Read more about my Self Care Sabbatical and the other places I’ve visited!
If you are on the fence about visiting Halong Bay while in Vietnam, I would say it is worth going to. Yes, it is touristy. It can be expensive. But this place is popular for a reason – it is incredibly beautiful.
I visited in December which is a bit off-peak for Halong Bay so it was probably a little less busy than it would be in high season. There were still, however, quite a few other boats out in the bay with us overnight.
The hardest part about booking a trip to Halong Bay is sifting through all of the options. Like any travel, you need to decide the length of trip, budget, and specific sights/activities that you will want to do. While most of the cruise options are similar, the more you know about what you want to do, the easier it will be to pick a cruise.
Length of time: You have a few different options for visiting Halong Bay if you are coming from Hanoi: day trip, 1-night overnight, or 2-night overnight. I would recommend the overnight trip if you are going to do it. The trip between Halong Bay and Hanoi takes about 3 hours each way so doing this for a day trip makes for a VERY long day. And while the junk boat cruise is fun, I don’t think there is really enough happening to make the 2-night trip worthwhile.
Budget: What do you want to spend on your trip to Halong Bay? This may also determine the length of your stay if you are not wanting to spend a lot but still see this part of Vietnam. There are a variety of boat options that range from higher-end luxury to mid-range. The biggest difference will be in the room quality/amenities and the food, as well as the bus transfer between Hanoi and Halong Bay. For about $100-120 total you can get a nice mid-range cruise.
Sights & Activities: Do you want a party boat? Something more family-oriented? Lots of activities or just something relaxing? The different cruise lines offer similar itineraries for the cruises but may cater to different types of people. There are some cruises that attract more single, young travelers (but may also be a bit more party-focused), while others are good for an older, more relaxed crowd. Depending on the time of year, your activities may also be limited so keep that in mind as well (for example, in December we were definitely not going swimming in the bay). Like other cruises, the activities are not mandatory so you can always skip out and just relax on the boat.
There are different areas within Halong Bay including Bai Tu Long and Lan Ha Bay so you may want a cruise that takes you into one of these areas (though note that there will be plenty of other junk boats in all of these areas). You can also take a cruise to nearby Cat Ba Island and stay a night or two on the island if you want to extend your time in the area (again, probably depends on the weather and what you want to do).
After staring at 5 different cruise brochures for what seemed like an hour, I finally made a decision to book a Cristina Diamond cruise. This was somewhat more expensive, but not luxury. The rooms looked nice, the activities were interesting, and I had the option of saving a bit of money by opting in for a roommate rather than booking a single room (unfortunately, if you want your own room on these cruises you get charged more). I spent just a little more than $100 which included a comfortable bus transfer, 4 meals, activities, and a shared double room. As you will be reminded, drinks are NOT INCLUDED though they were not nearly as expensive as I thought they might be.
I had booked my cruise through Lily’s Travel (just like my Sapa trip) and wound up on the same cruise as 3 of my fellow Sapa trekkers! I was so happy to see them all again, and I ended up sharing a room with one of them since we had both opted for the shared room. Perfect! Being in a group definitely made the cruise a lot more fun – most of the other people on our boat were in groups which might have been a little weird had I been on my own. That doesn’t mean solo travelers should be discouraged from taking a cruise though – it’s still a lot of fun and you might meet some awesome people.
After we arrived at the junk boat, we found our room and were quickly told to grab lunch before the afternoon’s activities which included kayaking around the bay. While the weather was a bit cool and cloudy, we still had a great time kayaking around the fishermen’s village in the bay. After kayaking, we were taken to an oyster farm which felt VERY touristy (complete with pearl jewelry store) but was kind of fun to see.
In the evening, we had a little wine and snacks party on the top deck before dinner and, after dinner, had the option to try squid fishing or do some karaoke (we did a little of both). In the morning, we woke up early for a (very short) Tai Chi lesson and breakfast, then went off to visit some of the caves in the bay. And the sun finally appeared which made the views around Halong Bay even better! (After 10 days in Vietnam, this was the first time I saw the sun!) After our cave trip, we had a quick lunch and then were whisked off back to Hanoi.
While I found the junk boat cruise so-so (the food was a bit disappointing), I really did enjoy seeing Halong Bay and getting out of Hanoi for overnight. Visiting Halong Bay is quite different than trekking in Sapa, and it was a nice, relaxing break after trekking for two days!