How to choose the Halong Bay cruise that’s right for you

The Halong Bay is regarded by many as one of the most beautiful places on earth. Its picturesque environment has not only brought about numerous Halong Bay Cruise journeys but has also been the subject of many Hollywood movies and documentaries. Taking a mere look at its pictures and landscape, it isn’t hard at all to see why.
Located north of Vietnam, specifically north-eastern Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin, Quang Ninh Province, Halong Bay houses about 1,600 limestone islands and islets, extending over an estimated 1,500 square metres of land. This, along with its remarkable emerald and turquoise waters and its genuine attraction to both Vietnamese and foreigners from all over the world, earned Halong Bay the title of UNESCO World Heritage Site back in 1994.


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The ultimate guide to cruising Halong Bay in Vietnam. #travel #asia #vietnam #halong #halongbay #cruise
How to choose the Halong Bay cruise that's right for you. Check out this detailed guide on one of the World's Seven Wonders. #travel #asia #vietnam #halong #halongbay #cruise

GUEST POST
Vietnam is a destination that has always intrigued us. Especially the Halong Bay, one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, and Ninh Binh spark our imagination and we vividly hope to visit one day. This ultimate guide to Halong Bay has been written by a guest blogger who knows every corner of intriguing Vietnam. Sam has been a staunch enthusiast of all things Vietnam for as long as he can remember. One amazing trip back in his teen years was all it took and that one trip begets hundreds more. Now, he can’t stop writing about his experiences in Vietnam and environs. Read about his adventures on his blog Ultimate Vietnam.

About the mesmerizing Halong Bay

Many who have visited the Halong Bay recall it as something from a wild, pleasant, surreal fantasy. The enchantment of the tall rocks, the clear emerald waters, and its remarkable biodiversity make it a perfect imitation of paradise on earth.

Sometimes, however, beauty can be something of a burden. Thanks to its numerous allures, the Halong Bay has been the subject of abuse over the years, both in the hands of people trying to make a profit off it, and tourists who did not have sustainability in mind on their trips.
Still, the beauty of the Halong Bay, though tested all through the years, remains strong and barely diminished. Thanks to more and more emphasis on sustainability nowadays, travellers are able to enjoy the beauty of the Bay without congestions and pollutions.

Cruising Halong Bay now requires not just taking the beauty and the atmosphere, but also understanding and respecting the area as a whole. Which is why in this Halong Bay Cruise guide, we’ll be providing you with the complete knowledge of how to choose the best Halong Bay cruise to make your journey healthy, sustainable, and fun.

Beautiful scenery of Halong Bay

How to choose a Halong Bay cruise?

Choosing a perfect Halong Bay Cruise involves going with a reputable service, and also recognizing what your needs are. This ensures that your journey is as fun and sustainable on all ends.

Below are a few questions to consider when choosing an optimal Halong Bay Cruise.

How long should you stay at Halong Bay?

The number of days/nights you should spend at Halong Bay is dependent partly on budget, and partly on the amount of time you have to spare on the journey. At any rate, this factor plays a huge role in determining the exact cruise for you.

Boat cruising Halong Bay

These different trips all have their advantages and conveniences. Usually, there are three options in this regard: the day cruise, and the overnight cruise which can be further divided into the two days – one-night cruise, and the three days – two nights cruise.

Halong Bay Day Cruise

The general reasons most people go for the Halong Bay day tour is either due to being on a budget, or being pressed for time. Either way, with the day cruise you’re done in a day, but your travel time is spent more on the road than on the actual cruise.
On this itinerary, you’ll typically leave Hanoi at 7.30 a.m. to head to Tuan Chau Island, spend 4 to 5 hours cruising Halong Bay and you’ll be back in Hanoi at around 7 p.m.

Halong Bay Overnight Cruises

Generally, the most popular Halong bay overnight cruise is the two days/one night cruise. Here you get to spend more time cruising than getting to the cruise.
On this itinerary, you’ll typically leave Hanoi between 7.30 and 8.10 a.m. to head to Tuan Chau Island, spend 24 hours cruising Halong Bay and you’ll be back in Hanoi at around 3 p.m. the following day.

The most enjoyable Halong Bay cruise, though, is the three days/two nights cruise. This is the definition of getting the full experience on a journey.
On this itinerary, you’ll typically leave Hanoi between 8.30 and 9 a.m. to head to Tuan Chau Island, spend 48 hours cruising Halong Bay and you’ll be back in Hanoi at around 2 p.m. two days later.

Local Vietnamese fisherman on Halong Bay

Services and activities

Not all Halong Bay Cruises are made the same. There is always a unique aspect to each package, and the best tours tend to add a differentiating service of activity to stand out. That said, there are also certain services and activities that are a must on all cruises on Halong Bay. I list them in more detail below.

Some of the popular services and activities you’ll find included when you cruise Halong Bay include charming and cosy cabins for comfortable accommodation, shuttle services to convey you from your hotel and back, delicious Vietnamese or international food service, kayaking, island excursions, cave explorations, squid-fishing and night entertainment.

All Halong Bay cruises include full board
Cooking classes and food tours in Vietnam

Services that are always included

Services that are always included on Halong Bay Cruises include:

  • Shuttle services for transportation (with pick-up and drop-off in Hanoi Old Quarter)
  • Comfortable cabin and accommodation
  • Breakfast, lunch and dinner for overnight cruises (excluding drinks)
  • Professional English-speaking guide
  • Entrance fee to tourist attractions such as caves and villages
One of the popular caves that is traditionally visited on a Halong Bay cruise

Activities that are usually included

Every Halong Bay cruise comes with some classic activities, such as:

  • Cave explorations
  • Visit to floating villages by bamboo boat: The houses that make up the Floating Village are a sight to behold. Simple and traditional, they offer an insight into the beautiful, quaint ways of the past. They’re something you definitely don’t want to miss out on.
  • Cat Ba island trips (biking, hiking, beach time): One of the things you’d absolutely want to do on your trip is to pay a visit to the Cat Ba National Park, a biodiverse region home to about 32 mammals including a lot of endangered species. 
  • Kayaking Halong Bay: Included on most cruises but not all.
  • Squid fishing at night
  • Gala dinners

Partaking in activities is completely optional. You have every right to skip Halong Bay cruise activities, such as those that involve additional charges or experiences that you just don’t feel comfortable with.

Kayaking on Halong Bay is included in most overnight tour packages
GoPro for capturing the highlights Vietnam

Optional activities

Depending on the Halong Bay tour of your choice, you could have the option to complete your experience with following activities:

  • Tai Chi classes
  • Cooking classes
  • Beauty spa services

When to visit Halong Bay?

Vietnam is a sub-tropical country, which means that the weather conditions are rather unpredictable. Some periods, however, are less subject to bad weather than others.

Spring or fall

The best times to cruise Halong Bay are spring (late March to early May) and fall (late September and to early November). Expect clear skies with a gentle touch of fog in the morning and temperatures ranging between 68° to 86°F (20° to 30°C). This is high season, which means that prices are highest.

Winter

Winter (late November to early March): The dry season is characterized by crisp air and low visibility because of the foggy weather conditions. If you like the prospect of visiting Halong Bay under a mystic cloak, then this is the time to do so. Temperatures range between 59° to 70°F (15° and 22°C). Water temperatures are at their coolest, so this is not the best period to go swimming.

Summer

Summer (late May to early September): The air is hot and humid, which might bring tropical storms and frequent showers. Temperatures range between 77° to 92°F (25° and 33°C). From July onwards, the occasional typhoon might spoil the fun. Many cancelations occur in this period.

Weather at Halong Bay can be unpredictable so it's important to know the cancelation policy of your cruise line before booking

Other things to consider before booking your Halong Bay cruise

Round trip shuttle service via the express road (toll)

A general rule of thumb on your Halong Bay Cruise is to always go with a cruise with shuttle service. This makes the journey from the hotel to the bay a lot smoother. The pick up and drop off service is available for all hotels in Hanoi Old Quarter.

If you opted for a cruise without shuttle service, then that’s okay too. It’s easy enough to get a bus, car, or train down to Tuan Chau Island, which is the jumping off point for Halong Bay, located about 153km (95 miles) from Hanoi. Check out 12Go.Asia for a wide selection of transportation providers.

Thanks to the presence of a connecting highway, the journey to Halong Bay from Hanoi should take about two and a half hours to three hours by car or van, about four hours by bus, and seven hours by train. Make sure your tour packages includes this connecting toll road and not the cheaper detour roads or you risk getting stuck.

Most cruises include a Hanoi to Halong Bay shuttle transfer

Age of the boat

Another important factor to consider when booking a cruise is the age of the vessel itself. While there are certain time-trusted boats that still serve well, ideally you should be on the lookout for something fresh and still in the early stages of its lifespan.

Wooden or steel boat

The traditional Chinese style junk boats, made of wood, offer the authentic Halong Bay cruising experience. Ever since 2016, these boats are to be painted white. Halong Bay junk boats are smaller in size, with fewer cabins, and offer a more intimate, classic ambience. From a safety point of view, junk boats have an elevated risk of fire and sinking. The harsh conditions at Halong Bay are also known to affect the wood. And, as charming as these boats look, the origin of the wood is up for debate.
If you choose to cruise on a junk boat, then make sure it’s a recent one. A Halong Bay junk boat experience can be hit or miss. Some boats are highly luxurious, others are rundown.

Nowadays, a preference is given to steel boats on Halong Bay, both from a safety as from an environmental perspective. These cruises are known to offer a modern and more spacious experience with luxurious facilities. A downside is that these boats are larger, resulting in more cabins and a higher number of passengers.

Number of cabins and passengers

The number of passengers your boat or cruise ship holds is an important factor to consider before booking a cruise. You really don’t want an overcrowded cruise. Sadly, there is no hard number that determines what an “overcrowded” ship is. It all depends on your preference, and what kind of cruise it is.

Some people draw the line at twenty people, some can take up to 35. But personally, once it’s over the 35 mark, that’s when things get sketchy.

Cooking classes and food tours in Vietnam

On-board facilities

A number of cruises offer on-board facilities such as pools and jacuzzis, while some offer dinner parties and gala. It is always advisable to research all these, including safety and comfortability before booking a cruise.

Cancelation policy (bad weather)

The Management Board of Halong Bay makes a daily assessment of the weather conditions. If they decide that the safety of visitors cannot be guaranteed, then all Halong Bay cruises will be canceled.

Most cruise operators apply a similar policy, based on the moment of cancelation:

  • Prior to your arrival at Halong Bay: You’re usually offered the option to either get a full refund or to postpone your trip.
  • After you arrive at Halong Bay: You’ll be offered a lunch and an afternoon transfer back to Hanoi.
  • While you’re cruising Halong Bay: The trip will be shortened and either you’ll be transferred back to Hanoi or the operator arranges for accommodation in Halong Bay and, if weather permits, the option to continue your cruise the following day.
GoPro for capturing the highlights Vietnam

Avoiding tourist traps

Just like in most major tourist sites, it’s imperative to be on the lookout for tourist traps. Halong Bay may have that reputation and, while there’s an iota of truth to this, the bottom-line is that it’s entirely up to you to look past the commercial package and genuinely appreciate this natural wonder for what it is.

Your personal experience will largely depend on your choice of cruise operator and itinerary. So, take your time to properly and consciously research each cruise. Pick one that makes an effort to protect bay’s natural beauty intact in order to make the most of your journey. You’ll find several options in the next paragraph.

Beautiful llmestone rocks in Vietnam's most popular bay

Should you book a Halong Bay cruise in advance?

The answer to this is that it depends. The best and highly rated cruises are always booked up, so booking in advance is definitely the best way to go in this case. That said, though, there are enough cruises to ensure you always get a last-minute booking, and also a few advantages for on the spot booking, an example of which is getting cheaper and last minute deals.

Explore the Magic of Vietnam

Recommended Halong Bay cruises

Classic and affordable cruises

Indochina Sails (15 cabins, since 2007), Paradise Luxury Cruise (15 cabins, since 2011) and Halong Glory Legend Cruise (22 cabins, since 2014) are three affordable Halong Bay cruises that offers an amazing itinerary at a very reasonable price. Plus, these are also small boat cruises, guaranteeing a relaxed experience.

Luxury cruises

If you’re willing to splurge on a once-in-a-lifetime Halong Bay experience, then Bhaya Cruises (18 cabins, since 2009) and Ultralux Hera Cruise (11 cabins, since 2017) cruises come highly recommended.

Private cruise

The Bhaya Legend Cruise offers the most exclusive Halong Bay experience with exquisite food, top-notch service and the most intimate atmosphere.

Eco-friendly Halong Bay cruise

Cruise operators that focus on sustainable practices tend to avoid busy Halong Bay to operate in one of the less-frequented neighbouring bays. Find out more in the paragraph Halong Bay alternatives without the crowds.

Should you prefer to follow the classic Halong Bay itinerary after all but are worried about the environmental impact, then feel free to reach out to the cruise operator of your choice to ask if and how they address water pollution. Any company that makes an effort to protect the environment will take pride in it and gladly inform you on its sustainable practices.

Halong bay offers a variation of cruises luxury cruises family cruises honeymoon cruises small boat cruises private cruises
Source: Aclass Cruises

Halong Bay alternatives without the crowds

Halong Bay is amazing but, because of the tourist traps, the pollution and some degree of mismanagement, it may be a good idea to seek out alternatives. One of the best ways to do this is to shift your focus from the main Halong Bay towards the two neighbouring bays of Bai Tu Long or Lan Ha. All three are part of the aquamarine Gulf of Tonkin but Lan Ha Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay get much less exposure than Halong Bay.

Halong Bay cruise tours mooring for an excursion

Cruises that offer these alternative itineraries allow you to enjoy a similar but more tranquil experience. The limestone pillars that dot the quieter parts of the bay are just as majestic and the seascapes just as breathtaksing.

Lan Ha Bay cruises

Lan Ha Bay is one of those neighbouring bays of Halong: lesser known, and consequently, more sustainable. Cruising the Lan Ha Bay can be just as magical as cruising Ha Long, only you have lesser crowds, lesser pollution, and activities, including rock climbing, kayaking, and hiking, that are just as fun. An added bonus is that most Lan Ha Bay cruises leave from Hai Phong city, which means a shorter shuttle bus ride of about 2 hours from Hanoi.

Lan Ha Bay cruises luxury cruises
Source: Aclass cruises – Stellar of the Seas

In recent years, an increasing number of cruises discovers the relatively unspoilt beauty of Lan Ha Bay.

One of the Lan Ha Bay cruise tours

Bai Tu Long Bay cruises

Bai Tu Long Bay is located on the eastern side of the Ha Long Bay. Part of the lesser known bays in this area, the Bai Tu Long Bay offers similar landscape to Halong, but with clearer waters, less crowds, and remarkable history.

These two Bai Tu Long Bay cruises come highly recommended while both focusing on responsible cruising by operating sustainable practices:

Spending time on Cat Ba island

Cat Ba Island has a lot to offer, with the advantage of being less of a tourist trap than Halong Bay. Here you have a wide range of activities from hiking, visiting the abandoned hospital cave, relaxing on the beach, or even exploring Cat Ba National Park.
A stay in this houseboat definitely completes the experience.

Admire Halong Bay from the sky

If you want to take in the scenic beauty of Halong Bay without taking a cruise, then you could take a tour by helicopter or by seaplane.

Climb the Bai Tho mountain

One of the highest and most popular mountains in the Halong Bay, Bai Tho mountain (a.k.a. Poem mountain) is a fun getaway from the Halong Bay. It’s a steep climb with uneven stairs but fun to do and offers other fun activities besides.

Sadly, the trail to Bai Tho Mountain is closed at the moment this article was published.

GoPro for capturing the highlights Vietnam

Things to pack when cruising Halong Bay

It’s essential to pack light before embarking on your Halong Bay cruise. Cabins tend to offer less storage space than your average hotel room. Also, make sure to keep your valuables safe, either on your person or locked away in your personal safe, since cruise lines usually won’t accept responsibility for lost or stolen items.
Wi-Fi is available during your cruise but not reliable.

Here’s a list of Halong Bay cruise onboard essentials:

  • Passport.
  • Some cash to pay for cocktails and souvenirs (USD is accepted). Plus some VND, say 100,000 (about $5) for tipping.
  • Adapter (in Vietnam you need plugs with 2 round pins).
  • Compact and lightweight travel camera such as the OM-D E-M5 Mark III and a waterproof to protect your equipment from the humidity.
  • Disinfectant wipes.
  • Medication, maybe also Dramamine if you suffer from seasickness.
  • A book or board game.
  • Toiletries.
  • Sunscreen.
  • During the winter months: moisturizing cream and lip balm.

These items are perfect for your excursions:

Sunset over Halong Bay

And here’s what to wear during your Halong Bay cruise:

  • Swimwear for kayaking and swimming.
  • Short and t-shirt for your excursions and downtime (one set per cruising day, an extra set in case of hot and humid weather). Flip-flops or slip resistant shoes.
  • Light summer dress for onboard activities. Depending on the weather, a sweater or jacket.
  • Formal dress (women) or shirt (men) for the gala dinner. Elegant shoes.
  • Poncho or raincoat.

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What to look for in a Halong Bay cruise. Avoid tourist trips and pick the right cruise. #travel #asia #vietnam #halong #halongbay #cruise
The ultimate guide Halong Bay cruising guide, with tips and tricks to choosing the right Halong Bay cruise in Vietnam. #travel #asia #vietnam #halong #halongbay #cruise


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