Halong Bay is not just one of the must visit places in Vietnam, it’s a true wonder of the world. As soon as you edge towards Halong City, you’ll see the blurred outline of thousands of limestone karsts that line the coast.
However, finding the best way to explore this stunning area can lead to complete confusion. There are hundreds of companies, offering different cruises and it can be incredibly difficult to decipher which are any good.
Luckily, we just went and have so many tips to share. Travelling through this part of the world is magical and if you get it right, it’ll be something you’ll always remember.
So here’s our guide to working out the best Halong Bay cruise for you. We’ve also debunked a lot of the myths about Halong Bay in this post.
What is Halong Bay?
Before arriving in Vietnam, we thought that the whole limestone karsts area was classified as Halong Bay. But there are actually three bays that make up the Halong Bay area - Halong Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay. Currently only Halong Bay itself is UNESCO World Heritage listed, although Cat Ba Archipelago covering Lan Ha Bay is on the tentative list.
Though the three bays share similar scenery, Halong Bay is made up of over 1,600 islands and has the highest density of limestone karsts of all the bays.
Essentially, you don’t have to visit Halong Bay specifically to get the experience of drifting through hundreds of limestone karsts but if you are keen to see the World Heritage Site then that is currently only Halong Bay itself.
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Halong Bay Cruises vs Lan Ha Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay
We visited both Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay, we wanted to visit Bai Tu Long too but it was just too expensive to visit all three. We spent many hours researching the areas ahead of our trip so we will comment on Bai Tu Long based on research only. If you have visited and have anything to add we’d love to hear.
Halong Bay is the most famous of the bays and the one you will have seen in the majority of photographs.
It is currently the only bay with World Heritage Status.
Halong Bay has the highest density of limestone karsts of all three bays. Cruising through these mountains is every bit as magical as you might imagine; if you get the right boat, although more on that later.
Huge range of cruises available, both luxury and budget.
Very easy access.
Halong Bay is incredibly busy and the majority of cruise ships appear to do almost exactly the same itinerary, at the same time and anchor in the same place. This can makes offshore sites extremely crowded, even in low season.
We read awful reviews about how much trash was in the bay but were happy to see that whilst it was far from perfect it wasn’t at all like we’d read. You do sadly see the odd plastic bag and bottle floating around or beside the walkways at the caves and other sites but it isn’t everywhere as we’d feared. We hope they do more to combat this issue and maybe it was better for us visiting outside peak season but overall it wasn’t as bad as the horror stories we read about online.
Guides were allowing tourists to feed the already obese wild monkeys at one of the stops on our cruise. There is not enough protection and control of this exceptionally beautiful area and its wildlife.
We didn’t enjoy any of the offshore activities apart from the kayaking because the crowds were so insane that you couldn’t even move sometimes, In general they are also quite commercial now and it has not been done kindly. Ugly concrete prevails.
The areas where you are allowed to swim do not look very clean with all the boats pumping fumes out, some people did swim but many didn’t and we chose not to.
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Top rated Halong Bay Cruise overnight
The great thing about Halong Bay Cruises are that many are listed on Booking.com, giving you the option to read more reviews and reserve with a trusted company. This really alleviated my fears that we would end up on a dud boat. After days and days of relentless research by Cat, here are the pick of the cruises to Halong Bay.
Most luxurious Halong Bay Cruise
This was the cruise we took and we can vouch that it was a stunning trip. Private balconies (although I don’t think this was for every cabin so double check), good food and luxury combined for the best way to see Halong Bay. You can read a full unsponsored review later in the article.
Ultralux Hera Cruise
The Ultralux Hera Cruise has to be up there as one of the most luxurious Halong Bay Cruises with beautiful suites and huge windows for taking in the sea views.
However, watch out for meal costs with this company though as they don’t always charge for full board upfront which we think is pretty crappy. We included them here because they get rave reviews from customers.
Halong Majestic Legend Cruise
A great option for midrange travellers, the Halong Majestic Legend Cruise offers cosy, private cabins that are comfortable, clean with an en-suite bathroom and have everything you’ll need. You can even pay a bit more for a cabin with huge windows for those Halong Bay views from your room and a small balcony.
The price also includes a transfer from Hanoi to the cruise, wifi and the meals onboard (we recommend checking if any drinks are included as we assume they won’t be, this seemed standard for most tours including ours).
Halong Lavender Cruises
Another good mid-range choice, Halong Lavender Cruises offer decent en-suite cabins that are clean, comfortable with Halong views from the cabins. The food is included with this company, but you will have to pay for drinks and transport from Hanoi.
Lan Ha Bay
Lan Ha Bay cruises offer the best value with beautiful cabins for the cheapest prices we saw.
There are still hundreds of limestone karts and you can visit independently or on a cruise.
Much, much quieter than Halong Bay, when kayaking we were almost always completely alone and nothing can compete with that feeling.
You can base yourself at Cat Ba Island and explore many more beautiful sites.
Swimming sites seemed much cleaner….
Currently not included within the World Heritage Area, development albeit on a tiny scale has been allowed to happen unlike Halong Bay (such as accommodation on remote islands, this is only a negative for some people as others would enjoy the chance to stay on a remote island!).
Requires a bit more effort to get to than Halong Bay (although the additional ferry ride is really beautiful so this is only really a negative if you are time poor).
Some rubbish in the bay, as at Halong. Again it isn’t widespread but you will encounter it.
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Top rated overnight Lan Ha Bay Cruises
Just like Halong, cruises around Lan Ha Bay can also be booked on booking.com. We recommend checking where they launch from as it may not be in Ha Long city, but Cat Ba Island, requiring additional travel time.
The cabins on Orchid Cruises around Lan Ha Bay look surprisingly big and incredibly plush for any cruise in the area. The rooms are luxurious with a private balcony and stunning views out to Lan Ha Bay. The executive suites have their own bathtub and would fit into a 5 star hotel anywhere in the world! This is one we strongly considered before deciding to explore Lan Ha Bay independently.
All the food is included as well as activities such as kayaking. However, you will have to pay extra for the transfer from Hanoi to Haiphong.
The rooms on the Era Cruise may not have the character of Orchid, but they make up for it by their huge size! At 46 square metres, the cabins are almost 50% bigger, but are styled with a more modern look. The rooms have sun loungers on the balcony as well as spacious en-suite bathrooms - the more expensive rooms have a swanky bathtub that looks out to Halong Bay!
The Era Cruise also includes all meals and a couple of activities, but doesn’t include drinks or transfers from Hanoi.
Sunlight Boutique Cruise
The Sunlight Boutique Cruise nicely balances comfort and cost as the rooms are not quite as big and extravagant as the luxury ones we’ve listed, but are nice and comfortable for an overnight trip.
Their cruise also includes almost everything you could want - food, transfers and activities - with only the drinks being excluded.
Bai Tu Long Bay
Bai Tu Long Bay is the quietest of all three bays.
Far less boats visit this area and they seem to have a much more responsible attitude towards the environment.
More pristine environment than the other two more visited bays.
More expensive boats than the other two bays and very little options to choose from. Very few offered balconies which was something we were really keen to have.
Much further away than the other two bays so more travel time is required (albeit by boat so not a total hardship!).
The lowest density of limestone karsts (although still very beautiful).
Some rubbish as at the other two bays but apparently less overall.
Top rated overnight Bai Tu Long Bay Cruises
Luxury - Emperor Cruises
Emperor Cruises take things to a whole new level with huge rooms, panoramic views, private balconies and your own butler! There are only eight cabins on the boat so you won’t have to worry about being crowded and the boat is designed to replicate the lavish lifestyle of Emperor Bao Dai (the last emperor of Vietnam) so you can enjoy Bai Tu long Bay with a personalised service. It doesn’t get more lavish than this.
This is one of the few cruises which is genuinely all-inclusive and they offer pick ups from Hanoi airport as well as alcohol for the whole cruise.
Midrange - Treasure Junk
Treasure Junk is the best mid-range option for Bai Tu Long Bay cosy, comfortable cabins and a decent cost for cruising Bai Tu Long Bay. The cruise includes the costs for meals and activities, but exludes a transfer to the boat and drinks onboard.
Our personal Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay experiences
We chose to visit Halong Bay on an overnight cruise. We went for a luxury option because we were celebrating Joe’s birthday and wanted to make sure it was special. Whilst we would never normally choose a cruise it was the only way to see Halong Bay and we did have a fantastic time.
This is our thoughts on the boat we chose.
Our Halong Bay cruise - Paradise Elegance
After Cat spent a lifetime researching, we eventually booked a 2 day 1 night Paradise Elegance Cruise. It wasn’t cheap, but it was pretty amazing. The balcony meant that we could enjoy the scenery without feeling crowded.
Our cabin was beautiful with a private balcony and felt like a mini 5 star hotel. We loved retreating here and watching the karsts go by in comfort.
The lunch and breakfast was ok (but not great), but the dinner was a good three course meal. Before the meal even started we were greeted with a seafood platter - of prawns, several types of oysters (freshly caught from Halong Bay), sea bass, octopus and more. This was the highlight of the meal.
We asked specifically to be able to sit outside for all our meals which they were fine about and we almost always had the entire deck to ourselves as everyone wanted to eat in the air conditioned dining room - woop woop!
So overall we were really happy with the boat itself and the scenery was needless to say fantastic. The offshore excursions though were pretty awful and crowded doesn’t even seem to convey just how packed they were. Here’s what else to expect from them:
Sung Sot Cave - The cave itself is pretty enough, though nothing spectacular if you have seen pretty caves before, and certainly not comparable to those you’ll see if you are heading to Phong Nha. The walkways have not been done very sympathetically and it feels very artificial. There are plenty of bins there now so we didn’t find the trash situation to be too bad contrary to what we had read online. We also didn’t have the purple and green garish lights we heard about, it’s now ordinary lighting.
Ti Top Island - Oh dear, this could be one of the most beautiful places in Asia with such a staggering view of the karsts from the lookout (a few hundred steps up). But even at 7.30am the path to the viewpoint had queues and the top was a human crush. Within half an hour, everyone had left. Why everyone was herded there at the same time made no sense! It also seemed to bring out the worst in people, with several groups bringing Bang & Olufsen speakers blaring out K-Pop. There were also those really annoying selfie takers who refuse to let anyone get close to the view until they’ve taken 50,000 photos of themselves. Ugh. What a shame.
The area that we kayaked at is no longer on the itineraries and has been replaced by Tung Sau Pearl Farm. No, we don’t think it sounds very exciting either.
Our Lan Ha Bay experience - independent kayaking
The beauty of exploring Lan Ha Bay is that you can do so independently (although there are also plenty of cruises and they are cheaper than on Halong). For us this meant we were able to experience the beauty of Lan Ha Bay without any of the crowds. This made the whole experience one of the best things we’ve done in Asia. We hardly saw anyone else during our trip and being in a kayak made the karsts seem even bigger than they had on the cruise boat at Halong.
If you want to know more about our experience or how to do it yourself you can read about it here.
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Were we happy with our choices?
This is a tough one, I think if we’d have known how bad the offshore sites were going to be in Halong Bay we’d have skipped all but the kayaking. The actual cruise itself and the scenery was outstanding and that would have been enough. It is everything you have ever seen in photographs and more.
A few things made us uncomfortable about visiting Halong - the overcrowding and some of the development and lax regulations with regard to the environment and wildlife would make me think twice before going back. It’s a fragile environment that needs to be protected. In this regard I think Bai Tu Long Bay would be much better, however, it was drifting through Halong Bay itself that we had always dreamed about and it was a wonderful experience.
Lan Ha Bay was incredible and whilst it didn’t have as many karsts as Halong we got more out of being able to explore without the crowds.
Where to stay before/after your Halong Bay cruise
If you don’t want to head straight on to the next destination then there’s a great option right by the ferry port.
We stayed at Moon Bay, a modern hotel that gives the most stunning views of Halong Bay from the shared balcony. The rooms are huge, nicely furnished and a comfortable place to relax. We stayed here in order to be near the ferry terminal to get to Cat Ba Island.
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