Halong Bay with its natural wonder of karst landscape has attracted millions of tourists over the year. Without doubt, the easiest and most classic way to discover the Bay is on a cruise trip. However, there are things that once you arrive will seem very removed from your expectation at home. Don't get caught by surprise: a well-prepared trip most often makes a happy one.
1- The 2 day cruise is not really a two-day-cruise
Although most cruises will name its itinerary 2 day 1 night trip, you will be more likely to spend barely 24 hours on boat. The travel time from Hanoi to Halong Bay will already take 7-8 hours back and forth, and you will only be on the cruise from noon of the first day to noon of the second day. This is not to mention the fact that many cruises have disembarking time early at 10:00-10:30am. Knowing this in advance and you won't get disappointed when the actual trip unfurls itself.
2- The 3 day trip and the transfer of boat
It is a common advice/warning shared among Trip Advisor users: take a 3 day trip and you will be out for sightseeing on a basic day boat for most of the second day.
The practice is almost the norm in Halong Bay (with few exceptions of Au Co Cruise or Indochina Junk liner): guests will be transferred to a day boat for excursion and have no access to their cabin until later in the afternoon of the second day. The main junk will go back to the pier to send 2 day guests back to their bus, and collect new group of guests, before welcoming you back to their vessel.
This is something useful to know especially for family with children who need to prepare a day pack with formula and diapers in advance before heading out.
3- Dining table is for share
Due to limited size of the restaurant on board, most cruises will group guests into a table of 6 or 8, meaning you will share your meal and plate with some strangers. While some cruises will allow you to request private table in advance, most (mid-range and budget one specifically) do not have capacity to host 15 such couples on their junk's dining venue. If you don't mind, this would make a great opportunity to know new friends over a delicious Vietnamese plate.
4-Hanoi Old Quarter pick up only? What hotel?
The majority of cruises provided shuttle bus pick up and drop off service only in Hanoi Old Quarter area. There is even a disclaimer of service denial or extra charge if you stay outside, announced by most cruise companies. So how do you know which hotel belongs to Hanoi Old Quarter?
The good news is that most popular hotels are in Hanoi Old Quarter anyway. The easiest way to tell whether you stay at the right place is that the district of the hotel say HOAN KIEM (which Hanoi Old Quarter makes up a vast chunk). There are several hotels that do not belong to this area however, such as: Sheraton Hotel, Intercontinental West Lake, Pan Pacific, Fraser Suites, Somerset Westlake, Elegant Suites Westlake, Pullman Hotel. If you stay at one of these and wish to use the bus service you can always take a taxi to our office at 72 Hang Trong for pick up.
5- The beach is not really.. a beach
Although Halong Bay looks gorgeous on pictures, it may not be the best place for a beach escape. After all, the place is known for unique rocks foundation on the water, not for white sand sparkling azure water with luxury resort. There are places where swimming is allowed such as Ban Chan Beach or Titov Beach, but don't expect it to be the prime activity.
6- The cruise gets cancelled, just as I stepped on board?
As frustrating as it can be, the cruise cancellation notice are often made on the day of the trip. Reasons for cancellation vary: a hurricane, a mist, or even strong breeze (that precedes some later heavy rain at night?) and made exclusively by Halong Bay Management. The permit to sail daily are given between 11:00am and 3:00pm, which means that you will find yourself in an awkward situation: be on the bus, mid-way and learning that the trip gets cancelled, just checking in to your cabin and learning that the trip gets cancelled. Accepting that it's part of the fickly nature of traveling and that it's for your own safety, and knowing this in advance, will probably avoid much of future stress.
7- The best time to travel, or the worst?
There is no best time to visit Halong Bay, nor is there worst time. Pick December for calm stable weather and you will be bewildered by the crowd. Pick March for the warmth and you will be surprised with the spontaneous mist that prevents you from seeing just anything. Avoid June thinking that it may rain and you will later regret: June has beautiful sun, unbelievable cruise deals, and a much more deserted Halong Bay than the rest of the year that you will actually enjoy a lot.