Even though we’re trying to avoid the obviously commercial trips and excursions, once given the opportunity of going on a touristic Halong Bay cruise, we decided to give it a try – only to find out that sometimes it’s just better to stay on your own.
The cruise was far from a disaster – the transport was smooth and problem-free (not counting the 40min delay, but that would be more surprising in Switzerland than here), the guide was well informed and spoke pretty good English, the boat was properly maintained and the cabins clean and comfortable. The fact that our ship was also really quiet was a huge plus, since we spent the night onboard.
The food was, well, quite special and consisted mostly of seafood and some goo-like soups, but we’re pretty sure that it could have been a bullseye for someone and we wouldn’t expect them to perfectly adjust to everyone’s taste. For us, some of the dishes were absolutely delicious and some of them, well, edible, but that’s already more than we were hoping for. Also, everything was freshly made and the crew made sure that everyone was satisfied with what they got – which caused some awkwardness on our side, since I had to leave a couple of plates completely untouched and was forced to loudly explain to the concerned cook that “it’s great, but I’m still recovering from my food poisoning”, which I’m pretty sure put some great visions into the heads of people munching on some clams at the nearby tables.
Still, one thing brought the whole experience from “amazing” to “slightly disappointing” – the absurdly packed itinerary.
On day one, we were supposed to go kayaking and visit the Titop island, where we could climb its highest point and swim in the pleasantly warm waters of the bay. On day two, the plan was to visit the Amazing Cave and see a short cooking presentation, during which the chef would show us how to make the famous fresh spring rolls. Shamefully, we ditched that last point. Why? Because there was no other moment to just sit back and simply enjoy being in such a beautiful, astonishing place (which Halong Bay definitely is, despite the tourism crawling into every little crack in it).
“Now you’ll have some time for yourself, you can sit down and relax. We’ve got 15 minutes until (…)” would be the words that haunted us through the whole cruise. Half an hour here, half an hour there, fifteen minutes to get ready, half an hour to get something to drink, take a shower (with one bathroom per room), pack your things, check out of the cabin and get to the small boat. And try to “relax” as well. While it does sound manageable, it left no time to even go up to the rooftop and look around – and there was supposed to be quite some time to rest. All the activities had the same sense of rush and stress to them. Even though we completed the cave run (there’s really no better way to call it) and all the other attractions as the last ones, we still felt like there was not a second to just stop and take in the breathtaking nature around. The whole thing felt more like a schooltrip – a short word of introduction in point A, a quick walk to point B, 5 minutes to take a picture, go to the toilet and buy something to drink. Before you’d say “hey, that would make for a great photo”, the group would already be running to the next stop point.
Of course, all the spots that we visited were worth seeing, from the amazing islands and the colourful fishing villages of Halong Bay, through the fairytale-like cave, to the breathtaking view from the summit of Titop… and yet it left a very underwhelming feeling to it.
While we do enjoy some information on the places we’re in, feeding us with the dry facts, numbers and slightly forced jokes is not necessarily what we look for in a tour. And while it’s great to be active the whole day and see many places at once, running through them like at an airport when you hear your name on the intercom is not the best way to enjoy it, even if the landscape around you is stunning.
Commercial cruises might be a good choice for people who don’t mind the rush and want to see as much as possible during their short vacation – in such a case, the one we booked with the Classy Travel company shouldn’t let them down. But if you’re more like us and prefer to go at your own pace – try exploring on your own, or find a tour led by a smaller, local office, that will be less focused on stacking every attraction in one day and will give you a lot more freedom. If you happen to be on the Cat Ba island – take a one-day cruise from there with the Cat Ba Ventures. You’ll be sure to see some pristine places with no tourists and you’ll have plenty of time for yourself.