Halong Bay is this beautiful, magical, mystical place in Vietnam… or rather, it should be. It was voted one of the New 7 Wonders of nature. It’s on so many people’s bucket list. It was supposed to be the highlight of our trip to this ancient South-East Asian country. We looked forward to our cruise for weeks. We imagined being on this cool-looking junk boat, floating amongst the karst limestone mountains jutting out of the water. But what we experienced was far from this dream.
The tour packages
Each company will have some specific things that are unique to it, but trust us when we say that there is not much creativity with the service providers in Halong Bay. Having shopped over 15 different cruises, here is what we found were the main options.
Mostly, all providers will take you to the highlights of Halong Bay. This includes a trip to Sung Sot (Surprise) Cave, kayaking at Luon cave and the lookout at Ti Top island. Usually, food and water bottles are also provided in the package. Most tour operators will offer transfers to and from your hotel in Hanoi. All you have to do is decide how long you want to stay in Halong Bay.
- 2 days / 1 night on the boat: Keeping it short and sweet so you can experience the Bay and the main highlights.
- 3 days / 2 nights with Cat Ba island: You will spend one night on the boat, another on Cat Ba island. You also have the chance to sleep at Monkey Island (on Cat Ba, just a different location), though you will pay a premium for this.
- 3 nights / 2 days on the boat: This is the option we went with because we wanted to get the most out of our time in Halong Bay. It included everything mentioned above, and was supposed to include a trip to the Virgin Cave, time on a beach, a visit to a traditional pearl farm and floating village, and kayaking at a different cave than Luon.
As for the cost of the cruise, it can vary from one boat to the next. There are luxury boats and more basic ones. We chose a middle range boat, paying $500 US for the both of us, but it seems like even that was not ‘good enough’.
A cruise in Halong Bay is not cheap. In fact, compared to other things you can do and see in Vietnam, it is a lot more expensive, especially since these boats are geared toward ‘tourists with money’.
Looking back at this trip now, we wish we had known more about visiting Halong Bay. Not only would we have skipped out on this experience, we would have saved a ton of money, our environmental impact would have been lessened, and we probably would have had a better time overall.
So here are all the reasons we would highly recommend you avoid Halong Bay when you head to Vietnam.
This will always be our main concern when we travel. We are always super conscious of what our environmental impact is. This world is beautiful, and we want to keep exploring it. The best way to do this is by making sure that we have the least negative impacts on the places we visit.
Unfortunately, when you visit Halong Bay, your impact is huge, and you can feel it all around!
Every single meal we had on our boat was plentiful. Although delicious, there was too much variety and the quantity of food was almost a joke… but not a very funny one!
At the end of the meal, everyone would feel so bad seeing barely-eaten plates leave the table. We brought it up with the staff, asking them if they could make less food considering there was so much waste. We were told that this is how they do things and there was no way to change this.
Sure, this food was then thrown overboard to feed the marine life, or used to feed the pigs. Some may argue that it’s not wasted if it’s being eaten by others, but we beg to differ. Just think of the amount of time and resources it took to make these meals. They could have fed so many other people. For us, this is a waste!
From providing plastic bottles, single-use condiments or toiletries, rubber gloves for the staff handling food, the amount of plastic on the boats is shocking.
What’s more shocking however, is that most of these plastics end up in Halong Bay. The staff (and probably a few tourists) just throw everything off the boat. We’re no longer surprised to see plastic bottles floating around, but during our 3 days in Halong Bay, we were dumb-struck when we saw rubber gloves, chairs, life vests and bits of styrofoam floating around.
That is the part of Halong Bay no one talks about. Sure, the limestone karsts are beautiful. Sure, the mood created when floating around is mystical. But seeing this much plastic is just disgusting. A sad reminder of what we have done to our planet.
The pollution created by these cruises is the main reason we would recommend skipping this experience and avoiding Halong Bay. But there are many more reasons!
The service providers
While surely some tour providers do have nice boats in their fleet, many of them are old. Most show signs of not-so-gentle use, and even more boats are in need of repair… or at least a new paint job. The tour that we took was of the latter variety.
You won’t get what you paid for
After talking with the others on our three different boats, we all realized that we all didn’t get what we paid for. Those who had paid for bigger rooms had the same thing as everyone else. The activities we were supposed to do were not as described. Most were either rushed or had us surrounded by hundreds of people doing the same thing, making it rather unpleasant!
We were supposed to have a deluxe room, which we did not get. We were supposed to have time on a beach… that didn’t happen. Instead, we stayed docked in the middle of Halong Bay, near the pearl farm, for nearly two hours. The pearl farm was actually just a ploy to get unsuspecting tourists to buy things in order for the cruise operators to get a kick-back. And the kayaking we were supposed to do at different caves, well… we were taken to the same cave three times.
You may think that this was only a stroke of bad luck for us. But having spent time on three different boats, and having spoken to three different groups of people, we realized that this was par for the course. The overwater bungalows that people had booked on Monkey island were falling apart (despite costing a premium) and had no windows and mosquito nets with holes in them. The rooms people were given on the boats were sub-par or simply not what they had requested.
Had we been the only ones who had an unpleasant experience, we would have been quick to dismiss this, but we spoke to so many people who agreed that had they known what they were going to go through for the next few days, they would have avoided coming here as well.
The hosts and staff are unpleasant
Because this trip to Halong Bay is one of the most popular tours in the country, you can feel it in the attitude of the hosts. Each boat has their ‘guide’ who usually shares tidbits of history and lore behind Halong Bay and its various sights. Because these guides work almost every single day, you can feel their lack of enthusiasm during the whole stay. They obviously give the same speech day-in and day-out!
If it were only the lack of enthusiasm, we would have understood. However, when we brought up the problems we had during our stay, and the fact that we didn’t get what we paid for, the staff, both on the boat and at the sales office, became extremely rude and disrespectful. This is when we understood that we had just been scammed by a very large and ‘reputable’ business.
We don’t complain often. We always try to find the silver lining in every experience. And when we do complain, we do it in a respectful and solution-oriented way, in the hopes that we help the business improve their services so others can have a better experience.
However, this time was different.
We were called liars when we told the cruise provider that we had never been to the beach we were supposed to go to.
We were called stupid when we said we had been taken to the same kayaking spot three times. They told us that the spots just looked the same to us… come on.
We were met with insults for every complaint we had. Not only from the cruise provider, but from the staff at our hotel where we booked this cruise as well. You can only imagine how annoyed and insulted this whole experience left us.
At this point, do you expect anything different?! Halong Bay was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site twice, in 1994 and 2000. It’s called the “descending dragon bay”. It spans over 1,553 square kilometres. It’s made up of 1,969 islands and thousands of limestone karsts. Basically, it’s what Vietnam travel dreams are made of!
But when you think of something so mystical and beautiful, you know that there will be a ton of people there. After all, there are over 550 cruises that operate in Halong Bay. In 2017, the Bay was host to close to 3 million tourists. The numbers have only increased in the following years.
This means that the peaceful experience you are looking for likely won’t happen, unless you pay a pretty penny. Almost all boats leave and arrive at the same time. They all have a rotation of highlights that they visit. Every single place we went to was swarming with tourists… even the “lesser known” spots!
The Ti Top island lookout was so packed that it felt like we were being herded up the mountain like goats, up a narrow staircase, just wide enough for two. When we got up there, we were surrounded by people posing for selfies, pushing others around them to get ‘the shot’. After five minutes up there, we were ready to throw ourselves down the hill.
The Sung Sot Surprise cave was much of the same. Crowds of people being pushed down the same path. Guides pointing at the same rocks with the same old jokes.
“Look! This one looks like a penis!” *Insert awkward laugh.
“Look! That one is a monkey with a big penis!” *Insert odd look and even more awkward laugh.
“Look! That one is a hole. You know, like a lady hole” *Insert final eye roll.
Ok! Can we turn this into a drinking game already?!
It was the same thing at the ‘secret’ Virgin cave. Same again for the tourist-trap pearl farm. It seemed like every single stop was packed with tourists.
And at night, if you had the ‘luck’ of being parked next to a party boat, well, you got to know just how crowded 1,553 square kilometres actually feels.
Tips to have a better experience
All hope is not lost. You can still have a great experience in Halong Bay, but at least now, you know what to expect. Here are some other tips to make the cruise even more enjoyable.
Choose a less touristic spot
Instead, of going to Halong Bay, we heard only wonderful things about Bai Tu Long Bay. Although the karst islands are more spread out, you will have a more peaceful experience there. If we were to redo this experience again, we would choose Bai Tu Long Bay.
Spend less time on the boat
Actually, just spend less time in Halong Bay. Sure, we were wrong to pick the 2 nights on the boat, as it seems like it was more of a kayaking trip than we anticipated for. However, our friends who went to Cat Ba island didn’t have a great experience either.
Instead, we would recommend you save your money and either only do a day trip to Halong Bay from Hanoi. If living on a junk boat is on your bucket list, then opt for a one-night/ 2 day cruise. You will see the best of Halong Bay, without getting over-whelmed by the crowds and pollution.
Take the eco-friendly route
There are a few cruise providers that are eco-friendly. They don’t waste food, try to reduce the amount of plastic that they use and even have clean-up efforts to make Halong Bay in Vietnam more beautiful. Pick one of those providers!
Also, make sure to bring your own toiletries, and a reusable water bottle like the LifeStraw Go. This will make a huge stride in trying to reduce the amount of trash and plastic that end up in Halong Bay.
Plan your timing
Although we had pretty good weather during our stay in Halong Bay, most mornings and nights were overcast and grey. Don’t let bad weather spoil your trip, because nothing is worst than going to Halong Bay and not seeing what you came to see.
From March to June are the best times to visit. Low season is from June to September, so expect to get better deals, but also expect some storms. Make sure you keep an eye out on the weather forecast for that!
October and November are high season and it will be sunny. December is going to be cool, cloudy but dry. While January and February are cold, foggy and drizzly, so maybe not the best time to go.
Sure, some people might then say, “You know what, the tour wasn’t great, but at least you got to go to Halong Bay! It’s so beautiful, I can only imagine what it must be like to be sitting on the deck of the boat, taking in the beauty and serenity of this natural wonder!”
And they would be right. Halong Bay is beautiful. Unlike anything we have to offer here in Canada, or in many of the countries that we visited.
The unfortunate truth however, is that Halong Bay is taking the same path as places like Maya Bay in the Phi Phi Islands of Thailand, Borocay Island in the Philippines, or Machu Picchu in Peru. All of these places are limiting the amount of tourists who can visit because of the negative impacts of this mass tourism. Some are even closed indefinitely to allow them to return to their previous splendour.
If tourists keep flocking to Halong Bay the way they have been the past years, it too may need to be shut down. While doing so would help the area, the loss of jobs would devastate the local economy. The fact that the amount of people visiting Vietnam in the past 3 years has doubled and that tourism accounts for a significant part of the country’s GDP should be motivation to find a sustainable solution.
Have you ever been to Halong Bay? How was your experience? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
We put a lot of time and effort into the content we create. Please like, comment and share, every action on your part helps us out tremendously and is very much appreciated.
You can also help us by pinning it for others to find.