Visiting Vietnam is on a lot of people’s travel bucket list, and rightly so. Vietnam is a beautiful country with stunning scenery, the food is absolutely delicious and the Vietnamese people are among the most respectful, kind and welcoming I’ve experienced. Which is why we couldn’t wait to plan our two-week trip there.
One of the first questions I asked was, “Is it worth visiting Halong Bay?” Now I’ve visited Halong Bay I can safely say yes, yes it is definitely worth visiting! Floating past thousands of uninhabited limestone cliffs is absolutely breathtaking, doing it on an ethereal junk ship is once-in-a-lifetime. When I started planning our trip to Vietnam I had no idea where to start so, like a rookie, I went straight to Google and put in the words, ‘Halong Bay cruise.’ In 0.41 seconds Google gave me over 600,000 results. The next few hours of my life are a blur.
The number of cruise and junk ship websites out there for Halong Bay is overwhelming and the reviews of mid-price companies are mixed. Some people rave about them and say they are great, others totally pan them, telling horror stories like finding rats in their cupboards! Ugh! Knowing how confusing it was for me to find a company and make a decision, I thought I’d use my experience to put together this guide to help anyone else who is planning a trip to Halong Bay and needs to find a great cruise company.
Best time to visit
We visited in October and the weather was glorious, so I can personally recommend October-November as a good time to visit. Outside of that, the tropical storm season is from May to September which may impact your ability to travel (make sure your tour company has a policy in place to compensate/refund if the tour is cancelled due to bad weather). February to April is cooler but can have drizzling rain and fog, that may sound dodgy but it can make for stunning ghost-like photographs.
Ask a friend
The best thing you can do is get recommendations from people you know. Get in touch with any of your friends or friends-of-friends who have visited Halong Bay and ask them which company they used. Even if they had a terrible time, it’ll help you narrow down the list of companies you look at.
When you’re talking to a friend, make sure they’ve got the same travel ethos as you do. What I mean by that is, if you like to go first-class, five-star luxury the whole way, don’t go asking your backpacking mate which cruise they took.
Decide on your budget
My research experience gave me the impression there are three main categories of cruise: cheap, moderate and high-end. The price difference between those three is vast! Trust me, once you get on your boat and set sail you’ll be able to spot the high-end boats a mile off.
Once you’ve got a budget in mind you’ll be able to make faster decisions about whether or not a cruise is going to meet your needs. Bear in mind that when it comes to cruises you get what you pay for, there are budget cruises for as little as $55US for a two-day cruise. But if you’re paying little and expecting a lot, you may be disappointed so choose a cruising budget that meets your personal needs and expectations for the trip.
Get an idea of what you want to see
Not all cruises go to the same places, there are many cruises which visit many different areas and, this part may shock you, Halong Bay is only one part! It is surrounded by many other areas just waiting to be visited and discovered by tourists. There are lots of forums online which will give you the ‘scoop’ on less touristy areas and it’s up to you whether or not you want to see them.
Do your research, work out if you want to see places like Bai Tu Long Bay, Cat Ba Island, Vong Vieng Floating Village, Trong Cave, Lan Ha Bay, Sung Sot Cave and Cong Do or Cong Dam. There are a LOT of places to visit, so work out what’s important to you then look for cruise companies within your budget who have itineraries that match your needs.
Decide on the length of your cruise
You can charter a private boat and sail for as many nights and days as you like or you can join a group cruise. The group cruises tend to have two options: 2 days 1 night OR 2 nights 3 days. We decided to do the 2-night cruise and were really happy because we saw how dejected all the people who had to leave after 1 night looked. Once you get out there, you really do want to stay longer because it’s so beautiful.
How it works
Most of the cruise companies, if not all, will have a transfer service. A driver will pick you up from your hotel and you’ll pile into a mini-bus or car and drive out to Halong City. The drive is a long one, around 4 hours from Hanoi, so make sure you’re prepared with snacks and drinks or travel sickness tablets if you get a funny tummy on bumpy roads.
From here you’ll most likely jump on a small tender boat and be taken out to your ship where you’re welcomed by the crew. You set sail and follow your set itinerary, there may be times when you jump back on a small tender boat to go on day trips to visit the floating village, caves or more secluded areas.
Halong Bay is busy and there are a lot of ships there. A lot of people on forums said they didn’t like this and felt it detracted from their experience, I was the total opposite and quite liked seeing all the other ships. After all, I can’t really see the ship I’m on, so I want to see all the other ships to get photos of them. At night, the ships light up and look beautiful floating on the water.
If your budget allows, I recommend paying extra for a cabin with its own balcony. We did and were really happy with that decision, especially after we saw the other cabins which were smaller and didn’t have a balcony. It gave us a private space to sit and enjoy the cruise by ourselves, whereas people who didn’t have a balcony had to either sit in the common areas or in their rooms. It also meant our room was bigger and we had great photo opportunities from our balcony too.
If you’re choosing a budget option, you really need to do your research. Food and accommodation in Hanoi are very affordable, so if there’s one place you should splash a bit of cash, it’s on your Halong Bay cruise. A recommended decent starting point is Saigon Cafe Tours. They are by no means the absolute bottom, basement, bargain but they’re a cheaper option which, by all accounts, appear to be quite reputable.
We booked the Paloma Cruise based on the recommendation of one of my best friends who had done it a few years earlier. The staff were great, the food and drinks were delicious, the rooms were comfortable and clean and the itinerary took in everything we wanted to see. Paloma is a great mid-range option for those who want to have a great Halong Bay cruise but don’t want to go broke over it. Think of all the extra food you can buy back in Hanoi!
Paradise Elegance Cruise was recommended to me by my dad who has taken a cruise with them and absolutely loved it. These guys have great reviews on TripAdvisor, are very well-known and reliable and are the ultimate in luxury cruises in Halong Bay. Another luxury company you may like to check out is Bhaya Cruises who also come highly recommended as a great luxury cruise operator.