The beginning of a three-days cruise adventure exploring around Northern Vietnam’s legendary, stunning and mysterious Hạ Long Bay.
In lieu of the traditional wedding registry, Lori and I created a travel registry for our six-month honeymoon through Asia, with a small registry for a few key durable goods that we plan to use throughout our lifetime. We’ve been saving up for the trip in the two years leading up to the wedding, and budgeted our day-to-day honeymoon expenses accordingly. By and large, the experiences we listed on our travel registry were additional, one-off, once-in-a-lifetime travel experiences that we might not have otherwise been able to afford on our basic backpacker budget, such as going on a guided overnight camel trek in the desert of Western India, visiting the Great Wall of China, or getting a three-day pass for Cambodia’s Angkor Wat complex.
Taking a three-day cruise around Northern Vietnam’s legendary Hạ Long Bay, was also on the registry, and we are deeply grateful to have been afforded the opportunity to partake in this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Our Hạ Long Bay experience began in Hanoi.
Originally, we planned to arrange the trip prior to arriving in Vietnam so that we’d have a good company locked in. Pre-planning these sorts of things has never appealed to us on long backpacking trips for a number of reasons, but chiefly because it removes an aspect of the spontaneity and flexibility of the trip, which is one of the main reasons why we even go on these trips in the first place. It’s impossible to let the experience unfold before you and let it suck you in if you have too many stakes in the ground or waypoints to reach at a specific time. Oftentimes, we’ll arrive in a place we were convinced we’d love, to find that we can’t leave soon enough. Other times, we’ll find ourselves in a place by accident that speaks to us and we’ll want to stay longer. And still other times, we’ll hear about a place from a fellow traveler and want to check it out. In our minds, it was bad enough that we had to confine ourselves to a roundtrip ticket between Shanghai and Portland. Our main consolation was that we leave everything in between June and December wide open. And that’s what we did.
We waited until we arrived at our guesthouse in Hanoi to figure out our Hạ Long Bay plans. Up until that point, we had read horror story after horror story of cruise companies over-charging and under-delivering. We read several others involving scams from bait-and-switch to being taken around to all the tour-operators cousins’ businesses instead of enjoying the real sights. We went around to several travel agencies in Hanoi, but didn’t get a good feeling from any of the cruises on offer. Finally, we asked the manager of our guesthouse for a recommendation. Turns out, we should have done this in the first place.
We had been impressed by Hanoi Lucky Guesthouse — so impressed in fact, that we returned twice. The first room we had was incredible, particularly for US$16. The staff was friendly and knowledgable and struck us as reliable and trustworthy. So, when they brought out three hardbound books of three different cruise companies, they had our attention.
Like Goldilocks, one company was too expensive, one company was too budget, and one seemed just right. That company was Cristina Cruise.
For a multi-day, big-ticket trip like this (and by “big-ticket” I mean US$125 per person, all-inclusive, for three days, which turned out to be an excellent deal, but a fortune in budget backpacker parlance), I generally like to do my due diligence — at the very least, a TripAdvisor scan in combination with reading trip reports on others’ blogs. Getting a read on Cristina Cruise proved challenging because there seemed to be multiple similarly-named companies (Christina Cruises, Cristina Cruise, etc.) and the boats looked different on different websites (some sites showed brown boats while others showed gleaming white boats).
Turns out that up until very recently, most of the dozens of cruise boats plying the Bay were painted a Chinese-junk style brown. However, a new law had recently been passed that all Hạ Long boats be painted white, presumably for safety reasons, but we don’t really know. In addition to having recently painted their fleet white, Cristina Cruise, the company we used, had also refurbished the interior of their boats. Our guesthouse manager seemed to be one of the few travel agents we visited who had the updated brochure with photos of the new interior and exterior. Fortunately, the price was the same as it had been. All of this made the decision very easy and we went with Cristina. And as hoped, all of it turned out exactly as advertised.
Our Cristina Cruise stateroom. I don’t know how many liters of lacquer was used on each of the staterooms, but it had to be substantial.
Three full days, two nights. We opted for one night on the boat and one night in a cabana on a secluded island. Transport to/from Hanoi, meals, lodging and activities were included in the price. Activities included visiting island caves, an island full of monkeys, kayaking, cooking lessons, karaoke, and hiking. But of course, the best activity of all was sitting on the top deck and watching this amazing place lazily roll by.
We took our cruise in late November, not ideal by many people’s standards, given the cooler, rainier weather. But for us, it was perfect. We actually thought that the misty conditions enhanced the mystique and aura of the Bay, and the cooler, foggy weather was a welcome change after four months of traveling through tropical heat and humidity.
One of our first activities was a side-trip to a Buddha cave cut in a karst cliff on one of the islands. We loaded on to a smaller boat and motored over to take a look.
We were not the only ones with the same trip in mind. Dozens and dozens of cruise boats of varying shapes and sizes operate in Hạ Long Bay. The bay is huge, but the vast majority cluster together at a handful of popular attractions. We had been told that the first day we would be encountering a lot of other boats and cruise passengers, but on the second and third day, our boat would peel off from the crowds and do our own thing.
Despite the many boats vying for moorage in cramped cove after cove, the places we stopped were still very enjoyable and didn’t feel completely overrun by hordes. Unexpectedly, we were even afforded a few solitary moments inside the cave.
The rain was a common feature of our cruise, particularly on the first day. But again, it seemed to add to rather than take away from the experience.
Next, was a little bit of kayaking around this picturesque cove. We would have liked more time to kayak around than we were allotted, but there were places to go and things to see. Such is life on a tour, but in hindsight I don’t think we missed out terribly because of this.
Next, we stop off at another one of the islands to ascend some stairs to a commanding view of our surroundings.
Time for a beer break! Ba Ba Ba!
At the end of the first day, we dropped anchor in a bay full of several other cruise boats, yet far enough away where that really didn’t matter. After a jam-packed day, we were excited to sit back, relax, have a few beverages and dig in to dinner. But first, one more activity — learning how to make fresh spring rolls!
Get a load of that concentration. It’s all about the spring roll.
And now for an evening Vietnamese coffee. Bad idea? Or best. idea. ever?
What happens when you mix spring rolls with Vietnamese beer and Vietnamese coffee…
But none of that compared to that night’s entertainment…