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For many people the unique scenery of Halong Bay is one of the main inspirations for their trip to Vietnam, so choosing the right option for exploring these beautiful, island-strewn waters is key.
Here we provide a handy guide to Halong enabling you to make the right choice for you.
First, a bit of background:
Where is Halong Bay?
Located around 90 miles due east of Hanoi on the Gulf of Tonkin, Halong Bay is the beautiful area of karst limestone scenery that shelters in the shallow waters between Cat Ba Island to the south and the Vietnamese mainland. The adjacent Bai Tu Long Bay is less visited but boasts similar dramatic seascapes.
How do I get there?
Halong Bay is usually reached by vehicle from Hanoi, a journey of between 3 and 4 hours depending on road and traffic conditions. For those with deeper pockets a new seaplane service has recently launched, offering short hop flights from Hanoi across to Halong, which can be extended to include a short flight over the bay itself.
Also accessible from Halong is the scenic region of Ninh Binh (3 hours’ drive). Known locally as ‘Dry Halong’ this attractive area south of Hanoi is home to towering limestone mountains interspersed with rice paddies and cut through by meandering rivers.
What’s the best way to explore the bay?
Although the scenery of the bay is visible from the shore of Halong City, the best way to fully appreciate its splendour is from out on the water. A cruise is the classic choice and a range of options is available to suit all tastes.
The day cruise
If the idea of staying onboard a cruise overnight doesn’t appeal, worry not! Both half and full day cruises are available that give you a great taste of the delights of the bay. A day trip from Hanoi is possible, including a half-day cruise through the bay, though with a long drive in either direction this isn’t our favourite choice. A more relaxing option is to stay overnight at a hotel in Halong City, then rise early to enjoy a delightful full day cruise.
The overnight cruise
The most popular way to explore the bay is to take an overnight cruise, with the one-night option the classic choice. In recent years a number of companies have introduced longer two- and even three-night itineraries, which provide access to more remote corners of the bay. See the following section for more details.
What is the best length of cruise?
A range of cruise lengths are now on offer. Here we discuss the practicalities and merits of each.
Many of the large tour groups tackle Halong Bay as a long day trip from Hanoi, setting out early for the long drive to the bay and joining a half day cruise, before returning to the city in the evening. For those very short on time this is an option, but not one we would usually recommend. We suggest staying overnight in Halong City and taking it a more leisurely pace.
For most visitors a one-night cruise is an excellent choice – allowing you to get out into the bay to enjoy the relaxing atmosphere onboard, but not eating too much into your time for exploring the rest of Vietnam. The majority of overnight cruises commence at midday, allowing you sufficient time to travel from Hanoi in the morning, arriving in time to get settled and set sail as lunch is being served. You sail throughout the afternoon, stopping in at one or two of the popular caves, beaches or floating villages out in the bay. Dinner is served after you have moored for the night. The following morning a further stop is made, before you return to port and disembark at around 11am.
If time allows, the two-night cruise is the perfect way to leave the crowds behind and head deeper into the bay. When the one-night boats return to port the bay is beautifully quiet, leaving you free to explore the quiet coves, kayaking and swimming, without disturbance. In many cases you will transfer from the main ship to a smaller day boat for the second day’s activities, rejoining the main ship in the evening. A small number of boats operate true two-day itineraries, where you remain with the ship throughout and head into the less-visited corners of the bay.
For the cruising connoisseur the Indochina Junk cruise company have introduced a three-night cruise which explores the more distant corners of both Halong and Bai Tu Long Bay.
What time of year is best?
Cruises continue to sail serenely through the delightful waters of Halong Bay for twelve months of the year, and picking a definitive ‘best’ time is a tough ask. Here is a little summary of the different seasons, with a few pros and cons of each that we hope will help you to reach your own conclusions.
Winter – December and January
You’re unlikely to get much rain at this time of year, but it is likely to be cool – temperatures of 15 to 20 c are common meaning jackets are the order of the day, and it’s not the time of year to anticipate much swimming.
Pros: A very low chance of disruption or cancellation; largely dry conditions and fewer visitors
Cons: Cooler temperatures and often misty days
Spring – February to April
Still dry but warming up nicely – arguably the best time of year to be on the water.
Pros: Warm, dry, lots of sun, good temperatures for a spot of swimming and sundeck relaxation
Cons: It’s a busy time of year and some of the popular spots are likely to have large numbers of boats and visitors
Summer – May to August
Temperatures during the summer months can be pretty stifling in Hanoi, but with a gentle sea breeze where could be better than being on the water. This is the rainiest time of year up north so you’re likely to encounter a hefter shower or two, but not usually enough to spoil your enjoyment.
Pros: A welcome respite from the heat of the city, great for swimming, kayaking and relaxing
Cons: The summer is a busy time, popular with holidaying Vietnamese; you’ll get rained on a some stage, and toward the end of the summer there is the risk of a storm or typhoon which can cause a closure of the bay to shipping.
Autumn – September to November
Lovely temperatures for sailing and a less rain overall can be expected, though there is a continued storm risk, particularly in September and October meaning disruption and even cancellation is a possibility.
Pros: Ideal temperatures; relatively uncrowded (it’s never completely quiet at Halong)
Cons: Some typhoon risk early in the season
What ship should I choose?
Since 2012 all ships on Halong Bay have been painted white, by government order, so at first glance there may appear little difference between the various craft bobbing in the water. Look more closely, however, and you’ll notice a range of style, sizes and standards to choose from, each catering to a different set of tastes and budgets. The majority of boats include all meals as part of the package, though the drink situation varies by boat – some including complimentary soft and alcoholic drinks with meals, others not. In all cases imported wines and beers will tend to be relatively expensive.
Classic wooden Chinese-style junk boat
The majority of the boats on Halong Bay are modelled on the traditional Chinese-style junk boat, complete with ornamental sails for the final decorative flourish. There are numerous companies operating, and these junk boats range in size from romantic private one-cabin vessels to larger boats with 20 or more cabins. The standard also ranges from the comfortable mid-range up to the luxurious and exclusive. In general the more expensive vessels will have larger cabins often with private balconies, and ensuite bathrooms will be larger, more private and better equipped.
Modern luxury vessel
The new Au Co ship is one of the few in Halong that doesn’t mimic the traditional junk boat style, though internally the elegant wooden finish, complete with Oriental touches, ensures you know you’re in Vietnam.
Traditional paddle steamer
Tourism on Halong Bay commenced during the French colonial era, and a descendant of one of the earliest cruise owners has reconstructed one of the original European-style paddle steamers that sailed the bay from 1906. The elegant Emeraude is steel-hulled and has a unique European colonial atmosphere.
Whichever time of year you decide to visit, this UNESCO World Heritage site is beautiful and this little guide to Halong should allow you to make the most of it.
For more help with your Vietnam trip, take a look at our latest travel tool.