Like many who visit Vietnam, I recently experienced a Halong Bay cruise for the first time.
This spectacular part of Asia has much to offer travellers, and a Halong Bay cruise is often on the bucket list for many. While I didn’t know much about the Halong Bay area before my trip, it did sound like the perfect place to spend a relaxing couple days away from the crowds of Hanoi.
However, like many others, I did also get the impression before arriving that it could also be a tourist trap. The fact that every hostel, hotel and travel agent in Vietnam advertises the place might have something to do with that.
On a previous trip to Vietnam in 2014 I enjoyed my visits to other UNESCO sites such as Hoi An Ancient Town and My Son Sanctuary, so how would Halong Bay compare?
About Halong Bay
Those interested in history will be intrigued to know Halong Bay was the location of past naval battles with Chinese and the Mongols. More recently it started to become popular with French tourists in the late 19th century.
It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994.
Everyone who visits loves taking photos of Halong Bay and what brings people here is the thousands of unique limestone island and rock formations. With a 120 km long coastline that covers 1500 +square km and 1900+ islands, there’s a lot to see.
Exploring by water is the most accessible way to navigate this vast area.
Many of the islands are still uninhabited with the lower parts and caves of some can be below sea level. While many are shallow, the depths of others are still yet to be measured.
For those who enjoy snorkelling, there are many species of coral to be found on the seabed.
The Halong Bay Cruise
As my girlfriend took care of organising the Halong Bay cruise and the trip in general, I arrived without any real expectations. To make matters more confusing, on my last trip to Vietnam I had come across mixed views from other travellers.
I had no idea what to expect.
The minibus journey from Hanoi is around 3 1/2 hours, mostly consisting of sleeping and reading books to pass the time. It’s comfortable enough though and is direct apart from the customary 20-minute tourist shop/toilet stop.
Once at the Tuan Chau Harbour things speed up a little. Time to jump off the minibus, get ticked off the list and straight onto the larger junk ship via a smaller boat.
Booking travel adventures online aren’t always straightforward, and it’s easy to get sucked into a price war. Having seen some of the other vessels the saying “you get what you pay for” holds true for booking a cruise in Halong Bay.
We were fortunate enough to have a nice sized junk ship between just another three guests and us.
I’m sure it normally gets busier but it appears we had the luck of the draw and managed to book on a quiet day.
Not only was the junk much better than expected but it offered a great viewing platform of Halong Bay. Resting in the cabin, eating breakfast mid-deck, or on the top sunbathing, there were views from all angles of the waters and islands.
Various safety equipment is onboard, and life jackets are available. Not something you tend to notice in detail but handy to know should you need them, especially for those concerned about safety.
The cabins are probably a little overkilling it for the minimal time you get to spend in them but who’s going to complain. Secret Halong Bay Cruise (the company we used) didn’t offer the cheapest Halong Bay cruise, but for the price paid the rooms were great. A mini hotel room on the water!
The decor is in a modern style and has everything inside that a traveller could need for an overnight stay – even Wif-Fi.
The attached shower and toilet are also surprisingly spacious, nothing along the lines of aeroplane sized broom closet you would expect.
The staff operating the junk ship are courteous, friendly and do their best to go above and beyond for the guests. To say they run a tight ship would be a bad pun but everything went along smoothly and almost with military precision.
They came across as professional, all taking their jobs seriously. At the same time, happy to have a mingle and chat with guests. I also was surprised that they remembered everyone by name.
One of the things I liked is how they got the guests involved with each other. Sometimes its hard to interact with others and even more so for those travelling solo, so I thought this was a good move.
This food on the Halong Bay cruise excelled my expectations and chef (plus team) did an outstanding job. All the meals served for breakfast, lunch and dinner were to a high standard.
Selecting a cruise with meals included is worthwhile and helps when budgeting how much extra cash to bring along. The only additional money we needed was for the drinks purchased.
If anyone had to complain at the end it would only be for the massive amount of overeating done during the trip.
Kayaking at Trong Cave
Kayaking is a highlight of the cruise and provides an opportunity to burn off the massive amounts of food served. It’s also a fun experience and allows a closer view of Halong Bay.
Ho Dong Tien Cave
During the afternoon everyone has a wander around Ho Dong Tien Cave. The cave is very quiet, dark and the single bat hanging upside down inside was very mysterious, if not a tad lonely.
The cave is also home to a beautiful lake hidden away from outside view.Ho Dong Tien cave lake Halong Bay, Vietnam Click To Tweet
Another part of the trip saw us banging pieces of wood loudly while learning how locals fish in the area.
Vietnamese Tai Chi
On the second morning, a 30min Vietnamese Tai Chi lessons pulled everyone out of bed nice and early. A little light Tai Chi in the morning turned out to be a great way to wake up.
Although some will struggle to get up for the 6.30am experience, due to the heat, the morning is the best time to get it done.
After the Tai Chi lesson and a light breakfast, it’s then off to the top of a lookout point.
The climb, although steep, looks harder than it is and only takes around 20 or so minutes. Even though its all finished before 10 am the heat and sun can still a problem for some. As with the yoga, making the hike in the early morning is the better choice as I’m sure attempting it midday will be painful.
It’s also wise to bring water and sunscreen along.
Climbing to the top isn’t mandatory and for all those who are not keen its possible to swim at the small beach at the base of the island or sunbathe.
For those who choose the climb, there are some great views from the top.
I had a great time with Secret Halong Bay cruise. For someone who likes to travel slowly, I was sceptical if a one night would be enough time to see everything I wanted. Sure it’s possible to return again in the future but the reality is that might be years away, or even never.
It’s better to get it right the first time just in case there isn’t a second.
After booking the trip, it’s fair to say a one night cruise is more of an introduction to Halong Bay rather than an in-depth tour. However, all the activities we did make good use of the limited time available.
The various events throughout the excursion allowed everyone to get the maximum out of the trip. So much so that you feel like you’ve spent more time than you actually have at Halong Bay.
Overall the cruise offered good value for money considering everything we managed to do.
Yes, I admit it is a touristy thing to do, but from what I could see that doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy it. I think it’s more important to note the experience you have will mainly be dictated by the company chosen for the Halong Bay cruise. It goes without saying that some of the cheaper tours will have more run down ships.
Even though Halong Bay attracts tourists I would still recommend giving it a try. Just choose a reputable company like Secret Halong Bay cruise for the best experience.
Some Halong Bay Cruise Tips
- Monday was a good day for us (not many other guests)
- Drinks are extra so bring cash or card along
- Bring suntan cream, sunglasses and a hat
- Bring a camera too as there’s plenty of chances to take photos
- Don’t overeat before the trip
Location & Contact Details
Halong Bay is 3 hours and 35 minutes by road from Hanoi.
There are various taxis, minibuses, and coaches making the 182 km journey. These can be booked independently or through a Halong Bay Cruise operator.
If you’re interested in visiting Halong Bay, I used Secret Halong Bay Cruise to organise my trip. They can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and sometimes have discount deals listed on their website.
Their TripAdvisor reviews are here.
A big thumbs up to all staff from on our ship for their hospitality, not just the ones we had contact with but also those who work hard behind the scenes to help make our stay perfect. And special thanks to the chef for preparing such epic food for us.
Secret Halong Bay Cruise in Vietnam images created by toolsoftravel.