Rock Long, Rock Hard: cruising Halong Bay

Rock Long, Rock Hard: cruising Halong Bay

Eating a steaming plate of noodles while perched on a plastic chair built for a 5-year-old, I faced a dilemma. I had four days in Hanoi, a city that was a grey and chilly as Saigon was colorful and warm—in weather, in buildings, in people. Hanoi’s proximity to the UNESCO-recognized Halong Bay makes it the main gateway for cruises of the famed limestone cliffs.

The Jolly Roger of Rock Long, Rock Hard Halong Bay Cruise in Hanoi

I couldn’t come all this way and not see Halong Bay, even if I was visiting in the very, very cold season. However, the plethora of cruise options had me overwhelmed. Should I go cheap, local and risk bad service, bad food, a bad time? Should I splurge on a luxury cruise and risk being surrounded by retired couples? Or should I finally stop being so anti-social and go on the Rock Long, Rock Hard cruise, one that was a bit more expensive and known to be a non-stop party?

Rock climbing on Castaway Island with the Rock Long, Rock Hard Halong Bay Tour

I was staying at the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel, the same outfit that runs Rock Long, Rock Hard, and was impressed with the professionalism, cleanliness, organization and value for money (it didn’t hurt that my 12-girl dorm was only half full). And then someone mentioned rock climbing on a private island as part of the three-day Rock Long, Rock Hard. After falling in love with rock climbing in Railay, I knew I couldn’t pass up the chance to climb more gorgeous limestone cliffs in Asia.

So I hesitantly signed up for the party cruise, worried about being surrounded by uber-loud Australian guys and vodka-swilling Scandinavian backpackers. It turns out my worries were well-founded: the crowd was definitely young, carefree and ready to party. And, of course, there was that one weird guy with toe shoes (in my attempt to get in with the in crowd, I refrained from spouting off about the benefits of barefoot-esque running). But I quickly made friends with three Canadian twenty-something girls who invited me to dorm with them: a lifesaver, really, because I probably would have ended up stuck in a room with the weird guy (one huge downside to traveling alone).

Christine Amorose jumping in water with Rock Long Rock Hard Halong Bay tour in Vietnam

After a three-hour bus ride and a 20-minute small boat ride, we boarded the Jolly Roger, went over the rules and threw our things in our room. After cannonballing into the freezing cold water, we snuggled into sweatshirts and piled into kayaks and leisurely rowed our way through the caves. The first night was pure shenanigans: mass drinking games until the cards were cleared away for a makeshift dance floor, music throbbing until 3 a.m.

Christine Amorose wakeboarding in Halong Bay with Rock Long, Rock Hard in Vietnam

Castaway Island, however, was what made the trip for me. The gray skies and trademark cliffs a stunning backdrop for my first wakeboarding experience: I stood up on the first try, stayed up for about a minute and a half and nailed a surface 180 without trying (I mean, not to brag or anything :). I then tackled the cliffs, scrambling up both routes twice, leaving my forearms aching. That night, we went for a midnight swim with phosphorant algae: the waves blinking neon, our feet swirling up a dazzling light show.

Early morning on Castaway Island, Rock Long Rock Hard Halong Bay Tour in Vietnam

I will admit that I got very lucky: most of the partiers only stayed on for the first night (Castaway Island is an option add-on), so the group for the second night was super low-key. Our guide was incredibly fun, but he wasn’t pushy about the partying (we met another guide who seemed absolutely insane–so we were all very grateful for ours!). We were all happy to hang out and drink beers the second night, but it wasn’t as insane as the first night–and considering we had a 6 a.m. wake-up call, we were totally OK with that.

I had a brilliant time–but it’s one of those trips that totally depends on who you’re with and what you want out of it. If you want to party hard, you absolutely can. If you want something a bit more low-key, that’s also possible. But overall, the cruise is incredibly well-organized, the food is delicious, the guides (both Vietnamese and English-speaking) are friendly and helpful. And Castaway Island–honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever forget how lucky I felt as when I was there. It was just incredible.

If I could do anything differently, I wouldn’t bring my whole bag–take advantage of being able to securely lock up your main bag at Hanoi Backpackers Hostel and only take some extra layers and a toothbrush. I wouldn’t go in March: it was freezing, and it would have been SO much more fun to lay out on the top deck and go swimming at Castaway Bay. I would have taken more cash to buy drinks on board, and I wouldn’t have been so worried about the partying. And note, there is no wifi on-board or on Castaway Island: so prepare to disconnect, and enjoy every second of it.

  • I met my boyfriend on the Rock Long, Rock Hard Halong Bay cruise! 🙂

    Still one of my absolute favorite things I did in Asia. We went in January and had similar weather issues — I’m surprised the weather still wasn’t that good in March!

  • I had no idea Vietnam could get so cold, and so GRAY! 😛 Vietnam is one of the few Asian countries I really want to visit, and of course Halong Bay is not to be missed – I will definitely keep the Rock Long Rock Hard cruise in mind!

  • I definitely want to do some kind of boat cruise of Halong Bay (who doesn’t?!?) when I’m in Vietnam, but haven’t been able to decide what kind to do. My husband and I aren’t really hardcore party people, but we figure that having the occasional opportunity to cut loose and blow off some steam might be a good idea. It sounds like this was a great option because you got to have a little bit of a wild experience as well as a more low-key one as well. Will definitely have to keep it in mind!

  • What a gorgeous place for an adventure or two! 🙂

  • Looks like fun! I’m adding to my list for Vietnam! 🙂

  • camorose

    I’m so glad I decided to go after reading your review, Kate–it was SUCH a good time! Definitely wish it had been a bit warmer though–I was honestly wearing every single bit of clothing I owned and was still chilly (until I started drinking, of course!).

  • camorose

    The farther north you go, the chillier and grayer it gets! It’s such a different vibe from down south.

  • camorose

    It definitely depends on the group you go with–I can imagine things would get WILD with a certain crowd. I got lucky and got to have the best of both worlds 🙂 Still, it’s very well-run

  • camorose

    A can’t-miss!

  • Wow, your time in Halong Bay sounds amazing, and much better than mine. I was also on the Jolly Roger a few years ago, but in August; it was a totally different experience, with everyone in the water most of the time to avoid the heat. I actually opted OUT of the Castaway Island trip, because the only people going were the loud, perpetually drunken youngsters – it seems as though we had totally opposite experiences!

  • I stayed at castaway and loved it too – so awesome reliving it through your photos. 

  • camorose

    I suppose there’s something to be said for going in the off-season! 🙂

  • camorose

    Yay! Such a fun experience!

  • I like the sound of Castaway Island, especially swimming in glowing algae! 😀

  • camorose

    It was seriously the COOLEST thing–neon all over the place in pitch-black water!

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  • Kitsie

    Hi there!

    I’ve been debating on whether to go on this tour or not… Does one have to drink a lot, play games, and get wasted, or can I just watch everyone else do that?:) A friend of mine who I haven’t seen for a long time is going, which makes me want to go. Then again, the trip is pretty pricey. Thank you!!:)

  • camorose

    The first night is very much drinking focused–but I know people who still hung out and played the games even though they didn’t drink. Totally possible! The second night is what’s worth all the money–the night on Castaway Island! We had a pretty low-key group so not many of us drank much that night. Totally depends on the group, but no one is going to FORCE you to drink–especially if you look like you’re having fun 🙂 I thought the price was really worth it with the wakeboarding and rock climbing and extra night on Castaway Island.

  • Kitsie

    Thank you for the reply! Definitely helped out. I think I’ve made up my mind about going, but needed some affirmation. Lol. :))

  • camorose

    Yay can’t wait to hear how you like it!

  • Duy Do Van