A world heritage site, Halong Bay (meaning ‘descending dragon’ in Vietnamese) is a highlight of northern Vietnam. With over 1,500 limestone islands and islets, lush scenery and emerald waters, it’s a must-see. Most visitors take an overnight cruise of Ha Long Bay (referred to as the ‘2 days, 1 night’ option) to fully enjoy the scenery, getting to experience a beautiful sunrise and sunset if you’re lucky! There are also day trip options but I really think it’s worth experiencing the area for a bit longer!How to pick the perfect cruise
Picking a cruise is no easy task – there are literally hundreds of options to choose from, catering to all budgets so it’s really important to do your research and nail down what you want out of your Halong Bay experience e.g. do you want a relaxing experience or an action packed one? Do you want a more social experience on a big boat with lots of people or an intimate one with only a few cabins?Consider what activities you want to do – kayaking, swimming, Tai Chi, cooking classes, Squid fishing – these are all usually on offer on good cruises but not always free so check the small print before booking. If your aim is to just sunbath on the sun deck and have a swim now and again then you may not care about the additional charges for some activities. You’ll also want to make sure that all food is included and that it’s suitable for your diet.Another thing to consider is where your cruise actually goes. Halong Bay consists of three different bays: Ha Long, Bai Tu Long and La Han Bay. Ha Long Bay is closest to shore and is therefore the busiest, with boats in literally all directions. The sad reality is that although Halong Bay is beautiful, it won’t be long before you spot plastic and general trash in the waters. This is heartbreaking and really brings home the reality of mass tourism. If you want to avoid this, you should aim to pick cruises that go to less frequented areas and which drop anchor with just a few boats in sight.Finally you’ll need to decide on the duration of the Cruise. In addition to the 2 days, 1 night option, you can also extend your stay by an extra day (3 days, 2 nights) which I would actually recommend if you have the time to spare. Your trip will feel a lot less rushed and you’ll be able to enjoy the scenery at a slower pace.
Our cruise was on the Azalea – this ticked all the boxes for me. Not only were the staff friendly and professional, all activities were included in the price (including an excursion to Trung Trang cave on Cat Ba Island), the food was exceptional and the cabins were spacious and beautiful with a private balcony. There was also a spa onboard (extra surcharge) if you wanted a massage or anything. I would highly recommend this company, especially if you’re a little bit older (late 20s/early 30s) and you’re looking for a more relaxed experience rather than a party boat. Another bonus of Azalea was that it went to La Han Bay so we got to experience a slightly less busy area (although I must say, it was still pretty busy when we docked for the night!). I also considered Pelican, Indochina Sails and Bhaya so do check them out too.How to get there
The best way to get to Halong City is by car, minibus or bus from Hanoi (Click here for my guide to Hanoi) which is about 170km away. If you want to really splash out, an hour-long helicopter transfer is also available. If you’re going to a different part of the bay, you may need to go to a different port as was the case with Azalea. Be sure to check whether your transfers (usually from Hanoi) are included as part of your booking. This was the only downside of Azalea who charged extra for transfers although the transfers themselves were very comfortable and luxurious!
Best time to visit
I believe the best time to visit is from March to May or September to November, when you can avoid the extreme heat. Vietnamese summers bring monsoons, and winter can be cloudy and cool which is how it was when I visited in February.
Have you been on a Halong Bay cruise? Let me know which one in the comments!