Turns out we paid the same price in Hanoi as we would have online ahead of time. So nothing really lost other than I could have spent more time picking the most worthwhile cruise. We booked through our hotel, Hanoi Charming, but we probably could have gotten a better deal if we had shopped around and bargained, though I don't think it would have been a substantial discount. We booked this our first day in SE Asia, so we had not become adjusted to the bargaining frame of mind, nor were we in the mood to spend our first day shopping for a cruise. I'm also thinking that the best discounts would probably be on budget cruises and we wanted a mid range cruise.
When we arrived at the bay, we took a small boat out to our junk boat (the typical Halong Bay cruise ship). The outside of the boat was decorated with dragons and looked nicer than some other boats. The dining area offered views of the bay. The boat overall was quite clean as were our cabins. There were about 14 cabins on board, all with windows. The cabin had enough space (though we just packed a small bag for this side-trip) and looked fancy. We had an actual shower, though it did allow water to leak onto the rest of the bathroom floor. There was plenty of hot water, but everyone took showers at the same time after kayaking, so the water pressure would come and go and sometimes just go out completely. Take a shower at a different time (like we did the second day) and there's no problems. We really loved our cabin !
The top deck would have been wonderful to relax on if it was warmer and drier. Our first day was quite cool and rained lightly. Our second day was better, though still cloudy and cool. This is common weather for Halong Bay much of the year. We asked and the sun only comes out, oddly enough, during rainy season, but then you also get heavy rains. It was still fun to sit on the deck and just take in our surroundings, especially on our second day.
The manager of the boat was in charge of activities on the boat and entertaining us while aboard (we had a separate guide for excursions). Each night we got a welcome cocktail. The manager did change the second night, but both were nice and spoke great English, though they did seem to tell the same jokes. The excursion guide also changed. Once again, both spoke good English and were very nice. However, no one ever really seemed to know what the schedule was for the people staying on the boat both nights, so that was quite frustrating.
We were the only people who chose to do a second night on the boat, so when we got back on the boat after our second day of excursions, there was a whole new set of people. This was quite odd, and we kind of felt like outsiders. I would have thought that all 2 nighters would share a boat and all 1 nighters would share a different boat, that way you stayed with the same people for the whole trip. So since all the people were new, the activities kinda just repeated themselves. And this was not clear based on the given "itinerary". The timing was all delayed on the second day as well, so we didn't get enough time to do everything. I was glad to hear, when we were ending our trip, that they were considering changing the schedule for 2 nighters. The company is newer so they still have some kinks to work out, which is fair.
The cruise was all inclusive of meals (3 lunches, 2 breakfasts, 2 dinners). However, all drinks were not covered, including water. We were also told that no outside beverages were permitted on the boat, but that was not enforced, as we saw plenty of people with other water brands. Water was cheaper in the mini-bar in the cabin than at the bar in the dining room, so keep that in mind. I think it was $.50 for a small in the room. We also ordered alcoholic beverages one night. The cocktails were a little under $4, so cheap compared to the US. But my mojito was one of the worst I've ever had. The mint was not at all muddled and it was tart. But that was ok, cuz I didn't need to waste my money on alcohol.
The food at lunch and dinner worked family style, meaning that a bunch of plates were brought out to be shared among your table of four people. One thing I had read about mid range cruises was that the food was significantly better than a budget cruise. We certainly got quantity, but the quality wasn't always the best. One squid dish was so overcooked that the squid literally could not be bitten into. The boat also seemed like it was trying to cater to a wide range of nationalities, so the food was not at all Vietnamese, which was disappointing to me. We even had french fries once. Each meal usually consisted of several meat, seafood, and veggie dishes. Usually fruit was dessert. We all felt like we overate on the cruise, and unfortunately it was nothing compared to the street food of Hanoi. But put food in front of me and I'll eat it. The fried spring rolls and even the fresh spring rolls (actually Vietnamese) were the best.
Breakfast might have been my favorite. I just love getting the savory Asian foods in the morning. There were fried rice and fried noodles, which I gobbled up. There was also pho and rice porridge, as well as toast and eggs.
The first excursion we went on once we anchored out in the bay was Surprise Cave. There are many caves in the area, but this one is by far the biggest, and I'm sure that's why EVERYONE goes there. I almost had a panic attack and left because of the insane amount of people. And we had to walk up a ton of steps, which made me nervous because I hadn't brought my knee brace. Luckily (or unluckily to others), the line moved so damn slowly that it really didn't take much out of me. Once we got in the cave, it was rather large and the people scattered more, making it a better experience. But I've been in bigger, better caves in the US that had far less people.
We then went kayaking. By this time, the rain had stopped for the most part and it felt a bit warmer. The kayaks, though, were full of water and dirt, so be prepared to get gross. It was really nice kayaking around the bay, but it was definitely not long enough.
The next morning we went to a pearl farm, where they raise oysters. Kinda interesting and a great chance to buy a gift for someone who likes pearls. We then parted with the main boat of people and headed to Cat Ba Island, the largest island of Halong Bay. I would have loved to have hiked all over Cat Ba Island for a day rather than cycling.
So another option for the second night was to go to bungalows owned by the company on one of the more remote islands. Almost all of the boats anchor in the same area each night, leaving nasty polluted water and obstructed views. So the bungalows were a nice, though more expensive, alternative. I wish I had inquired more about the bungalows because that would have been a much more worthwhile second night. We went there for lunch and had a bit of time to lounge on the beach. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to kayak. And it would have been so amazing at that spot because there were no boats around, just beautiful ol' nature. We then went back to our cruise ship for dinner. The next day, on our way back to the mainland, we had a cooking demonstration (which was advertised as a cooking class), but was just us assembling one spring roll each (and all of the ingredients were already mixed together). So nothing special.
So I think we all had a good time. I think you really have to experience Halong Bay once, whatever way it may be, for you to really form an opinion of what you'd want to do next time. I don't regret our cruise. Though it had its flaws, we were able to do a sampling of things and now I know what I would do next time. By the way, I loved Halong Bay, and I would totally come back! I think everyone should experience the cruise ship; it was fun and I loved just being on a boat the whole time. But one night on a boat would probably be sufficient. The bungalows seemed like a good option and they were definitely in a secluded, beautiful area. I would also look into staying on Cat Ba Island at a hotel and then hiring a private boat to go around for the day. I read blogs where people thought staying on Cat Ba was a waste of time, but for a planner and nature love such as me, I think it would be perfect. In the end, I'm really not a fan of "organized tours". But Royal Palace Cruise was a good starter. Maybe a different, longer running company would be a better option. If you book in Hanoi, definitely shop around!