We had heard horror stories about most tours offered to Halong Bay, about a four hour drive from Hanoi. Many backpackers had been ripped off with hefty price tags and horrible conditions. We talked to a Dutch guy later in our travels through Vietnam who had to put up with bed bugs and rats on his “luxury” boat. I am happy to say that Kyle and I had none of those difficulties with our tour: perhaps after our difficulties through China the traveling gods took it easy on us.
Unfortunately I cannot remember the exact name of the company we went with, because everything was handled by our hostel, Central Backpackers. If you’re in Hanoi I would recommend this place simply for its cheap, yet clean rooms and free beer every night from 7:30-8:30. It’s great for meeting people and the people at the front desk were extremely helpful. After chatting with the woman at reception about our options for seeing Halong Bay, we decided to book the tour through her instead of having to worry about the details. I’m glad to say we were not disappointed with the experience or the price tag: at a total of $115 (or broken down to $38 a day), we had a private island, meals and one night on a boat in the bay with our own private room. Again, at home you would be looking at paying $500 for staying on the island alone.
We were picked up from the hostel at about eight in the morning, made the rounds through Hanoi to pick up other backpackers, then set off for Halong Bay. Four hours later we arrived, hopped on a boat and were off to our private island for the full moon party. The trip started off tame, with everyone quite quiet on the bus ride over. Kyle and I sat next to two Scottish brothers, Mike and Paul, and chatted to them for most of the way. As soon as everyone was on the boat, however, the beers started coming and the previously quiet group turned a bit more rowdy. Any time you have a group of Scots and Brits together you can almost guarantee a heavy flow of alcohol and continuous “banter” as they call it. By the time we actually arrived on the private island, Richard, a Scot from Glasgow who was near impossible to understand, had challenged a French guy to a vodka chugging contest. If there’s one thing I learned from this tour, it’s never to underestimate the drinking powers of the French. In a few gulps half the bottle was gone. When asked how he was feeling the French guy replied: “tiz nuzzing, basically like drinking three glazzes at zee bar no?” Remind me to return to the bars in this guy’s hometown on my next visit to France.
The full moon party wasn’t quite as rowdy as expected (perhaps because Richard the Scotsman peaked far too early), but it was still good fun. The sand was near-white, the water warm and there was even a volleyball net set up for some exercise (albeit drunken exercise). At the end of the night we all stumbled to bed which was now a mix of sand and sheets, ready for our 7am wake-up call for breakfast the next day…barely.
Haggard and regretting finishing off the cheap bottle of vodka we brought over from Hanoi (which cost no more than $2 each), we dragged ourselves out of bed for a quick bite of breakfast, followed by swiftly returning back to bed. Eventually we rose again, ready to take on the day. Our next stop after leaving the island was rock climbing, although Vietnamese rock climbing is slightly different than what we’re used to. After putting on ripped “climbing” shoes, a smaller boat brought us to a rock face overhanging the water, allowed me to cling on for my life then swiftly moved away. Luckily I managed to hoist myself up, but it could have been much worse. Standards of safety in this country are a bit different than back home.
Finally the last night was spent on the boat, and we even got our own private room. After staying in dorms non-stop as a couple, it’s nice to finally have some privacy. At first we thought it was going to be a quiet night, since the group had to be split up onto separate boats due to space. However, at about ten at night we heard shouts from the water and saw that two of the guys had swam over to ours for some Red Bull (or so went the excuse). After a bit of back and forth with the two boats, we finally got the two joined together and we’re all reunited for a final night of drinking. By the time I got back to Hanoi the next day I was ready to lay off the drinking for a few days (sign number one that I’m not as young as I used to be).
Overall it was a great trip. Most of the people we met on the tour we ended up traveling with for another week through Vietnam. For those looking to book a tour of Halong Bay, I would recommend staying in Central Backpackers and booking through them. At $38 it’s better to pay a bit more (there are trips for as little as $20 per day), and make sure you avoid the bed bugs. As far as drunken Scots and Frenchmen go, you’re on your own there.