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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.

View of Ha Long Bay

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.

Chinese junk boat on Halong Bay

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.

Best Halong Bar Cruise: Limestone island in Bai Tu Long Bay

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.

View of Halong Bay from Ti Top Island

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 Halong Bay Cruise: Boat near limestone karst

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