We were welcomed on to the boat with a "(1-2-3) SIN CHOW!!!" shouted in unison by the staff while rose petals were scattered on us from above. Is this what cruises are always like?
Thanks to recommendations from a couple of friends, we booked our two-day Halong Bay trip with Bhaya Cruises. The cabins were pristine with lots of nice touches, the boat was spacious, the food was great (including a five course dinner), and the customer service was on another level.
Halong Bay is not the place to come if you want to have an authentic, local experience. There are numerous other boats around the bay, lots of tourists and you do get shepherded along to the same places as everyone else. But if you're prepared for this then you'll still enjoy the experience, and the scenery is stunning.
The programme of activities on board is very structured, ranging from tai chi to kayaking. It was so different from our usual travel experiences that I actually found it relaxing to have everything decided for us. We got involved in some of the activities (squid fishing is worth a try!) but skipped others to give us more time to relax on the upper deck of the boat and enjoy the views.
One of the main activities is taking a rowboat out to the floating fishing villages around the bay. It's slightly weird to be rowed around a small village where there are more boats of tourists than locals, but there's no denying that it's beautiful.
The villagers are under pressure from the government to leave the bay and move to the mainland where there is better access to education and healthcare, so they may not be there for much longer.
The highlight of the two days for me was kayaking at sunset. There was even a moment when we couldn't see any other boats and we could pretend we were the only ones in this magical place.
Our two-day cruise cost $160 per person, including pick up and drop off from our hotel in Hanoi, all food and all activities. If you book directly from their website there are a few extra perks, like free kayak hire.