Is a Halong Bay Cruise Worth It? A Complete Halong Bay Cruise Guide
Is Halong Bay worth visiting or is it a tourist trap? This detailed review will show you all you need to know about taking a Halong Bay Cruise and if it’s worth the money.
One of the most popular ways to see Halong Bay is to do a Halong Bay cruise. These cruises range from 5 hours to 4 days and costs between $100 – $1000 a night. So this probably makes you wonder “Is a Halong Bay Cruise worth it“?
This complete Halong Bay cruise guide will show you information about Halong Bay, the types of boat you can take and how much they cost, what you see and do when you take a cruise, and my own experiences taking not one, but two Halong Bay cruises.
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Is Halong Bay Worth It?
Halong Bay is beautiful and is worth seeing at least once in your lifetime. Halong Bay cruises are the most popular way to see Halong Bay, but it is not for everyone. There are different ways of seeing Halong Bay without a Halong Bay Cruise.
Before booking a Halong Bay cruise, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you have the budget or time?
- Do you like organized tours and having a set time on activities or do you prefer doing things at your own pace?
- Do you like a relaxing cruise or do you prefer doing something all the time?
- Is the weather good?
To evaluate whether a Halong Bay cruise is worth it or not, let’s first talk more about Halong Bay, the types and costs of a Halong Bay Cruise, alternatives to Halong Bay and my personal experience. Then you will be able to answer your own question whether a Halong Bay cruise is worth it.
What is Halong Bay?
Halong Bay, located in Northern Vietnam, is a natural wonder and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is renowned for its stunning limestone karsts and emerald green water.
Comprising more than 1,900 islets, Halong Bay stretches over an area of approximately 1,500 square kilometers (600 square miles).
The islands are made of limestone, and over millions of years, the elements have sculpted them into unique formations that rise dramatically from the water. These towering karsts, some reaching heights of over 100 meters (330 feet), create a breathtaking scene.
Besides towering karsts, Halong Bay has hidden caves and grottoes, which are formed through the erosive forces of wind and water. You can explore these caves and grottoes with tours and excursions.
In addition, there are a number of islands on Halong Bay that you can visit. Activities such as hiking and beach can be enjoyed from these islands.
Lastly there are a number of fishing villages in Halong Bay. These communities, built on stilts, provide you a glimpse into the traditional way of life.
Where is Halong Bay? How do I get to Halong Bay?
Halong Bay is located in Northern Vietnam in the Quang Ninh province. It is about 170 kilometers (105 miles) east of Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam.
The closest city to Halong Bay is Ha Long City, which is about 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) from Halong Bay.
By car it takes about 2.5-3 hours from Hanoi to Halong Bay on the new motorway, and many visitors take a luxury van to reach Halong Bay. When you take these luxury vans they always stop at a gift shop type of place where you can buy souvenirs, food or just use the bathrooms.
Not a fan of buses? You can actually take a train from Hanoi to Halong City, but it takes over 6 hours so it’s not the most efficient way. The train also does not go directly to Halong Bay (it goes to Halong City), so you will need additional transportations arranged if you try to go to the cruise port.
If you are extra fancy, then you can even book a seaplane from Hanoi to Halong Bay. It is the fastest way to get to since it takes 45 minutes and you will get a bird’s eye view of Halong Bay that most people cannot get.
If you do decide to take a Halong Bay cruise, transportation in a luxury van is generally included (or can be added if you pay $25-$30 extra per person).
What types of Halong Bay Cruises are there?
There are many different types of Halong Bay cruises and you can also choose the length of stay.
The two main types of Halong Bay Cruises are “junk” boats and modern cruise yachts.
Junk boats are traditional wooden vessels that have been modified and transformed into floating accommodations for tourists, while still retaining their traditional charm. The term “junk” refers to the type of sail-rigged ship commonly used in China and Southeast Asia.
The junk boats of Halong Bay are characterized by their unique design, featuring a wooden hull, distinctive sails, and a curved bow that rises gracefully from the water. These boats often feature comfortable cabins, dining areas, and outdoor decks.
Luxury Modern Halong Bay Cruises
In recent years more modern “yachts” started sailing on Halong Bay. These fancy modern boats are usually luxury cruises that provide the ultimate luxury onboard.
These boats generally feature large rooms with private balconies, swimming pool or hot tub on deck, multi-story space, and floor to ceiling windows.
Day Tour vs. Multi-day Halong Bay Cruises
There are generally 3-4 different options in terms of length when it comes to Halong Bay cruises.
Halong Bay Day Tours
Day cruises are cruises that take half a day to tour Halong Bay (the other half of the day is traveling back and forth from Hanoi).
They generally depart from Hanoi around 8 and board the actual boat around 11:30am -12pm. Then from 12 to 5:30 you will be cruising around Halong Bay, visiting a cave and do some kayaking before heading back to shore. Afterwards you can be expected to be transferred back to Hanoi and arrive around 7:30 or 8pm.
As you can imagine, you only see very little of Halong Bay since the boats cannot go super far if they need to come back the same day.
The day tours are short but you do get to see a little bit of Halong Bay if you are short on time or money.
Multi-day Halong Bay Cruises
Most of the Halong Bay cruises on the market are multi-day cruises, often including 2 day 1 night, 3 day 2 nights or occasionally 4 day 3 night cruises.
The 2 day 1 night cruise option is generally the most popular as you get to see a good amount of Halong Bay, do 2-3 activities, have multiple meals taken care of and sleep on the boat in full tranquility.
If you want to do a more in-depth tour of Halong Bay, you can choose to stay for 3 days or even 4 days. But keep in mind that some of the 3 day or 4 day cruises actually dock at Cat Ba Island (the largest island in Halong Bay) and you can spend a night on the island at a hotel.
In general, on the first day of the cruise, you will be picked up from Hanoi Old Quarter to the cruise port, board the cruise around 11:30am – 12pm and immediately followed by lunch and one or two afternoon activities.
In the late afternoon you will have happy hour onboard, followed by dinner and shrimp/ squid fishing in the evening.
If you have a 2 day Halong Bay cruise, the next morning you will have some early morning activities such as Tai Chi, Cooking Class demonstration, kayaking or cave exploration, followed by brunch and checking out.
If you have a 3 day Halong Bay cruise then on your second day you will have a full day exploring Cat Ba Island (especially Viet Hai Village) then on the 3rd day it would be similar to the last day of the 2 Day cruise.
On the 4 day Halong Bay cruises you can expect to see a little more than the 3 day cruise but most of the itinerary is similar.
Cost of Halong Bay Cruises
Depending on the length of your Halong Bay Cruise, you can expect to pay vastly different prices for different boats.
Day Tour Halong Bay Cruise Cost
In general there isn’t a HUGE price difference for the day tour to Halong Bay. You can expect to pay between $50 – $100 for a day Halong Bay day tour.
2 Day 1 Night Cruise Cost
Budget Halong Bay cruises usually cost between $130 – $200 a room and these ships do not have private balconies or a swim pool on deck. The accommodation is relatively simple but sufficient and meals are included as well as activities.
Luxury Halong Bay Cruises usually cost between $300 – $1000+ a room, depending on the season and room type. Many luxury cruises either have fewer rooms or a larger ship since individual rooms are huge with private balconies. Food and activities are included.
3 Day 2 Nights Cruise Cost
3 day 2 Night Halong Bay cruises can cost anywhere between $350 a room to $1000+ a room. Again you can expect better amenities and larger rooms onboard the 5 star luxury ships.
Keep in mind that some cruise companies will charge an extra $25-30 a person for round trip transportation between Hanoi and Halong Bay and alcohol is never included in the price you pay. Most ships have a “buy one get one free” Happy Hour onboard the first day in the afternoon.
You can book a Halong Bay Cruise directly from the websites above (or go to a specific cruise line’s website), a travel agency, or simply ask your hotel to help you book. You should definitely give your budget criteria and any other requirements to your hotel so they can help you pick the right cruise for you.
If you order drinks any time on the boat even, during meals, you should expect to pay for those drinks.
What is on a Halong Bay Cruise?
Depending on the Halong Bay Cruise, there are different amenities on board.
At a very minimum, you will find a deck (with chairs), dining room, bar, your room where you will sleep in (with windows), private bathroom, and a main lounge area with TV and couches.
The 5 star luxury Halong Bay Cruises are often equipped with private balconies (with chair and table), large room and bathroom with floor to ceiling windows, Instagram worthy bathtub, pool on deck, chairs (and lounge chairs) on the deck, lounge area with TV, couch and bar.
You should not expect to find body wash, toothbrush, toothpaste or shampoo/ lotion on any of the Halong Bay Cruises so you should definitely bring your own.
Is there Internet on a Halong Bay Cruise?
Internet is sparse when you are in Halong Bay. Some cruises do offer wifi but they are generally quite slow and unstable.
Usually when the cruises dock at night, the area they dock in do have internet. When I was there I found that my Vietnamese sim cards were faster than the wifi onboard.
If you are traveling to Halong Bay, you should expect to not have internet most of the time.
What do you do on a Halong Bay Cruise?
Most Halong Bay cruises follow a pretty strict schedule and you can generally find the schedule on the cruise company’s website or on the third-party booking sites’ websites.
Keep in mind that different Halong Bay cruises do offer different combinations of activities and different routes and in general you do 2-3 activities a day. In general you can expect the following excursions on a Halong Bay Cruise:
- Kayaking (guided or non-guided)
- Cave exploration (guided)
- Hiking on Ti Top Island (30 minutes)
- Visiting floating markets or fishing village
- Biking (on Cat Ba Island – usually only for 3D2N cruises)
While onboard a Halong Bay Cruise, you can expect the following:
- Cooking class or demonstration
- Early morning Tai-chi
- Happy Hour (you pay for your own alcohol)
- Squid/ shrimp fishing
- DVDs with movies in the common areas
- All meals covered
- Watching sunset/ sunrise
- Enjoying the view of Halong Bay
- Pool (depending on the boat)
Do these sound like the type of activities you would enjoy?
Why Halong Bay is Worth It
Of course the top reason anyone wants to visit Halong Bay is for the view. It is very impressive and calming to sail between the towering karsts on the emerald colored water.
Most people go to Halong Bay for the view and taking a cruise is the best way to enjoy the view.
If you want to take a day or two to just kick back and relax, then you would probably enjoy a Halong Bay Cruise. There are a number of activities included with the cruise but you actually do not need to participate if you don’t want to. You really can just relax on board although I think some of the activities are pretty fun.
I have taken a Halong Bay cruise twice and both times I truly thought it was the most relaxing part of my Vietnam trip.
Do a range of different things
Halong Bay cruises allow you to do an array of different activities from kayaking to hiking to cave exploration. How often do you get a chance to set foot on an island in Halong Bay or kayak in Halong Bay?
Everything is taken care of
If you are the type that likes to have everything arranged for you then you would love a Halong Bay cruise. I mean you can even just ask the hotel to book the cruise for you. All you need to do is to wait for the luxury van to pick you up and everything is taken care of for you.
With Halong Bay cruises, you don’t have to worry about what to eat or drink or having to figure out arrange fun activities.
Why a Halong Bay Cruise is not worth it?
Halong Bay Cruises can be expensive
Even with $100-150 USD a room, this costs more than most budget accommodation and activities in Vietnam. If you book a 5 star Halong Bay cruise, the price of 1-2 night cruise can cost more than an entire week of hotels in Vietnam combined!
If you are tight on budget then a Halong Bay cruise may not be right for you.
Halong Bay is crowded
When you cruise on Halong Bay, you are actually there with at least 20 other boats in sight. Yep, you are never truly alone on Halong Bay.
With its popularity comes overcrowding. You can expect to see many other tourists both on your boat and on any islands you visit.
In recent years many luxury cruises started going to Lan Ha Bay instead of Halong Bay. The view is similar and you probably won’t really be able to tell the difference. This helps a little with being more “secluded” but you will still see a lot of other boats.
Halong Bay is not super clean
With over tourism comes other problems, such as trash being thrown into the bay.
When I was kayaking in Halong Bay, I could not believe how many plastic bottles and wrappers that were in the water. Many locals and tourists just don’t care about protecting this beautiful environment and I don’t know if the government has an effort to clean up Halong Bay.
I felt pretty sad seeing the trash in the bay since Halong Bay is truly beautiful and does not deserve to have trash in it.
Weather plays a big role
Since Halong Bay is a natural wonder, weather plays a big role and pretty much determines your entire experience.
The first time I went to Halong Bay, it was rainy and foggy and I could barely see anything; it was definitely not what you see in postcards and on social media.
The second time I went to Halong Bay it was sunny but smoggy; the sun was red and the air was hazy. Again, not the type of scenery you expect when you book a Halong Bay cruise.
I can tell you the best time to visit Halong Bay is between March and May and September to November when humidity is low and it is less likely to storm. But you could still get unlucky and get bad weather on the days you visit Halong Bay.
If the weather is terrible, I would not recommend visiting Halong Bay because you cannot enjoy it.
Food is a hit or miss
In my opinion, food on Halong Bay cruises is never as good as the best restaurants in Hanoi or any cities in Vietnam.
You can expect Vietnamese food (hotel buffet level) or a western-fusion type of food onboard Halong Bay Cruise. I don’t know about you but when I went to visit Vietnam I just wanted Vietnamese food, and not so much western-fusion food that I can find better ones in New York City.
Alternative Ways to See Halong Bay Without a Cruise
There are two other bays that are adjacent to Halong Bay that are slightly more quiet. But cruise companies are now taking more and more tourists to Lan Ha Bay and Bai Tu Long bay.
In recent years more and more of the 5 star luxury Halong Bay cruises started going to the Lan Ha Bay route. The biggest difference between Halong Bay and the other two bays is that Halong Bay has a higher concentration of towering karsts than the other two bays.
But to be honest, unless you know Halong Bay or have been there numerous times, you probably won’t be able to tell the difference. All 3 bays are beautiful and you will still see other tourists around.
So I’m not going to focus so much on talking about which bay is better but rather what are alternative ways to see Halong Bay/ Lan Ha Bay besides taking cruises.
Cat Ba Island
Cat Ba Island is the largest island in Halong Bay. It is known for its natural beauty, local communities, and a protected ecosystem.
A large portion of Cat Ba island is Cat Ba National Park, a designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. In the park you will find lush forests, limestone karsts, caves and diverse wildlife.
Many Halong Bay cruises take visitors to Cat Ba island from 2 hours to 1 entire day.
But you actually do not need to take a Halong Bay cruise to visit Cat Ba Island. In fact many visitors take a bus from Hanoi to Ha Phone City then catch a ferry or hydrofoil to Cat Ba Island.
From Cat Ba Island you can actually take boats out to Halong Bay for the day, making it a much cheaper cruise experience.
If you don’t want to take a boat at all, you can visit Cannon Fort, Trung Trang Cave, Hospital Cave, Viet Hai village to bike around or just relax on the beaches.
Quan Lan Island
Quan Lan Island is not on most visitors’ radar so if you are looking for a very quiet island to visit in Halong Bay, this would be your best bet.
Located in Bai Tu Long Bay, Quan Lan Island is known for its pristine white sand beach, crystal clear water and greenery. It is the perfect hidden gem for beach lovers.
Aside from beaches, you will find small fishing villages and sample delicious seafood on Quan Lan Island.
The island is quite small but if you enjoy the beach you can stay overnight and explore more.
To get to Quan Lan island you will need to take a 4 hour bus journey from Hanoi to Van Don. Once you reach Van Don you will need to take a taxi or local transportation to Cai Rong Port, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) away. Then from Cai Rong Port you need a ferry to Quan Lan Island.
Soi Sim Island
Another hidden gem in Halong Bay is Soi Sim Island, a small island east of Cat Ba Island. It is also part of the Bai Tu Long Bay area and is known for its beach and nature.
One of the most popular activities on Soi Sim Island is to hike to a view point at the top of Soi Sim Land for a stunning panoramic view of the karst landscape of Bai Tu Long Bay.
The hike is relatively short but moderately steep, but the view at the top is extremely rewarding and worth the effort on a clear day. This was the highlight of my first trip to Halong Bay.
My Experiences with Halong Bay Cruise
I have taken a Halong Bay Cruise twice, once on a junk boat and the most recent time on a luxury cruise. Both times I visited in the winter/spring season in February and early March. And both times I took the 2D1N Halong Bay cruise because I simply did not have enough time to do a longer cruise.
Let me start with similarities between two cruises I took. Both times I was picked up from Hanoi Old Quarter around 8am and transported to the cruise terminal. Both times the boarding process was long and a bit chaotic, with tons of people waiting in the terminal for at least 20-30 minutes.
Both cruises had strict schedules (albeit very different activities). The timeline of both cruises were similar to, with 12:30pm boarding; 1pm lunch; 2 – 4pm activities then Happy Hour right after.
My Junk Boat Experience in Halong Bay
The first time I visited Vietnam I honestly did not research much. We asked our hotel to book day trips for us from Hanoi, one to Ninh Binh and another to Halong Bay. I had no idea where to research Halong Bay Cruises and didn’t know there were budget and luxury cruises.
Our junk boat cruise was by no means luxury but it was comfortable. Our room was cozy with windows looking out but there was nothing remarkable about the boat (sad to say I don’t remember it much so clearly nothing stood out).
The Junk Boat had mostly Vietnamese food for meals and the itinerary was entirely focused on Halong Bay (not Lan Ha Bay or Bai Tu Long Bay).
After lunch the cruise first stopped by a floating market where we were transported to smaller boats and the locals rowed to us trying to sell us food and snacks. It was a rather short stop before we were transported to Soi Sim island, known for its beaches and viewpoint.
The beach and viewpoint would have been pretty amazing if it was a warm day but unfortunately in February it was cold, rainy and foggy. It did give Halong Bay a mysterious look but not what I had expected from online photos.
We were back onboard after our excursion and people were free to chill on the deck, buy drinks for the Happy Hour or just relax in the room. That night the activity was squid fishing and watching old movies on DVDs in the common area, which was actually nice and cozy.
The next morning we had Tai-chi lessons and cooking class before visiting the Sung Sot (Surprise) Cave, one of the largest and most beautiful caves in Halong Bay. The cave is located on Bo Hon Island.
That was our fun morning before going back to the boat and heading back to shore.
Even though the weather was crappy but since it was my first time on a Halong Bay Cruise I thought it was actually a really nice and relaxing experience. I was happy with being able to see so many different things on Halong Bay and the lack of “luxury” amenities did not bother me one bit. Instead I thought the boat was cozy and nice.
My Luxury Halong Bay Cruise Experience
Now if you check social media, most of the time you would see people cruising in these luxury Halong Bay cruises with a huge floor to ceiling window next to their bathtub. We wanted that photo so we decided that we needed a luxury Halong Bay Cruise (yup that was the main reason).
Now that I know there are different tiers of Halong Bay Cruises I actually did a lot of research and was able to narrow down to a few boats that met our criteria. Our criteria mostly included 1) good looking bathtub 2) small number of rooms onboard, not too hard right?
There are actually a lot of luxury Halong Bay cruises and most cost between $700 – $1000 a night for 2-3 people. Our Halong Bay Cruise cost didn’t even include the cost of transportation between Hanoi and Halong Bay so we had to pay extra for that (the Junk Boat cruise included transportation).
As with most Halong Bay Cruises, we got to the pier around 11-11:30 but didn’t board until at least 12 to 12:30. The staff was trying their best to sort out all the guests but it was still very crowded and chaotic.
There are a few main differences between the Junk Boat and the luxury Halong Bay cruise that I took:
- Many luxury cruises go to Lan Ha Bay instead of Halong Bay and very different activities
- You need to ride in a speed boat for about 20 minutes to board the luxury cruises but I don’t remember doing that with the Junk boats
- Rooms and bathrooms are larger and nicer on the luxury cruise and we had our own balcony
- Our meal was not traditional Vietnamese meal; it had a western twist to it
- Our luxury boat had a heated pool and a larger deck area
- Our luxury boat had a spa so you could book massages but not all luxury boats offer this
Another major difference I noticed is that most people on my Junk Boat Halong Bay Cruise were younger or Vietnamese tourists. On my luxury Halong Bay cruise we only had 5-6 other parties onboard and they were all older foreign tourists, most between 45-65 years old.
Before booking the cruise I already knew that we were going to be in Lan Ha Bay instead of Halong Bay, which I thought was fine since they kinda look similar.
We had two major activities during our cruise: a stop on Cat Ba Island to explore Trung Trang Cave on the first day and an optional kayaking activity (self-guided near the boat) on the second day in the morning. You could swim near the boat after Cat Ba Island but nobody on my boat did that.
While I appreciated how relaxing the cruise was (and timely since my friend got food poisoning from Hanoi so she could just rest), I was a bit bored. I would’ve preferred to do a little more during the cruise and I do know that some other luxury cruise had a guided kayaking tour into a cave.
I did love the pool on deck and how nice the staff was (they gave us free lemon tea and rice to help my friend with a stomach bug).
In conclusion, I thought this luxury cruise was nice but I wish there were more activities during the cruise like hiking to a viewpoint or a beach stop.
Is a Halong Bay Cruise Worth it?
If you were to do a Halong Bay Cruise, at a minimum you should do a 2D1N cruise to see more of the area. A day tour is super rushed and you spend most of the time in a car rather than on a cruise. If you have a little more time you should consider a 3D2N cruise to see more of Halong Bay/ Lan Ha Bay.
If you are older or traveling with families a Halong Bay cruise is a nice way to relax and spend time with your family or friends. It is also a lot of fun to have a huge group of friends onboard with you.
But if you are a young backpacker with a tight budget a Halong Bay cruise might not be for you. You may be better off going to Cat Ba Island and find cheap accommodation and maybe do a day trip from Cat Ba Island.
Don’t go to Halong Bay if it’s pouring, you won’t be able to do most activities or see anything. Some cruise companies will not even give you a refund for a cancelled cruise so be sure to read reviews online before booking anything.
Ultimately I thought doing the Halong Bay cruise once was worth it but you don’t need to do a luxury cruise and spend 3-4 times as much money. Aside from the photo opportunities onboard, I actually prefer my first Halong Bay cruise experience on a junk boat.
Other Vietnam Travel Resources
If you are planning a trip to Vietnam, be sure to check out my other Vietnam travel articles.
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