Summary: This UNESCO World Heritage Site is truly a beautiful place to visit. Located roughly 3 hours from Hanoi, Hạ Long Bay's unique feature is the limestone pillars topped with green vegetation. It is true that there are many cruise boats filled with tourists but the Bay is an expansive 600 miles and can accommodate the traffic so that it does not feel crowded. We chose a 2-day, 1-night cruise but if you want some more down time on your trip, this is a good spot add a day or two and so you can sit back and relax on the Bay.
The drive. Our tour company rented a full-size, clean and air-conditioned chartered bus. Roughly 90 minutes into the 3-hour drive, we stopped at a large rest stop area to stretch our legs and grab a cup of coffee which was needed after our early departure time. Next, we arrived at a marina that housed several ferries taking guests to various small cruise ships. After a short wait, we boarded the ferry and headed out onto the Bay to transfer to our ship.
Boarding the Ship. These cruise ships should have another name since one often associates this term with the large capacity cruise ships like a Carnival Cruise. These "cruise ships," remind me more of a river boat. They are modest in size, with I think only ~12 or so bedrooms. The top floor has deck chairs for lounging and a bar and one floor contains a dining hall with large wrap around-windows. From what we could tell, two floors had bedrooms and another had rooms for staff and the kitchen. In total, it is spacious enough to feel roomy but small enough to feel like a personal experience.
Don't miss the views. Ha Long Bay is an essential stop on any Northern Vietnam itinerary. If for nothing else, come here for the views. They never get old. Once you Board the cruise, your ship sets off towards the limestone pillars that make these views unforgettable. The trip takes you past hundreds of mini islands topped with green vegetation. The breeze of the trip is especially nice as the humidity was particularly high during our visit (hello, big hair). The views, though, never get old and one could spend days just gazing at this breathtaking place.
Sapphire Cruise. Booked through Swan Cruise, our "Sapphire" cruise ship was clean, well-acquainted, and had excellent customer service. Rooms had air conditioning, large bath tubs, and private balconies. The mini fridge came in handy when local villagers sold drinks from guest balconies. Meals on the cruise (included) and drinks (not-included) were quite nice, with beautiful presentation. $556 for one night (4 people, 2 rooms, activities and meals included).
Bedrooms. Our family of four was divided into a kids' room and an adults' room. Each lovely room had their own large tub bath and shower, crisp and clean sheets, and a private balcony with chairs. If your room happened to be near the water line, like ours, you will be greeted by locals that wish to sell you snacks, beer, and drinks for your room fridge. (photo below). It was actually quite handy and like many things in Vietnam, ridiculously inexpensive.
The Food. Admittedly, we are not the best food critics. We love to eat, of course, but I wouldn't look here for educated culinary reviews. Also, our expectations are generally pretty low. This means we often find ourselves surprised by a really great meal, when others would either (1) roll their eyes because, "duh," or (2) roll their eyes because, "this is what you call great?" Bearing that in mind, this was an example of being surprised by a really great meal. Actually, all the meals were great. While the menu was fixed, there are choices between more authentic Vietnamese dishes to more "Americanized" dishes which is helpful with kids in tow. Food presentation was beautiful and the service was outstanding at each sitting.
Kayaking. Our cruise company offered (price included), an opportunity for a couple of hours on the Bay on Kayaks. In short, it was awesome. Don't pass this up. In your own Kayak, you are given an opportunity to tool around a series of islands at your own pace in this self-guided tour. There are also caves for you to explore if you can handle small spaces (not me).
Morning boat ride through caves. Also included in our tour was a morning boat ride through the larger caves near where our boat docked. As this was more accessible to groups as a whole, the caves ended up being lined with several boats coming in any out. It was well-organized but certainly not private at all. Even so, our guide (photo below), navigated the waters expertly. This boat ride is also a way to view the limestone islands up close.
The cruise ship experience, food, kayaking, and boat rides all made for a fun detour from the busy City of Hanoi. The beauty of this Bay, though, made for an unforgettable experience.