Halong bay has always been on the top of my bucket list. Even more after watching Kong Island which was filmed at Halong bay ! So, we decided to check it off our list last year, and it was almost as perfect as we imagined !
However, it is not always a dream experience guarantee for some. And I truly believe it is a combination of careful planning and also willingness to spend a bit more.
Halong bay, Lanha bay or Bai Tu Long bay ?
First question is which bay to visit ? If you are not aware yet, Halong bay is just one of the three main bays you can visit. Halong bay is by far more popular compared to the other two, which is also why it is overcrowded with tourists !
This post did a very comprehensive comparison between the three bays, which I had studied extensively when planning my trip.
In short, Halong bay (although the largest area, 1553 km2 with almost 2000 islets) should be your last consideration, largely due to its high popularity, and you will only end up having views of hundreds of boats, or worse overlooking polluted waters due to the high traffic. Lanha bay is the smallest, only 76 km2, and it is far less touristy. Its beauty is unspoiled, and a night at this bay is peaceful and quiet. Bai Tu Long bay has the most islets, around 3000, over an area of 560 km2. It is farthest away from the mainland, more secluded, and almost like a hidden gem.
After much considerations and research, we went with a cruise that covers Halong bay AND Lanha bay. Lanha bay as our first choice, that is if we have to choose only one, it will be Lanha bay. But, we also didn’t want to have not seen the glorified Halong bay.
We found this perfect combination of an itinerary by Serenity Cruise ! Their 2D1N itinerary offers a good mix of cruising through Halong bay, a short half day stopover on Cat Ba island, and still have plenty of time to explore and take in the untouched beauty of Lanha bay ! For the night, we rested on our comfortable King size bed over the waters of Lanha bay, and it was just us, one boat !
First, you need to get to the west coastline of Vietnam. Most cruises departing for Halong bay and Lanha bay will embark from Tuan Chau Marina at Halong city. For Bai Tu Long bay, cruises embark from Hon Gai Port.
Nearest airport to these embarkation points is Cat Bi International Airport (IATA: HPH) at Hai Phong. However, there are very limited international flight connections.
If you plan to visit other cities in Vietnam, e.g. Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh, it is best to travel by road. We flew in Hanoi, and took a shuttle bus from Hanoi city (hotel pick up arranged by cruise) to Tuan Chau Marina. The journey is about 2.5 hours.
Note: Do check with your tour operator whether they are going to use the new expressway. Otherwise, some operators will avoid paying the expressway toll charge, and take a longer 5 hours route !
Day trip or Overnight ?
The second question is whether to do day tripping or overnight on the waters. This comes down to budget.
Day trip will cost you in the range of 40 to 100 EUR per person. A typical day trip package includes pick up and drop off from Hanoi, lunch on the boat/ junk ship, and about 4 to 7 hours time at the bay (depending on operators), including a visit to one of the caves. I haven’t done much research on day trips, but my first check will be Klook, they offer pretty good deals, and are reliable. Serenity Cruise offers a day trip package at 99 USD per person.
I was very certain from the beginning that I wanted an overnight stay on the waters. After having to travel so far, I prefer to take my time, and I really wanted to spend the night over the waters, laying on the top deck of the boat, serenaded by the sound of water crashing the boat.
Overnight cruise will cost you north of 110 EUR per person per night. And it really depends on the quality and service. After much research and reading up reviews, I went with Serenity Cruise ! What sealed the deal before my stay was, ensuite bath tub and private balcony in every cabin, good reviews on the food onboard, and their commitment to provide a unique itinerary apart from the other operators, taking the route less taken.
And after my stay with Serenity Cruise, I couldn’t be happier I chose them ! Their service was impeccable, and all their staffs are super friendly (I would say passionate) ! My whole stay was nothing short of luxury ! Food was good as in the reviews.
Tip: Book direct with the tour operator to avoid scam. Also, you’ll get priority for free upgrade. We paid 340 USD (per cabin 2D1N) for the Junior suite, and got upgraded to Senior suite !
When to go
Halong bay is generally good to visit all year round, as long as you avoid the wetter months from July to September. However, July to September is considered low season and hence the cruise prices are the lowest. Note that cruises may cancel due to stormy weather, so you want to check your cancellation and refund policies.
Otherwise, if you want cool (below 20 degC) and dry weather, you want to go during October to December, which is also peak season, and yes cruise prices are the highest. January to February can get abit foggy. Visibility can be slightly affected, but the rock formations hidden behind cloudy fog gives a rather mystical feel.
March to June is another great time to go, although weather is slightly warmed in the high 20 degC.
What to do
Lay back, relax and enjoy the view ! After having paid so much, I don’t want to tire myself and go caving ! I want to change into my pyjamas, lay on my King size bed, curtains drawn, and enjoy the view passing by the front of my bed !
Kayaking is another fun way to explore the islets and lagoons close up. We were given 1 hour slot to kayak. We wanted to circle around an islet, but it is really not easy paddling against the currents ! We ended up doing just one side, u turned and kayak back from where we came from.
Squid fishing is something you can do at night. The reason it is done at night is because squids are attracted to lights.
Most cruises will include an excursion to one of the islands around, many with caves. Serenity Cruise brought us to Cat Ba island, which is one of the largest islands there. Majority of the island has been reserved as Cat Ba National Park. We docked on the southeast side of the island, and cycled up pretty steep hills to Viet Hai fishing village. There we learned about government subsidised housing, the livelihoods of the locals, and the many variations of rice wines they make by hand (one particularly was infused with an albino cobra).
Other fun activities on the cruise include, cooking class, and taichi on the top deck over sunrise.
Most Halong bay cruises include caves in the itinerary, Sung Sot (Surprise) cave being one of the most popular. However, lots of reviews will tell you it is often over crowed with tourists. And again, I didn’t mind skipping the caves, to have more time on the waters.
If you are really into caves, you can consider the less touristy ones, e.g. Tien Ong cave or Thien Cung (Heaven) cave.
- Halong bay is overcrowded, you want consider Lanha bay if not Bai Tu Long bay
- If travelling from Hanoi city, check with your tour operator if they are taking the 2.5 hours expressway instead of the 5 hours route
- Stay at least 1 night over the waters for the complete Halong bay experience, if you budget allows