Ha Long Bay is considered one of the 7 new wonders of the world and Vietnam's top tourist attraction. So, despite all of the nightmare reviews we've heard about terribly run tours and people not getting what was promised, we decided to book a luxury tour on the Poseidon sail boat (which wasn't actually a true sail boat, as we didn't ever use sails). Our tour was a 3 day 2 night tour that was supposed to cruise around Ha Long Bay while enjoying the sites along with doing some kayaking and swimming. The pictures of our boat (or “junk” as they are referred to here in Vietnam) looked fantastic in the tour brochure. The junk in the photo was a beautiful brown wooden boat with big sails, looking somewhat like an old Chinese sail boat. Take a look at the photo below: the top picture is from their brochure and the bottom is a picture I took. There are at least a few differences that I can spot 🙂
The tour began at 8 am with a 4 hour bus ride from Hanoi to Ha Long City, with a stop at an arts and crafts centre catering to western tourists. The store was filled with overpriced, but nice souvenirs and clothing. We decided that we could get the same stuff sold here at half the price elsewhere in Vietnam so we chose not to buy anything. At noon we arrived at the harbour, ready to board our junk. When we look out over the bay, we saw hundreds of Ha Long Bay cruise boats, all of them painted white and in desperate need of a fresh coat of paint. We quickly found our boat, which was also painted white and looked nothing like the boat promised to us in the brochure. The boat itself was relatively nice and our cabin was small but well decorated, so we were still fairly happy. We were served lunch immediately (the first of many meals consisting of squid, fried fish and plain rice) and set sail (by sail, I mean started the engine and drove) towards the 3000 karst formations of Ha Long Bay.
Unfortunately, the weather was not on our side from the get go as it was quite foggy, cool and the rain fell from time to time. Visibility was not great, so our pictures did not turn out as great as we would have liked. After cruising for only two hours, we anchored in a bay with about 200 other boats to visit the Surprising Cave. The cave was alright, but a bit tacky due to the multi-coloured lights they place throughout it. The surprise at the end of the cave was a rock formation in the shape of an erect male penis. We had a laugh because everywhere throughout Asia we have been shown rock formations in the shape of sex organs. It is some sort of weird thing they have going on here.
After going through the cave we did 30 minutes of kayaking. We were told that we would be kayaking through caves and lagoons, but instead we just ended up paddling in open water around the boat and around a small fishing village. There were people in old wooden row boats full of chips, pop, and beer paddling around selling to people on the kayaks. It was more like little floating variety stores than a fishing village. We got back on our junk expecting to continue cruising to see more of the bay because we had only moved through Ha Long Bay for two hours at this point. Unfortunately, the boat remained anchored where it was for the night. We had a dinner consisting of fish, chicken, squid, rice and other things and Jackie and I decided to split a bottle of wine. We met some great people on the boat as well, so we were having a fairly good time.
The next morning was where the problems really started. We were up for breakfast at 7 am and by 7:25 am the crew was telling us we had to get off the boat and switch to another boat immediately. I still had a half my breakfast on my plate and a full cup of hot coffee! So we were quickly hustled off of the Poseidon and put onto a budget tour boat full of other tourists. This budget boat took us to Cat Ba Island where we were herded onto a bus to a national park for a trek to a look-out point. The problem was it was raining and incredibly foggy and the guide mentioned it was also very slippery. When we were told we couldn't head to our hotel straight away we opted to enjoy a couple of beers instead of hiking up a wet trail to see nothing but fog. Two hours later we were herded back on the bus and dropped us off at a hotel for a lunch of fried fish, fish spring rolls, and plain white rice. We were supposed to head to Monkey Island in the afternoon, but no one showed at the hotel up to bring us there. So Jackie, myself, and a couple from England were left to spend the entire day in a hotel with absolutely nothing to do. The following day we were again placed on a budget boat and quickly cruised back to the mainland where we had yet another meal of squid and fried fish before hopping back on the 4 hour bus the Hanoi.
Did I mention that on our “deluxe” cruise we were not even given water… The water onboard came with Canadian price tags. Our deluxe meals of squid, fish, and rice turned out to be the exact same meal provided on the budget boat we spent so much time on. It was a saving grace that we had another couple along on our tour to moan, complain, and laugh about how terrible of a tour it was.
By the time the trip finally ended, we were all quite upset with the tour and of how little of Ha Long Bay we actually saw on our Ha Long Bay tour. We were fortunate enough to get a good chunk of our money back because of how poorly the tour was run. Apparently it is normally better than our experience was, and the cool, rainy weather certainly didn't help.
Now we are heading down the coast of Vietnam to Hoi An, which is many people's favourite place in Vietnam, so we have high hopes of a more enjoyable experience!