It is safe to say that everybody that visits Vietnam, visits Halong Bay. Considering hundreds of boats sail out daily, carrying thousands of tourists.. one would think that this place gets too crowded to enjoy. I certainly feared so. But I am happy (and a bit relieved) to tell you this is not the case! Yes you will see many boats, and yes certain ‘sights’ can get quite crowded. But a little Vietnamese law prohibits all boats that aren’t ivory-white to sail these waters. This gives the already stunning boats, ships, barges and galleons that roam Halong Bay a very uniform and calm look. Instead of being a hindrance they add a sense of perspective to the rocks and the wide waters in between. Making it hard not to love this utterly idyllic place.
– Organised cruise or going independent? –
Cruises or going independent
Visiting the bay can be done in two ways. You either book a cruise, or you venture out on your own. Going out into the bay on your own means you can plan the pace and length of the visit. Going organised means you will see and experience a lot in a small amount of time. It also means that you will be shipped from destination to destination, doing activity after activity with your tour-group.. This can make you feel like a typical mass-tourist instead of the authentic savvy backpacker you feel you are. Something some people try to avoid at any cost.
Most times, I try to venture out on my own, but this is one of those destinations that I feel is best visited on a tour. Permit yourself to spend a little more money here. Take a ‘holiday from backpacking’ if you are on an extended trip. You will be rewarded by having a few stress-free days soaking up the sights without worrying about your bed for the night or whether the ferry really departs according to the schedule you found online on some semi-official looking website that hasn’t seen any updates since 2009.
The vast majority of people visits Halong Bay in one of the following four ways.
Exploring the bay independently from Cat Ba island
First you book a bus + ferry combo from Hanoi or Halong City to Cat Ba island. You spend a few days here partying and exploring the island and the bay and then move on. Cat Ba island has lush jungle, aquamarine blue waters, steep cliffs and is the perfect outpost to venture out into the bay.
But I do not recommend this option if your stressed on time. While the island has beaches this is not a bounty island with white sands and palm trees. While the jungle’s accessibly makes for good day-trekking, Vietnam’s mainland has national parks that offer unworldly multiple-day trekkings. Think ancient forests with massive caves. Trumping the experience you will have trekking on Cat ba. The partying on Cat Ba is fine but again, this is by far not the best party-place South-East Asia has to offer.
Day trip from Hanoi or Ninh Binh
While some people opt for this option, mainly because of time-constrains, I cannot recommend it. The drive from Hanoi to Halong City, where you embark to venture out into the bay, takes a few hours. Add to the time spend transferring onto your boat, heading out into the bay and returning the same day and you will find yourself on a bus or in transit for most of the day and out on the water enjoying the sights for only a brief moment. This will only lead to disappointment.
If you adamant on doing so, go to the Bai Chay Tourist Warf, and just book on the spot. There will be many boats departing at any moment so your in a good position to haggle.
2 day 1 night cruise
This is the option I would go for. There are many options ranging from booze-cruises to luxury-cruises. Prices go from two to twenty million Dong (and probably even more than this!). You will have a busy schedule doing activities and visiting sights but also time to enjoy the incredible views from the ship’s deck and the huge multiple-course fresh seafood-meals that are included in the cruise.
On my visit I went with Rosa Cruise. This company entered the business in 2016 and has brand new barges it operates. You head out with a small group of maximum 20 people which in my case was a mixed bunch of people who wanted to socialize and people who preferred a quieter cruise. It is certainly excellent value for money and I can wholeheartedly recommend booking with Rosa Cruise.
To book or not to book
For most activities, the closer you book it to the source, the cheaper it gets. So booking ahead from home. is generally not a good idea. Unless you just really like to overpay two or even three times. I have been on many trips with people that paid twice what I paid and were on the exact same program. If you really want to book with a specific company. Or if you need to book ahead to get ease of mind, book using a trusted online agency. Think booking.com or Agoda.com.
Booking in Halong City itself is not recommended, as this place is notorious for scammers. Since you already spend hours travelling going to Halong City, the operators will know you really intend to book something quickly. This puts you at a disadvantage while haggling for a better deal. It is best to book this trip from Hanoi the day (or 2 days) before you intend to go on the cruise.
Before booking, do your research! You-get-what-you-pay-for certainly does NOT apply here
3 day 2 night cruise
Do not go for this option. I have spoken to several people that went for this option and all were disappointed. Some even felt cheated. I have heard multiple horror-stories about it too.
Basically with a 3 day 2 night cruise you are offered a more relaxed cruise. The promise is to venture ‘deeper into the bay’ and to have more time for all activities at an easier pace. The problem is that this is simply not what you will get. If you are lucky they will just put you on a 2D/1N cruise. Then on the second day when the rest of the group heads back, you are transported to a smaller boat to go snorkeling in a nearby bay for the whole day. After this day you return to the ship, that now hosts a new group and return with that group to where you were picked up.
If you are less lucky they will transfer you to a smaller, shittier boat where you will spend the second night. Again the whole day will be filled with snorkeling or relaxing on the boat. While the day itself can be relaxing and quite okay, it simply is not what is promised. Also it does not offer a better experience altogether.
– What to do and see –
Even though the cruises differ in luxury-standard, the program of all tours is quite comparable. Early in the morning you get picked up from your Hanoi hotel and head out to Halong City. You get on the ship and sail out.
First is a visit to an oyster farm, interesting but the staff can be quite pushy when it comes to buying the pearls. Also included is visiting a cave, probably too crowded and really ‘planned’ with colored lights and well-maintained pathways everywhere. You go kayaking, not a tour but just around the ship and a little into the bay. Get a cooking class, which is more like a spring roll rolling demonstration. In the evening you go squid-fishing. Which means standing around the captain or guide that tries to catch a squid using a tiny line and a flash-light after dark. There is morning Tai-Chi tutored by either the guide or the captain.
There is lots of tasty freshly caught seafood for lunch and dinner and a lot of free time to sit on the deck with an ice-cold beer or cocktail watching the beautiful sights of the bay.
Basically with all activities and sights you should not expect complete and fulfilling experiences but nice little excursions to complement the main reason why you visit this place: to soak up the incredible sights and to be constantly amazed with yourself that you really cannot stop appreciating the immense beauty of it all. It is up to you whether you want to do this in absolute luxury, in absolute tranquility and quietness or while being absolutely hammered on a booze-cruise.
– Practical information –
The weather-pattern is quite similar to Hanoi, located only about a 180 kilometers away. For sunny days without too much heat go from November to end February. Avoid the stormy months of July, August and September.
|Daily Budget||EUR 30 (35 USD)|
|Street food||EUR 2 ( 3 USD)|
|Meal in a restaurant||EUR 5 (6 USD)|
|Dorm||EUR 5 ( 6 USD)|
|Double in a 3-star hotel||EUR 20-50 (25-60 USD)|
In & out
You can fly into HaiPhong (Cat Bi airport), which is only 80 kilometers from Halong City. But if you are coming from Da Nang or HCMC, it is easier to just fly into Hanoi. Fly on Noi Bae airport, for more information see my article on Hanoi. From there take the bus into Halong City. If you booked a cruise you will probably be picked up from your hotel in Hanoi. There are also busses coming from Ninh Binh.
– Things to take to Vietnam –
A waterproof bag is a lifesaver when caught in the rain but also when kayaking, jungle-trekking or chasing waterfalls. If nothing else it gives you piece of mind when traveling with camera gear or other stuff that just can’t get wet. Get a 5L or 10L version so you can pack it within your daypack. I recommend this one from Mountain Splash. It’s durable and tough, transparent and it has got an easy handgrip.
Yes I view anti-bacterial hand sanitizer as essential. Not because I am germophobic but because this will save you from diarrhea and food poisoning. Most people that get sick from eating street food in South-east Asia don’t get sick from the shitty hygiene at the street food stall but because they didn’t probably wash their hands. Use hand sanitizer, stay a happy traveler. This set got handy Carabiners to latch it on you any pack.
3MM climbing rope
Even if your not going to do any climbing or trekking, you need a 3MM climbing rope. Most often you will only use this as a washing line. Or to tie stuff to the outside of your backpack. I for one have never needed to use my rope for anything else than that. However 3MM climbing rope takes up as much space as any washing line. It is nice to know it can also take the full weight of any person when needed.
Because its just the best compact travel guide out there. I always take a lonely planet with me for its practical information and background on certain sights. It is a lifesaver for when you find yourself unexpectedly off the beaten path in search of accommodation for the night. For me this is still the best way to read up on a destinations in long haul bus rides. You don’t need internet or battery-life and you can keep it dry in your recently purchased waterproof bag!