We travelled from Hanoi at the end of October to cruise Halong Bay. We chose a two-day cruise on Ba Tu Long Ba and totally loved it. Add this place to your bucket list pronto!
Halong Bay is a breathtakingly beautiful UNESCO listed area a little over 200 km north of Hanoi. This gorgeous bay is home to over 1500 limestone karsts, four fishing villages and 1600 people who live in floating homes. The area has attracted Western visitors since the French came in the late 19th century and with good reason, it is breathtakingly beautiful.
The main thing to know when trying to decide which Halong Bay cruise to buy is that there is a vast difference in quality and price of trips. I had read lots of horror stories about old smelly boats, lousy food and overcrowding on TripAdvisor so did hours of research before finally deciding on Indochina Junks Dragon’s Pearl.
The deciding factor for us was that this company cruises Bai Tu Long Bay which lies next door to Halong Bay. Halong means “descending dragon”, Bai Tu Long means Baby Dragon. This slightly smaller bay offers the same fantastic scenery but is used by fewer companies so sees fewer tourists. As a result of this, the area has much cleaner water.
To use this bay a company must meet strict environmental guidelines, and at this time only a small number of operators are allowed to cruise this area. Because operating costs are higher, and they must contribute to the environmental fund for the upkeep of the bay prices of these cruises are higher than the average Halong Bay experience. You are paying for an environmentally considerate cruise and a bay that is not teeming with other boats. In fact, we only saw about eight other boats for the whole two days.
On our arrival at the boat terminal, we discovered there are three junks called Dragon Pearl, and we were on number 3. I was a little worried we had been scammed for a few minutes but luckily not.
We were joined by 11 couples which I think was a good number for the size of the vessel and also for mixing in the evening. The boat itself was big enough that we didn't feel cramped. There was also plenty of staff to look after us.
Our double cabin was small but perfectly comfortable. It had a double bed and en-suite with a good-sized shower. The cabin had a large window that overlooked the water and much-appreciated air conditioning. We slept soundly on the very still water.
The facilities on the boat were well maintained. The upper deck had plenty of sun lounges, and there was a smaller deck at the back used for mealtimes.
Most tour and cruise companies include transfers from Hanoi to Halong Bay. Usually, the journey is taken in a 6-8 seater van. The one we provided by Indochina Junk was almost new, but there were lots of older looking ones on the road. The more you pay for your tour, the better the van seems to be.
The trip takes about 3.5 hours but can take longer when traffic is particularly bad. The road is pretty awful but not as bad as I had expected after all the stories I read on TripAdvisor.
If you are planning an independent trip to Halong Bay, you can take a public bus or even a train. I am not sure this is worth the effort if saving money is your motivation. You can also book a private driver from any tourist office in Hanoi.
Check the weather when planning your trip. While Northern Vietnam has a cold winter and a typhoon season, Halong Bay is rarely affected. Winter temperatures seldom go below 14 degrees Celsius, and the water temperature is relatively warm all year round. The worst thing about being here in winter is that the days are quite short.
We travelled in October and found the temperature perfect. It was very overcast most of the time we were there however it was still really magical, and at times felt a little otherworldly.
It takes 3-4 hours to reach the bay from Hanoi and the same to return so a one day trip is pretty exhausting experience and not one I would recommend. The one day cruise only gives you a maximum of 6-hours on the bay and no time to explore the beaches or caves in the area.
I highly recommend spending at least one night on board. This extra time allows you to swim, kayak and get off the tourist trail with the right company.
There is not much to do at Hon Gai Harbour where the cruise so any attempt to take public transport and spend a night here will probably cost you more than it's worth.
A two-day cruise realistically equals 24 hours on the boat. You board about midday and have lunch while you cruise to the caves and stop for some swimming and kayaking. On our cruise, we had about 3 hours off the boat for this.
On day two most boats visit a floating fishing village or some pearling businesses. On our tour, we visited a village and school via rowboat then had lunch while we cruised back to the main harbour. We were disembarking by noon. Even though this sounds rushed, it felt like long enough in many ways. Being able to see a sunrise and sunset on the bay was well worth the cost of the overnight option.
If time permits I would do the three days two-night option that includes spending a night on Ca Ba Island.
Pack as little as possible – while some people did have huge bags, and the staff carry them for you, I would recommend travelling as light as you can. Your cabin is not that big and will be more comfortable without a big bag in the way. This is such a common overnight trip that most hotels in Hanoi are happy to mind your luggage while you are away for a night or two. We picked up a cheap North Face backpack after we arrived in Hanoi for A$15 and took that instead.
So what should go in the bag?
The meals on our cruise were excellent, plenty of fresh seafood and refreshing salads. Breakfast was a steaming hot bowl of chicken pho and platters of fruit and toast. Our evening meal was almost a performance, each dish presented with an elaborate animal carving. Everything from this bird to a sailing ship, I can only imagine they spent all afternoon preparing them.
For our floating village tour, we moved into small row boats to reach the village, and then on to an oyster operation and finally the floating school. There were four adults in each boat, and we felt a little uncomfortable having a very petite lady row 4 large westerners around. She was super friendly and despite the language barrier had us smiling and laughing the whole way. These women rely on tips as their wages, and I felt like they earned every cent.
The fishing village in Bia Tu Long Bay is home to about 50 families; almost 300 people, including 100 children live in floating houses in the protected areas of the bay. When we arrived at the school, we noticed it had recently been repainted by kids from a local Sydney high school. We took gifts to the school which were much appreciated. They especially love to receive pencils and crayons. Everything they eat other than seafood has to be brought in once a week, so gifts of fresh fruit were favourite too!
How to get from Halong Bay – A list of the various transport to Halong Bay from Hanoi
Ca Ba National Park – If time permits you might want to stay here for a few days.
Want something a little more flash - we were travelling on a budget but if you are celebrating a special occasion and would prefer a bit more luxury consider one of these first two cruises.