Twenty years ago, I visited Vietnam for the first time. So did my best friend. She went up north and I went to Ho Chi Minh City down south. When she came home with photos aboard a tiny, brightly-painted boat floating amidst some of the most amazing and unusual scenery I’d ever seen, I immediately added her destination to my to-see list. It might have taken two decades to accomplish, but when planning began for our trip to Vietnam last October, the first thing I did was book us onto a very long-awaited Halong Bay cruise.
If epic landscapes and photography are your thing, you’re definitely going to want to put this place on your Vietnam itinerary, too!
Visiting Halong Bay in Vietnam
Located in the Quang Ninh province of northern Vietnam, Halong Bay (also known as Ha Long Bay) is a unique natural landscape made up of nearly 2,000 limestone karsts and islets. A popular destination for travelers in Vietnam, Halong Bay is a relatively easy four-hour drive from Hanoi.
For better or worse, tourism is quite a bit different these days than it was back in the 90’s when this area first landed on my radar. People no longer explore the bay in small fishing boats. Instead, the 5.5 million tourists who visit every year do so via cruise ships, often called junk boats, which ferry visitors around the bay on tours ranging from day trips to multiple-night cruises.
After having visited myself, I feel fairly confident in saying that a day trip to Halong Bay just isn’t going to cut it. You’re very likely going to want more time, and the best way to get it is to book an overnight cruise in Halong Bay instead. (Or two nights if you’ve got the time!)
More time isn’t the only benefit a 2-day/1-night cruise has to offer, though. There are several reasons to stay a little longer, and I’ve got ten of them for you right here. Be sure to scroll all the way to the end for tips on how to choose the best Halong Bay cruise, too!
Why You Should Book an Overnight Cruise in Halong Bay
The Scenery is Legendary
A maze of limestone islands rise out of the blue-green waters of Halong 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. It’s truly something to see.
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 here is epic regardless of the weather, and you’re going to want to enjoy it as long as you can.
Taking a Cruise is Relaxing
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.
If you’re visiting Halong Bay from Hanoi where kamikaze motorbikes and noise rule the city, you will especially appreciate this aspect of cruising in the bay.
Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
I might be the only one who still keeps track of these things, but 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 its popularity 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 Halong 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 region’s natural beauty, but also simply because less boats are traveling into these areas. It was in one of these less-frequented areas that we chose to take our Halong Bay cruise, and I don’t regret that decision one bit. If this matters to you, too, be sure to look for a tour that combines Halong Bay with Bai Tu Long Bay.
You’ll Get to Tour Floating Villages
Most of the overnight Halong Bay tours offer similar activities. Always high on the list is seeing one of the 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. Since there’s 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 the floating villages, 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 Halong Bay landscape from this perspective was pretty awesome, too.
Kayaking in Halong Bay is Unforgettable
Also included on nearly every overnight Halong Bay itinerary 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 Halong Bay. How cool is that?
Regardless of how many times you’ve kayaked before, kayaking amidst the outstanding scenery of Halong Bay will be an unforgettable experience. On our cruise, guided kayaking tours weren’t 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 absolute best.
Sunset in Halong Bay Will Take Your Breath Away
Back on the boat after a full day’s activities, we closed out the evening of our first day 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 spectacular 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 a magnificent display like this on a day trip!
Sunrises in Halong Bay Are Equally as Gorgeous
If you’re willing to wake up early on your cruise, you’ll also be treated to an equally as stunning sunrise. 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 ship had 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 our 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, for being a perpetual early-riser.
The Caves Are Cool and Offer Great Views over the Bay
There are countless caves scattered throughout Halong 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 the 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 cling both 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.
The Local Food Served is Delicious
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 served, plus the foods we created in our cooking class (pictured above) 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 cruise, 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 to the table. At all meals, there was more than enough food to go around and it was all incredible, even the fish which came to the table looking like it had just been fetched from the water, eyeballs still attached and all!
Sleeping on a Boat is a Fun Experience
We booked our overnight cruise on the Cristina Diamond ship, a beautiful 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, modern bathroom.
The seas are calm in Halong 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!
How to Choose the Best Halong Bay Cruise for You
There are a ridiculous number of companies offering cruises in Halong Bay. It can be overwhelming to sort through them all to find the perfect one, so let me help you break down your options…
First, how many nights do you want to spend in Halong 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 around from one place to another.
Choose the highest quality cruise you can comfortably afford. This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime sort of experiences 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 in a wide range of budgets, from $40 book-at-your-own-risk cruises to $500/night luxury cruises, but the majority of cruise options fall in the mid-range from $65-$150/night. This is the range our Cristina Diamond cruise was in, and it was worth every penny.
Consider a cruise that tours the less frequented areas of Halong Bay. Some tours provide the opportunity to see the most popular areas in addition to some of the quieter areas of the bay. The cruise we booked spent a significant amount of time in Bai Tu Long Bay as well as the less-traveled areas of Halong Bay. We experienced none of the overcrowding, pollution, trash, and noise that have ruined many other people’s trips.
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 might 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 accommodations. Alcohol and sodas are usually 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 villages, kayaking, beach time, caves), but they all do them in different areas of the bay. If this is important to you, make sure to book with a tour company that’s upfront about exactly where you’ll be going.
Book in Hanoi for the best prices. You’ll get the cheapest price if you book your cruise with one of the many travel agencies in Hanoi. This can be a time-consuming process, though, 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 we would have in Hanoi, but it also eased our minds 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.
For another unique overnight trip from Hanoi, check out scenic Mai Chau.
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