Halong Bay is one of the most famous sites of Vietnam. Most people will have seen picture of this natural wonder of the world and UNESCO Heritage site – a bay with hundreds of the limestone karst and islands, covered by trees and home of many caves, surrounded by emerald water. Mystical – beautiful – peaceful – stunning. There are so many words to describe it, and seeing it you will realise that the name Halong (“descending Dragon”) and the legend behind is a perfect fit for this beautiful area. But do not just believe the stories you hear and the photos you see – it is certainly a site that should be on a Must-Do list when visiting Northern Vietnam.
The most popular way to explore Halong Bay is taking one of the hundreds of junks cruising through the bay. Due to the lengthy bus journey to and from Hanoi (4 hours one way) one day trips to Halong bay are not the best idea. You will spend 8 hours on the bus, and maybe 4 – 6 hours on the boat. This means getting to the outer parts of the bay, and you won’t see the most famous part of the bay. I would highly recommend to do a minimum of an overnight trip.
Another option could be heading to Cat Ba island and heading out from the island to see Halong Bay. I have not done that option (yet!) – so I cannot advise if this is the best option or how to organise it.
Please be aware that due to storms and heavy rain cruises can be cancelled on short notice, especially during the rainy season of Northern Vietnam in July / August. So before booking a tour make sure to check the weather forecast.
Arrival / Departure
Most cruises start from Halong City, around 160km east of Hanoi. When booking a cruise the transfer between Hanoi and Halong City by minibus is usually included. So there is no need to book a private transfer.
The bus journey takes usually around 4 hours along the highway. One advise – do not sit in the first or last row of the minibus. The front view towards the road is not for the faint hearted. On the way there is a stop at one of the tourists malls, full of tacky souvenirs, clean toilets and a place for drink and food.
The buses will all arrive at the harbour of Halong City, where the junks wait to depart for the trip. From here the trip back to Hanoi start as well. If you plan to take the plane the same day as the cruise finish, check with the agency, as the minibus could let you off at a junction of the highway, where a pre-arranged taxi could wait. This saves time getting in and out of Hanoi. A private transfer to the airport could be another option.
For other onward journeys, for example to Ninh Binh, it is worthwhile to check for buses departing Halong City to Ninh Binh – saves a detour via Hanoi as well.
For Cat Ba island head to Hai Phong by bus or train from Hanoi. You could also fly directly from HCMC, Phu Quoc, Nha Trang, Dalat and Danang to Hai Phong.
Thanks to the popularity of Halong Bay there are choices between hundred of different junks (cruise ships), covering the whole range of budgets. You can get cheap trips on a low class boat, up to a luxurious 5* boat. However, unlike anywhere else in Vietnam the saying you get what you pay for applies for Halong Bay. The cheapest boats are often not maintained well enough, and there is no focus on security. And unfortunately fire on board or even junks sinking is not that unusual there. After another fire in 2016 there are now rumours that overnight trips will be banned for security reason – though it could have something to do with all the hotels that are currently built in Halong City. So now there is still time to explore the bay via overnight stays.
Most cruises will stay overnight near Cong Do area – so do not be surprised to see so many boats there during the night. However, while you might hear the noise from some boats, you will still be able to enjoy the view from there.
In addition of the comfort of the boat it is also important to check the itineraries – especially for 3 day cruises as they can vary a lot. Some will offer activities like kayaking, rock climbing, other cruises have more relaxed itineraries on the beach or visiting caves. So it is worthwhile to have a look a round.
Food & Drinks
Food is included on most cruises. The first dish is lunch when arriving on the boat, and the last dish is lunch before heading back to Hanoi. The other dishes are breakfast and dinner. The quality of the food depends on the quality of the cruise. So do not expect top class food on a 1* cruise. But if you are on one of the better boats you could be in for a treat. The food during my cruise was just great – especially dinner. A variety of fish, sea food, salad, spring rolls and meat were served – and nicely presented.
Drinks are not included, and they will be more expensive than when in town. It might be more expensive on some boats – so if you are worried, ask. Some boats might offer free water and free juice. Otherwise you can get beer, soft drink, wine and cocktails. You usually pay the drinks at the end of the cruise. However, if you are on a day boat, you have to pay the crew at the end of the day.
From time to time you will see little boats approaching the junks – you can buy drinks from them as well.
What to do
Halong Bay has some sites on offer, and several activities. It all depends on the itinerary. Some places are visited by nearly every single cruises, others are not, So check the itinerary before booking.
One of the most popular activities at Halong Bay is probably sitting back and enjoy the beauty of this place, passing hundreds of little limestone islands. Usually the journey from the harbour to the main site is a great chance to get a seat on the top deck with a drink, and let the view sink in. The same applies at the end of the night when the sun sets over the island. This is one peaceful place to relax and enjoying something special. A great way to experience Halong Bay.
In addition of the beautiful islands Halong Bays also offers some very interesting sites.
The most famous and probably the most visited site is the Sung Sot cave – aka the Surprise Cave. The large cave with the high ceiling and the view you get from the top of the island is reason enough to visit the cave. Here are more details about the cave.
A much less visited cave is the Ho Dong Tien Cave (Fairy Lake cave). The cave itself is not as well set up as the Surprise cave and if you are afraid of tight spaces it might be not the best place to visit – otherwise it is an interesting place. For more details click here.
Another place more popular for 3 day trips is the Day & Night grotto. It is a series of little bays connected by tunnels going underneath the hills – and you explore it by kayaks. Here are more information about the grotto.
Most trips will also include a stop at one of the islands to relax on the beach, swimming or exploring the island. Soi Sim Beach is one of these places, having a nice beach and a nice viewing point. For more details click here.
Another popular place to visit is the Cua Van Floating Village. In this village a minority group of Vietnam live here in houses floating in a protected area of the bay. Here are more details of the fishing village.
One of the more touristy stops is a pearl farm, providing the chance to see how pearls are farmed and how they are extracted. There is also the chance to buy original pearls. So if you are interested bring your wallet with you. Here are more information.
Other activities cruises can offer are kayaking trips, rock climbing, visiting other caves or more time to relax on the beach. if any of this interest you, check out itineraries to find the right cruise for you.
In addition you might be offered joining a little cooking class to prepare spring rolls, or doing Thai exercise early morning. So you can be as active or as lazy as you want during a Halong bay Trip.
So overall a trip to Halong Bay with a cruise is a great way to explore this natural wonder of the world. And with so many things to see and do, I would highly recommend to consider a 3 day cruise if your time permits it, as it enables you to see more of the bay and not just the sites that most cruises will cover in one day.
If you are not a fan of cruises, then Cat Ba island might be the better option. Either way – a visit to the area should be on any itinerary for a visit to Northern Vietnam.
For my personal experience visit my blog entry for Halong Bay.