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Complete Guide for Amazing Halong Bay Cruise Tour in Vietnam

Halong Bay was one of the unique experiences we enjoyed during our Vietnam Trip in the summer of 2023. We undertook a two-day and a night-long cruise excursion of Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was a wonderful tour and we recommend it to everyone. This article aims to answer all your questions regarding the Halong Bay excursion including all the options you have, our reasons for choosing this one, and what activities are covered. We also talk about how you should prepare for this trip! So read on and get tempted to plan a trip to this amazing country!

More articles on our Vietnam Trip are available at Vietnam Destinations

A detailed itinerary and planning guide is available at A Complete Guide for Vietnam Trip - Itinerary, Logistics, and Much More

What is Halong Bay?

Boats and Water and Scenery in Halong Bay

Halong Bay, located in northeastern Vietnam, is a breathtaking natural wonder that has captivated visitors for centuries. With its emerald waters and towering limestone karsts, it is no wonder that Halong Bay has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The name "Halong" translates to "descending dragon," and according to local legend, the bay was created by a dragon who descended from the heavens and thrashed its tail through the water, creating deep valleys and scattering thousands of islands across the bay. This mythical tale adds an air of mystique to the already enchanting landscape.

Halong Bay is home to over 1,600 islands and islets, each with its own unique shape and size. These formations have been shaped over millions of years by wind and water erosion, resulting in stunning caves, grottoes, and arches that can be explored by boat or kayak.

In addition to its natural beauty, Halong Bay also boasts a rich cultural heritage. The bay has been inhabited by various indigenous communities for thousands of years, who have left their mark on the landscape through traditional fishing villages and floating markets.

What are the options to explore Halong Bay?

Pure and Serene

The Halong Bay is best explored on a cruise that departs from the harbor. There is a great variation of cruises available with different durations, facilities, and activities. In general, tourists stay in Hanoi and cover Halong Bay as a tour from Hanoi. There are in general three major options that get picked:

1. Day Tour of Halong Bay

This tour is a whirlwind tour of Halong Bay and takes about 10 hours from pick up to drop. The day trip is perfect for those with time or budget constraints. It provides a glimpse into Halong Bay's beauty without requiring an overnight stay. Visitors can take part in activities like cave exploration and squid fishing before returning to Hanoi in the evening. However, the boat does not have sleeping or other "cruise-like" facilities and the entire experience is slightly rushed. It could be a really long day if you pick this. 

A view of Halong Bay

2. Overnight Cruise Excursions of Halong Bay

The overnight cruise offers a more immersive experience as it allows visitors to spend more time exploring the bay. Guests can enjoy activities such as kayaking, swimming, and visiting floating villages. Additionally, they have the opportunity to witness breathtaking sunsets and sunrises over the bay. The overnight cruise also includes comfortable accommodations on board a traditional junk boat and delicious meals prepared by experienced chefs.

There are two kinds of overnight cruises - one-nighter and two-nighter. The difference is in the extent of the bay that is covered and some of the activities. The latter allows you to dock on the other side of the bay and takes you on a bicycle tour of local tribal villages. 

What did we choose and why?

We chose an overnight cruise because along with the beauty of Halong Bay, we wanted to dangle our feet on a cruise-like experience with the kid. We haven't been on a cruise trip since the kiddo and were not sure how the waving accommodation would impact him. We have heard of stories where kids are not so comfortable with staying long over ships especially if the weather is not great. Hence we wanted to explore that side as well. 

Also, we read a lot about Halong Bay and its immense beauty and felt that it may not be possible to absorb and appreciate the entire gift of nature in a super-quick day tour. Again, with a kid, a 10-12 hour day with 4-5 hours on the road may not have been the best experience for either him or us! Also, we were on a 10-day trip of the entire Vietnam and hence did not have the luxury of spending 3 days on the bay itself.

Hence we opted for an overnight cruise taking us through the bay over a 2-day-1-night trip. The details of the cruise we chose can be found on Sapphire Cruise

We chose Sapphire Cruise

How to Book a Tour or Cruise for Halong Bay?

Halong Bay cruises are a very popular activity from Hanoi and hence you will find options lining up for you at every interaction point you go to. It would start from the time you start planning with a travel agent to the time you book accommodation to the time you land in Hanoi. Every deal you see will be as tempting or even more than the one you had heard earlier. Obviously, if you are traveling in a slightly lean season, this would increase manifold. 

We recommend that you first research the Halong Bay cruises, the various options available, and the facilities offered by some of the popular ones. Once you have an initial idea, decide on what is more important for you - day tour vs. overnight cruise, basic accommodation vs. spa and jacuzzi in room, view of the bay vs. kayaking & swimming, and Halong Bay only vs. other bays. The menu is unlimited and easily overwhelming. So it is better to have some idea before you start into conversations. Also, you need to have a relatively good idea of your itinerary and the days when you want your cruise/tour.

If you are booking a packaged tour for Vietnam, ask them for their recommendation of a cruise based on your requirements. Research on those cruises as it would highly filter out your list from thousands to tens. Then look at the leading hotel booking portals for the prices and then negotiate a deal. If you are not taking a packaged tour, then research cruises based on your requirements via hotel booking portals and TripAdvisor. Also, if you staying in Hanoi, opt for the travel package along with the cruise as getting individual transport may end up being cumbersome. 

Views of Cruises in Halong Bay

What to expect on the Overnight Cruise?

Well, you are now booked on the cruise and are excited about the wonderful experience ahead of you. You are curious too, to know what you would experience on the cruise, and cannot wait to satiate your curiosity. Here is a glimpse of what you can expect during your cruise experience (in order of occurrence) in the form of 10-pointers!

1. A Moderately Long Trip to Harbor

In most probability, you would be taking the Halong Bay tour from Hanoi. Irrespective of what tour you take, you will take a two-and-a-half-hour bus ride to the Tuan Chau Harbor where you will board your boat. The route is decent and the road infrastructure is good. A recent opening up of the expressway has led to a much reduced time duration (earlier it took about 4 hours). Generally, you can expect your bus to stop for a bio-break halt and a pearl factory stop. The day we took the trip, it was raining heavily and hence the journey was pretty scenic. There is greenery around which becomes mesmerizing in the rain. 

2. A Tender Boat Ride to the Main Cruise

Halong Bay from Tender Boats

If you are taking the day tour, you will board your boat from the harbor. However, night cruise ships are relatively bigger in size and hence do not dock at the harbor. These ships anchor some distance away from the jetty and the cruise operators take you to ship on smaller motor boats called tender boats. These are support vessels to the big ships and move along with the ship in a tugged fashion. These are used to transfer passengers from/to the harbor, from/to the rowing boat jetty, and to transport supplies for the ship. It takes about 45 minutes to ride on a tender boat to reach your cruise. Since it was a rainy day, we were apprehensive about how we could get to the cruise but somehow they got permission from authorities to operate the cruise. Hence we took the boat ride but it was a pretty bumpy ride with almost no visibility. 

3. A Welcome and Wonderful Lunch

As you approach the cruise you will be accorded a warm welcome with the captain and the crew waiting right at the entry of the ship. As you usher in, you can drop your luggage at the reception until you get your room allotted. You will be first taken to the restaurant where they will start with a few instructions and protocols. They would also guide you about the itinerary of the tour. While this happens, you will be allotted a room parallel and keys will be given to you. 

The ship gradually starts sailing and you can enjoy the wonderful views while they serve a sumptuous lunch. You are allowed to request ahead if you have dietary requirements like vegan or allergies. The meal is a proper 5-7 course affair with generous portions and includes a course of tropical fruits. Once you are done with the meal, you are given some time to unwind. The cruise would have picked steam until then and would be proceeding to the bay with all its pace. 

4. A Luxury Room Accommodation Onboard

Once you move to your rooms, in most probability you will enter a luxurious accommodation for your stay. At a minimum, your room would have a nicely set bed, air conditioning, a balcony, and an attached washroom. The exact facilities in the room and onboard the cruise may vary quite a lot. We were on Sapphire Cruise and had a large room (with three beds) and a jacuzzi in the washroom. For some of the cruises we could see, they had a nice lounge-like area within the room or larger balconies. For other facilities, a few cruises had a health center and gym while others had an onboard slide system to enjoy the water. 

Views from Our Suite

We were allowed to unwind and absorb the wonderful scenery from our room's glass facade wall and the decently sized personal balcony. This time also helped us relax a bit, click pictures across the cruise, make vlogs, and pause before the activities began again. This is also the time when you would get some floating boat shops coming over your balcony and offering snacks and drinks. 

5. A Rowing Boat Ride to Limestone Bright Caves

In the evening we were taken on the rowing boat tour to the Bright Caves which are beautiful natural structure limestone karsts. Sometimes this may be interchanged with the activities on next morning based on how the weather is. Given it was drizzling and the next morning could have had more severe rains, the operator decided to offer that experience in the evening itself. We were taken on the tender boat to the rowing boat jetty from where we boarded our rowing boat. The journey of about half an hour takes you through an amazing world of trance and you would be mesmerized with what you see.

Although it was raining, they were prepared for the weather. We were all given disposable raincoats to protect ourselves and the boatman rowed in the pouring water. It is a wonderful sidebar and a great experience overall. You would be offered this experience even if you pick a day tour. 

Bright Caves Tour on Halong Bay Cruise

6. Swimming Time and Unwinding on Terrace

After the return from the Bright Cave, there is leisure time that is given to guests. This is the time to unwind and relax. Guests can either chill on the sun deck or can enjoy a drink from the bar. They also let us enjoy some swimming if you are up to it in the chilly waters. Adequate safety equipment is available on board and you can get to the tender boat as the diving board. We kept away from the water and enjoyed the wonderful scenery from the terrace. 

7. Evening Activities - Cooking Classes, Music Time, and Dinner

As the sun goes down, the lights start twinkling across the sky from the numerous cruises that anchor for the night. Every ship may have a different set of activities but broadly the menu remains the same. You would have time to indulge in some activities to engage you. Our cruise offered a cocktail toast to start the evening followed by tropical fruits as an evening bite. After some relaxed and fun moments of networking with fellow travelers, we were set for the next activity.

This cruise had a cooking class where they ran the guests through a hands-on demo of rice spring rolls. They had separate set-ups for vegetarians and non-vegetarian spring roll fillings. Since the vegetarian pickers were few, we had other guests take it up just to make sure we had enough servings. These were to be served later for the dinner! Gradually the evening fed into some music time and then into the restaurant for dinner. Another great meal with enough variance and palate. After the dinner, guests were free to either relax on the sundeck or enjoy from luxury of their rooms. 

Rishik Taking the Driver's Seat of Halong Bay Cruise

8. Early Morning Breakfast and Exercise Session

The next morning they serve some quick breakfast and tea onboard the ship which is relatively early by most standards. You could also opt to enjoy  Tai Chi sessions to get some workout. If you prefer, you could request your coffee or tea to be served in your room or sundeck. 

9. Kayaking and Time to Unwind

After breakfast, you could enjoy some additional exercise over Kayaking. All the equipment is provided by the cruise operator and is included in the price of the cruise. We had never had a kayaking experience earlier so tried our hands on the sport. It is definitely fun and the science behind rowing is pretty evident. 

Well Organized Kayaking Activity

10. Lunch and Checkout 

After all these experiences, it is almost time to say goodbyes. They allow for about an hour after the activities for everyone to take a shower, enjoy the jacuzzi, or pack up their luggage. We made most of the time by enjoying a quick jacuzzi while overlooking the vast bay and then continued the charm from the balcony over a cup of coffee. We also used this time to record our vlog videos. Later we were asked to check out of our rooms over the public address systems (we missed talking about it but each room has speakers for the cruise manager to provide instructions and reminders). The crew uses this time to clean up the rooms and prepare them for the next set of guests. We were invited to the restaurant for an early lunch. Later the cruise anchored and we were taken on the tender boat back to the shore.

Need to Pose on Halong Bay Cruise

How to prepare for Halong Bay (including learnings)?

You are excited about your upcoming Halong Bay Cruise but you could prepare yourself better by keeping these considerations in mind while preparing for the trip. 

  • Research your requirements based on the purpose of the trip and pick a cruise that meets the requirements (not more, not less)
  • Include the to-and-fro travel from Hanoi along with the cruise bookings 
  • Some of the cruises take you further to Lanha Bay which is much quite and serene - our cruise was one such offering and we recommend this (but it comes at additional price)
  • Sometimes weather may lead to the cancellation of cruises so be mentally prepared for it
  • Travel light - If you are going to be back in Hanoi for some time after the cruise, we recommend leaving most of your luggage at the hotel as the space is at a premium and you do not have much help with luggage
  • Carry your critical supplies like water medicines or snacks because the options onboard are limited and sometimes expensive
  • If you opt to buy anything from the floating boats, pay exact change as they seldom give you the change back and you have limited ways to get it back as well!
  • Enjoy the tour at your pace and do not feel forced to try all the activities if they are not of your interest
  • Take a lot of pictures and create memories!

A light moment onboard

In conclusion both the overnight cruise and day trip offer unique experiences in Halong Bay. The choice ultimately depends on individual preferences and circumstances such as time availability and budget constraints. Whether one chooses to spend a night on a luxurious junk boat or opt for a shorter excursion during the day, Halong Bay promises unforgettable memories for all who visit this natural wonderland.

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