by Jessica Lee
Halong Bay is one of Vietnam’s biggest attractions and the vast majority of visitors arrive aboard day and overnight cruises.
Here's what you need to know:
Swimming is only allowed at a few designated beaches, with drones surveilling the skies to make sure boat captains comply.
With these rules in place, your choice of cruise can make or break your Halong Bay experience.
Halong Bay has some cruise options that are basically luxury hotels on water, but it will follow a typical cruise itinerary.
For a luxury cruise, bank on spending around US $300–350 for a cabin. This will have higher quality meals and amenities, but overnight trips usually involve 24 hours or less on the actual boat.
Budget and midrange cruises
Most Halong Bay visitors go for midrange or budget cruises. Budget cruise prices start from US$60 per person for a day trip. Between US$110 and US$130 should get you a midrange overnight cruise.
Some ultra-budget boats are rustic at best, but there are some excellent midrange options offering cosy hotel-style cabins, knowledgeable on-board tour guides and kayaking stops.
Competition is fierce, so some operators add freebies into the itinerary, such as kayaking and private minibus transfers from Hanoi. There are a lot of options so do some pre-trip research.
If you’re pressed for time, do as many locals do and see Halong Bay on a day cruise from Tuan Chau Marina in Halong City.
Cruise boats can be rented by the hour (around US$30 per hour for a boat that holds up to 20 passengers) or you can join other passengers aboard a four- to six-hour cruise for about US$50 per person.
Day cruises are cheap and easily organised right on the spot in Halong City. However, they can be crowded and noisy, with only enough time for a few stops and karaoke on board.
Most decent midrange Halong Bay cruises will offer an hour or so of kayaking (some charging an extra fee).
There's also kayak-only trips. These trips are run by a handful of operators based in the nearby and lesser-visites Lan Ha Bay (off Cat Ba Island) rather than Halong Bay itself.
Full-day kayaking trips from Cat Ba Island cost between US$25 and US$30 per person. However, to see more, it’s a better idea to take a cruise that includes a kayaking stop.
In 2011, new safety regulations were brought in for Halong Bay cruise boats, but scrimping on safety does still go on with ultra-budget cruises.
Check that any kayaking stops are accompanied by a guide. Because of the surprisingly strong currents, a safety-conscious operator won’t allow kayakers to paddle off from the boat by themselves.
Most trips leave from Hanoi, but you can also base yourself in Halong City.
When comparing prices, check whether a transfers between Hanoi and Halong Bay are included, and if so, whether it’s one-way or round-trip, and if it uses the new expressway or not.
While the Ha Long–Hai Phong Expressway has cut travel time between Hanoi and Halong Bay to 2½ hours, a shuttle bus might take closer to three to 3½-hours.
The itinerary on a one-night cruise can be very packed. If you have the time, a two-night itinerary is much more leisurely.
When to go
One of the best times to visit Halong Bay is November – there are blue skies aplenty, temperatures are moderate and there’s a good chance of calm seas.
From May to September, tropical storms can whip up without much warning. This is also high season in Halong, particularly from June to mid-August when domestic tourism peaks.
February to April is often cool and drizzly, and the fog can make visibility low, though also adds an ethereal atmosphere.
Year-round, cruises and tourist boats sometimes need to alter their itineraries, or trips can be cancelled with little warning depending on conditions. Check the fine print for the refund procedures.
To learn more about Halong Bay, Halong City and other things to see and do in Vietnam, hit the button below.