HaLong Bay: The Detailed Experience

img_7770-copyWhen it comes to HaLong Bay, it’s really not about if you go, but how you go. This stunning bay filled with jutting limestone mountains is a UNESCO World Heritage and one of the top tourist destinations in Southeast Asia. Any guidebook and any travel blog will recommend experiencing this incredible piece of nature when traveling through Vietnam. As with any booming tourist attraction, there are many options and opinions on how to experience HaLong Bay. From a day trip to an overnight on one of the islands to party cruises to luxury liners, there are seemingly endless options at all price points. I did A LOT of research when choosing how we were going to experience HaLong Bay, and eventually chose the company Paradise Cruises. We splurged a bit, but we wanted a reputable & safe company that would be a comfortable experience. We stay in tons of budget hotels and eat cheap street food all throughout Southeast Asia, but we wanted to see how the other half travel, so we ended up on a 3 day, 2 night Paradise Luxury Cruise of HaLong Bay, Vietnam. Warning, this blog post is a bit long and detailed, so if you are looking for a highlight blog post of HaLong Bay, click here. 

Getting There
HaLong Bay is not really near anything else. Including Hanoi. It’s about a FOUR HOUR drive from the city. There’s no “easy” way to get there. OK, there’s a seaplane option, but for most of us, that’s not realistic because of the price. Almost all companies offer transportation, but not always included in the price of the cruise. Because Paradise Cruise does not include transportation to and from Hanoi in their price, we looked around after arriving in Hanoi to see if we could find a cheaper option. And we ended up going with Paradise Cruise’s provided shuttle. They offer 3 options, the shuttle, the VIP shuttle and the private car. We took the shuttle, but got upgraded to the VIP shuttle on the way back! Having done both of those, and meeting people who did the private car, I would say the VIP shuttle is the most comfortable way to travel. There’s less people, more room, included USB chargers for your phone and an overall better travel experience. Many of our fellow ship-mates complained about the travel, the roads, and the traffic. But I think we’ve lived in Southeast Asia way too long to have noticed! What I did notice was comfortable seats, good AC, and phone chargers. Also, about half way through the trip, there’s a 30 minute stop at a souvenir store & cafe. Perfect for a bathroom break and a cup of coffee. I was grateful for the stop!

Once we arrived at the HaLong Bay harbor, we checked in for our cruise at the Paradise Suites Hotel on Tuan Chau Island. We were served complimentary snacks and drinks while we waited to board. It was an efficient and smooth process checking in and being directed to our ship, the Paradise Luxury 4.

The Ship
The ship, the Paradise Luxury, was simply beautiful. I had moderately high expectations based on the price, website photos and other user reviews. And it exceeded them. We booked a suite, which was larger than many hotel rooms we’ve stayed in while traveling through Asia! We had many windows, a really comfortable bed, table and chairs seating area, and a large bathtub/shower. We were on the bottom floor, but it wasn’t too loud with ship noise or engine noise. The dining room was also beautiful. The top deck was full of loungers and couches, and was incredibly comfortable, especially around sunset.

We also spent about 7 hours on the Paradise Explorer, a day boat, for our 2nd day on the water. It’s a much smaller boat, and not as nice as the Luxury, but completely enjoyable for the day. We were often getting on and off the boat, that there wasn’t too much time to miss the comforts of the Luxury.

The Meals
We really ate a lot of good food while cruising. We had a mix of buffet meals and plated meals. Both were excellent, with a variety of dishes. One night, there was a seafood barbecue with even more food! Each night at sunset, the crew would offer a cooking class, followed by eating that dish. We learned to make Vietnamese spring rolls, papaya salad and a chicken dish. It was delightful. Many blogs and reviews that I had read complained about the high cost of drinks aboard the boats. It was true, however, water was given freely, which I did not expect. Also, our boat offered happy hour each night on selected drinks, alcoholic and non, which brought the cost down considerably. It’s not a booze cruise. Our first night on board we were supposed to wear traditional Vietnamese clothing to dinner, but as soon as we arrived in the dining room, we realized that no one had it on, and it was incredibly awkward. Apparently, people just took a photo in it and then took it off to eat. It was just weird.

 

The Schedule
By choosing the 3 day/2 night cruise experience we were hoping for longer time in the bay, and exploring the islands. Our friends did just the one night, and said it wasn’t enough time. I was really glad that we chose 2 nights, because I felt like we saw so much more. We boarded the ship around lunch time, and after setting sail, had our first meal on the ship. As we sailed further from the coast, the haze and fog lifted and we were treated to beautiful skies and beautiful views of HaLong Bay. Our first “off boat” excursion was Cua Van Floating Village. We could either travel by bamboo boat or by kayak, but the kayak cost extra. We opted for the bamboo boat, and I was happy to get a seat in the front so I could photo easily. It was a leisurely slow boat trip through the fishing village. I would liked if there was actually someone explaining the village, the lives of the fisherman and families and whatnot. We heard a little before we left on the bamboo boat, but I would have probably asked questions along the way. But it was a lovely experience. After returning to the boat, Happy Hour began and not long afterwards the cooking class. I enjoyed the nightly cooking class experience, and was happy to take part, though not all of the cruisers did. Following sunset, dinner was served in the elegant dining. We had another buffet, and it was filling and enjoyable. Apparently evening activities of squid fishing and a movie were offered, but we didn’t bother. It was wonderful to fall asleep being gently rocked to sleep by the waves.

The next morning after breakfast, we were shuttled to the day boat, the Paradise Explorer, which I already mentioned. While on the day boat, we first visited Titop Island, which provided some of the best views of the bay. Of course, we had to climb a million [ok like 600] steps! But there were actually steps, which made the climb relatively easy. And the view was worth it. After the climb, we enjoyed a swim at the island beach which was nice and refreshing. Following Titop Island, we cruised over to Luon Cave, where we boarded another bamboo boat for another slow boat ride through the cave. There were more beautiful views, but it was pretty slow and quiet. After the cave, we enjoyed a simple lunch on the Paradise Explorer while continuing to cruise. After lunch, we had a seemingly random [it wasn’t on the provided schedule] stop at an oyster farm. We were shuttled yet again off the boat to learn about oysters and pearls, and then buy pearls. It seemed like a sales pitch and tourist trap. This was my least favorite excursion of the entire trip. After getting back on the Paradise Explorer, we then cruised over to Tieng Ong Cave, which we were able to walk through. The cave itself was large, but somewhat unimpressive. But here we did get to kayak for about an hour, which I’m glad was offered! After kayaking, we were taken back to the Paradise Luxury main boat just in time for Happy Hour and another cooking class. Dinner was a beautifully plated set meal and was quite enjoyable. Again, we missed the night activities offered. Apparently, there was also 6:30am Tai Chi both mornings, but we definitely slept through that! Our last morning on the boat we were taken to Sung Sot Cave, or Surprise Cave. I was skeptical at first, but this cave was quite impressive and incredibly large. My eye rolling at the thought of another cave quickly turned to open mouth awe at the size and formations of this space. The exit of the cave provided a beautiful panorama of the bay as well. We went back to the ship and enjoyed a late breakfast, and began to prepare to dock and leave the boat. It was bittersweet! I could have kept going, but I was also ready to continue our Vietnam holiday.

We then were taken back to the Paradise Suites Hotel for a free buffet lunch while we waited for the shuttles to take us back to the city. Here’s the only advantage of the private car transportation option. They pick you up at the boat and you head back to the city right then. We waited almost 2 hours at the hotel for our shuttle, while eating a mediocre lunch. We then boarded our VIP shuttle and headed back to the city, stopping at the same souvenir shop & cafe along the way.

Many people have complained about too busy of a schedule, but I did not at all feel like that. There were good activities planned and things I genuinely wanted to see [minus the oyster farm]. Paradise Cruises did a good job planning.

Overall, I give the experience in HaLong Bay with Paradise Cruises 4 stars out of 5. It was elegant, professional, luxurious, and comfortable. HaLong Bay is amazing. So no matter how you go, just go.

We did this trip in September 2016 at the end of the rainy season. We were afraid it would rain during our trip, but we were blessed with blue skies most of the time! We also rarely noticed a congestion of other boats and lots of trash. Often, it seemed we were the only boat on the beautifully clean water. It was simply magical. For a video of our time in HaLong Bay, click here.

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