When Matt and I started planning our first trip to Halong Bay we were totally and completely overwhelmed. There are so many cruise companies to choose from and, if I’m honest, I found a lot of their websites looked a little less than reputable which freaked me out (a lot!) We’ve had the pleasure of visiting Halong Bay twice now and have gained a whole lot of knowledge on what works and what doesn’t. If you’re planning your first trip and are feeling overwhelmed like we were, here’s my guide to everything you need to know about cruising Halong Bay. If there’s anything I’ve missed be sure to ask in the comments and I can add it to the post to help others!
You can also check out some great Halong Bay tips from myself and other travel writers and bloggers in this interview on HalongHub asking, ‘Does Halong Bay still hold its charm?’
But first, watch this…
1. Is it worth visiting Halong Bay?
Yes. I was really worried Halong Bay would be overly touristy and one of those over-hyped destinations that you find you probably didn’t need to visit. I’ve also heard other people who went say they found the number of other ships and tourists off-putting. I can’t speak for everyone but Matt and I both loved Halong Bay! Gliding along the bright turquoise water past towering limestone rock formations was an unforgettable experience. I’m glad we did it and I’m glad we got to go back and do it again. So, yes, I think it’s worth it, just know it won’t be an ‘off-the-beaten-track experience’ but it will be an incredible one.
2. What’s the best time of year to visit?
We visited in October and the weather was glorious and we visited again, four years later, at the exact same time and a typhoon was hitting! So, you really can’t pick it, but I would say October-November is a good time to visit. Our cruise team did comment it was odd for a typhoon to hit at that time of year. The tropical storm season is usually 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.
3. How far is it from Hanoi to Halong Bay?
The distance from Hanoi to Halong Bay is around 180km and generally takes around 3 1/2 to 4 hours each way, depending on traffic. On the way, you’ll have a half-time/pee break at a souvenir store selling all kinds of products directly aimed at tourists. You’re under no obligation to buy anything so feel free to breeze on through, use the toilet and get back on the bus.
4. How do you get to and from Halong Bay?
Both times we’ve visited, the transfer to and from Halong Bay has been included in our booking and we weren’t required to pay extra for it. Generally, we were picked up around 7:30am arriving at the port at around 11:30am. On the way back we departed around midday, arriving back into Hanoi around 4pm. The ride can be long so I recommend having your headphones with you so you can listen to music on the way. If you have Netflix you might like to download a few shows or movies to watch, to pass the time. The road is a bit bumpy and is by no means a smooth highway so if you tend to get travel sick you might like to take something to help you.
5. Will I get boat sick?
I’m one of those people who get travel sick on just about every mode of transport – planes, trains, boats and cars. It’s not ideal when your job revolves entirely around travel – thank goodness for travel sickness tablets! The water at Halong Bay was dead still on both my visits and because the boat glides along gently and there are no waves it didn’t rock at all, which meant I didn’t get any inkling of travel sickness. Winner! If you are nervous, just pop some travel sickness or ginger tablets in your luggage.
6. What is there to do once you’re there?
Okay, so you may be thinking, ‘What am I going to do? Just sit on a boat and stare out into the distance for three days?’ You’ll be pleased to know there are loads of activities to enjoy while you’re out there, what they are, specifically, will depend on the cruise you end up booking. On the cruises I’ve done activities included kayaking, visiting Thien Canh Son Cave, cooking classes, tai chi, karaoke, live music, Vung Vieng Fishing Village, day trips on a smaller boat to hidden coves for swimming, stand-up paddle boarding and visits to Teapot Island or Monkey Island.
7. How long should I cruise for?
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’ve done both and much prefer the 2 nights 3 days. The drive out to Halong Bay takes 4 hours, by the time you get on the boat you’ve lost half of your first day. You have one night then the next morning you’re up, packing, back off the boat and in a car driving back to Hanoi for 4 hours again. I found 1 night was just too quick for me. If you have the time and money, 2 nights 3 days is my preferred way to go. You feel like you really get to experience it.
8. Where do cruises actually go?
Not all cruises go to the same places. There are many cruises which visit 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.
9. Should I go luxe or less?
We’ve done it both ways, luxe and less, and both have their benefits. We were on a very tight budget our first time around so had no choice but to go budget. We didn’t go bottom-of-the-barrel and made sure we paid a little extra for a room with a balcony (I really recommend doing this if you can). Our budget cruise was fine, we had a great time, saw everything, stayed in a nice room and had a good time.
Our second visit was part of a media trip where we were hosted by the cruise company, so budget wasn’t a factor. Our room was huge and spacious, we had our own balcony, the bathroom was exactly like a nice hotel and the bed was so big and comfy. We even had a TV with movie channels – it was epic! The food was nicer and the service was better too. If you aren’t on a budget, I recommend going the luxe option. It just made our experience feel more special and we found ourselves feeling really spoilt, it just gave the trip that ‘wow’ edge – if that makes sense.
10. What should I look for when booking a cruise?
You might like to ask friends who have visited for their recommendations, which is what we did the first time around. Reading reviews can be good but I find people tend to write negative reviews more frequently than positive ones so it can be misguiding and confusing at times. I think it’s important to find a cruise that matches your budget, goes to places you want to see, includes activities you need, offers good food and has a good reputation (you’ll never find one that’s perfect). At the end of the day, go with your gut instinct. We did and that’s how we ended up with our first cruise company. I will say this – I’ve heard of people booking super budget cruises and having horror experiences, so if you can avoid going bargain basement, I would probably suggest you do. Mid-range to luxe is going to be the safest bet.
11. Is it safe?
Matt was a little concerned about safety on both our visits, worried someone may climb aboard while we were away, break into our room and take our valuables. We spoke to the staff on both cruise ships about this and they told us we wouldn’t have any issues as long as we kept our valuables out of sight and made sure our room was securely locked. Our luxe experience room came with a safe, so if security is important to you, you might like to make sure you book a cruise with a safe.
12. What should I pack for my Halong Bay cruise?
You should pack your swimmers, sunscreen, sunglass and a hat, you might like to pack a sarong or other clothing you can easily pull over your wet swimmers to transfer between the beach and the boat. I’d recommend one pair of closed-in shoes for visiting caves and the top of islands as well as another pair of nice sandals or flats for on-board. I wore nice, casual clothing, opting for my usual breezy skirts and t-shirts. Matt wore jeans and t-shirts. Both of us packed one set of slightly nicer clothing for dinner, nothing fancy, just nice. You might also like to take books and snacks. Smoking may or may not be permitted on your cruise so be sure to check before you book if it’s important to you either way. Lastly, throw in some bug repellant. I never felt the need for a jumper or warm clothing.
13. I have dietary requirements or food preferences, is that cool?
Yeah, man, of course! Both cruises I have been vegetarian and haven’t had any trouble getting my hands on food that was vegetarian-friendly. In all my travels in Vietnam, I’ve found restaurants to be so accommodating with specific food requirements and cruises have been no exception. Just be sure to flag it with your cruise company before you go and then confirm once more, in person, when you arrive. The staff on board have been lovely, in my experience, so you should have no trouble. If you’re worried, make sure you contact the company directly before you book and confirm they can meet your requirements.
14. What happens in bad weather?
You may have noticed I mentioned the word ‘typhoon’ earlier. When we first arrived for our luxe cruise a typhoon was making its way toward Halong Bay. While the cruise companies would have loved to take visitors out, the Government made the decision it was unsafe and ordered all ships back to harbour. It sucks but, if it does happen, you have to trust that it’s for the best. Just be prepared, if a bad storm suddenly shows up, there is a possibility you may arrive at the harbour only to be told it can’t go ahead. I would recommend you carefully read your cruise’s cancellation and refund policies. Make sure you will be issued a refund if the cruise is cancelled due to bad weather, though you may still have to pay for the transfer.
15. Who do you recommend?
As I mentioned at the start of this post, there are a lot of cruise brands out there. These recommendations are based on our experience with the two brands, if neither feel like the right fit for you, that’s totally cool!
We found ourselves aboard the incredible Paradise Elegance Cruise as part of our media trip to Vietnam and we absolutely loved it! Our cabin was a great size, with a very comfortable king size bed and big, fluffy pillows to melt into. The private deck included a small table and chairs – the perfect spot for sitting with a cold drink while taking in the views. The room was also equipped with a walk-in closet and storage area for you to hang up clothes, safely store valuables and spread out your luggage. I was a big fan of the bathroom, which was hotel quality, offering a good amount of space. Onboard, you’ll also find a spa, if you fancy a little extra relaxation.
Up top, you’ll find a bar area where you can get a drink and either enjoy it out on the deck or inside while listening to live music in the evenings. The dining room is spacious, serving really delicious buffet breakfast and lunch as well as a la carte dinner. Head upstairs again and you’ll find the sundeck where you can sit with a cocktail and watch the world go by, relaxing and enjoying the unbeatable views. I really enjoyed the service aboard Paradise, the staff were so attentive as well as genuinely fun and friendly. If my parents or anyone in Matt’s family were looking to book a Halong Bay cruise, this is the one I would recommend to them. If you’re after something even fancier, Paradise Prestige is the way to go.
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 have a lot to spend.
If you are going to go with Paloma I would strongly recommend you book a room that has a balcony. We splashed the little extra cash for one and, when we saw the rooms that didn’t have them, were so glad we did! The rooms are quite small and we just found it was nice to have our own private space away from everyone else to relax and enjoy by ourselves. You’ll have to forgive the less descriptive write-up for Paloma, we did our cruise with them quite a few years ago and I don’t remember too much detail about the room.
Useful travel resources for your trip to Vietnam
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Skyscanner – our go-to for booking flights
Agoda – one of our go-to sites for booking hotels
Booking.com – another of our go-to sites for booking hotels
RentalCars.com – a great search engine for renting a car
TourRadar – a great search engine for booking tours