give us any digestive problems afterwards.
Our tour guide picked us up bang on time at 8am just after we had finished breakfast. Because our tour was priced slightly higher than others we were guaranteed that the group number wouldn’t exceed 20 people and that the kayaking would be included in the price. This is often charged as an extra on top so make sure you ask at the time of booking. We were pleasantly surprised when we found out that there was only going to be 12 people taking the same tour as us meaning we got out of Hanoi relatively quickly as there were only three pick up points. By 9 am we had left the city behind us and were on the motorway to Halong City.
The journey isn’t the most scenic one but still interesting enough to some extent as you drive past large factories, stone pits and rice fields. If you decide to go to Halong Bay on a day tour you need to be prepared to spend at least 3.5 hours each way on a bus. You usually get a 20 minute stop to stretch your legs and use the “happy room”. Most tours stop at this big souvenir shop halfway to the bay selling huge stone statues, lacquer ware, paintings, etc. All stock is massively overpriced and can be bought much cheaper in Hanoi itself (after some haggling of course).
We reached the bay at around 11.30 am and got on a boat pretty much straight away. First impressions: gorgeous scenery, lime stone islets as far as the eye can see, but oh so many boats. We were told that there are around 1,000 day tour boats and an additional 400 extended journey boats that accommodate overnight stays. All of these boats are petrol fuelled which is surprising considering the bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As a result of the heavy boat traffic the water around the harbour is heavily polluted so just keep looking at the horizon and the lovely lime stone formations to distract yourself from the filthy sea. Tourism is a real danger to the bay so I am sure sooner or later there will be some restrictions implemented on how the islets can be accessed in order to preserve the area.
Straight after lunch we went kayaking around a few caves and a floating village for about 45 minutes. You don’t get the opportunity to swim because of pollution but the kayaking was good enough for us. Unfortunately, we weren’t warned that we’d get soaking wet. The paddles don’t have any kind of rim to stop the water from splashing all over you and into the boat. Make sure you put on your swimming trunks before you start paddling around the caves. It took ages for our clothes to dry afterwards and was slightly uncomfortable especially because you can’t be outside or on the top deck when the boat manoeuvres away from the floating village.
Next on the itinerary was a guided tour of Thien Cung Cave (Heavenly Palace Cave). The cave can be reached via a short relatively steep climb up a few stairs. The climb is easy compared to Paradise Cave in Phong Nha although some people seemed to struggle with the stairs here as well. Because we had been to the overwhelmingly magnificent caves close to Dong Hoi just a few days previously we were a bit underwhelmed by Thien Cung. It’s a nice cave but nothing compared to the beauty of the caves in the national park. If you don’t have the time to visit Phong Nha then Thien Cung will definitely suffice and create some good memories for you. Unfortunately, the cave was extremely damp and humid when we visited towards the end of May and didn’t feel as refreshingly cool as the ones we had previously been to. Some people have complained about being rushed through it by the masses of tourists flocking in at a steady pace but we didn’t experience that at all and had enough time to look at the different rock formations and shapes (dragons, turtles, crocodiles and a loving couple) as pointed out by our guide.
All in all we spent around 4 hours on the boat which honestly was enough time for us to take in the wonders and beauty of the bay. If you’re looking for a romantic overnight trip with your significant other then a 2 day cruise probably is the perfect choice for you for a special occasion. It’s not for us though, so no regrets!
We were back in Hanoi by around 8pm, had some Banh Goi for dinner and a few beers on the balcony. We also had a look at a few shops online we wanted to visit the next day for souvenirs and silk but decided to just have a roam about the Old Quarter in the end.