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No trip to Vietnam is complete without a visit to the incredible Halong (Ha Long) Bay. Halong Bay attracts millions of visitors each year, making it one of Vietnam’s most popular travel destinations. The UNESCO World Heritage site is famous for its 1,600+ karsts, or tiny limestone islands. The islands are topped with lush green rainforest and resemble the scaled back of a dragon, giving the bay its name. Ha Long literally translates to “descending dragons”. With so many people visiting, there are endless options when it comes to Halong Bay cruises and it’s easy to become overwhelmed. This ultimate Halong Bay guide covers everything you need to plan the perfect Halong Bay trip, including how to choose the best Halong Bay cruise.
Where is Halong Bay?
Halong Bay is located off the coast of northern Vietnam near the Chinese border. It’s part of the Gulf of Tonkin within Vietnam’s Quang Ninh Province. Halong Bay is approximately 1,553 sq km (600 sq mi) and is part of a larger area that includes Lan Ha Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay, and Cat Ba Island. Halong Bay is easy to reach from Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi. The drive can be done in just a few hours, making it a popular destination.
How to Visit Halong Bay
A permit is required to be on Halong Bay so you must join some kind of a tour in order to visit. You simply can not rent a boat or do a self-guided tour. There are a couple of ways to secure a cruise. The most popular is to book a tour based out of Hanoi. Your best bet is to purchase online in advance but most hotels can offer assistance as well. Another option is to book a cruise based out of Halong Bay City. However, you’ll need to arrange your own transportation from Hanoi.
Most of the cruises are on a junk boat, a traditional Chinese sailing ship. They are much smaller than your standard cruise ship and usually have fewer than 20 cabins. Everyone is assigned their own cabin and most boats have en-suite bathroom facilities. The price is usually all-inclusive of activities and meals. The only things you should need money for are beverages, tips, and anything you would like to purchase on land. However, always check with your cruise prior to arrival. Private tours can be arranged as well.
Bai Tu Long Bay Vs. Halong Bay
Bai Tu Long Bay is an extension of Halong Bay and is located in the northeast. The area is only open to select tour companies and has yet to see the same level of tourism as Halong Bay. Thus, resulting in calmer and clearer waters. The islands are not as densely packed as those of Halong but the landscape is very similar and just as beautiful. Bai Tu Long Bay can be a great alternative or addition to a Halong Bay visit.
How to Get to Halong Bay
Most travelers that wish to visit Halong Bay will fly into Noi Bai International Airport and use the city of Hanoi as a home base. The airport is 30 km (19 miles) from Hanoi. Joining an organized tour and leaving the logistics to them is probably the easiest and most practical way to see the bay. Shuttle busses leave the city every morning and many offer hotel pickup within the Old City. It’s about 180 km (112 mi) to Halong bay. Most tours depart around 7:30 am and take about 3.5 hours to reach the dock. The tours will then return you to Hanoi upon disembarking.
Tours to Halong Bay are usually booked in advance. It’s not one of those things where you just show up at the dock and jump on a boat. It’s not impossible to do but boats tend to sell out, especially during the high season, and you probably won’t find much of a selection. You will also likely pay a higher price for your tour. However, you can pre-arrange a tour out of Halong Bay City and take a taxi, private car, or the public bus to the bay. A private car or taxi will be the fastest but also the most costly. The drive can be done in about two hours on the recently opened Halong-Hai Phong Expressway.
Visiting Halong Bay from other parts of Vietnam is doable as well. If you are coming from central or southern Vietnam, you may want to fly into a closer airport to save yourself some time, especially if you are on a stricter schedule. The two options are Van Don International Airport and Cat Bi International Airport. Van Don International Airport is 50 km (31 mi) to Halong Bay and is the closet airport. Cat Bi International Airport 60km to (37 mi) to the bay. I departed from Da Nang in central Vietnam and arrived at Cat Bi International Airport. My tour operator then arranged a taxi to pick me up at the airport and take me to the dock for an additional charge. After the cruise, I continued on to Hanoi with the tour.
How Long to Stay in Halong Bay
How long you choose to stay in Halong Bay is largely dependent on what activities you would like to do and your budget. One, two, and three-day cruises are the most popular but there are also longer cruises available. A day cruise is the most affordable; however, it’s really not enough time to see the bay. A lot of your day is going to be spent traveling to/from the bay. A day trip to Halong Bay from Hanoi is going to be very rushed and there likely won’t be time for activities. The cruise can only go so far in the given amount of time, so you will only see the most touristic and congested parts of the bay. These boats also tend to be very crowded. If a day is all that you can squeeze into your itinerary though, it is still worth the trip.
I recommend a two or three-day cruise. You’ll want to experience at least one sunrise and sunset on the water. Most people choose to do a 2-day/ 1-night cruise. This is what I chose to do and it worked well for me. It did feel somewhat rushed but I was able to experience some quieter areas of Halong as well as Bai Tu Long Bay. The boat briefly visited a couple of attractions and there was some time set aside for kayaking.
A 3-day cruise will be more expensive but it will be able to travel to more remote and less touristic areas of the bay. You’ll have one full day on the boat and plenty of time for activities. A 3 day/2-night cruise with a stop at Cat Ba is also a great option. Most of the Cat Ba tours include an overnight in a hotel on the island so you’ll have time for land activities as well. There are 5+ day cruises, but I think I would have become bored with anything longer than three days.
Best Time to Visit Halong Bay
The weather in Halong Bay is generally divided into a cold/dry winter and hot/ humid summer. The months from October to December are the best time to visit Halong Bay and are considered the high season. You can expect large crowds and higher prices during this time. The low season is from June to September. These months have a higher chance of storms and typhoons.
The low season can still be a good time to visit if you have some flexibility. The weather is warmer and there are far fewer people on the water. Just keep in mind that the weather can be unpredictable and change quickly. I visited mid-September. I encountered some light rain but it was warm and my boat was only half full. However, the day after my tour, a typhoon began to approach and tours for the following week were canceled.
How to Choose the Best Halong Bay Cruise
There are literally thousands of tour operators to choose from when planning a trip to Halong Bay. Options range from day trips to 5-day cruises and 3 to 5-star service levels. The options can be overwhelming and it can be difficult to determine which is the best Halong Bay cruise for you. The majority of your time is spent on the boat, so choosing the proper cruise is very important. There are many things to consider when choosing a cruise. The first thing is the amount of time you want to spend on Halong Bay. You’ll want to take into consideration the activities you would like to do, things you would like to see and whether you would like to spend time on land. Some cruises are much more active than others. You’ll also want to find out where the cruise goes. Longer cruises visit more remote areas of the bay and may include the adjacent bays of Bai Tu Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay.
The next thing to consider is your budget and the level of service you would like. Cost is going to rise with the length of the cruise and the level of service. Cruises range from budget to luxury and private. Boats vary greatly and it’s important to read reviews. Doing your research is important. Don’t pick a cruise simply because it’s cheap. You want a reputable company where safety is a priority. The last thing you want is to get food poisoning or put yourself in danger. Find out how long the company has been in business and check reviews for photos of their facilities.
It’s also important to think about what kind of experience you want to have on your cruise. Are you traveling with family? Going solo or with a group of friends? You can never guarantee what kind of people will be on your cruise but some cruises do attract a specific crowd. Budget cruises tend to attract a younger, backpacker-type crowd that sometimes tend to party a bit more. Some of the high-end luxury cruises focus more on onboard activities, such as cooking classes, rather than water activities. If your traveling with family, you’ll want to make sure it’s family-friendly and the rooms are large enough. I did a mid-luxury tour with Vega Travel. I went solo and had a great time. Everyone on board was friendly and time was spent relaxing and taking in the sights.
Things to Do in Halong Bay
Each tour will have its own itinerary. Included activities are dependent on the length of your cruise and its route. Some things that may be on your itinerary include:
If kayaking is on your list of things to do, make sure it’s on the cruise itinerary. Kayaking may seem like a standard activity but it’s actually only allowed in certain areas of the bay. Tour operators need a specific permit from the government. I would look for cruises that visit Bai Tu Long Bay. It’s a beautiful place to kayak.
There are many caves throughout the islands of Halong Bay. Two of the most popular are Sung Sot and Trinh Nu. Sung Sot or Suprise Cave is located on Bo Hon Island and is one of the largest caves in Halong Bay. Trinh Nu or Virgin Cave is a beautiful grotto with three chambers. The cave is known for being romantic and a symbol of true love.
Cat Ba Island
Some cruises offer nights on Cat Ba island and spend time doing land activities such as hiking and bicycling. If you wish to have some free time on the beach or just more leisure time in general then I recommend a longer cruise that offers a Cat Ba stop.
Ti Top Island
Ti Top (Titov) Island is home to one of the best and most popular Halong Bay views. To reach the lookout point it’s 450 steps up Ti Top mountain. The hike is steep but worth it. The island also has a great beach known for its beautiful blue waters.
Many of the boats offer onboard cooking classes. They vary from very basic to elaborate. Some of them can be a lot of fun and others are just something to fill the time after the sun goes down. There are cruises with demos only and others that go much more in-depth and even shop at the local markets.
What to Pack for Halong Bay
- Passport (required upon embarking)
- Comfortable walking shoes
- Outlet adaptors
- Electronics chargers/ extra batteries
- Casual, comfortable clothes
- One nicer outfit for dinner (depending on the type of cruise)
- Cash for beverages and tips
Is Halong Bay Worth Visiting?
Halong Bay is a place everyone should visit at least once. Yes, it’s touristic but it’s also one of those places that are popular for a reason. The bay’s natural beauty is breathtaking. If you take the time to research and choose a cruise that fits your needs then you’ll have a wonderful experience.
Highly-Rated Halong Bay Cruises
Vega Travel has been a favorite mid-range cruise for quite some time. The company has been giving tours of Halong Bay since 2001. It has a great reputation and there are even other companies that have started operating under similar names in an attempt to fool the public. Vega Travel came highly recommend to me and I had a great experience. They offer 3 and 4-star cruises. The 3-star cruise was basic but very affordable. The boat was clean, our guide was knowledgeable, and I never felt unsafe. Vega Travel departs from Hanoi.
Paradise Elegance is a gorgeous ship and a great luxury option. It’s a large boat with multiple decks and an onboard restaurant. It also has a spa that offers massages and other services. Suites have their own balcony/patio and some even include a bathtub. The cruise is not part of a tour and embarks from/ends at Ha Long Bay. If you are coming from Hanoi then you’ll need to arrange your own transportation to the bay.
Viator 2-day/1-night Tour
This highly-rated tour sold by Viator is another great mid-budget option. It’s a simple, no-frills cruise but includes everything you need. You’ll be able to experience one full day on the bay and get to see the beautiful sunrise and sunset. It also offers kayaking, caving, and transportation to/from Hanoi.
Pelican Cruise has a beautiful fleet of ships and offers 4-star cruises. They offer both 2-day/1-night and 3-day/2-night options. Each cruise has different activities on its itinerary. The suites have newer furnishings and the ship has a spa and restaurant onboard. You can arrange your own transport to they bay or Pelican offers a daily shuttle leaving Hanoi.
Have you visited Halong Bay? What did you think? If you’ve enjoyed this post, please leave a comment or share using the social media buttons below. Doing more travel through Vietnam? You won’t want to miss the must-see Golden Bridge. To find out more, continue to my post “A Guide to Visiting Vietnam’s Golden Bridge.“