Halong Bay is considered one of the most beautiful natural landscapes in Vietnam, and a Halong Bay cruise is a must-do on many travelers’ lists. Imagine an emerald bay peppered with about 2,000 tiny vegetation-topped islands which feature numerous caves, lagoons, coves, and coral reefs. This breathtaking UNESCO heritage site has recently received the honor of being named one of the New Seven Natural Wonders of the world and is not surprisingly one of the most popular attractions in Vietnam. Most visitors need little convincing to visit, but the array of cruise options can be daunting as hundreds of boats ply across the waters of Halong Bay each day. Cruises range widely in price and companies offer a variety of cruise lengths, itineraries, amenities, and activities. We’ll share our tips on how to choose a Halong Bay cruise, answer common questions about Halong Bay cruises, and review our own recent Halong Bay cruise with The Au Co.

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Halong Bay Cruise Vietnam The Au Co Cruises Review

A Few Facts about Halong Bay

    • Halong Bay is located east of Vietnam’s capital city Hanoi. It takes about 3.5 to 4 hours by car to get from Halong Bay from Hanoi or the Noi Boi airport (outside Hanoi). If you are using a transfer service, you’ll likely stop for a 15 to 30 minute break along the way. The closer but smaller Cat Bi International Airport is located about 1.5 hours drive from the main Halong Bay docks.
    • Note that there are several different ports in and around Halong Bay where cruise ships may dock. While most cruises leave from the Halong Bai Chay port, some also leave from Haiphong and Cai Lan. In our case, our cruise left from the dock on Tuan Chau island. Knowing this information is only necessary if you are arranging your own transportation.
    • Legend has it that Halong Bay was created by a great dragon from the mountains and the name Halong translates to “where the dragon descends into the sea”. Scientists, however, suggest that the landscape was formed through tectonics and water erosion. Halong Bay is considered a notable example of a karst landscape formed by the dissolution of limestone in the area that occurred over millions of years.
  • As tourism continues to increase in Halong Bay, so have the regulations to try to ensure safety and prevent overcrowding and destruction of the bay. After some disastrous incidents, such as the sinking of one tourist boat in 2011, a number of regulations were enacted in regards to Halong Bay cruise boats that has hopefully led to increased safety. Stricter regulations also mean less flexibility for cruise operators as to where they can go and where they can anchor. Cruise boats can only anchor in certain areas and must anchor near other boats at night for safety reasons. A recent and not very popular regulation requires all boats to be painted white (supposedly so they could easily be seen but this doesn’t work very well in foggy conditions) so many boats are not able to show off their intended colors.
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Choosing a Halong Bay Cruise Company

Halong Bay Cruise Vietnam The Au Co Cruises Review

How much should I budget for a cruise?

If you want to splurge on one activity during your time in Vietnam, I would recommend that you consider doing it on a Halong Bay cruise. Most cruise packages include transfers to and from Hanoi and you can get really cheap cruises beginning at a rock-bottom jaw-dropping $30 per person to do an afternoon cruise around the bay and going upwards to $400 per person/day for a luxury overnight cruise. You do not need to book with a luxury operator to have a nice cruise, but if you book at the budget level it is hard to know what to expect in terms of service, food, safety, and accommodations. The budget tours are often booked through travel agents who place people with different tour operators and boats in order to adequately fill up as many spaces as possible, so you really may not have a good idea of what things will be like until you get aboard. Our recommendation would be to try to budget for a mid-range operator with good online and/or word-of-mouth reviews and you should be able to get a good day cruise starting at about $70/person or an overnight cruise starting at around $120 to $150 per person. If you shop around and check promotions, you may find even better rates as most cruise companies are anxious to fill their boats and offer good last-minute deals. Don’t fret if this sounds like more than you can spend, just find a reputable travel agency in Hanoi, book at a price you can afford, and then go knowing you’ll still be seeing the same beautiful bay without any of the bells and whistles. On the other hand, if you are looking for excellent food and service, check out the luxury cruises and expect to spend a little more. The activities and sites are often the same between the mid-range and luxury operators, but the food, service, and staff-to-passenger ratio often improves.

Do I have to book an organized tour to take a cruise?

No, but it is the most convenient way. You can also make your own way to Bai Chay (a.k.a. Halong City) by bus and then arrange a cab or bus to the Bai Chay harbor and book a boat to tour Halong Bay or take you to Cat Ba Island. You can stop at the Halong Bay Tourist Information Centre at Bai Chay dock for information and then negotiate a price with companies at the dock. You’ll likely wind up as a daytrippper on another cruise for a budget price, but you will likely have to pay extra for any onboard services such as meals, drinks, activities, etc. If you are not interested in any of the extras, this can be a great budget idea, but if you do want some of the extras you may end up paying more for them than if you joined a budget cruise. If you head to Cat Ba island, this then gives you the option to explore and stay as long as you want. I would check with backpacker-friendly guidebooks or websites such as Lonely Planet and Rough Guides for recommendations on how to best do this on your own.

On the opposite side of the realm, private boat charters are also possible for those with money who are not interested in cruising with a fixed cruise tour itinerary or a group of strangers. While expensive, this can actually be a reasonable option for those traveling as a family or larger group and you may be able to customize an itinerary. Note that the company will likely still have to get an itinerary approved in advance so not a good last-minute option if you want a customized trip. Many of the larger mid-range and luxury tour operators offer private tour options.

How much time should I spend at Halong Bay?

You’ll want to spend at least a few hours on the boat cruising the bay if you are just going for the day. Also factor in that it will take almost 4 hours to get from Hanoi to Halong Bay and another 4 hours to return to Hanoi, so it may feel a bit disappointing to spend more time in the shuttle van than on a boat. If it is within your budget, I would strongly recommend choosing an overnight cruise as things become much quieter and less crowded in the evenings and it is nice to have more time to move around the boat and engage in more activities. We also greatly enjoyed being able to witness both sunset and sunrise from the boat. Let’s put it this way, those who just do a day trip often wish they had spent at least one night and those who spend one night, often wish they could have spent two, etc. You’re unlikely to regret spending an extra day or night here, so I would choose the tour that best fits your budget and schedule. Note that it is often a good value to do a 3 day/2 night trip compared to a 2 day/1 night trip as even though it costs a bit more, the cost per day is often less. Also pay attention to the amount of time spent on the cruise as a 2 day/1 night cruise itinerary may only account for 24 hours or less of time!


Best times of the year to cruise Halong Bay?

Tours operate all year long, but the best months are generally considered between October and May, with October, November, March, and April considered ideal. The summer months can be hot and rainy and winter months can be cold with strong winds. It is also good to avoid major holidays such as Tet. During any visit, it is best to check the weather forecast before scheduling and ask about the company’s weather cancellation policy (will cost be refunded? will you be rescheduled for the next available tour?) before booking a tour.

I’ve heard that there is a lot of pollution and trash in Halong Bay, is this true?

We personally did not witness much trash in the bay during our recent visit in April. However, we have heard that trash and pollution is a serious issue in the area, stemming from the tourism industry as well as the fishing industry and inhabitants of the floating villages. Do your part to protect this beautiful area by refraining from throwing anything into the water, disposing of rubbish appropriately on the boat and while visiting caves and islands, and supporting cruise companies that promote sustainable and responsible tourism in the bay. Responsible and eco-friendly tourism is still a growing concept in Vietnam but it is increasing.

Some Halong Bay cruises mention Cat Ba Island, Gulf of Tonkin, Bai Tui Long Bay, and/or Lan Ha Bay. Are these places worth visiting as well?

The Gulf of Tonkin is the full area stretching from China to Vietnam and includes three bays: Halong Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay, and Lan Ha Bay. Cat Ba Island is the largest island in the bay and is well-recognized for its biodiversity and about half of the island is protected as a national park. Many Halong Bay tours stop here for trekking, biking, birdwatching, kayaking, and other adventure activities and some cruises stay overnight here at one of the island’s hotels. Bai Tu Long Bay is located east of Halong Bay and includes numerous islands and a national park and is often referred to as a less-visited Halong Bay. Lan Ha Bay to the south of Halong Bay is even less visited than Bai Tu Long Bay and also offers great natural beauty as well as more beaches than the other bays. Most of the budget tours and day cruises stay within Halong Bay as it requires more time and fuel to venture further, but many of the mid-range and luxury cruises offer the chance to explore further afield. Don’t expect to be the only boat in any of the bays, (at night boats must stay within eyesight of other boats for safety), but it is nice to get away a bit from the crowds. We visited all three bays and all are quite beautiful. The biggest advantage is that you’re more likely to have the opportunity to find less crowded beaches and coves for swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking if you venture outside Halong Bay.

What things should I take into consideration?

This is a matter of preference of course, but the factors that were most important to us were length of the cruise, itinerary, cost, activities included/available, number of passengers, quality of food, commitment to responsible travel, safety record, and quality of overnight accommodations. We also had a preference to book directly with a cruise company rather than booking through a third-party travel agency and we wanted a cruise where we stayed on the same boat the entire trip (no boat transfers). At a minimum, find out specifically what all is covered in the cruise price (meals, activities, gear, cave tours, park fees), and if there are any additional costs that you will need to pay (e.g., optional activities, drinks, cave entrance fees. kayak rentals). If you are staying overnight as part of your cruise, you might also want to ask about whether the boat also accepts daytrippers which might indicate the boat may be crowded during the day. During overnight cruises, you’ll either sleep overnight on the boat or the company will arrange accommodations elsewhere such as at a hotel on Cat Ba Island. Almost all cruises stop to tour at least one cave and one fishing village, and some make stops at beaches, pearl farms, Cat Ba Island, and other attractions. For those wanting to party or meet up with backpackers or singles, choose budget and midrange cruises as most of the cruisers on the luxury cruises are traveling as couples or families and tend to be older. If you or anyone in your group has any physical mobility issues, I would definitely avoid budget companies and make sure that you talk about potential issues before booking.

What Halong Bay Cruise companies should I consider?

There are dozens of cruise companies that own boats in Halong Bay and hundreds of travel agencies that will gladly sell you tickets to cruise Halong Bay. Personally we have only used The Au Co (owned by the same company as Bhaya Cruises), but the list below reflects companies and agencies we considered as well as companies that have received good reviews from reputable sources and fellow travelers. This is by no means an exhaustive list as new companies seem to be popping up all the time and we definitely recommend checking out recent reviews before booking. Most of the below fall in the mid-range to luxury range in terms of price as budget cruises often come with mixed reviews.