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Halong Bay is located in northern Vietnam and is just a few hours outside of Hanoi. It is made up of over 1,600 karsts, or limestone islets. The islets resemble the scaled back of a dragon, giving the bay its name. Ha Long literally translates to “descending dragons”. It is Vietnam’s most popular tourist attraction with 5.5 million people visiting last year. With so many people visiting Halong Bay, there are endless options when it comes to tours and it’s quite easy to become overwhelmed when booking a boat. In order to make the booking process easier, I’ve put together this guide on everything you need to know about visiting Halong Bay:
1. How Do I Choose a Boat?
When choosing a boat I would start by looking at what activities the tour company offers and consider what things you would like to do. Some are much more active than others. When I was booking my tour, I found that many of the luxury boats spent more time on the actual boat than anything else. If kayaking is on your list of things to do, check and make sure this is an activity that is offered. Kayaking is only allowed in certain areas and boats need a permit from the government.
Some of the boats offer a night on Cat Ba island and offer activities such as hiking and bicycling. If you’re interested in spending time on land, or even just want to spend some time on the beach, at your leisure, I would look into longer cruises that offer a Cat Ba stop. After, finding a tour that interests you, you will want to read reviews and make sure it is a reputable company.
2. How Long Should I Stay?
There are day cruises that leave from Hanoi, but they require a lot of travel time and only half the day is actually spent on the water. These boats are often more crowded and sail the more congested parts of the bay. Personally, I would choose a cruise that feels less rushed. I would choose either a 2 day/ 1 night or a 3 day/ 2 night cruise. I went for 2 days/ 1 night and it worked out well for me. The activities still felt a little rushed, but I left feeling like I saw a sufficient amount of the bay and some of its more beautiful and remote areas.
If you have the time and want to be able to fully relax and take in the sights of Halong Bay, I would suggest going for 3 days/ 2 nights on a tour that makes a stop at Cat Ba. This would give you sufficient time for both water and land activities. There are longer cruises, but I think I would have become bored with anything longer than three days.
3. How Do I Get There?
Many of the tours leave early in the morning from Hanoi. If you are staying in the Old Quarter, most of the cruise companies have a shuttle available for hotel pickup. The travel time from Hanoi to Halong Bay is about 3.5-4 hours depending on traffic. They will then return you to your hotel upon disembarking.
If you are coming from central or southern Vietnam and on a tighter schedule, I suggest flying into Haiphong. This option will be slightly more costly, since you will have to arrange your own transportation from the airport to the boat, but it will save you quite a bit of time. I was traveling from Hoi An and chose to meet the group at the dock. The cruise company arranged a cab to meet me at the airport and take me to where I needed to be. I then continued on with the group to Hanoi after the cruise.
4. What Is the Boat Like?
There are many different kinds of boats on Halong Bay and they range from budget to luxury. The typical boat seen on the bay, though, is the traditional junk. A junk is a Chinese sailing vessel and its first use dates back to the 2nd century AD. It’s important to find a reputable company that follows safety regulations and keeps up with boat maintenance. I used Vega Travel, which offers three and five star cruises. I chose to go on their three star boat.
The boat was larger than I had imagined and had three floors. It had a main floor, a lower floor of rooms, and a rooftop deck with sun chairs. The rooms were fitted with a full-sized bed and their own small bathroom. I was somewhat worried about the shower situation at the time of booking. It’s definitely not your traditional shower, but I was happy to find hot water and great water pressure. You will spend the majority of the time on this boat, but will transfer to a smaller one to reach land for some of the activities.
5. What Can I Expect on the Boat?
I had an amazing time with Vega Travel. Our guide, Dem was great! He was knowledgeable, professional and friendly. I really can’t recommend Vega Travel enough. Vega Travel is one of the few tour companies allowed to sail Bai Tu Long Bay. Bai Tu Long Bay is a very similar and almost equally beautiful bay to that of Halong. It is also much quieter with considerably fewer boats on it. Vega starts their 2 day/1 night tour here and then sails into Halong.
On the first day, the boat boarded around noon and we had some time to settle in before lunch. We then spent the afternoon kayaking, swimming and exploring a couple of the nearby caves. Upon returning to the boat, we had just enough time to shower before dinner. All meals are included on the boat. Drinks, however, are extra so make sure you bring some cash. I spent the remainder of the evening relaxing on the upper deck. The sunset on the bay is spectacular. Make sure not to miss it!
On the second day, we woke up early and set sail. The boat soon anchored and we transferred to a smaller vessel in order to reach Halong Bay’s largest cave. After touring the cave, we boated over to Ti Top Island. Ti Top has one of the best view points and beaches on the bay. We spent an hour or so there, before returning to the boat. We then checked out of our rooms and began sailing back to the dock.
Initially, I was somewhat apprehensive about going solo on the boat. I’m quite introverted and not an incredibly social person. I’m so glad I decided to go. I met some great people and had an amazing time! I definitely recommend visiting Halong Bay. It is one of the most beautiful places I’ve encountered.
To read about another must-see destination in Vietnam, check out my post “A Guide to Visiting Vietnam’s Golden Bridge.”