We had heard mixed reviews about Ha Long Bay, one of Vietnam's most famous natural attractions. The negative reviews were that it had become too "touristy," too busy, too competitive. The positive comments were about how beautiful it was, how unique, a "vision of ethereal beauty." (Lonely Planet.) We decided that if we were going to go to Hanoi, we had to go to Halong Bay. One of my travel companions, Polli, did a lot of research and it was thanks to her, I believe we had a good experience.
Planning Before the Cruise
In her research, she found that it is better to wait until we get to Hanoi to book the trip. It was suggested that you ask other tourists for their input. Also, you wanted to make sure the weather was good, as there would be no refunds for bad weather. She had come up with a handful of trustworthy booking agencies in Hanoi. We went to one, Vega Travel, and all the stars aligned: space available for the following day; good weather predicted; pick-up at our AirBnB that was outside of the main part of town; and a better price in person than what we had found online. ($120 US as opposed to the lowest we saw was $135 online). Of course, there are higher end options available. If you want luxury, go for it, but this one, maybe considered "budget", was perfect for us.
Get a Great Guide
We were already happy even before we left. And it only got better. I know when you book a cruise or any tour for that matter, you don't have control over the guide you will have. But if you choose a company who cares about their reputation, (like Vega), you will be as fortunate as we were. We had a great guide, Trang or Tiger, as he liked to be called. Tiger was friendly and knowledgable, his stories about the Hmong culture that he seemed to know a lot about, were captivating. Though there is a standard itinerary, Trang also skillfully guided our movements where he could to optimize the experience. For example, he got us up and ready to go early in the morning of the second day so that we would be the first at a very popular Hang Sung Sot (the Surprising Cave).
Enjoy the Food
The only thing to be aware of is that drinks, even non-alcoholic drinks, are not included in the price. You can easily rack up a drink bill if you are not careful. I don't see it as a scam (we were told of this up front), but an added service, which requires added fees to enjoy. They will keep your tab going, and you need to pay at the end.
Relax and Take in the Beauty
This cruise had a nice pace. There were plenty of activities - kayaking, cave exploring, hiking - but also a balance of time just to enjoy the scenery. Even if you decide not to do a planned activity, for example, the hike up Ti-Top Mountain, the quality of the cruise is still enjoyable.
So yes, it was everything and more that all the positive reviews reported: ethereal, magical, a natural wonder. It was even better than we expected, considering our guide and the food. There is a bit of tarnish to it as well - the litter, the crowds, the speed boats disturbing the peace. But hopefully you will be as lucky as we were, in getting an outstanding guide, having great weather (overcast but not hot or rainy), a good onboard cook, and pleasant cruise-mates, you will have as great a time as we did.
I have traveled quite a bit, and am using this page to record some memories. Travel is a wonderful education, expanding your view of the world, of other cultures, of the beauty of diversity.