How to visit Halong Bay

Since being designated a World Heritage site in 1994, much has been made of Halong Bay’s mystical landscape of limestone islets. As the number-one tourist attraction in the northeast, Halong Bay attracts visitors year-round. UNESCO reports that the numbers of visitors have climbed from 200,000 in 1995 to 1,7000,000 in 2002. There are many ways to experience the ethereal beauty of Halong Bay. Unless you have a private yacht (or you’re an Olympic kayaker), you’ll have to take a tour of some kind.

Cruising the karsts: picking the right tour for you

For a serious splurge, cruising the karsts aboard a luxury Chinese-style junk is hard to beat. There’s also a very luxurious paddle ship, based on a French craft from the early 20th century. But be aware that nearly all of these luxury trips operate on a fixed itinerary, taking in the well-known caves and islands, and simply do not have the time to stray far from Halong City. Many ‘two-day’ tours actually involve less than 24 hours on a boat (and cost hundreds of dollars per person).

At the other end of the scale, budget tours sold out of Hanoi start from a rock-bottom US$35 per person for a dodgy day trip, and rise to around US$150 for two nights on the bay with kayaking. For around US$80 to US$90, you should get a worthwhile overnight cruise.

There are many complaints about poor service, bad food and rats running around boats, but these tend to be on the ultra budget tours. Spend a little more and enjoy the experience a whole lot more. It can be false economy signing up for one of the budget tours, and it’s also potentially a matter of safety.

In February 2011, a budget boat tour sank near Dao Titop with the loss of 11 international tourists from eight countries and one Vietnamese tour guide. In May 2011, the provincial government of the area around Halong Bay enacted new regulations on working conditions and boat safety.

Most tours include transport and meals, and sometimes include island hikes. Drinks are extra. Most of these trips follow a strict itinerary, with planned stops at illuminated caves often at the same time as many of the other boats operating out of Bai Chay. Because of weather, boat tours are sometimes cancelled and you’ll probably be offered a full or partial refund. Ascertain in advance what that will be.

When to go

February to April is often cool and drizzly, and the ensuing fog can make visibility low, but also adds an ethereal air. From May to September tropical storms are frequent, and year-round, tourist boats sometimes need to alter their itineraries, depending on the weather. Some tour companies offer full or partial refunds if tours are cancelled; check when you book.

This is an excerpt from Lonely Planet's Vietnam guidebook.