Cruising Halong Bay

The big excursion of our Vietnam trip was a two night cruise on Halong Bay, a beautiful area made up of almost 2000 limestone islands scattered around a peaceful and scenic watery bay.

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To get to Halong Bay, we joined a tour group and started out on the four hour drive to the Halong Marina. Choosing a tour to go with was half the battle. We had read lots of reviews online and heard that prices could range from dirt cheap to absolute luxury. In the end, I’m really happy with the tour we ended up going with. We paid $110 USD/person for the two night cruise, which is about middle-ground for cruising prices. That included transportation, accommodation, activities and food. 

Here are some highlights from the cruise:

The views
After getting on the boat and cruising for only a few minutes, we were already in the middle of something pretty special. It was so peaceful to be out on the blue water and taking in all of these gorgeous limestone islands jutting out at random throughout the bay. My favourite part of the cruise was just hanging out on the top deck and being in awe of the impressive scenery. And despite Halong Bay being very popular, it never felt like our area was crowded with boats.

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The food

Enjoying fresh shrimp with our Spanish Papi

Enjoying fresh shrimp with our Spanish Papi

Emilie and I were pretty nervous about the food. Emilie especially, being a vegan, was worried they wouldn’t be able to cater to her needs. But were we ever wrong! The food on the boat was AMAZING! We ate family style, seated across from an adorable old Spanish couple, and had so many delicious dishes hit the table. I was amazed with the variety of dishes and the quantity. The fresh seafood was definitely a highlight! And Emilie ended up lucking out as well: she received at least 3-4 special veggie dishes just for her at each meal. It got to the point that she was sharing them with the whole table because it was way too much food for one person. And I’m glad she did because they made her an awesome veggie curry one night that was delish!

The accommodation
I was also really nervous about where we would be staying. After our disastrous hotel on our last overnight tour in the Mekong Delta, I had very low hopes for this cruise. Luckily, I was wrong. Our cabin on the boat was small but quite clean and nice. We docked overnight so it wasn’t too rocky or anything either, which my seasick-prone self really appreciated. And our hotel on Cat Ba Island, where we stayed the second night of the cruise, was so nice! It was a pleasant surprise and made our return to Hanoi even harder.

The activities
On our first day of cruising, we stopped to visit the Surprise Caves (I don’t think that was their official name but it’s what our tour guide, Popeye, told us to call them. He probably shouldn’t be the authority on real names…). We walked up some steps and then inside a series of three caves. And yes, it was surprising! Every time we walked into the next cave room, we were blown away by how big the space was and the cool features along the walls. Our guide liked pointing out different shapes in the rocks, which Emilie and I decided to try our hand at as well.

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Inside Cave Room #3

Emilie kayaking!

Emilie kayaking!

After the cave, we found a quieter spot on the bay and were invited to go kayaking. After a traumatic kayaking experience with Emilie last summer (it wasn’t all that bad, I just panicked and tipped), I decided to pass on kayaking. But Emilie really enjoyed it and even got to see some local monkeys!

The next day we started off early to get to Ti Top Island – a lookout point for Halong Bay that is 535 treacherous steps up. I was not feeling those steps and really struggled getting up them but I did make it! And I’m really glad I did. The view was beautiful! It was cool having an overhead shot of Halong Bay and seeing all of the islands and boats. Our tour guide had arranged for us to arrive at Ti Top at 7:45am, which made the walk up the stairs even more painful, but I was grateful for his choice. We were the first tour to arrive so had the lookout to ourselves for a while. Plus, there was only one set of stairs to get up and down, so as we were walking down, things were getting very crowded with people coming up. I would not have wanted to try climbing up those stairs with tons of people coming down at the same time and stealing my railing.

The view from Ti Top Island

The foggy view from Ti Top Island

Other activities included beach time, hiking in a national park on Cat Ba Island, visiting Monkey Island and free time around Cat Ba.

More views
The views again! I could’ve spent the entire cruise just sitting on the top deck getting whiplash trying to take in all of the scenery. The best part of Halong Bay is Halong Bay! This was definitely one of my most favourite experiences from our trip and maybe from all of my travels in general. If you haven’t been to Halong Bay, I definitely recommend it!

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We love Halong Bay!

We love Halong Bay!

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After Halong Bay, we returned to Hanoi, which I shared about in my previous post. From there, Emilie headed home to Vancouver and I flew to Phu Quoc Island for a writing retreat/beach vacation. More on that in my next post!

Next up: Let’s go to the beach! 

The Hotels of Vietnam

I usually don’t spend a ton of time talking about my accommodations during a trip, but the hotels we stayed in during our Vietnam trip were almost an experience in themselves. Case in point: I am currently writing this from my upgraded hotel room on Phu Quoc Island where I can enjoy the air con and a view while I wait for the sun to tone it down a bit.

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Here was our criteria for selecting hotel rooms:

  • Close to the city center
  • Good reviews (4/5)
  • Clean
  • Good WiFi
  • Air conditioning
  • Within our budget

Bonus points:

  • Free breakfast
  • Two beds

Things we would’ve given more bonus points to, had we known at the time of booking:

  • Separate shower area with good water pressure and hot water
  • Outlets by the bed
  • An elevator
  • Nice staff

We very quickly adjusted to Vietnamese pricing and set our nightly budget at no more than $30 CAD/night split between the two of us. Most of our rooms came in around $22-27/night. I know, we were living large. It blows my mind how affordable all of these places were.

Here we go!

Hello House, Ho Chi Minh City

Our lovely hotel

Pros: The staff were the best here. They helped us carry our bags and one time when I left my shoes outside, they locked them up in a little cubby for me. Other pros here were the location (right in the main backpackers drag but off the busy street), yummy breakfast and cleanliness.

Cons: For me, the stairs were a big hassle with my suitcase. We were impressed by the room since it was our first stop, but it actually ended up being one of the smaller rooms of our stay and we had to share a double bed. It was also our first experience without a separate shower area meaning the entire bathroom would get soaked when you showered. But all of this was made up for with the superb service and delicious passion fruit juice at breaky 🙂

Verdict: Would stay again! But would pack a lighter bag or request a room on a lower floor.

Can Tho hotel

Pros: There were two beds. And the shower was technically separate.

Cons: This was probably our worst hotel stay of the trip. It was arranged by our Mekong Delta tour (more on that in my next post) so it wasn’t our fault that it was so bad. There were ants everywhere, the breakfast was awful, the WiFi didn’t work on our floor and, worst of all, the air con stopped working part way through the night and I thought I was going to die. The beds were also super hard and the shower head was mounted at belly button height.

Verdict: Could not pay me enough to stay here again

Full House, Hoi An

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Pros: Oh, we loved this place! The owner, Lee, was so sweet. Our room was on the second floor (and the actual second floor this time, unlike in HCMC) and had two single beds with outlets right above them. There was an air conditioning unit and a fan. Plus, while the shower wasn’t separate from the rest of the bathroom, it was the best water pressure we had all trip. Oh and the breakfast – best banana pancakes ever! And a full plate of fresh fruit!

Cons: The only downside of this place was that it was a bit of a walk into town. We picked it because we thought it would be good to be halfway between town and the beach. Turns out we were about a 20 minute walk into town and maybe a 40 min walk to the beach.

Verdict: Would 100% stay here again! They even gave us little magnets as souvenirs when we left!

Hong Thien Ruby Hotel, Hue

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Living life large in Hue

Pros: We were upgraded at this hotel to a better room and it was well worth the wait (while we waited, they also gave us a fruit platter and fresh juice, so really no complaints). We each got our own double bed, there were outlets a-plenty and the whole room felt very luxurious.

Cons: While there was a separate tub/shower the hot water didn’t last long enough for a full shower. And the breakfast area in the morning was pretty crowded. More importantly, the staff seemed a bit insincere and sales-y, which kind of put us off. But we were only there for one night, so it wasn’t too bad.

Verdict: Would probably stay here again if I ever find myself back in Hue.

Hanoi Heart Hotel, Hanoi

Pros: We were smack dab in the middle of the Old Quarter, which was convenient.

Cons: We did not enjoy this hotel. Mainly, the staff were extremely sales-y and definitely travel agents first and hotel staff second. We had a few issues with them: wanting to charge me $1USD/minute to place a collect call to my bank and overcharging us for laundry. All of our interactions with them just felt very uncomfortable. And then there was the room. On our first two nights, we were in a pretty good room: two beds, separate shower and an elevator to our room on the 6th floor. But when we returned from Halong Bay for another two nights, we got moved to a dump. Our room was on the 7th floor directly across from the kitchen. There were ants everywhere, the bathroom was teeny and smelled like paint, and the elevator only went to the 6th floor so we had to take a narrow staircase up with our heavy bags. It was a major downgrade. The staff sort of smiled and apologized but didn’t do anything to fix the issue. Also, their breakfast was incredibly oily.

Verdict: Would not stay again

Halong Bay & Cat Ba Island hotels

Our cabin on the boat

Our cabin on the boat

Pros: So on our Halong Bay cruise we stayed one night on the boat and a second night on Cat Ba Island. After our terrible hotel experience with our Mekong Delta tour, we were pretty nervous. Turns out, we didn’t have to be! Our night on the boat was actually quite comfortable. And the room on Cat Ba was large with separate beds and tons of space. Plus, the food on the boat was delicious!

Cons: The boat didn’t have WiFi which might make it the only place in Vietnam without an internet connection.

Verdict: If I were to cruise Halong Bay again I would be happy to stay at both of these places once more!

T & T Resort, Phu Quoc Island

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King bed = my dream

Pros: Again, I was lucky enough to get an upgrade! My room has a king sized bed (I’m traveling solo now so one big bed is better than two), a balcony and a separate shower with a rain shower head and plenty of hot water. It’s a really nice room, which is great because I’m spending a lot of time in it getting ahead on my writing. But the best part of this hotel is that it is literally around the corner from the beach!

Cons: Unfortunately, this is the first hotel of the trip that doesn’t offer free breakfast. I didn’t realize what a luxury it was to just go downstairs and have a banana pancake and cup of coffee. There is a restaurant right across the street but it’s a bit overpriced.

Verdict: I love it. Can I just stay here longer?

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Technically I’ll be staying at one more hotel in HCMC but it’s one by the airport since my flight is at 5:30am (gross). I’m hoping it’s clean and air conditioned – cross your fingers for me!

Up next: The tourist route through the Mekong Delta!

A new adventure: Vietnam!

I have been chomping at the bit to reveal this on my blog. So now that all of my ducks are in a row, I can officially announce:

I am going to Vietnam for the first time ever for 3 weeks this November! 

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Yeah, I guess you could say I’m pretty excited 🙂 I have never been to Vietnam, which will make this country #31 that I have visited. And it feels like it has been a while since I’ve been on a big trip. Sure, I’ve done a bit of travelling this year to LA, Montreal and home to Toronto for weddings. Last year there was San Francisco, New York and a very short stint in China. But it’s been a couple of years, since my time studying abroad in Europe and working in Japan, that I have really done a big international adventure. I have been itching to get on another long haul plane ride, take out a currency I have never seen before and try to navigate my way around a new city, new language and new cuisine.

That’s not to say my life here in Vancouver hasn’t been adventurous, because it certainly has been a ride. Since finishing up my UBC degree at the end of 2014 I’ve had a number of major life changes such as switching careers (a few times), switching rental leases (a few times) and finding a new partner and adoptive BC family (thankfully, just the one time!). But there’s a part of me that is still so desperate to get on the road. Poor Colin has had to listen to me whine and shove travel deals in his face for the last 18 months until I finally bit the bullet and did it.

So how did I settle on Vietnam? And why now?

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Well, for starters, how could I say no to this picture?

The whole Vietnam thing came about kind of serendipitously. I’ve been going through some career confusion for the better part of the last year. To be honest, I definitely don’t have it all straightened out yet but I know I want to be a writer, in some capacity, and that I don’t want to be doing admin work that hurts my soul at 24 years old. And after everything that happened with Colin’s dad, I realized that life is short and it was time for me to start loving mine again. So, for me, that meant making a change and going on a trip.

Luckily, my awesome girlfriend Emilie was also looking to do a little vacationing so I get to do Vietnam with a travel buddy. I floated the idea by Emilie when an awesome flight deal came my way (if you aren’t signed up to YVR Deals yet, do it now). About a day later, Emilie and I were booking our round trip flights from Vancouver to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam for $505 per person! That’s $505 Canadian for round trip international flights – unheard of!

And with that one credit card purchase, everything kind of changed. I didn’t have enough vacation days at work and was honestly looking for an excuse to leave anyway so booking the trip meant giving my notice. Which in turn meant needing to figure a new income source. For that I’ve got someone subletting my place while I’m gone, a couple new exciting freelance writing projects, leads for opportunities to pursue once I return from Vietnam, and enough in savings to get me by for a little bit. It’s definitely not as settled as it could be but I’m confident everything is going to be okay.

So, that’s what’s new with me! I’ve been so anxious about giving my notice at work, confirming everything with my subletter and trying to stay on top of my writing that I haven’t actually taken the time to get excited about Vietnam. But now that everything is settled and we’re less than a month away from our departure date, it’s starting to feel real and I’m having a hard time keeping the smile off my face.

Here’s what we have planned so far – it’s a bit of a whirlwind trip, to be honest!

We land in Ho Chi Minh (aka Saigon) and spend some time in the city. From there, we want to do an overnight tour of the Mekong Delta, famous for its floating markets. Then we fly up to Hoi An, the spot I am most excited about. This is the city where you can get clothing custom made for next to no money! There are also some great beaches nearby. Then we’ll bus/train to Hue, where we get our temple fix since we won’t be seeing the famous Angkor temples. I was hoping to add Cambodia to our itinerary but there’s just too much to see and do in Vietnam, so it will have to wait till my next SE Asia trip! From Hue we fly up north to Hanoi. After exploring Hanoi, we’ll head east and do a cruise on Halong Bay (pictured above) and then west to stay overnight in Sapa and see the iconic rice fields. That gets us to 16 days and the point in our adventure where Emilie heads back home because she actually has a job to get back to. Meanwhile, I’ll be heading to Phu Quoc Island where I intend to spend 4 blissful days by the beach sipping cocktails out of coconuts and frantically searching for a job online. I cannot wait!

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See you soon, Vietnam!