This is admitedly one of the best vacations I have taken so far. Ha Long Bay is in the South China sea and is home to thousands of small islets and lots of limestone caves. It is a 3 hour drive from Hanoi city in Vietnam.
But the good part of it is, once you have booked a 2 day or 3 days cruise to Ha Long bay, the tour company picks you up from your hotel, takes you in an AC shuttle to Ha Long city which has the pier and puts you on the cruise with all meals included during your stay. Vietnam starts operations early, as early as 7 am. Thats when the tour bus picks you up from hotel. By this time, there are already lots of tour buses picking people up and creating a traffic jam. Anyway, its all a part of the journey to see the beauty.
There are a lot of tour operators to Ha Long bay and the competition is so cut-throat that once you start bargaining, they will offer you huge discounts on their bloated prices. Ofcourse, most promise you the heavens and deliver less than nothing., like popular travel websites mention. There are different prices for budget, mid level and luxury junks, but not too much of a difference. I would try and stay off the budget junk just for the quality of food. Cutting corners is taken to a new level in Vietnam. You might end up with a short blanket which won't cover your feet (I am not 6ft btw) or tiny little toilet paper rolls in your cabin.
There are loads of cruise ships or junks as they are called in this part of the world, cruising in the bay and all off these cruise slowly amidst the islets to let you take in and enjoy the limestone islets. The cruise company first feeds you a filling sea food lunch as they cruise by and then stop over at a limestone cave. Usually, this is a one of the caves mentioned on the itinerary. We were taken to Surprising cave. The surprise unfolds in 3 parts, each getting better than the previous. This was my first time into limestone caves and the size was the most surprising part for me.
Needless to say, they are beautiful. Then you can kayak at a nearby cove area. Not to forget how mine was the only kayak that toppled off putting me right into the dirty dock waters of Vietnam.
Tip: Choose to row towards the calmer shore sides than towards the middle of the sea. Any big boat nearby can shake your kayak and freak you out, especially if it is your first time.
As you cruise along, your junk either stops at a beach or in the middle of the sea for a swim. Just jump from the deck. Or if you are a little timid like me, jump from the edge of the boat. But jump. The sea is always inviting for a swim and whats better than giving in. Even in the off season of July when I visited, Ha Long bay was just as stunning on cloudy days.
All said and done, meals included, shuttle included, a karaoke session after dinner on the deck, lots of relaxing on the deck, neat cabins to sleep over night., this is a good bet for 70 USD/ pax. Ofcourse, bargain and avail the offseason price.