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. 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 Halong 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 bay’s unique features. It’s an out-of-this-world landscape that has made numerous big screen appearances 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 only one way to explore Halong Bay: 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. So many Halong Bay cruise operators 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 with 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 in aiding in the voyage’s success. Every guest on our cruise fell in love with the entire staff, and after chatting, we felt they 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, encouraging 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 where you could relax 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 at 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% off your three-day cruise!
Look at the Halong Bay Cruise Routes
Many Ha Long Bay Cruises stick to the same route, so it’s important to look where you will be going when booking. 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 when we were the only ship around! This 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 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 easily accessible by bus or private transfer. You should not 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 many other activities to participate 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 on our Halong Bay cruise was sitting on our balcony and enjoying 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-T4. If you are wondering, we got 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 sunbathe or put it on while kayaking as you might get wet.
Tip the Staff!
This isn’t necessary 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 the staff a tip at the end; it was worth it just to see their smiles. Vietnam is not 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 to the hype. Man, was I wrong! Even coming from Ninh Binh (another amazing place in Vietnam), I still thought Halong Bay was 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 is 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 must 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. Ultimately, 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 process is confusing and inefficient, but it’s much better than it used to be when you had to go to an embassy to get a visa.
Plan Your Trip to Vietnam
- Book your Halong Bay Cruise! As mentioned, I’m 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 from Heymondo. Natasha is a bit worried and would rather stay safe than be sorry. Heymondo offers incredible flexibility and great plans!
- Water: The water in Vietnam is not drinkable. Check out some of our favorite purified travel water bottles here.
- 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.
Plan For Your Trip
- Protect Your Trip: We don’t travel without travel insurance, nor should you. You never know what can happen while traveling, so it’s best to be prepared. HeyMondo provides excellent short-term and long-term travel insurance plans.
- Find Cheap Flights: Sign up for Going (formerly Scotts Cheap Flights) to get notified when prices get low.
- Book a Rental Car: We use Discover Car to book all our rental cars! You can also read our top tips for renting a car abroad here.
- Travel Adapter: Make sure you find a good adapter to keep your personal electronics charged. Otherwise, you may be paying for a cheap one once you land. Purchase one here.
- Travel Backpack: We like the Nomatic Travel Backpack for our travels. Check the price here.
- Our Favorite Travel Shoes: Our answer to this question is always ALLBIRDS! Check them out on their site!
- Get a Travel Credit Card: We travel worldwide for free because we have leveraged our spending into points. See why you should get a travel credit card and how you can do the same with our favorite travel credit cards.
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