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Day 86 – Review of Vega Travel’s Halong Bay Tour

May 28, 2010

Dateline: Halong Bay, Vietnam – Friday, May 28, 2010

Today was essentially a travel day back to Hanoi from Halong Bay. We checked out of the hotel on Cat Ba Island, boarded our small boat to get to the larger sleeper boat. From there we headed back to port for lunch in Halong City. Then, we hopped a mini-bus back to Hanoi. Ruben, Michelle, and I then grabbed a cup of coffee at My Burger My (it makes sense in Vietnamese).

I checked into a hotel, dropped off laundry, wandered the weekend street market, then ran into Michelle and Ruben having a kebab at a street hawker stand. I joined them for dinner, then we parted ways for good. They were headed for Sapa in northwest Vietnam; I’d be in Hanoi until Tuesday when I’d leave for China . Just another ordinary travel day.

Not much in the narrative that’ll stir the bones. I’ll take this opportunity then to write a short review of our Halong Bay tour that we booked with Vega Travel. There’s a lot of confusion out there about booking tours in Hanoi for Halong Bay. The quality of tours varies greatly as do the prices. We ran into many people who were more confused after shopping for a tour than before they started.

Here’s my little attempt to add some information on at least one proprietor. If you’re thinking of booking a tour with Vega Travel, here’s one person’s take on their service, itinerary, and facilities. You also might find it helpful to browse the previous two entries to get a better idea of what would be on your itinerary.

My take:

Tour Company: Vega Travel

Tour Booked: Three-day/Two-night

Price: $106 USD

Itinerary:

See today and the last two entries.  We were supposed to get time to swim on the last day (today), but for some reason the big boat never stopped.  Just as well, from our perspective, since we were all pretty pooped.

Our Guide:

Our guide’s name was Hien. His English was excellent and he provided us with interesting information without being oppressive. Some guides talk too much or too little. Our guide was like baby bear was to Goldilocks—he was just right. He’s the best guide I’ve had on this trip so far. Very approachable. He really tried to make himself available for questions.

The Facilities:

If want to see pictures, take a look at the galleries at the bottom of the previous two entries. From a backpacker’s perspective, the facilities on the boat were excellent. As I said in a previous entry, the bathroom was luxurious for my budget standards. The beds were comfortable, the air conditioner cool, and the dining room restaurant quality.

There were little bugs in the room, but that’s probably just the perils of staying on a boat that runs constantly during tourist season. The two young Brits traveling on Mom and Dad’s dime thought this was a huge deal. I did not. I doubt most boats in the “mid-range” tours like this are going to do much better.

I consider this to be the cost of doing business on a restricted budget. To get much better, you’d probably have to bump up to the high end which costs upwards of $200. If that’s your bag, you can probably stop reading here and book with one of the luxury operators.

I was equally happy with the hotel on Cat Ba Island. Most companies book with the same hotel. I think it’s called the Holiday View Hotel, a high-rise overlooking the island harbor. As promised we had views of the water.

Here’s the biggest quibble of the trip. Michelle and Ruben offered to share a room with me so that I wouldn’t have to pay $15 extra for a single room. As is her way, Michelle grilled the guy at Vega about what we’d get for three people. The guy at the office promised a suite with a double bed and a single. He even showed us a picture of the suite. Looking at the picture, Michelle noted that there was only one bed. The guy said the room was such that you couldn’t fit both beds in the picture. We were assured the room was big. We booked believing we’d get a suite.

When we got to Cat Ba, we found two twin beds in our room and that our room was definitely not a suite. Michelle went down to complain to our guide. While she was downstairs, the hotel staff brought in a rollaway bed.

Downstairs, Michelle discovered that Vega Travel had booked us in a smaller room and not in a suite. With the help of our guide, Michelle talked to the boss man who said we could get the suite only if we paid extra. That’s fine and dandy for them to say, especially after they had our money.

Now, from an absolute perspective, the fact that we were in a smaller room with a rollaway bed was fine. If that’s what we’d been promised, we’d have been fine with it. Our problem was that we’d been promised something else.

It’s possible this was a mix up between the sales guy and the bosses. Regardless, Vega Travel needs to do a better job of telling people what they’re actually going to get. The room was fine. We just wished we hadn’t been promised something else.

The Good:

There was a good mix of structured and unstructured time. We were given the opportunity to kayak twice. In both instances, we were not rushed, forced to stay with our guide, or restricted to an area around the boat.

Vega Travel did a good job of setting up an itinerary that missed crowds. We weren’t with loads of other boats when we kayaked on the first day. We saw only one other group of tourists. The early morning on Dao Ti Top meant we were up there, by ourselves, ahead of the loads of tourists. The second day kayaking trip, I was the only kayak in the water for as far as I could see.

The trek on our second day was an unexpected highlight. The only time we saw any other tourists was when we hit the main road that leads to the dock. That’s sort of unavoidable.

The trek let us see that married farmer guy who lived on his own on the banks of the inland seawater lake. That was quite special. Moreover, the hike was challenging enough to be fun but not so demanding that it wasn’t enjoyable. A very good balance.

The Bad:

Really, it’s just the room thing. Oh, and the crew rifling through our bags while we were on the trek.  Our guide did warn us to take all our cash so, in the end, nothing went missing. You wouldn’t have left cash unattended in your bags anyway, would you?

The Food:

Great food all around. Always more than we could eat. There’d always be two more courses than we were expecting. Everyone was happy after every meal. They even prepared special dishes for one of our group who was allergic to shellfish.

Conclusion:

I can easily recommend Vega Travel with one caveat: just know what to expect. You’re booking a mid-range tour. If you want a five-star hotel on the water, you’re going to pay a whole hell of a lot more. If you’re looking for comfortable accommodations, a knowledgeable guide, and a good mix of free time and structured activities, this tour is for you. There’s the added bonus that you’ll be doing things in places where you’re not constantly surrounded by other tourists.

Oh, and don’t expect a suite if you’re sleeping three to a room. I’m just saying.

GALLERY: Click through to see more pictures of Halong Bay, a lady paddling a boat through the port, and a random picture of a Vietnamese person pedaling a bike past a rice field.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 3, 2010 7:30 pm

    How would it work to “lock” your bag – when checking mine, I hook the zippers together with a small plastic cable tie – they come in a suite of colors and are really cheap. There are also small locks – they wouldn’t keep someone out if he really wanted in, but it would be impossible to do it without letting you know – would that be good enough?

    • June 4, 2010 10:51 pm

      I had some small locks, but I left those on my big bag at the Vega Travel offices. The plastic ties might work so long as the only way to get them off is to cut them. What complicated things was I was using a dry bag which doesn’t have a way of locking it.

      My sense was the guys were looking for quick cash, nothing else. This was also just on the smaller boat, not on the big boat where we spent the night. The guys on the small boat seemed much more shady than the staff on the big boat. I consider it a hazard of travel. I lock up anything that’s out of my sight that I don’t want to lose.

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