Halong Bay in Vietnam is one of the most popular UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Southeast Asia, and cruising in the bay is on the to-do list for most tourists. But that also means there’s a glut of junk cruise tour operators competing for customers, both online and on the streets of nearby capital city Hanoi.
Halong Bay is unarguably scenic, but its reputation has been damaged by tourism exploitation and overall over-commercialization. On my trip to Hanoi, my friends and I had had our qualms about booking a Halong Bay junk cruise tour due to horror stories of filthy boats and shady tour guides demanding tips before they’d let you disembark. Hence, I did quite a bit of research to prepare for any possible hiccups – and ended up having a fabulous time!
If you intend to cruise Halong Bay, keep reading this guide for tips on booking and enjoying your Halong Bay junk boat tour.
Why a Junk Boat Cruise?
My two girlfriends and I booked a overnight tour aboard a “junk”, which can be more accurately described as a yacht decorated with oriental-style fittings and two junk-like sails on top. Doesn’t matter – it was comfortable enough to let us enjoy the beautiful weather and scenery of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
One of the standard activities when you cruise Halong Bay is visit Hang Sung Sot, AKA the Cave of Surprises. This limestone grotto consists of a series of caves linked by narrow pathways. Our guide, a dude named Lang, very solemnly told us that once we entered “there’s no turning back”. Thankfully, the caves were colder than an air-conditioned room and my severely unfit calf muscles held up as we climbed ever higher towards the way out.
Apparently if your imagination’s working (mine wasn’t), you can see an assortment of shapes and figures in the rocks. Can you spot anything in these pictures?
Once the exercise was over, it was time to vegetate! Away from bustling Hanoi, and even further away from home and work, we hogged the deckchairs and soaked in every moment of tranquility on the deck of the junk.
Time flew by and the 1-night cruise ended as soon as it’d started. With the fresh, chilly spring air of Halong Bay in our veins, we headed back to Hanoi with renewed vigor, ready to tackle the hordes of people and overwhelming traffic. If you’re traversing northern Vietnam, a Halong Bay junk cruise is a must.
Wait… Who Owns This Junk?
Do a quick Google search on “red dragon junk”. Go on – you’ll see that this very popular Halong Bay junk is available for booking on at least 20 different companies’ websites, all having similar names and claiming to own the same junks (yachts, really). After a dozen searches or so, you’ll be ready to smash your keyboard in despair.
It’s starting to sound confusing and even scammy, isn’t it? Which company is offering the real deal?
Here’s how it works: those websites don’t actually own the junks. They’re just different travel agencies offering vacancies on the same boat, and most of the boats are owned by the same company. For example, Oriental Sails Halong Bay owns the Oriental Sails and Calypso Cruiser junks, while Indochina Junk and Indochina Sails are two different companies owning different junks.
1. Check Reviews & Prices by Junk Name
Don’t get confused by the different Halong Bay cruise websites just yet. Instead, conduct a few searches on the various Halong Bay junks. ToursHalong.com offers a rather accurate star rating of the most popular junks, including private junks. Their prices are also a good starting point for comparison.
2. Book from a Reputable Source
The number one reason for negative reviews on Halong Bay junk tours – even for more well-known junks – is a shady travel agent or freelance tour guide. Here’s what to look out for:
Most Halong Bay tours from Hanoi will include a pit stop at a craft/souvenir factory, but you should not be forced to buy anything.
At the end of your junk cruise, the crew on the junk will mention that tips are appreciated, but they should be anonymous and non-obligatory. Don’t feel compelled to fork out more cash if your tour guide claims the tips aren’t enough.
If you read a negative review about an otherwise fantastic Halong Bay junk, try to find out where the junk tour was booked and avoid that website/company.
I recommend booking a tour with AmoVietnam – they were wonderful hosts when I stayed in their Hanoi homestay, and helped book my friends and I a wonderful Halong Bay junk tour.
3. Be Prepared
Don’t feel guilty or paranoid about asking questions before booking or while on your cruise, especially if you’re going for a small private cruise instead of a larger one with more passengers on board. Try to get more details on the company that owns the junk or the travel agency so that if a nightmarish experience really does happen, you can make a complaint to the appropriate persons.
Of course, you shouldn’t expect perfection either – showers can leak, the food may not be to your taste, and the crew may not speak perfect English. Just enjoy yourself, delight in the view, and travel happy!