If you’re visiting Hanoi, one of the most recommended side trips to take is an overnight or two-night cruise in Ha Long Bay. If you’re like me, your first stop would be TripAdvisor, where you would quickly learn that there are so. many. operators (TA List of Cruise Operators). More than half of the listings are brokers, who will pair you with the actual boat based on your dates, budget, and itinerary preference. I tried looking into going direct, and although some operators run their own booking (i.e., Dragon Legend), there are many who prefer to utilize brokers, so it almost becomes inevitable for some boats. But the fees generally appear minimal, so it’s really not a big issue.
On two separate occasions, I took an overnight (2 day, 1 night) cruise – once on the Jasmine Cruise (Heritage) with my wife, a second time on the Dragon Legend with my parents. I also went in two different seasons, the first during mid-October, the second during early-April. Both were outside of the peak rainy season (May – September), so we got lucky and did not see any rain (mostly sunny).
Rather than walking through both (which are quite similar), I’ll provide a quick rundown of what to expect on the cruise, highlight similarities / differences, and give you my opinion on which I liked better, and why.
Round 1: Road trip / Pre-Boarding:
The hotel pick-ups were both perfectly on time, and the mini vans were less than 6-7 people in total. The pick-up van for Heritage Jasmine was a typical family minivan, which was comfortable, but nothing memorable. Dragon Legend had a luxury van, which had cabin style seating with plush reclining seats. Needless to say, my parents were quite happy about this given the long ride ahead.
After ~90 minutes on the road, as part of the itinerary for both cruises (and for all operators from what I’ve gathered), we stopped by a craftsman / trinket superstore as a break stop.
You can buy “cheap” but technically overpriced goods here such as souvenirs, linens, and artwork. I say “cheap” because a necktie here would be ~$15 (which is cheap by US standards), but the same tie can be bought back in Hanoi for ~$5 (will link my Hanoi blog post here once it’s finished!). After ~3 hours in total, we arrived at the Hon Gai Harbor, where all tours were congregated and waited for boarding.
Round 1 Winner: Dragon Legend – mostly because the ride to the port is quite long, and the appreciation for the luxury van grew with every hour.
Round 2: Activities / On-Board Itinerary:
The activities and on-board itineraries were generally similar, with the exception of the stopping points on Day 1 and 2. Once aboard, both cruises provided helpful orientation presentations, offered buffet lunches, and ushered us to our rooms. We then had some “free time” to roam around. The calm waters of the cruise and sun-lit decks offered great photo ops, especially with the backdrop of the volcanic isle formations of Ha Long Bay
About 2 hours into the cruise, Dragon Legend stopped by a kayaking / beach destination in Vung Dang
while Heritage Jasmine stopped by Cua Van, a floating fishing village where we had the option to kayak.
On Day 2, both cruises will take you to a small mountain of some sort to hike and explore a (somewhat manicured) cavern system. In my opinion, neither were super memorable, but worth going to get a bit of exercise!
Round 2 Winner: Dragon Legend – this is largely my preference, since I personally enjoyed kayaking and felt the Vung Dang area was much more beautiful.
Round 3: Food / Accommodations
The accommodations were quite similar, and on the Dragon Legend, the operator provided an extra roll-out bed for me so that my parents could take the bed. The A/C was quite strong in both, bathrooms were very clean and modern, both had oversized windows looking out onto the waters, and overall size was perfect for our needs. No WiFi on either cruise, so do bring a book if you’re not tired enough to sleep!
The lunch on Dragon Legend was semi a-la-carte, while Jasmine offered a buffet lunch. Both were quite good – but the latter offered a bit more authentic Vietnamese cuisine.
Dinner was a buffet affair for both cruises, but Heritage Jasmine offered a spring roll cooking class before the meal, and also had a live BBQ station, both of which certainly stood out.
Round 3 Winner: Heritage Jasmine – the food was more authentic, and tasted a bit better in my opinion. The BBQ station definitely won me over as the seafood in Vietnam is one of the freshest I’ve ever had!
Verdict: Winner – Dragon Legend
While I think Heritage Jasmine offered a solid itinerary and stood out on its food merits, the overall experience, and the more active itinerary was what won out for me. Although the price was slightly more for Dragon Legend at ~$225/per person vs. $215/per person for Heritage Jasmine, I felt it was quite negligible. Happy sailing!