The bus was late to pick us up. We were sitting in the Friendly Hostel Travel Agency in Hanoi, chatting to the owner about how foreigners don’t get charged more for tourist sites in our countries, he laughed a lot at that one.
Eventually a nice Vietnamese man came in and told us to follow him to the main road where we could get on the bus. We piled in with a load of other people, our backpacks tossed onto a seat in the back, and made our way to Halong City.
During the trip our guide introduced himself before turning it on us. Name, age, country and how long you’ve been in Vietnam. We laughed at each other; the ice was broken. We’d all be together for the next three days, so it was nice to get that out of the way at the very beginning.
When we got to the harbor, we waited only a few minutes before being ushered to a little boat that took us out to our vessel. It was exactly as it had been sold to us.
Halong Imperial Cruises – The Boat
The boat itself was great. It was clean; the rooms were really fancy. We didn’t pay extra for air-conditioning, but we got it anyway. Each room had it’s own bathroom which was very clean as well. It felt quite luxurious; gem toned bedding, wood paneling in the room, comfortable bed and a constant view of this beautiful bay.
We headed upstairs where we were served a huge sit-down lunch. Every meal on the boat was more than enough food, and always a varied selection. All the food was included in the price that we originally paid. I really liked the dining situation because there were four tables and every time we sat down to a meal, we sat with a different group of people. It was nice to get to know everyone on the boat that way. The only bad thing was that we had to pay for all of our drinks, even water.
The upper deck was the perfect sun-lounge area. There were a few seats under shaded cover, but I loved laying in the deck chairs and catching rays as we sailed through the Karst landscape.
There were a lot of different things set up for us throughout the three days. I thought it was a good mixture of planned stuff and free time to do what you want. The first thing we did was head to Sung Sot Cave. The ticket is included in the original price, as were all activities that we did over the three days. It was cool to see all the stalagmites and stalactites, although I’m not sure that the neon lights used to illuminate them are entirely necessary. Regardless, it’s a nice stop on the tour.
We got a lot of time to swim in the bay, jump off the boat, lay in the sun and chill in our rooms on the first day. The second day was spent on land at Nam Cat Island. We kayaked on our own around so many little coves, found completely deserted beaches and swam in magnificently clear blue waters.
On the final day we stopped at an pearl farm. We watched how they ensure most of the oysters create perfect pearls. It was a little bit of a boring stop in my opinion, but it was nice to break up the journey back to the mainland.
We also had a “cooking class” which we were told ahead of time was just making spring rolls. It was actually really fun to learn what went inside them and to learn how to roll them properly. They were cooked up and served to us for lunch before leaving the boat on the last day.
**One thing to note: If you want to cycle around Cat Ba Island, you MUST register and pay BEFORE you get on the boat. Our travel agent told us that we could decide once we were there, but this was incorrect information. Only people who had already chosen to do it were allowed to cycle.
Nam Cat Island
When we pulled up to the dock, I think everyone on the boat thought that maybe this was a mistake, that maybe we were picking someone else up before heading to our destination for the day.
It was a type of paradise I’ve never experienced before. A tiny little beach on a tiny little island in the middle of an otherwise deserted bay were these little bungalows with banana leaf covered roofs.
Again, we didn’t pay extra for air-conditioning, and this time we received only a fan, which was perfect with the cool breeze coming off the water.
Like I said above, we grabbed a kayak and some ores from the shore and headed out, just us two, for most of the afternoon. When we got back all the boys played beach soccer which led into a game of beach volleyball. The few girls on our trip were basking in the sun on loungers with books and an incredible uninterrupted view of Halong Bay.
I kept pinching myself, how could I even afford somewhere like this? How lucky were we to be in this place, with this weather, with this view?
The Staff + The Drinks
There were two sets of people that we mainly dealt with, one being the main guy who ran everything while we were on the boat. He was great. All the staff on the boat, I believe, were not actually part of the Imperial Cruises company, but an outside tour company that they’ve contracted in. All the staff were incredibly friendly, but sometimes annoyingly, they really pushed the drinks. It’s not overly expensive – sodas were about $1, beers were $2, but compared to prices back in Hanoi, it felt like a total rip-off.
They did however offer happy hour every night and during every meal. They would do 2-for-1 offers with beers at dinner and on fresh juices in the morning. Their fresh lemon juice was one of the most refreshing things I’ve ever had!
The other staff we dealt with were on Nam Cat Island. The bungalows seemed to be run by a family. Their children were always at the front desk to help us with drinks and to answer questions. Otherwise, we were pretty much left to our own devices on the island – something I didn’t have a problem with at all.
The food on the boat was delicious. Each table was served family plates of fish, chicken, pork, vegetables and loads and loads of rice each nice. Lunch was similarly large. Breakfast was ok, smaller than the other meals, but still substantial with eggs, rice, vegetables and coffee was actually included which was nice.
The food on Cat Ba Island was a bit of a let down after the amazing meals we’d had on the boat. It was always buffet style, even breakfast. The evening meal we had was a mix of generic Asian food – stir fry, fried rice, fried noodles and plain rice.
Breakfast was pretty good. They had people making fresh eggs to order. You could go up and get as much as you wanted. There was Pho, rice, toast and lots and lots of thick, Vietnamese coffee and condensed milk to mix into it.
I would recommend this boat trip to anyone. Most people on our boat were between the ages of 22 and 28. There were couples as well as groups of friends. The food was good and there was always plenty of it. Luke and I are both big eaters and we were never left hungry after any of the meals. The staff were great, the boat was cleaned constantly, no horror stories like you’ve heard about rats and mold.
The day and night spent on Nam Cat really made the trip for me. I loved having the freedom to explore where we were by kayak, to enjoy the company of everyone on our tour and to relax on the beach. It was utter paradise.
Want to see what our experience was like? Check out our video in Halong Bay:
Have you ever been to Halong Bay? What was your experience there?