Some time ago I started to put my free time into the Trip Advisor Forum that seems to be the in-place for travelers now so I could get back the fluency of ‘Westerner’s conversation’ that I lost when I quit my tour guide job a few years ago. These days I find this forum useful for me (apart from spammers and touts) as I can see the ‘travel trends’ that people are moving towards, and that helps me keep ahead in business. The Halong Bay section of the forum now seems to be the hottest. Experiences are mixed – good and bad – but that’s what you would expect with such a large enterprise. I am not trying to recommend any specific cruise agents to you in this article, just wanting to alert you to use your common sense to help you make the right choice in general travel shopping (especially online shopping).
Purpose of your visit
You should ask yourself first: “What am I coming to the bay for? Relaxation? Sight-seeing? Photography? Luxury? That is the first step towards choosing the right Junk boat. If you are on your honeymoon or a photographic expedition, an affordable charter Junk can be found – or even a small capacity one would be suitable. A trip just for relaxation may require a bit further research on Junk facilities. A few Junks now offer massage, cooking classes or Tai Chi exercising on board, and they seem to be the ones for leisure customers. If you are not too sure about the purpose, then just choose a classic Junk that offers a basic cruise with transfer, food, and sightseeing included. Don’t worry too much about what you might miss on a ‘classic option’ as most Junks in Halong Bay go by the same routes and you are unlikely to miss the highlights of the Bay.
The range of fares varies from 50 USD to 500 USD per cabin (each cabin usually sleeps 2 people). Junks are now divided into three levels: under 100 USD, under 200 USD and above 200 USD. Personally I think the middle range between 100 and 200 USD suits most people. These offer a comfortable cruise with nice bedding and facilities. The risk of being ripped-off is lower in that range too. If you are looking for a relaxing trip at the end of a long journey, just choose the middle range as the safe option.
Book through an Agent or Direct?
This has both Yes and No answers! If you are in rush, booking through an agency seems to be the better option as most Junk operators have limited access to direct customers, so they focus more on local sales partners who employ the sales people and handle all the booking systems. The sales culture is also quite different if you try and deal direct with the operator; mis-communication due to language difficulties is much more common in direct sales attempts, and both the operator and customer lose out if the Junk departure time is missed. However, if you choose the high-end option, most of these operators offer booking online and you can deal with them directly. The deals may lead you to a good buy depending on your travel dates (high or low season or availability of the Junk). Nothing is lost to try this method if you have the time, BUT, note that there are a number of fake Junk websites on the internet now. Double check to make sure you have the correct website of the Junk you are looking for. Making a phone call in advance is recommended.
Booking via a reliable travel agency also saves much of your time maybe money too. As I stated above, Junk companies sell their vacancies through any available agency but the selling price will vary from agency to agency depending on their sales volume – low volume equals a higher price. Travel agencies also have the power to do a deal with a special booking you may have, so don’t hesitate to bargain when you deal with a travel agency. If you travel with your own big group for a party, school meeting or photography, I am sure an agency would fight hard with the Junk operator to get you the best deals.
Junk or Junk?
Halong is the place you should spend more time and money to enjoy even if you are budget travelers. Choosing the right Junk is important; don’t get excited and take the first cheap deal that comes along. Safety in Vietnam is not the high priority it is in the West. There have been number of accidents and deaths in Halong Bay because of fire and lack of safety instructions on the boats. While the Government controls security and safety for all Junks in Halong, it is difficult to monitor and control. Make sure your Junk provides at least basic or above safety equipment such as fire protection, emergency exit instructions and life vests for all passengers. Food is also important; if you are vegetarian travelers, make sure you ask for the right menu for you at NO additional charge. If you find your Junk is suspicious in any way, ask for details of the menu they provide. It is good anyway to flag to them that you are alert to these matters so that they pay more attention to your booking. There is another question to ask them: “How is your boat and service different from the others?” Check that the answers are correct. All these things may take you a little time, but it is worth it to ensure that your time and in Halong Bay will be a time to remember with pleasure rather than the opposite! One final thing – does the boat company do anything towards protection of the Bay’s environment?
Choosing the right Agent
There are thousands of travel shops around Vietnam now where you can place your booking. It is essential that you book your trip in advance in the high season (from October to May) to secure your seats. The better Junks often sell out in advance. Book it from Hanoi agents – they are closer to the Junk operations and get better updates and price. Spend time on the official Junk website to view the real pictures and facilities they offer. The agent you book with must have:
- Travel license – meaning that they are an established organization and you can claim for a refund to Vietnam Tourism if something is not delivered as they promise.
- They must understand what they sell – Make a phone call to see how professional they are, how they respond to your concerns and then you will find out how much knowledge they have.
- Book with a company that does not own their Junk. They may steer you to better Junks instead of just pushing their own. Ensure that you deal with a specific Junk brand rather than a non-Company boat.
- Don’t just trust promises, pictures or other materials they provide. Ask around or visit some trusted forum like Trip Advisor or Lonely Planet.
As you know, crap is all around out there in this world. Whatever happens, don’t be too difficult to please as Halong Bay can please you simply by its own beauty. Have a good trip!
Official web pages of Junk Company in Halong Bay
Bai Tho Junk
Huong Hai Junk
Emeraude Classic Cruises