Review: Ha Long Bay cruise by Saigon Cafe Travel

Ha Long Bay by Joanna Freeman

When I decided to visit Hanoi, Vietnam whilst on holiday in Malaysia and Singapore, I knew that of all the things I wanted to see, Ha Long Bay was top of the list. Ha Long Bay, situated around 4 hours outside of Hanoi is considered one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the world, and is a UNESCO world heritage site. It is renowned for its ethereal beauty and for the hundreds of tourists who flock there to kayak, swim, and explore its many caves.

Travelling to Ha Long Bay

When it came down to actually choosing the best method of travel there, I was a little stuck. As with any area in South East Asia which attracts so many tourists, there are hundreds of different tour companies touting trips and deals, and it can become more than a little overwhelming when it comes to making decisions – especially in an area well known for tourist scams. (See our guide on 40 common Tourist Scams to avoid this summer).

Having done a slightly ridiculous amount of research in order to satisfy my obsession with planning, it seemed that the best option was to stay overnight on a junk. If you attempt to do Ha Long in a day, you’ll spend a large amount of it on a coach, and see very little. In the end, I went with a company called Saigon Cafe Travel, on their ‘Lemon Cruise’ junk.

I chose a mid-range cruise – $80 (USD) for the coach to and from our hotel, all meals, entertainment and activities.

Lemon Cruise

Activities included in the trip:

  • See Hang Sung Sot (also known as Surprising Cave) for great views
  • Go Kayaking
  • Take a Vietnamese Cooking Class
  • Squid Fishing
  • Visit a Pearl Farm
  • Beach Time for sunbathing and swimming

Day One

Honestly, I had no idea what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised. Our guide Tho picked us up from our hotel in Hanoi’s old town, on a comfortable and thankfully, air-conditioned bus. The journey to Ha Long was uneventful, including a stop over on the way supposedly for the toilet (which our guide euphemistically called the ‘happy room’) but really, to try and peddle us some tourist tat.

When we arrived, we were taken to the boat. We were then served a tasty lunch of Vietnamese food (and some chips), before the boat arrived at our first stop – Hang Sung Sot (also known as Surprising Cave). Personally I wasn’t entirely convinced by the name, as the ‘surprise’ was apparently that the cave was bigger inside than the entrance suggested, which I thought was an inherent feature of a cave, but there we go

There was a beautiful view of Ha Long from the top, so it was definitely worth seeing.

Halong Bay Cruise

After this, we were taken to a small jetty where kayaks were moored. Each pair was given a kayak and we had an hour to paddle around and explore the small caves and bays which aren’t accessible by junks. Having got thoroughly sunburnt, we were dropped off at a beautiful little beach for the next hour or two. My friend and I chose to swim and do some more sunbathing (or burning), but some of the more energetic people climbed up the hill for the views.

Following the beach visit, we got back onto the junk and went off for a shower. We then had a cooking class; a nice extra in which we made spring rolls which were cooked up for part of our dinner. In the evening, we played various games and got to know our fellow travellers. It was a very diverse group, with 4 Brits, 2 Germans, 2 Spaniards, 2 Israelis and 6 Dutch people. We also got the opportunity to try our hand at squid fishing (!), but failed miserably.

Day Two

The next morning we were given breakfast and taken to a Pearl Farm. This wasn’t on the itinerary we were originally given, so it was a nice addition to break up the sail back to the mainland. The pearl farm was pretty cool – they showed us how they implant the ‘baby’ pearls into the oysters and even opened a few up to see if they had pearls inside. After the little detour, we sailed for a few hours which was a nice chance to relax on the open top deck.

Halong Bay

The journey back was equally comfortable, and they dropped us right outside our hotel which was very convenient as we were always eager to avoid walking around in the 40 degree weather.

Verdict

RouteSalad RecomendedOverall, the cruise was one of the highlights of my entire trip. The scenery was gorgeous; the food was good; the rooms were nice and our tour guide was lovely and spoke near-perfect English. I would definitely recommend it for anyone looking to go to Ha Long Bay in the future.

RouteSalad Recommended

  1. Hai Joanna, love to read your experience in Ha Long. Would you mind to share more about Saigon Cafe Travel? I have been preparing my holiday to Vietnam on January. And I’m still looking for trusted local travel agency in Vietnam. Did you only use this travel for cruise in Ha Long or there was another itinerary with them? Many thanks for sharing.

      1. Hi

        I realise this post is too late for Lala, but I wanted to say what a great trip my family and I had with Saigon Cafe Travel. I booked directly with them from the UK, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have some reservations, but they were totally unfounded. I had 4-5 months of email contact with Tiny and Trang before we left the UK and they were so helpful. We did a 15 night tour, starting in Hanoi and we went to Halong Bay on the Cristina Cruise (same itinerary as Joanna), but this boat was pretty new. Halong Bay was one of our highlights. From there, we returned to Hanoi, then took an overnight sleeper train to Dong Hoi where we were met at 6.30am at the station and driven to Phong Na Ka Be National Park for some cave exploring. We went on to Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, HCMC and the Mekong Delta before leaving 3 days ago. Our accommodation was 3-4* and Tiny and Trang accommodated my request for swimming pools where possible (for my kids). We had several tours where it was just the 5 of us and some where we were with a bigger group. I was given a mobile phone in Hanoi that I kept until the end of the trip; this was so I could contact Tiny or Trang in case of difficulty. It also meant that at each stage of our trip, local drivers and tour guides could contact me. We were very impressed at the level of service we received from Saigon Cafe Travel and I would recommend them without reservation. Tiny met us when we arrived aim HCMC airport and took us out for dinner with his wife and daughter that evening! And Trang accompanied us to the airport on our last day. They were such lovely people and we had the holiday experience of a lifetime.

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