I was a little reluctant to actually put this in the tourist trap tip as its more of a minor nuisance. Every time the boat was moored we would be approached by a small boat laden with cheap goods, occasionally the occupants would be quite persistent in trying to sell you bits and pieces. Sometimes they would have small kids with them to try and charm their goods on to you or cheekily beg for money.
I suppose these people are only trying to make a living so if you don`t want to buy anything its better to just ignore them as its only a small hassle.
I never got on the Santa Maria cruise but if it's useful i can tell you about our experience with Columbus. Me and my fiance got atrocious service, fed with a bunch of lies, and got bumped off the boat on our honeymoon. All this before we even got on the boat.
We booked the santa maria for a 2d1n trip on 8 aug, paid the deposit and confirmed the same with Columbus directly at their Hang Bac office in Hanoi. At that time, only 2 of the other rooms were booked on the boat.
On the morning of 8 aug, we waited until 845 am for the pickup which never came. When we called up the office, Ms Pham told us that the cruise had been cancelled due to the typhoon (this turned out to be a lie). When asked why they couldn't even bother to give us a call to inform us about this, they couldn't reply.
Because of this, we had to cancel our Sapa tour and forfeited 100 usd. We also had to book another cruise to Halong and extra hotel nights in Hanoi to fit our schedule.
Now here comes the clincher.
When we asked at ocean tours (also along Hang Bac) if our friend who had booked a cruise with them on 8 aug managed to leave for the cruise, they looked puzzled and said the all clear was given for the cruises on 8 aug and my friend was well on her way to Halong bay. Went back to Columbus to ask about what the heck happened, were they being cautious or their boat just happened to be more flimsy than the rest, they couldn't answer, and just kept insisting that the cruise was cancelled.
Met my friend today who confirmed that the weather was good on Halong bay, and that the Santa Maria was sailing on 8 aug.
1. A deposit and confirmation means nothing to Columbus. They were perfectly remorseless bumping a honeymooning couple off the boat, I can only guess because a bigger dollar bill walked by.
2. They had the nerve not to inform us about it. If they had only called us earlier in the morning of 8 aug about bumping us off, we might have been able to get onto another cruise that day and would probably have had a better time. By the time we found out about the deed at 9 am, it was too late to get onto another cruise on the same day. With the 100 usd we forfeited in sapa, we could have gotten a luxury cruise.
So yes thank you Columbus for ruining our honeymoon. For all travellers reading this review, if you value confirmations, good luck with Columbus and their complete lack of respect for people's time. May you not be as unlucky as us.
P.s. Should you require further details, please feel free to pm me, we have email correspondences that we can provide.
Unique Suggestions: If you really have to go on the cruise, make your plans so flexible that Columbus cannot ruin the rest of your schedule at their whim.
Also, do not pay more than the deposit until your pickup. The deposit should have been enough to guarantee your room already in any case. If they decide to bump you off the cruise like they did to us, at least you have the benefit of knowing that you didn't forfeit the 3% service charge for paying by credit card, or have trouble getting your money back.
Fun Alternatives: Really regretted not signing up for the Red Dragon instead. The Lagoon Explorer seemed like a good alternative too.
You will notice that there are small boats all around the cruise junks that sell thinks like cigarettes, snacks or drinks. Simply avoid buying from them as they sell in very inflated rates. The wisest idea is to buy everything beforehead from Hanoi and consume it on board.
If you must book a day tour, forget about the "upgrades" to fancy smaller group or better food. Just go for the cheapest - coz you'll end up with the same deal as everyone else.
When we took the tour, we were assured of a small group and paid a higher price. While on the tour, we spoke to other tourist and realised that some of them paid much more to have a small group, good food upgrade (almost twice of what we paid) but some others paid for large group and mediocre food. We all end up in the same group and same food...
Fun Alternatives: Go for a reliable tour operator if you must travel with a group. Read the itinerary carefully and read reviews from satisfied customers... do not jump into the bandwagon and realised that you're conned later!
Warning.. do not travel with AST Travel... our boat nearly 'sank' coz it rammed into another boat during a storm in the middle of the night! By the way... our captain jumped boat too... it was one hell of an experience!
May be we should not be expecting too much from the boat cruise package to Halong bay. We thought we had a good deal for a 2 days, 1 nite (on the boat stay) for about USD23. The travel agent told us that this package comes with seafood lunch and dinner. Yup, really SEAFOOD!!
But their seafood dishes definition and ours was totally different....
Theirs were one fish for lunch (with 3 other vegetables like fried) and a dish of shrimp fried with vegetable for dinner. Other dishes for dinner were like fried peanuts, egg, and vege. The portion was quite small too and we have to share with 6 people...
Not far from the tourist boat jetty and night market is a row of live seafood restaurants displaying live prawn, crab and shellfish in tanks. With my live seafood experience in Hong Kong still fresh in mind, I went into one of these restaurants. The lady spoke Mandarin, thinking that we were from China. I ordered a live 3 kg crab, stir fried beef, fried rice, fried pho and stir fried vegetables.
In short, the food looked better than its taste. The standard of cooking was below expectations and certainly not what I would have expected from a restaurant specialising in live seafood. The price was not cheap either - at 320000 VND, we could have had a nice dinner in the hotel restaurant instead of this dingy, small family-run restaurant.
Unique Suggestions: Avoid patronising these live seafood restaurants opposite the night market.
Fun Alternatives: Seafood lunch will be served on board your boat, so you don't have to spend extra money at these seafood restaurants.
Some tour agents do not explain in details what is being covered in the package. There were a couple of tourists who were furious that the boatman did not take them to 2 caves as they have assumed. Usually, the package will only cover one cave visit and not 2. Another tourist who was travelling alone, was not informed that she had to share cabin as all cabins are twin-sharing. The boat has only 8 cabins and there were 16 of us. As such she has to share cabin with another man. Anyway, both of them did not sleep in the cabin but instead slept in the hall or deck with some other passengers.
Unique Suggestions: Understand that the boatman has his own route of the itinerary and arrangement of the cabins. The most you can do is to bring this "unbearable situation" back to your tour agent - make a complaint or get a compensation.
Fun Alternatives: Make sure you know what you have paid for. Have the tour agent make a printout of the itinerary to be covered.
On your journey midway to Ha Long Bay, your tour bus will stop at a sweat shop full of dainty vietnamese girls. They claim that all goods sold here are for charity but i doubt it, prices are more double ( trifold? ) than the ones in town!
Unique Suggestions: Just get your coffee and go to the loo..
The whole of CatBa Island is a tourist trap! I ventured out at night only to find sleazy karaoke bars, nightclubs and other trappings. No point staying here unless you're just camping in a hotel here for the night
Unique Suggestions: Well, if you're stuck here, you might want to consider going for a nice massage like I did. I paid US$7 for a soothing rub after a 10km trek. It was good and it saved my sanity since my legs were screaming for attention.
Where to get it
Princes Hotel has good masseuse who are skilled in "Hong Kong" style massage. Don't know what kind of style that is? I don't know either, all I know was that it felt good. Generally, I don't give a damm as long as the masseuse DO NOT walk all over me!
Many of the kids in Cat Ba Town are con artists looking to make a quick dollar from the rich tourists. They sell postcards, hackey sacks, boat rides, virgin sisters, you name it.
My favorite was the girl who said she collected coins from other countries. I gave her a nickel from the US and she said I was cheap -- she wanted a quarter! To be fair, a quarter to us is pocket change, to them it is a few hours pay.
Thien Cung Grotto was a pretty big cave, but there were lights that they put in the cave that made it look like a tourist exhibit. Nothing exciting.
Beware that life jacket which they provide might not be FREE. Do check with them before you do your kayaking in Ha Long.