Halong Bay is known to many as one of the top tourist destinations in Vietnam. Photos of the spectacular views with blue waters scattered with thousands of limestone clusters are what comes to mind when one mentions the name. I hadn’t made it up North during my quick visit to Vietnam a few years ago but wasn’t going to pass on the opportunity to see Ha Long Bay this time round! Now it was only a question of finding the best cruise.
How to choose the right Halong Bay cruise?
Good question; there are hundreds to choose from. All I knew was that I didn’t want the ultimate booze cruise and I didn’t want to spend a fortune. While reading blogs and forums online, I stumbled across www.bestpricevn.com which is an aggregator for a variety of tours in Vietnam. Simply select Halong Bay, insert your dates and you’ll get dozens of results. After that it’s a case of opening a bunch of tabs and comparing the offering. Honestly, my guess is that they are very similar, however we ended up settling on Oriental Sales given the itinerary and variety of on-board activities. Now that the cruise is over, I can highly recommend this company as they made our trip very memorable.
Pick- up is at your hotel (if you stay in the Old Quarter only, which I highly suggest) and you embark on the 4 hour bus ride to Halong Bay. Once you arrive, a smallish boat transfers you to your ‘cruise ship’ where you will spend the night. I was happy to discover that we had a relatively small group of 15 people, hence our boat was quite small and quaint. We had our own nicely decorated private cabin with an en-suite bathroom and the bed was more comfortable than any of the hotels we’d stayed at so far. Although it’s not even high season, the port was packed with boats and bus loads of tourists but I was pleased to discover that we weren’t all following the exact same route. They seem to have it quite well planned out so that we’re not all in one place at the same time.
Our trip then consisted of us cruising along the bay and having lunch until we got to the Vung Vieng floating fisherman’s Village. Unfortunately kayaking has now been banned, so you are put into smaller rowing boats each carrying around 6 people and the fishermen take you on a scenic tour of their village and area of the Bay. It’s really fascinating to see how they live, on their minuscule floating houses, probably a family or four or so plus their dog. As our guide himself pointed out, that is their reality, they will never see anything else and their kids will grow up to be fishermen just like their fathers.
One of the most interesting parts of the cruise was the visit to an oyster farm, where we were shown how they farm for pearls, a process completely alien to me. Of course in nature some oysters can produce pearls, however it is rare and can take years, hence the Japanese invented a technique that the Vietnamese use as well: from the shell of a specific oyster from Mississippi, they create a small core of mother of pearl and they implant it into the ‘uterus’ (gonad) of a young oyster. 18 months later, around 30% of the oysters will have produced a pearl, out of which only around 2% are grade A (the best, with no imperfections, perfect colour, shine and shape) about 10% grade B and the rest grade C. So basically they artificially inseminate these oysters to speed up a process that in nature takes years and increase the success factor. We even got to witness one of the guys open one of the oysters that were ready and once he cut into it, surely enough there it was: a beautiful pearl! Still, you probably won’t want to spoil yourself at the gift shop since even one small pearl on a necklace is around £35.
The rest of the evening consisted in a brief traditional spring roll cooking class, a delicious dinner, interesting conversation with our fellow travellers, some cheeky drinks (not included) and even squid fishing once the sun had gone down. I managed to catch two which I found very satisfying and equally surreal to see them squirt ink everywhere as you caught them.
What I loved was that throughout the cruise our guide Tommy gave us plenty of background on what we were seeing and doing, as well as a very interesting debrief of the history of Vietnam, especially pre and post communist era. He is also a hilarious guy with an awesome sense of humour which just added to the fun. It would have maybe been fun to be with a slightly younger crowd, but the people were still lovely and it was great to get to know the different nationalities and opinions on current hot topics.
The following day, as we made our way back to shore, we stopped to visit a cave and have a little explore of a couple of beaches. Shame the weather never really got its act together for us, but we still had a lovely time.
Overall, I’d definitely recommend Oriental Sails for the Halong Bay cruise as our experience was great. We paid $110 each and left feeling like we’d gotten a very good deal for that money. Don’t listen to the people who say that it’s now become too touristy because it would be very sad to miss such a spectacular place if you’re in Northern Vietnam!