Have you ever heard of Halong Bay in Vietnam? If you haven’t, I hope that we are about to blow your mind with a few images of this enchanting place. When we booked a last minute trip to Vietnam we arrived with no plans.
It wasn’t until we were already in Hanoi that we debated about going on a Halong Bay cruise. It is easily the most well-known tourist attraction in Vietnam, but that can sometimes lead to questionable destinations full of tourists. However, after the advice of many, we had to Halong Bay for ourselves.
We didn’t know what to expect, but now it remains a highlight of all our travels around the world.
Where is Halong Bay?
Halong Bay is located in Northeastern Vietnam and a two-hour drive away Southeast of Hanoi. It The bay has approximately 1,969 islands and islets made from karst limestone formations. Immense in size the 1,500 square kilometer area is dotted with islands, limestone towers, grottos, and caves that all blend together in a dizzying display of the wonders of nature.
Halong Bay sits in the center of a large area along with Bai Tu Long Bay to the north, and Cat Ba Island to the south. They are all similar throughout sharing common formations, history, and culture, but it’s Halong that gets to make its claim to fame.
What is Halong Bay famous for?
Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its limestone rock formations that tower out of the emerald waters. It’s one of the most visited sites in Vietnam and is well known for its beauty around the globe.
The name Hạ Long translates to “descending dragon,” due to the bays unique features. It’s an out of this world landscape that has made numerous big screen appearance like Pan, James Bond: Tomorrow Never Dies, and my favorite Kong: Skull Island.
Halong Bay Cruise Tips
Choose the Right Halong Bay Cruise Provider
There is really only one way to explore Halong Bay and that is by boat. So, if you’re going to go make your way to this corner of the world you should do your research and choose a good tour company. Who you choose to go on your Ha Long Bay cruise could be the difference between having an okay time and an amazing time — tough to have a bad time.
We did our due diligence and researched what seemed like hundreds of companies. There are so many Halong Bay cruise operators it can be overwhelming to sort through. In the end, we decided to go with the well-reviewed Bhaya Cruise company on their luxury Au Co ship and were by no means disappointed.
We chose the Au Co cruise because it is one of the few luxury cruises that sail around Halong Bay. Halong Bay is already the most touristy thing to do in Vietnam we wanted to board a ship that had a more personalized and unique feel. Which we certainly got on this 32 cabin ship. Some of the reasons our time on the Au Co was the absolute highlight of our time in Vietnam are listed below.
The number one reason we swear by the Au Co is the tremendous staff who are all Vietnamese. Many of the staff members come from rural communities and are given ample training to be some of the top employees in Halong Bay. We loved the fact that although many of the staff members were young, they were eager to learn and be the best in the tourism sector. From the captain to the chef and bartender each staff member is given an important role to aid in the success of the voyage. Every single guest on our cruise fell in the love with the entire staff and after chatting we felt they really made our time in Vietnam special.
Bhaya Cruises and the Au Co pride themselves on being green and practicing responsible travel in Halong Bay. They have set up community farms and projects on rural Cat Ba island, and encourage less popular routes for guests. They have a Save The Langur project to create awareness for the rural Cat Ba Langur and encourage local people to not harm or eat the langurs. We also consistently saw the staff doing cleanups together – it was great!
We were impressed with the cabins on our Halong Bay cruise. They were very comfortable and spacious enough for the two of us. Bathrooms had eco-friendly toiletries and were luxurious. I particularly loved that each room on the Au Co had a balcony that you could relax on with a cup of coffee and enjoy the views!
The rest of the ship was spacious and had so many comfortable points to relax. With a full-service outdoor bar and espresso machine serving up Vietnamese coffee and then a top deck with loungers it was a great place to hang out for a view day and take in the views.
Meal times are no joke on the Au Co. Breakfast is a traditional buffet style, but then lunch and dinner are both multiple courses with a fusion of Western and Vietnamese cuisine. Our favorite meal was definitely the outdoor barbeque on our last night!
I’m so confident you will love cruising on the Au Co I’ve asked the staff there to give readers of this blog a special discount. Use the code THEWORLDPURSUIT20 for 20% your three-day cruise!
Look at the Routes
Many Ha Long Bay Cruises stick to the same route, so it’s important when booking to look at where you will be going. The closer you are to the Halong Bay harbor the more ships and crowds you will see. Once you venture out you will then start to find yourself alone. The Au Co takes you to less crowded destinations in Bai Tu Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay. There were so many times where we were the only ship around! Which brings me to my next point…
Opt for a Longer Trip
If you are only embarking on a 1 Day/1 Night cruise you won’t be able to get too far out. To maximize your time in Halong Bay I would highly recommend booking at least a 2-night cruise. We booked a 2-night cruise and felt it was the perfect amount of time in Halong Bay.
It’s Easily Accessible from Hanoi
Halong Bay is less than a two-hour drive away from Vietnam’s capital and it’s easily accessible by bus or private transfer. You should have no struggle finding a bus to take you to Halong Bay, just make sure to ask your hotel in Hanoi for their recommendations. Or if you want a private transfer check with your Halong Bay cruise operator about setting one up.
Since we were coming from Ninh Binh we opted to take the four-hour public bus journey to Halong Bay, but were transferred back to Hanoi with the Bhaya Cruise guys and found ourselves in a private minivan with WiFi, AC, and reclining seats. So the bottom line is if you are flying into Hanoi you have no excuse not to go to Halong Bay!
There are Lots of Activities
Besides taking in the gorgeous views of Halong Bay there are a lot of other activities to take part in. You also won’t be on the ship the entire time and most tour operators will have a set itinerary for you to enjoy. The Au Co set up many enjoyable excursions and activities to take part in including:
- Visit Cua Van floating fishing
- Visiting Viet Hai Village
- Masterchef competition (which I won)
- Sunrise Tai Chi lesson
- Beach time on Ho Ba Ham
- Squid fishing
- Tien Ong Cave
Don’t Expect the WiFi or 3G to Work
I should mention that many ships advertise WiFi, but the further away you are from Halong Bay the less likely the WiFi is to actually work. We even had a sim card and got great 3G reception all over Vietnam – except on our Halong Bay cruise. So sit back and enjoy the views without being connected!
Take Optimal time to Enjoy the View
One of my favorite things to do on our Halong Bay cruise was to sit on our balcony and enjoy the views. Seriously, they are so impressive and out of this world and should not be ignored. From the moment you board your ship, you will be amazed by the emerald waters and literally thousands of towering limestone islands.
Bring a Camera
I guess this is my chance to mention that you should 100% bring a camera with you on your Halong Bay cruise. We travel with a full travel blogging camera set up, but I would at least suggest a good point and shoot (we have the Sony RX100V). If you want to up your photography game one of our favorite mirrorless cameras on the market is the Fujifilm X-T3. In case you are wondering we were able to get our drone up in the air multiple times on our Halong Bay cruise. We just asked Sam, our cruise director if it was okay first and then we took to the sky!
Remember to Pack a Bathing Suit
It’s possible to go swimming in Halong Bay and you will be given a few opportunities to do so. Even if you don’t plan on swimming I think it’s still worth it to pack a bathing suit so you can either sunbath or put on while kayaking as you might get wet.
Tip the Staff!
This isn’t a necessity or mandatory, but I feel if you think your Halong Bay cruise was a great experience it typically has something to do with the staff. Keep in mind many of the staff members come from rural and poor communities and rely on their job to live and it would make their day if you thought they did a good enough job to receive a tip.
Seriously – everyone on our Halong Bay cruise pooled some money together and gave a tip at the end to the staff and it was worth it just to see their smiles. Vietnam is by no means an expensive country to travel through and you don’t need to make it rain. We personally left $50 a cabin. If you plan on tipping just make sure you have cash on hand to do so.
It’s Totally Worth It
To be honest – I was really dubious about taking a Halong Bay cruise while we were in Vietnam. Being a full-time traveler I know how touristy well-known destinations can be and I thought that Halong Bay would be overcrowded and wouldn’t live up the hype. Man, was I wrong! Even coming from Ninh Binh (another amazing place in Vietnam), I still thought that Halong Bay was out of this world incredible.
When I first saw Kong: Skull Island I thought that the helicopter scene could not have been a real place – but it is – and it’s so close and affordable in Vietnam. I don’t think one single person left our Halong Bay cruise disappointed and many commented that it was much more than they expected. GO!
When is the best time to go on a Halong Bay cruise?
Halong Bay has four distinct seasons and the best time to visit seems to be Spring and Fall (March, April, October, or November). This is when the weather is pleasant, not too humid yet, and daylight is longer. We visited in November and found ourselves with sunny days and mild temperatures which was ideal after coming from a miserably humid week in Bangkok.
Check if you need a visa for Vietnam
Before traveling to Vietnam check to see if you need a visa (most visitors do). Americans do need a visa and the process is confusing and inefficient. First you will need to apply for an e-visa online before entering the country. The process can take up to three days to clear, although we got our letter of approval in two days. Be prepared to pay $25 or more for a one month visa if you use an agent for this beforehand.
Then once you arrive in Vietnam you will need to take your proof of e-visa (as it is only a letter of approval) to immigration. From there you will have to have either a passport sized photo with you or have them take yours for $2. You will also need to pay another $25 in cash upon arrival to Vietnam for your actual visa. You can also pay in Vietnamese Dong, but you will likely get a bad exchange rate.
For us, the rate kept changing the more I questioned it with the immigration officer. In the end, we ended up paying 700,000 Vietnamese Dong plus 60,000 for the photos per person. Slightly more than I think it should have been if we were paying in USD – but we didn’t have USD on us. The whole process is confusing and inefficient, but it’s a lot better than it used to be when you actually had to go to an embassy to get a visa.
Plan Your Trip to Vietnam
- Book your Halong Bay Cruise! As mentioned I’m so confident you will love cruising on the Au Co I’ve asked the staff there to give readers of this blog a special discount. Use the code THEWORLDPURSUIT20 for 20% your three-day cruise!
- Need Transportation? See the best ways to get around Asia here.
- Travel Insurance: We never travel without travel insurance with World Nomads. Natasha is a bit of a worry wart and would rather stay safe than sorry. World Nomads offers incredible flexible and great plans!
- Water: The water in Vietnam is not drinkable. Check out some of our favorite purified travel water bottles here.
- Guide Book: Sometimes it’s nice just to have a real book in your hands when traveling. We recommend Lonely Planet.
- Adapter: Make sure you find a good universal adapter like the one I have to keep you charged. Otherwise, you may struggle to find one once you land.
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