Halong Bay in Vietnam: How to visit, Cruise and Routes

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tisiting Halong Bay (to be men of the world: Halong Bay) was one of the fixed points of my trip to Vietnam. So much a fixed point that I jumped through hoops to be able to visit this small but fantastic corner of the world.

The Gulf of Tonkin in August is a jackpot. Typhoons are possible and in this case the Halong Bay cruises are all suspended, postponed or even canceled, but I will tell you more about this in the remainder of the post.

Before my departure I read many other articles pertaining to Halong Bay but none practical and informative. Those of you who have been reading me for a while will know that I love to give you straightforward and useful advice to try to get you to avoid a few more snags. You will also find a good tip for discovering a less touristy part of Halong Bay.

You might also be interested in: 10 tips for traveling in Vietnam DIY

How to visit Halong Bay in Vietnam

Halong Bay is considered one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World which became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, to be sure! It is a place that will surprise you.

Whether you see it with the classic haze and mist or with sunshine, it is a unique place that deserves to be seen once in a lifetime; that’s why I jumped through hoops to see it.

History and legend of Halong Bay

This wonder of nature hides a folk legend that tries to explain how the bay was formed. Opposed to the folk legend is the scientific explanation that claims that Halong Bay, consisting of about 2,000 islands, was formed by processes of orogenesis. These are limestone islands in which there are several karst caves with stalactites and stalagmites, caves that until a few decades ago were even inhabited.

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Sailing near the floating village in Bai to Long Bay

The folk legend is certainly more “colorful” than the cold scientific version, the story goes that the Vietnamese were once fighting against Chinese invaders. The gods sent them help from a family of dragons that began spitting out gems and jewels. They transformed into the islets that later joined together to form a barrier against the Chinese invaders. The bay is thus named Halong since it is the “Bay of the Descending Dragon.”

The main bay is Halong Bay, where according to legend the mother descended,The sons “descended” to what is now called Bai To Long, a less visited and less touristy portion of Halong Bay. Within the post you will find information for visiting this very piece of the bay.

Bai To Long: the less touristy Halong Bay

One of the issues of Halong Bay is, of course, tourism. Such a beautiful area can only be highly visited. This is normal, and unfortunately this carries with it its positive sides and its, alas, negative sides.

It is up to us to figure out how wecan find an alternative solution that allows us to enjoy a tourist place as if it were not. In Halong Bay, amazingly, this can be done.

Halong Bay is called the whole area where cruises are made and where there are the various limestone formations. It is actually the central portion of the cluster of islands, and the majority of cruises proceed right along this stretch.

The outlying areas are Lan Ha Bay (south) and Bai To Long Bay (north).

My prerogative was really to experience Halong Bay in a less touristy way. I did not want to find myself surrounded by boats, amidst various din and photographing landscapes marred by the silhouette of boats. Bai To Long Bay is the perfect solution, I spent 3 days in total tranquility encountering only a couple more boats, mostly very small boats.

The reason is that few cruise ship companies have the opportunity to sail within Bai To Long Bay. As you can see from the map: north Bai To long, central Ha Long and south Lan Ha.

What is the best time to visit Halong Bay?

The best months to visit Halong Bay are March – April and from late September until December. These are the most stable months where there is a good ratio of temperature to sunny weather.

The months from May to August are very risky as typhoons happen to form in the Gulf of Tonkin, so cruises and any other activities in the bay are postponed if not canceled.

I can tell you this from experience because it was actually a typhoon that made me change the itinerary of my trip to Vietnam. A typhoon passed just in the days when I had booked the cruise which was obviously cancelled. In order to be able to visit Halong Bay, I moved up a couple of stops so that the typhoon would proceed to the mainland and the cruises could leave. A choice that had no small economic burden but I am glad I made it. I could not have returned home without seeing Halong Bay.

Do it yourself or cruise Halong Bay?

I am almost always for DIY. I like to build the experience by avoiding the tourist routes (as much as possible). For Halong Bay , however, there are not many alternatives, or rather there are but they are only to be fielded if you are in Vietnam for a really long time.

I read about some people who went directly to Halong harbor and haggled with “local captains” renting private boats for a day. It can be done, it is certainly an interesting experience but it assumes the risk of not being able to find the boat or waiting too long, etc. etc.

In this case, to visit Halong Bay, I think taking part in an organized cruise is the best choice.

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View of Halong Bay from the boat

And among the cruises to choose from, you can look for the less touristy one such as the one I will mention in the next paragraphs. Choosing the correct Bay is already a starting point to have a less touristy experience, Bai To Long Bay in this case was perfect.

Please note: I am not saying that a Bai To Long Bay cruise is not touristy, it is still an organized cruise, I am simply saying that it is a way to make it a little less touristy.

What cruise and how many day to choose

When you try to inquire about cruises in Halong Bay, you will enter the black hole of various agencies and I assure you that getting out of it will be complicated. Online there are so many companies and so many choices of the various Junk that it gives you a headache and it is really difficult to be able to make proper evaluations.

At first it seems like one cruise is worth the other, then they all seem different. A welter. Not to mention the aspect: how many days?

And if you don’t book your cruise online instead, well, just wander the streets of Hanoi or ask your hotel directly to find dozens and dozens of deals on cruises.

You can’t get out of it. It’s a total mess.

Update: since I wrote the article, other companies and tours have sprung up in Bai To Long Bay, I have selected them for you and they FIND THEM HERE. Much better than having to go “random.” At that link you will find all the Bay tours I recommend. Otherwise, if you just want to take a tour of Halong Bay, you will FIND HERE.

What company did I choose?

How did I get out of it? Simple, I put stakes on myself that were:

  • Something not very touristy
  • A company that could reuse some of the money to redevelop or preserve the bay.
  • Choose a cruise of 3 days and 2 nights, no more and no less

Thanks to these stakes I imposed on myself, I was able to skim the various companies and focus just on the Indochina Junk as one of the few that had permission to visit Bai To Long Bay.

Different types of boats are provided, in my case I used the Dragon Legend, the largest and most touristy, so much so that they call it Luxury.

Initially, I had also evaluated smaller boats, such as the Pearl Junk, which are a bit more intimate.

Both are fine, in this case the difference is not the type of boat but the area of the bay where you are sailing. An area devoid of other boats, so great.

How many days in Halong Bay?

Sure, 3 days and 2 nights is more expensive than 2 days and 1 night, and so far there is no doubt. But if I told you that actually those 2 days and 1 night are just under 24 actual hours of sailing, maybe things would change.

There are also day trips in the bay but I think they do not make sense at all.

For the 2-day and 1-night, or 3-day and 2-night offerings, they pick you up early in the morning directly in Hanoi’s Old Quarter and with a Luxury Van take you to the embarkation from Halong where about 12 noon you board the ship.

  • Those who choose the 2G/1N option will return to the Halong pier the next day disembarking at 12 noon, basically the hours in the bay are about 12 effective.
  • On the other hand, if you choose the 3G/2N option, the second day of sailing will be completely within the bay and you can do activities such as kayaking, visiting the quarries, a barbecue on the beach (fake but still nice) and finally visit the floating village.

I lack to explain the last “stake”: the ethical-sustainable talk.

The cruise line I chose, carries out outreach and sustainable projects in the protected area of Bai To Long Bay, a bay to be preserved and protected. With the cooperation of local communities in the floating village, it tries to keep clean this area of the world that has little to do with sustainable discourse for now.

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Plastic recovery

Cruising the bay on the villagers’ boats, one notices the basket and net on board. When there is floating waste it is picked up and placed in the basket. Little by little efforts are made to keep this unique natural environment intact.

How much does a Halong Bay cruise cost?

Just as with the options, prices are also extremely variable depending on company, route, type of ship, and days of sailing. The bay cruise could range from cheap to very expensive, from 60 euros to 300 and up.

It depends on what you want and what kind of experience you want to have.

From my point of view if I go to a place once in my life I try not to choose the cheapest route because it might not meet my expectations and give me the wrong perception of the place where I am.

As far as Halong Bay is concerned, I made exactly this reasoning:

  • Chose Bai to Long Bay (more exclusive and less touristy)
  • Chose a luxury boat
  • Opted for 3 nights and 2 days

The all-inclusive package I chose cost $340 per person which includes:

  • 5 meals between lunches and dinners of 5 courses each (if not more)
  • 2 nights with breakfast

On balance it is still an expensive experience, but it is a unique experience. In any case, there are even cheaper solutions, on different and perhaps smaller boats.

How to get to Halong Bay from Hanoi or Hoi An?

If you choose an organized cruise, your problem of “how to get to Halong Bay” will not exist because they will pick you up directly in the Old Quarter of Hanoi.

In case, however, you would like to reach Halong Bay from somewhere other than Hanoi, perhaps even from southern Vietnam or from Hoi An, I recommend that you fly into Haiphong (Cat Bi Airport), which is about a 1 1/2-hour drive from the Pier where the ferries leave.

I discovered this solution out of necessity, precisely because seeing the tables turned because of the typhoon, I had to arrange to be able to reach Halong from another place and not from Hanoi. From Haiphong you can then request a private car (book it in advance) that will take you to the pier in Halong.

Halong Bay: negative and positive aspects

So we come to what may be the conclusions of this post: do I recommend going to Halong Bay? You don’t even have to ask, certainly YES!

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Halong Bay at night

It is a unique place despite the fact that it has become extremely touristy. It is up to you to find the right solution to be able to enjoy this wonder without feeling the burden of tourism. My advice is to follow my choice and choose Bai To Long Bay, alternatively you could opt for Lan Ha Bay, which is also less populated.

Definitely, even while visiting the floating village, you feel and are treated just like a tourist. You follow the boat’s schedule and do not deviate even by half an hour. Even the barbecue on the beach is blatantly contrived and you may not like it. Personally I liked it but feel it can be considered out of place. Splendid, on the other hand, is the kayak outing among the silence of the islets.

In conclusion: the positives are many many more than the negatives, which are basically encapsulated in being a tourist experience.

Have a great cruise in Halong Bay!


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