Just to the east of Hanoi resides the pristine waters of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. Maneuvering through hundreds of colossal rock islands, numerous small cruise ships jet through these waters giving tourists a look at Vietnamese floating fish villages, island-top views spanning overlooking miles of the bay, and a chance to hang around some monkeys.
Before arriving in Hanoi, I’d already booked a 3-day cruise in Ha Long Bay and was looking forward to kayaking, fishing, biking, cave-walking, and hiking throughout this UNESCO World Heritage Site. On the first day walking the streets of Hanoi, I found out that you can buy various cruise packages, in the 1,000s of travel agencies scattered throughout the backpacking area, exploring these waters for much, much cheaper than what I purchased online, but oh well; I was still anticipating a great time.
In the morning, we were picked up from our hotel and on our way. Think of every terrible “Dad joke” you’ve ever heard. Not the “it’s so bad, it’s good” kind. I’m talking about the “I’m cringing because I can’t handle how awkwardly bad that joke was and now it’s really silent on the bus” jokes that you see in family vacation movies. We endured that for 1-2 hours before arriving at the embarking location for our ship.
Now, I cannot remember where we booked our cruise from or what company it was, but I do remember specifically reading that we would be welcomed with a free beverage upon boarding. We were greeted with a 1/4 coffee cup of something that tasted pretty familiar, but I couldn’t quite identify what it was; more on that later.
After boarding the ship with 10 other unknowing travelers (4 of them turned out to be a family from Minnesota; small world) and finding that Zach and I had a pretty cool cabin for the night, the ship set sail for the first stop of the day.
We arrived at a smallish island that held a beach and a stairway, leading you up to a beautiful top view of the surrounding area. Immediately upon disembarking, our crew was greeted with a sign warning about getting too close to the monkeys who had decided to come out to the area in a large group. The group of monkeys postured on the main rock face and we just chalked it up as them being conditioned to sit there for food. As we headed towards the beach and stairway, we looked towards the rock face from a different angle and I kid you not, there were manmade shoots leading out from cages planted in the back of the rock. Zach and I began to have an inkling that we may have signed up for a tourist trap.
The first destination did provide a fantastic view, a beach restaurant where everything was extremely overpriced, the chance to swim in the waters of Ha Long Bay, and I actually had a monkey jump onto my backpack and jump back up into a tree when I was trying to take a selfie with it. I even captured the thrilling moment on film as it is in my Ha Long Bay video if you haven’t taken a look.
The second destination was a visit to Surprise cave where there were hoards of other tourists to welcome our arrival. While the cave itself was pretty cool, the walkway moved at a sluggish pace as it was pretty overcrowded. Once you moved through the cave, you end up at an outlook point with a view of the entire bay harboring the cave. Guess what was at the top as well… Another over-priced tourist stand with some lackluster handmade jewelry and a few souvenirs to commemorate your visit to Surprise Cave.
I read the full rundown of our Ha Long Bay cruise before the trip so I was excited about the third item on the list: kayaking. We stopped at the location and everyone hopped into their two-person kayaks. All of us were a little surprised to find out that we were being given only 45 minutes to traverse the waters of Ha Long Bay; oh, and we couldn’t leave the kayaking bay. I understand that they have liability issues and there is safety hoopla, but from the description that I read on the website, it was going to be a much more exciting experience and we would get the opportunity to explore the surrounding area, but no. We were able to aimlessly paddle in a small bay with the only semi-exciting aspect being drifting near the shores of the rock spires surrounding us. I will admit that this cruise began to sour for me at this point and we were only on day 1 of 3. I guess we still had the night in the bay and the next day to look forward to.
Once we were shuttled back to our ship, we were treated to a dinner of fried foods. We were offered the opportunity to make our own Vietnamese spring rolls, which were delicious, but apparently the money all 12 of us on the ship had used to pay for this cruise only bought us enough meat to satisfy a goldfish; this was split among everyone. Hooray. With the oily, fried food and one spring roll in my stomach, it was time to endure some more “Dad jokes” as our dinner entertainment. They offered everyone the option for karaoke, but everyone single traveler chose to enjoy the mini-bar and enjoy the peacefulness of the night anchored in Ha Long Bay.
Now it was time for another one of the things I’d been looking forward to: some squid fishin’. Now anyone back home that fishes with me can tell you that I am not the most capable of fishermen (See: does not understand line allowance and rapola depths so his lure just drags off the bottom until it inevitably snags a rock and snaps off). Thankfully this squid fishing was just bobbing a tri-hook and waiting for the squid to see it flash and attack it. I bobbed for about an hour before I saw my first squid, but missed it. After about another hour–and 4 drinks later–I managed to snag one of those bastards. With an excited whooping yell, I ripped that thing out of the water and onto the deck with ink flying everywhere. I was also the only one to catch anything. The crew said they would make calamari for me in the morning for breakfast, but I never saw my catch again.
After that, Zach and I talked with two Australian backpackers we befriende–Jack and Shanae(?)–to the tune of the ship crew belting out karaoke while we enjoyed a couple more drinks. The wind blew both Zach’s and my empty glasses off where they were sitting and shattered them on the deck. The crew must have thought we were pretty loaded although we really weren’t, but they didn’t believe us and just thought we dropped both of them. Ok then. After hanging out a little bit longer, we decided to hit the sack.
The next morning, we were treated to a basic breakfast with no sign of my calamari (the crew never answered what they did with it) and we transferred ships to begin day two of the Ha Long Bay cruise. Little did we know that those broken glasses were $3 each (price gouging intensifies) and that Zach and I had spent about $30 a piece on drinks the night before. Although I was told a different price at the time, the 2-fingers of Johnny Walker Red Label I enjoyed at dinner ended up being $8 and my White Russians $6 each. These may not sound expensive, but for Vietnam this is highway robbery. We couldn’t transfer ships without paying the tab so we begrudgingly did so. Twas’ not a great start to the morning.
We were offered coffee on the next ship only later to find out it was $2 a cup although there was no mention of this when it was given to us and after paying that and the bar tab, we were on the spectrum between irritated and furious; the cruise had basically cost us $300 at this point.
The ship journeyed to our next location: a dingy oyster farm. This stop showed us bags of oysters in bags floating in the water and a showing of how these farmers begin the pearl-making process (this was actually pretty cool, but very brief). Our group was then led to a big display room featuring…and you guessed it, a bunch of overpriced “pearl” jewelry with prices being cheap at $100 and reaching upwards of $1,000s. This had to be some type of joke. This cruise was not what we had read about or even slightly anticipated. There were a few good things, but oh man. I don’t even know how to describe our feelings at this point. We still had two more things to do that day before reaching the hotel at Cat Ba Island.
The next activity was a bike ride around one of the bigger islands in the Ha Long Bay area. Ok this could have some potential. I remember sitting on top of the deck cruising towards the bike ride just laughing about the past 24 hours. How could it get any worse?
The bike ride redeemed a large portion of the experience for me. It was a neat ride through mountain terrain (still on a paved path though), areas with dense vegetation, and a remote village surrounded by large mountains. We cycled for a few hours through the island before heading back to the boat. The bike ride had actually made me feel a lot better and calmed me a bit and I even got to witness the after party of a Vietnamese wedding at the village. This was a taste of the scenic and cultural adventure I’d signed up for.
We then meandered to our 2nd to last destination at Monkey Island. About 8 monkeys hung around the beach area as we walked onto the beach. Some were looking at us for food while others were play-fighting. I witnessed a monkey snag a whole bag of fruit from a tourist’s hand and scurry away. I even had a monkey hiss at me as I was climbing the rock trail that spilled over onto the hiking trails, but I wasn’t given much time to explore the forest areas of the island. Our group stayed here for about an hour before disembarking to end of the cruise experience and head to our hotel on Cat Ba Island.
The past two days had deterred Zach and I from even thinking about partaking in something remotely similar to that tourist trap the rest of the trip. When we arrived at Cat Ba Island, we asked our guide about night buses back to Hanoi because we just wanted to start our road trip down to Ho Chi Minh City. The company was really concerned about us asking for a refund and didn’t care about our feedback about how disappointed we were with the cruise. We just said screw it and bought bus tickets back to Hanoi for $20 each. Six hour later, we were back Hanoi preparing for our road trip.
Overall, it was a pretty fun time being within touching proximity to monkeys, biking through a tranquil Vietnamese village, and catching a squid for the first time of my life. Unfortunately it was the tourist-heavy events that sucked the soul out of the experience. It just felt very generic, but I would still recommend visiting Ha Long Bay; just don’t buy the tickets online and don’t go into it with high expectations. The views are incredible and it is a peaceful place to relax.
Oh and the welcome drink we were offered when we first boarded? Zach came to the conclusion that we had been given orange pop as the welcome drink and after reflecting on the taste, I realized it was most likely Fanta. We couldn’t help but laugh hard at this realization. What an experience.