After checking out almost every single tour operator in the old quarter of Hanoi we finally decided on our Halong Bay trip….with Halong Party Cruise.
We would be spending one night on a boat sailing around Halong Bay, followed by a night on a private island all for $123!
Although we were staying at the Downtown Backpacker hostel famed for its castaways tour to Halong Bay, the price was far too high for our budget for the year.
Instead we went for a midrange tour where the schedule was a good mix of free time, sports and partying rather than the crazy drinking sessions we’d been promised with castaways.
Off to Halong Bay
Our bus set off for the four hour journey to Halong Bay at 7am on Monday morning. By 11.30am our 25 strong person crew had reached the port and swapped our land transport for a small boat to make our way to our home for the evening.
Sailing around Halong Bay
When we booked onto the Party Cruise we weren’t really sure what to expect accommodation wise. We’d been told that with Halong Bay tours you get what you pay for so we were expecting a mid-range boat for the evening.
What we got however was well above any of our expectations!
We were fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to try out one of the companies new, four star boats! It was beautiful! There was even a jacuzzi, steam room and sauna on board!
First impressions of Halong Bay
Halong Bay is actually beautiful.
The photos and explanations of the bay do not fully do it justice!
Although the weather wasn’t great when we sailed into the bay, the islands were still breathtaking from afar.
Luckily the weather picked up in the afternoon so we were able to appreciate the full beauty of the bay as the sun shined down as we laid on the top deck of the boat.
First stop- the cave
Just after lunch we visited the caves in the bay. The caves were pretty underwhelming to be honest and Leah and I both couldn’t wait to get back onto the boat.
We’re not sure if the beauty of Phong Nha national park may have set our expectations really high but the caves in Halong Bay really did not measure up. Instead of being lit with white/ yellow light to emphasis the cave system, coloured lights were visible everywhere. Pink, blue, yellow, green, etc. stalagmites and stalactites are not what we wanted to see.
The best part about that tour was our tour guide Tommy, who pointed out to us the different rock figures that were visible (if you squinted really hard, spun around in a circle 3 times and tilted your head to the side); a dragon, a lady with a big bum, fairies and to top it off a huge penis!
Afternoon on the boat
Once we were back on the boat we were able to chill on the top deck and look out at the views as we sailed through the bay. The speakers were brought to us and Rhys, our self designated DJ, put on his summer playlist. We had sangria and fruit as the sunset and we watched the sea eagles circling the sky above us. It was a good few hours!
Due to the time of year we were in Hanoi- November- sunset happens around 5.30pm. This meant that although we had a few hours designated for kayaking in the evening, these had to be cut short, before we completely ran out of light.
We were dropped to a pontoon in the middle of the bay where a huddle of kayaks were tied up. After being given a kayak between pairs we were given 30minutes to paddle around and make our way back to the boat.
The little area we were set loose in was pretty tranquil besides from a few other boats and their kayakers. Leah and I tried to make our way to the opposite island but seriously underestimated the distance so had to turn back before it got too dark.
Once back at the boat we were allowed/ encouraged to jump from the different level balconies. Both Leah and I chickened out and jumped from the bottom level whilst some of the boys proceeded to jump off the top (it must’ve been over 10m high!)
Evening on the boat
After everyone had been for a little swim in the sea we all headed to our rooms to shower and get ready for dinner.
Food on the boat
The food on the boat was actually really tasty! When we booked I told the tour company that I was vegan and my dietary requirements were actually met really well!
When we first got on the boat we were given lunch. A huge selection of rice, tofu dishes and vegetables. Everyone else was also given a selection of meat and fish dishes whilst I was given more tofu.
Dinner was in much the same fashion but this time it was pumpkin soup for everyone to start, followed by a whole banquet of food – my rice balls and curry was especially tasty!
The only downside to the food was breakfast the following morning. The only options were bread with jam and eggs for those that wanted it.
Because we’d booked onto the party boat we were allocated a party games ‘master’ in the form of an American guy called Matt.
After dinner we all played drinking games so quickly got in the party mood. Flip cup, slap cup and ring of fire were all played before 10pm so everyone was well and truly ‘merry’ by the time they went to bed.
The games that we played were fun but the company was what made it really. Tommy our tour guide was hilarious and although Matt – who was meant to be making the night fun – went to bed at 10.30!! he did actually get the whole group involved with the games.
After lots and lots of drunken dancing and singing the stars looked amazing against the black island silhouettes. The sparse amount of boats that we could see also added to the view because all that was visible was a few lights dotted against the horizon.
The morning after
Up at 6am Leah and I made our way back to the top deck to catch the end of the sunrising after a few hours sleep. We were moving onto Freedom Island in a few hours so wanted to make the most of our time on the boat.
Cliff diving and Junk boat riding to Freedom Island
After checking out from our cabins at 8.30am a smaller group of us were transported to cat ba Island via a smaller boat to meet the junk boat that would take us to our private island. After two hours and a few changes we were on the Junk boat passing through the little floating fishing villages gathered in the bay’s.
Sitting on the top deck of a shabby little junk boat, playing music out of speakers whilst the guys drank beer was actually the perfect way to spend our morning.
After an hour or so the boat dropped anchor next to a large islet so that anyone that wanted to could climb up the rock face and jump off the edge. A few of the guys jumped from the top (maybe 15m high) whilst the majority of people on the boat jumped from the top deck- I chickened out and jumped from the lower deck again….
By the time we’d all dried off we had swapped onto a really small boat to bring us to the beach of freedom island.
A few hundred metres from the shore the island looked exactly how I imagined it and that didn’t change once we set foot on the beach.
The whole island must’ve been a few hundred metres long and less than a hundred metres wide. All that was visible on the island was two strips of sand (the beaches) separated by 3 cabins, a stilt house with a bar and restaurant underneath, a hammock area with volleyball net and a set of kayaks and floatable mattresses. The rest was simply sea and rock faces which enclosed us in the bay. It was perfect!
We were met on the island by Ben (who runs the place) and shown to our rooms for the evening. The girls would be staying in one cabin (four of us) and the guys would be staying in the cabin next door (five of them).
Sour note at lunch
After checking in we all met back in the restaurant area to have some lunch. Lunch was actually not great at all for anyone (meat eaters and veggies included) but it was fine and provided us with lots of carbs to burn off later in the day – it was literally fried rice, fried noodles, chips and stir fry….
Anyway it wasn’t the actual food that put a damper on lunch but the reaction from Ben when Leah made a joke about the rooms.
In the girls room there were only mattresses to sleep on whereas the guys had actual beds. Leah made a joke that the guys were getting special treatment and Ben wouldn’t let the comment drop for the rest of the evening. Honestly the mattresses were fine and were actually an upgrade to some of the beds leah and I have slept on lately but Ben was so concerned that we would leave him a bad review that he forced Leah to change rooms… Into a cabin with two guys and without me! The whole situation was completely surreal!
Hammock chilling and island adventuring
Anyway after the room situation was sort of dealt with – we planned to move my mattress into the room when Ben wasn’t watching- we had a few hours of free time. This meant that after catching up with some much needed sleep in the hammocks, listening to music and playing volleyball (the beach is a little stoney) by the time we’d paddled to the beach across the bay on the floating mattresses (the kayaks were apparently broken) and back, we were in need of a cold beer whilst watching the sunset.
After our afternoons antics dinner was warmly welcomed. The food was actually delicious too! We all had soup to start then I had salad, stir fry, tofu in a clay pot, fried pumpkin and sweet potato and rice to follow. The others had the same, minus the pumpkin and sweet potato but with a selection of what look like barbecued meats and fish. The food was really tasty!
The evenings entertainment got off to a good start with everyone playing the drinking game called ‘riding the bus’. We all bought drinks from the bar at 70,000 for a small rum and coke and got involved with the card games that followed.
All was going well until Leah went to the bathroom and took her drink with her. Coming from London we’re told to never leave your drinks unattended with people you don’t know, and seeing as Leah and I were sitting at opposite ends of the games table it was easier that she took her drink with her.
However, Ben didn’t agree….
If you bring your own alcohol onto the island you get charged an uncorking fee of 200,000 – more than most bottles of alcohol costs! Ben was convinced that Leah had topped her glass up and wouldn’t let it rest for the entire evening. We even said that we wouldn’t take our drinks in our rooms but he still wasn’t happy.
It got so stupid that Ben tried our bottle of water to see if there was alcohol in it – it wasn’t it was literally just water!
We had actually brought our own alcohol to the island, rum in fact, and we hadn’t even intended on using it much until Ben started badgering on at us for the rest of the evening. It ended up turning into a little game we all played at who could go back to the cabin and have a drink before Ben got suspicious – that’s right Ben everyone was in on it!
Although some people might have we didn’t let Ben ruin our evening and we all had a really good time on the island. Due to its location in the middle of nowhere, and the good weather from earlier, there wasn’t even a cloud in the sky so we were able to fully appreciate the stars whilst laying on the sunbeds on the beach.
Leaving the Island
We checked out of the island after paying our bar tab we were all hurried on to the small boat back to the junk boat. Once aboard the junk boat we made our way back to cat ba and then onto a bus to meet the large boat around midday.
Cooking class: making spring rolls
Back on the large boat from Monday evening we made ourselves at home once again – chilling on the top deck. After an hour of so of meeting the new people (ones who partied on the boat the night before but didn’t go to the island) we were called into the dining area to take part in the ‘cooking class’.
Tommy our tour guide showed us how to make spring rolls. So after putting on gloves about 30 of us began rolling our own spring rolls, ready to be cooked for lunch – I was given my own eggless and meatless ingredients whereas everyone else took their ingredients from a central large bowl with pork and egg mixed into their salad.
Back to Hanoi
Our boat trip came to the end when we reached the mainland just after lunch on Wednesday. We now had a four hour bus journey back to Hanoi which was spiced up slightly by the large group of English guys who we met on the boat a few hours ago. They turned the bus into a party bus and made the bus driver stop hourly to top up their beer supply. After drinking for the past few evenings, leah and I gave the beer a miss, but they were actually really funny!
Final thoughts on Halong Bay
I’m really happy of how it all worked out for us in Halong bay. The bay was great, the boat was great, the food was pretty good and the island would have been perfect if it hadn’t been for Ben putting a dampener on our fun!