Twenty years ago I visited Vietnam for the first time. So did my best friend. I went to Ho Chi Minh City where I saw a chicken strangled on the street and was followed by a man, wearing only his underwear and dragging his polio-stricken legs behind him, begging for me to spare him some change. It was a lot for a 13-year-old to digest. My best friend came home with photos of herself aboard a tiny boat amidst some of the most amazing and unusual scenery I’d ever seen. I was jealous, to say the least. Today, I’m thankful I had the the opportunity to see the side of Ho Chi Minh I did, especially as it’s experienced some pretty radical changes since the 90’s, but I also never forgot how much I wanted to see those landscapes I was so jealous of. And so when planning began for our trip to Vietnam last October, I knew exactly where I wanted to go – Ha Long Bay.
For better or worse, tourism in Ha Long Bay is quite a bit different these days than it was back in the 90’s. People no longer explore the bay on small fishing boats. Instead, the majority of tourists who visit the bay today do so via large junk boats charged with ferrying visitors around the bay on tours ranging from day trips to multiple-night cruises. After having visited myself, I feel fairly confident in telling you that a day trip to Ha Long Bay is just not going to cut it. You’re going to want more time, and the easiest and cheapest way to get it is to book an overnight cruise. More time isn’t the only thing an overnight cruise in Ha Long Bay has to offer, though. There are loads of reasons why you won’t want to skip staying overnight in the bay and I’ve got 10 of the best for you right here! Don’t forget to scroll all the way to the bottom for tips on booking your Ha Long Bay cruise, too!
The Scenery Is Epic
Let’s just start with the obvious, shall we? A maze of limestone islands rise out of the blue-green waters of Ha Long Bay like hundreds of hulking, foliage-dressed sea creatures, their heavy bulk casting unusually-shaped shadows onto the gently moving water at mid-day and blending into an endless stretch of dark mountains at night. The weather dictates the mood of the bay on any given day. A sunny day with blue skies lends a far more cheerful tone to the landscape than does the ominous fog that descends on the bay in the winter months. Clouds or sun, mists or storms, the scenery of Ha Long Bay is epic regardless of the weather.
If you’re anything like us, traveling can often feel more like a test of endurance than a holiday. I often have to remind myself that it’s not only okay to relax a little on holiday, it’s generally recommended. And what’s more relaxing than resting on the sundeck of a boat as it passes through picturesque landscapes, the sun warming your skin as the sound of the boat cutting through the waves lulls you to sleep? Nothing. Nothing is more relaxing than that.
You Can Tick Another Site off Your UNESCO List
Am I the only one who keeps track of these things? Probably. But still, if UNESCO says something is significant enough to be worthy of preservation, then it’s probably worthy of your time as well. Sadly, just because something is considered worth protecting, doesn’t mean it will be. Due to the rise in popularity of Ha Long Bay as a tourist destination and the lack of measures taken to accommodate the rising number of boats and visitors in the bay, both the environment and water quality in Ha Long Bay have suffered. Some areas of the bay are in better shape than others, in part thanks to environmentally-conscious tour operators that work to maintain the natural beauty of the bay, but probably more so due to the fact that less boats travel into these areas. It was in one of these less-frequented areas that we chose to take our overnight cruise in Ha Long Bay, and I don’t regret that decision one bit.
There Are Entire Villages Floating in the Bay
Most of the overnight tours in Ha Long Bay offer similar activities. Always high on the list is seeing one of Ha Long Bay’s four floating villages via a ride on a bamboo boat guided by one of the village’s local women. Our tour took us through the Vung Vieng fishing village in Bai Tu Long Bay where the village’s inhabitants have been involved in the fishing and pearl farming trades for many generations. With no land nearby other than the precipitous limestone isles that appear to grow even taller in this part of the bay, all the houses and other structures in Vung Vieng must be built on large buoys to stay afloat and are tethered together for protection from the elements. Besides getting a glimpse of what life is like for those living in Ha Long Bay, my favorite part of this experience was how incredibly peaceful it was. The steady rhythm of oars gently parting the sea and birds calling to each other overhead were the only sounds we heard as we made our way through Vung Vieng. Getting to see the unique Ha Long Bay landscape from this perspective was pretty awesome, too.
The Kayaking Is Unforgettable
Also a part of nearly every cruise in Ha Long Bay is the chance to go kayaking and swimming in the bay. And here’s where I admit something sort of embarrassing – prior to our cruise, I had never been kayaking. Not even once. But in a way, I’m sort of thrilled I made it 32 years without ever touching a paddle because now I can say my first time kayaking was in Ha Long Bay. How unforgettable is that? Regardless of how many times you’ve kayaked before, kayaking amidst the outstanding scenery of Ha Long Bay will likely be an unforgettable experience still. On our cruise, guided kayaking tours were not available, but we were given all the equipment needed and pointed in the direction of the prettiest scenery before being sent on our way. The waters were calm and hardly any boats passed by where we were kayaking off of Ban Chan Beach. Sun rays sparkled over clear water as the sun began its descent. It was like paradise, nature at its very best.
The Sunsets Will Take Your Breath Away
Back on the boat after a full day’s activities, we closed out the evening of our first day in Ha Long Bay with a sunset happy hour. There had hardly been any clouds in the sky all day, so we were prepped and ready for a spectacular sunset, and that is exactly what we got. The changing colors of the sky, the perfectly round, bright orange sun dipping behind the darkening islands – you don’t get to witness this magnificent display on a day trip!
The Sunrises Are Equally as Gorgeous
And a few hours later, if you’re willing to wake up early enough, you’ll be treated to an equally as spectacular sunrise. It’s just my opinion, but watching the sky lighten and the sun’s rays begin to peek over the islands in the bay is a one-of-a-kind experience you won’t want to miss. Our boat was anchored in the Cong Dong-Cong Do area overnight. A few other boats were anchored nearby, but the quiet and stillness of the early morning made it feel like I was completely alone in the bay. And I sort of was. At least on the deck of our boat, anyway. A few other guests on the boat joined me just as the sun came up over the side of the mountains, but I otherwise had the boat to myself that morning and it made me grateful, maybe for the first time ever, that I’m a perpetual early-riser.
The Caves Are Cool & Have Great Views over the Bay
There are many caves scattered throughout Ha Long Bay, but only a few are accessible to tourists. As they have to exist entirely within the confines of the limestone islands they are found on, none of Ha Long Bay’s caves are particularly large, but some of them are quite beautiful, including Thien Canh Son cave, the cave we visited in Bai Tu Long Bay. Getting to the cave required a pretty steep hike up the side of the island, but the view from the top made it more than worth it! Thien Canh Son cave is made up of two “rooms” connected by a small passageway. Limestone karsts both cling to the roof of the cave and grow from its floor like subterranean trees. Relative to its location, Thien Canh Son cave is surprisingly large, but it only took another boat of people arriving for it to suddenly feel much smaller! Given the small amount of caves cruises can take visitors to, they can sometimes get very busy, but if you’re lucky, your boat will be the first one there!
You Can Stuff Yourself with Fresh & Delicious Local Foods
It deserves mentioning here that the quality of the food on your cruise will depend entirely on the quality of the cruise you book, aka the more money you’re willing to spend, the better your food will be, so book wisely! We booked a decently priced, mid-range cruise and all four meals we were served, plus the foods we created in our cooking classes were outstanding! I ate every meal like I wasn’t ever going to eat again, which is exactly what you’re supposed to do on a cruise, right? On our boat, lunch on our first day and breakfast in the morning were served buffet-style, but both dinner our first night and lunch on our second day were multiple-course affairs served more formally at the table. At all meals there was more than enough food to go around and it was all delicious, even the no-name fish (I think that’s actually what they call it) which came to the table looking like it had just been fetched from the water, eyeballs still attached and all!
It’s Not Every Day You Get to Sleep on a Boat
Unless you live on a boat, I guess… We booked our overnight cruise on the Cristina Diamond, a beautiful, new(ish) junk boat with only 16 cabins. Our room, a triple bedroom with a private balcony, was at the front of the ship. I had booked our cruise without seeing any pictures of the room we’d be staying in, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover it was bright and airy, plenty large enough for three people, and had a small, but modern bathroom. The seas are calm in Ha Long Bay, so there was no seasickness to be worried about. Even when we were moving through the bay, I hardly ever felt any rocking, but certainly none while we were anchored overnight. There is definitely something to be said for being able to explore a new location from the same place you sleep and eat your meals. I’ve never been an ocean cruise sort of girl, but I’m all for this kind of overnight cruise!
Tips for Choosing an Overnight Cruise in Ha Long Bay
There are a ridiculous number of companies offering overnight cruises in Ha Long Bay. It can be overwhelming to sort through them all to find the perfect one for you. Let me help you break down your options…
First, how many nights do you want to spend in Ha Long Bay? Most tour companies offer both 2D/1N cruises and 3D/2N cruises. If you have limited time in Vietnam, I recommend the 2D/1N option. If you have more time, the 3D/2N option will allow you to spend your first two days participating in activities and then you can relax on the boat on your third day instead of jetting from one place to another.
Choose the highest quality cruise you can comfortably afford. Ha Long Bay is one of those once-in-a-lifetime sort of experiences that you won’t want to have ruined by low-quality sleeping conditions and dodgy food, so consider this something worth splurging on. Most tour companies offer cruises for a wide range of budgets, from $40 book-at-your-own-risk cruises to $500/night luxury cruises, but the majority of your options will fall in the mid-range from $65-$150/night. We spent $95/per person per night on the Cristina Diamond and it was worth every penny.
Consider a cruise that tours the less frequented areas of Ha Long Bay. Your experience will be so much better if you do. Our cruise stayed almost exclusively in Bai Tu Long Bay. We experienced none of the overcrowding, pollution, trash, and noise that have ruined so many other people’s experience in the bay.
Make sure the boat’s size is right for you. Smaller boats offer a more personal experience, plus they’re typically quieter. Boats with more rooms are often a little cheaper, but you’ll feel a bit like cattle being herded through the activities.
Check if your cruise is all-inclusive before booking. Most mid-range cruises include transfer to and from Hanoi, all activities and meals on the boat, plus your accommodations. Alcohol and sodas are separate. Before you book, check to make sure this is your cruise’s policy so there aren’t any surprises after you’re on board!
Double check your cruise itinerary. If there’s a particular activity or spot you hope to see in the bay, verify it’s included on your itinerary before booking. Most cruises offer the same general activities (floating village, kayaking, beach time, caves), but they all do them in different areas of the bay and most don’t specify exactly where at the time of booking. That’s one of the reasons we went with Cristina Diamond – they were very upfront about exactly where we’d be kayaking, which floating village we’d be seeing, etc. This was very important to me, since some caves have a better reputation than others, some beaches are cleaner, some villages are more touristy, etc.
Book in Hanoi for the best prices. You’ll get the cheapest price if you book with one of the many travel agencies in Hanoi. This can be a time-consuming process with lots of haggling and visiting multiple agencies to find the best rate, so if you’re short on time or patience, booking online is your best bet. We booked online and might have paid a bit more than what we would have in Hanoi, but it also eased my mind knowing we already had that part of our trip taken care of before we left.
Where should you book your cruise? If you’re interested in booking the same cruise we took, you can check current rates and availability for the Cristina Diamond Cruise here. If you prefer to book in Hanoi, both Sinh Cafe Travel and Saigon Cafe Travel are reputable companies to work with. We personally booked tours with both and had no problems.
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