Last Updated on April 30, 2021 by Dani
As I am sitting on the little balcony of my cabin, a cup of green tea in hand, our boat slowly gliding through the waters of Halong Bay, I can’t help but being in complete awe. We pass one limestone rock after another, all of them rising out of the water in different shapes and sizes. No two rocks are the same, some look like sharp pinnacles rising in the air, some look like thin towers, others are massive islets, often with a little cove in which I regularly spot deserted, sandy beaches.
1,600 of these little islets make up Halong Bay, a large bay in the north of m Vietnam, close to the border with China. UNESCO recognize the incomparable beauty of this natural wonder in 1994 and declared the area as a World Heritage Site – and how could they not!
I’ve seen limestone rocks before, not too far from here actually, on Thailand’s Andaman Coast, and also surrounding Palawan Island in the Philippines. But I’ve not seen anything like this anywhere in the world. The coast of the Andaman Sea is well known for its limestone karst, which is remarkable in its own way, but being here in what feels like literally an ocean of limestone rocks, Thailand’s limestone karst and islets feel small and insignificant.
I order a coffee at the bar and sit down on the sun deck, watching islet after islet glide by, my eyes scanning each one for signs of life. The majority of rocks is covered in trees and bushes, some of which even grow out of the steep cliffs that most of the islets have. It is my second day of a Halong Bay cruise, and I congratulate myself on the decision to stay not just for one night, like most people do, but to opt for a 2-night cruise, giving me more time to soak up this spectacular landscape. Most of the people I boarded the ship with yesterday are already on the way back to the port right now, but a small group of us – those who were smart enough to book two nights – get to enjoy more of Halong Bay. Today, we are transferred onto a ‘day boat’ which takes us deeper into the bay, including a kayak trip to one of the secluded beaches I’ve been seeing in the distance.
It was a gamble to come here in April: the weather can be hit-or-miss, and overcast skies are common. But I was willing to take the risk. November is apparently the best month to visit Halong Bay, with blue skies on most days but less tourists than in December when a lot of people take a vacation.
And today is one of the “bad weather” days: choppier waters, strong winds, and the sun hidden behind a thick layer of clouds. But despite the “bad weather” (and why I have to put it in parenthesis), the scenery is still stunning. The water might not be as emerald green as it is when the sunlight shines right on it, but the rock formations are impressive nonetheless. The fog surrounding the further away karst creates a mystic atmosphere in Halong Bay today.Temperatures were perfect yesterday, in the 80s, the sun peeking out behind the clouds every once in a while. Today, it is noticeably cooler, temperatures have dropped to the 70s, and when our guide announces it is now time to kayak to one of the little islands, everyone but me prefers to stay on the boat because it seems quite chilly and windy. I know though that once I start moving, I’ll be warm, and so I hop into the kayak and start paddling away from our boat, in the vague direction the crew points me.
For a while, the only noise cutting into the silence is the splashing sound of my paddles when they hit the water, and I treasure the silence. Somehow we managed to leave all the other boats that were in the bay with us yesterday behind us, something that seemed almost impossible, since all Halong Bay cruises follow a strict schedule.
I arrive at the small beach and get out of the kayak to explore the little islet. I take my time, take it all in, venture over towards the rocks, stop to take photos, I am in no hurry. At some point, the other guests from my boat arrive in a small motorboat. We have the beach to ourselves, and even though it isn’t very warm, all but one go for a dip in Halong Bay. This experience alone is worth the 3-day trip, since with a 2-day cruise, you are not even spending 24 hours on the boat.
Of course it is still a memorable experience if you don’t have time for an extra day, but for me, doing the long ride from Hanoi two days in a row (3 hours to Halong, 3 hours back), would’ve been a bit too much time spent on a bus.
Since Halong Bay was one of my favorite places in Vietnam, I was glad I spent two nights there instead of just one.
Read on for my full guide to Halong Bay: How to find the best cruise, the best time to visit Halong Bay, what to consider before booking a Halong Bay cruise and what to pack for your trip.
How to find the best Halong Bay cruise
Finding the right cruise was not an easy task. Just google ‘Halong Bay cruises’ and you’ll see dozens of different cruise operators, but luckily also dozens of helpful articles outlining how to find the best Halong Bay cruise. The Lonely Planet dedicated an entire page to this topic in its Vietnam travel guide, warning that the cheapie cruises are often underwhelming. I didn’t plan on taking a luxury cruise, but mentions of rats on roaches on cheaper cruises steered me towards the fancier ones.
This was definitely one of the places in Vietnam where I wanted everything to be perfect, considering how long I’ve been waiting to visit Halong Bay. This cruise was one of the experiences that makes me think it might be good that it took me so long to get to Vietnam, because had I made it here on my first trip to Asia in 2011, I would have ended up on one of the backpacker cruises for sure, and I’m doubtful that I would’ve enjoyed it as much as I was enjoying this luxury cruise. Like so many other travelers, I had no idea where to start when I tried to find a decent cruise company. Going to Halong Bay to check out the boats before committing to one was not an option because I was pressed for time and wanted to take advantage of the free transportation to and from Hanoi that many cruise companies offer.
Thanks to the Geeky Explorer, I found out that you can book cruises via Booking.com, my favorite hotel booking website which I’d used exclusively throughout Vietnam. I didn’t end up booking one of the options Bruno recommends on his website, but I took a look at all the cruise options that were available for my dates and then shortlisted a handful that had a great review score.
After reading through the most recent reviews on Booking.com, I cross-referenced TripAdvisor to see reviews from people who had booked through other websites or directly with the cruise company, and that’s how I eliminated a number of cruise companies until there were only these left:
- Stellar of the Seas Cruise
- Paloma Cruise
- Sunlight Boutique Cruise
- Oriental Sails
- Athena Cruises
- Secret Halong Cruise
- Scarlet Pearl Cruises
- Orchid Ha Long Cruise
- Indochina Sails Cruise
Paloma and Athena Cruises were the two that sounded the best to me, and the ones I had eliminated were out because reviewers had complained about the lack of creative vegetarian food options, dated rooms or expensive drinks on board. If you are planning a Halong Bay cruise, I recommend reading recent reviews to see what people liked and disliked.
As for the cruise operators I shortlisted above – there might be one that is better suited for you than the one I chose (Athena), since one of my main criteria was good vegetarian food, which doesn’t apply to most people. In fact, the seafood is supposed to be amazing on most of the Halong Bay cruises. Reviews were also the deciding factor in what led me to booking a 2-night cruise: A lot of people mentioned that a 1-night cruise was just not enough time to fully enjoy this magnificent place; instead, a 1-night cruise felt rushed, reviewers said.
What is a 1-night Halong Bay cruise like?
And I agree: on a one-day cruise, you arrive at the port around noon, board the boat around 12.30pm, have lunch, followed by an hour of free time on board. Then there is an excursion in small boats / kayaks in the afternoon to visit a sea cave, and the rest of the afternoon is spent on the boat so that you can enjoy the scenery from the sun deck. The next morning, you get up at 7am for an early breakfast and a visit to Thien Cung Cave, one of the most striking caves in Halong Bay. The boat arrives at the port at 10.30am, which means you’re not even 24 hours on the cruise. (Since the boats all follow the same schedule, the itinerary should be similar for other cruise companies).
The 2-day cruise follows the same itinerary, only that in between arrival and departure day, you get a full day of cruising around Halong Bay. For that, passengers are transferred onto what they call a “day boat”, basically a boat that is very similar to the cruise ships, but without cabins. There is a large restaurant, a fully stocked bar, and a sun deck to enjoy. While 2-night cruise guests enjoy the day boat and the kayaking trip to the secluded beach, the main cruise ship goes back to the port to drop off the 1-nighters and to pick up the next group of guests. Then it cruises back into the bay, and when you get back from the day boat in the afternoon, you basically come back to the same boat but to a new group of people.
Things To Know Before You Visit Halong Bay
How much does it cost to visit Halong Bay?
Halong Bay National Park admission VND40,000 (~US$1.75)
The caves & fishing villages between VND30,000 and 50,000 (~US$1.30 – US$2.20)
High-quality cruises that offer comfort, good food, a welcoming crew and a nice boat range from US$130 to US$450 per night (based on double occupancy). Note that prices vary quite a lot depending on what time of year and what time of week you are visiting (weekends are pricier than weekdays).
Extreme luxury cruises are also available, starting at US$450 for a 1-night cruise and around US$800 for a 2-night cruise (double occupancy). These cruises are more intimate, with only two to five cabins per boat.
If you only have time for a day trip to Halong Bay, tours start at US$60 from Hanoi (don’t expect much comfort).
If you want to travel from Hanoi to Halong City and scope out cruises there, you can take a direct bus for VND70,000 – 80,000 (US$3.25). The journey takes 2 hours in ideal conditions but can take up to 4 hours if there is traffic.
There are plenty of accommodation options in Halong City (also known as Bay Chai), ranging from backpacker hostels to fancy resorts. If you want to base yourself there to scope out Halong Bay cruises, here are three excellent hotels for very little money:
- D’Lecia Ha Long Hotel – double rooms from US$33 per night, breakfast included
- Ha Long Essence Hotel – double rooms from US$23 per night
- Halios Hotel Halong – double rooms from US$18 per night, breakfast included
When to visit Halong Bay?
Peak season in Halong Bay is between late May and early August, that’s when it is the busiest and you’ll have to book your cruise well in advance.
January to March are quite cold and it often is drizzling. Don’t expect great conditions for photography.
May to September is the period when you can encounter tropical storms.
November is the best time to visit – You can expect sunny and blue skies and the least amount of tourists.
What to know before you book a Halong Bay Cruise
The cruise boats are small Chinese-style junk boats, typically with 10 to 15 cabins. Larger boats have up to 23 cabins.
Important to know about prices:
- Room rates double in June / July
- August also has high season prices because of the summer vacation
- Some places charge more on weekends (Friday and Saturday night)
What is included in a Halong Bay cruise?
Halong Bay cruises usually include a stop at least one cave (Dau Go Cave or Thien Cung Cave which are both on the same island, Ile des Merveilles), a floating village, and a small island, no matter if you book a 1-night or a 2-night cruise.
As for drinks and food: check with your cruise company prior to the trip what exactly is included in your cruise. The majority of cruises include breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The same goes for National Park fees / entrance fees for the caves – check with your cruise operator to see if these fees are included in the price of your cruise.
Note: Tips are not included in your cruise.
What to know before visiting Halong Bay
Make sure you check the weather forecast before you head to Halong Bay – especially if you are somewhat flexible with your dates. If you’re visiting Hanoi first and there’s rain in the forecast for Halong Bay, it’s worth waiting a couple of days for better weather (unless you’re visiting Vietnam during monsoon season).
You also want to make sure you receive the cruise itinerary beforehand. Some travelers who didn’t receive an itinerary before their cruise ended up disappointed because they didn’t visit the places they were hoping to see. Remember that a 1-day cruise means you’ll spend less than 22 hours in Halong Bay.
What to pack for your Halong Bay Cruise
The majority of cruises charges for drinks – even if it says “all inclusive”. All inclusive usually includes drinks at breakfast (coffee & tea). Water is also not included (some cruises provide free drinking water, but usually only one small bottle per day), so I’d recommend packing a few bottles of water, unless you want to overpay for water on the boat.
If you want any other drinks and don’t want to buy them on the cruise, you might want to stock up on the beverage of your choice before heading to Halong Bay.
If you’re a big snacker, you may also want to buy a few of your favorite snacks before you board the boat.
Other things I packed for my Halong Bay cruise:
- Portable charger for my phone, camera, headphones (you can charge your devices in your cabin, but just in case there’s a power outage)
- A book
- Sturdy footwear for the cave excursion (would be difficult in flip flops)
Remember that you are only spending one or two nights on the boat, so you don’t really need all that much.
Well-rated tour companies that offer Halong Bay cruise packages
Check Tripadvisor for the most recent reviews for each company:
Alternatives to Halong Bay Cruises
Several people told me that they found Halong Bay too touristy and too crowded. And considering how many boats cruise around Halong Bay every single day, they aren’t wrong. But Halong Bay is the number one tourist destination in Northern Vietnam for a reason: it is such a beautiful place, and it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. For me, it was similar to the Camino de Santiago. There are several routes that you can walk across Spain, and the main pilgrimage, the Camino Frances, has become insanely popular and crowded. I knew that I could’ve walked a less busy trail, but I wanted to start with the classic, most iconic route.
It was the same for me with Halong Bay: I wanted to see why it was so popular before visiting a lesser known neighboring bay. Also keep in mind that most of the boats only have ten or twelve cabins, so while there are a lot of boats cruising in the bay, it’s not like the giant cruise ships you’d encounter in the Caribbean. But if you want to avoid the tour groups, there are two alternatives nearby:
Cat Ba Island & Lan Ha Bay
Halong Bay can be completely avoided if you head to Cat Ba Island instead. Cat Ba Island is located just south of Halong Bay and belongs to the Cat Ba archipelago, which is made up of around 366 islands. From there, trips to the lesser visited Lan Ha Bay, equally as stunning as Halong Bay, can be arranged as day trips or overnight cruises.
The cruises leaving Cat Ba Island promise to take visitors to more remote parts of the bay, ultimately getting you away from the more crowded Halong Bay. If you are looking for a tranquil getaway, you may want to base yourself on Cat Ba Island and take a cruise from there.
Cat Ba Town has been developing quickly and may not be the prettiest place on the island to base yourself, but that’s where day cruises and overnight cruises to Lan Ha Bay leave from, and you can book your cruise right there in one of the many tour offices, or check out Cat Ba Ventures.
Expect to pay between US$20 – US$30 for an all day cruise around Lan Ha Bay.
For places to stay, check out these top-rated hotels on Cat Ba Island.
How to get to Cat Ba Island from Hanoi
There is a bus-boat-bus combo for VND250,000 (US$11). The journey takes around four hours total. You can book your tickets through the Baolau website.If you think that you’d enjoy Lan Ha Bay over Halong Bay, check out this comprehensive guide: Lan Ha Bay, Vietnam – An Uncrowded Alternative to Halong?
This article has great recommendations for good Lan Ha Bay cruises: The Best Cruises in Lan Ha Bay