UPDATED MARCH 2020
Planning a Halong bay cruise? You have come to the right place ! In this Halong bay cruise guide, i am going to cover everything that you need to know before your trip including all the tips for booking a great cruise to have a wonderful time. Plus a review of our chosen cruise and experience. Keep reading to get all your questions answered.
At the beginning itself i want to make it clear that this is an independent article without any form of sponsorship from the cruises mentioned here. All this information is from my hours of research. We sponsored everything ourselves and this is our honest opinion!
Now let’s get started.
First of all Congratulations !!! Halong bay truly is a stunning place and you have made the right choice. Halong bay is the most famous tourist site of Vietnam. It is a UNESCO world heritage site with limestone karst peaks set amongst tranquil green waters. Cruising through this bay and getting charmed by Hoi An were among the highlights of our Vietnam trip.
Only after experiencing the bay was i able to understand why it was so highly rated. Cruising through those beautiful vistas was one of our most special experiences along with watching the sunrise at Angkor wat, watching spectacular sunsets in Koh Lanta and exploring the stunning landscapes of Iceland. (Read all about our 2019 highlights here!)
But the key is finding a great cruise, something that suits all your needs. The Halong bay cruise can make or break your trip. There are countless horror stories out there so you have to be doubly sure about the cruise you are putting your money on.
Vietnam is a great value for money destination and you can read this detailed guide on our Vietnam travel budget for one week.
THE HALONG BAY CRUISE GUIDE : ESSENTIAL INFORMATION
We found May to be a good month to experience the bay in its perfect setting. Hot sunny days, clear blue skies and less crowds, because it’s the shoulder season. Plus all cruises give big discounts during this time. We travelled during May and took full advantage of those offers!
July-September is better avoided as it’s the rainy season with a lot of tropical storms which causes most cruises to cancel.
October-april is the “on” season ,with winter bringing misty and foggy skies, but also crowds and high prices. Remember the fog can obscure views during winter.
Hanoi is going to be your base for exploring Halong bay. From there, it’s a 3-4 hour road trip to Halong city and the port from where all the vessels depart.Usually most cruises include the fare of this road journey (both ways) in their packages. You can spend a couple of days exploring Hanoi before embarking for the cruise.
FLASHPACKER TIP: If you are a budget adventure seeker, make your way to Halong city by public transportation and then transfer via ferry to Cat ba island.From there, hop on a local boat and explore Lan ha bay instead of joining one of the big cruises. You will not get the cruise experience but you still get to see the bay in local settings.
Choosing the right cruise is of utmost importance as cruising through the bay is the only way to experience this UNESCO site in it’s entirety. Like i already said, the cruise you choose can make or break your trip.
When i went researching before our trip, i was inundated with tons of info. There were more than 100 cruise companies of varying budgets with mixed reviews. We had set certain criteria for our cruise and it took me one month to finalise one. The whole process was extremely time consuming as there was no single cruise with universally good reviews, except for the ultra luxury ones which were way out of our budget.
Before you start choosing one, know that there are 3 different bays.
- Halong bay– the most well known, but also the most over developed/over crowded
- Bai Tu long bay– further inside with the same limestone karsts along with much cleaner water and lesser crowds
- Lan ha bay– close to Cat ba island with less crowds. Can be combined with a night stay on the island.
Before you go on a cruise booking spree, pause and answer the following questions.
- Which bay do you want to visit?
- How long do you want to cruise?
- What is your budget?
All the above questions are important to choose a good cruise.
- Bay to Visit/Route of Cruise- My most important criteria for choosing a cruise was the route it would follow. Among the 3 bays, Halong bay is the most famous but also the most commercialised and overcrowded. Majority of the day tours and one night tours circle around Halong bay only. In contrast, Bai Tu long bay and Lan ha bay enjoy the same stunning scenery with much less crowds. For me, it was very important to avoid day trippers and crowds and hence, we choose a boat which took us deep into Bai Tu long bay.
- Avoid Halong bay – visit the other two bays
- Know that only 30 cruises have permission for Bai tu long/Lan ha bay, so obviously there will be less boats and less crowds in these 2 bays
- There are some cruises that combine both Halong + Bai tu long bay (Signature cruise) or Halong+Lan ha bay (Azalea cruise)
- Some even combine all 3 bays in their itinerary (Orchid cruise)
2.DURATION OF YOUR TRIP: This will be your biggest factor- How much time are you willing to give to your Halong experience. There are day trips, 2 day 1 night cruises and 3 day 2 night cruises.
- PROS: only for travelers on a rush
- CONS: It takes 8 hours for the journey to and from Hanoi which leaves very less time onboard. These trips only tour the crowded and dirty parts of Halong bay
- Best to Avoid.
2 Day 1 Night Trips
- PROS: balances budget + the need to explore some of the further parts of the bay. Some activities like kayaking are usually included
- CONS: no time to visit the truly isolated and stunning areas
3 Day 2 Nights Trip (Our choice!)
- PROS: Experience the bay in it’s entirety in a relaxed manner. After all it’s a once in a lifetime experience! Lesser boats and people to mar your experience.
- CONS: Expensive. Also inconvenient for travelers on a rush
3.BUDGET : The biggest factor. Cruises range from 2* to 5* and uber luxurious ones.If you have the money, you can even charter a cruise for yourself ! Paying extra money for a good cruise is paramount if you want your experience to be great.Also safety records are extremely important.
- Your budget will depend on your route and duration
- Obviously, a multi night 5* cruise will cost more than an overnight 3* one.
- Ask yourself what is important to you within your budget: 2 nights on a 3* cruise or 1 night on a 4*/5* cruise
- Compare the prices and if the difference is not much, always go for the better option
- You can save some money by booking non balcony rooms
- Book during the shoulder/off season: a 3 days 2 nights cruise in the off season may be cheaper than a 2 days 1 night cruise during peak season
CRUISE BOOKING TIPS TO KEEP IN MIND
- MONEY = BETTER CRUISE EXPERIENCE
Sadly, this is one of those places where the adage “What you spend is What you get” is completely true. There is no point scrimping money on a cruise. If you have to, save money on flights and accommodation.
If you book a 4*/ 5* cruise you will get better facilities, better service and most importantly a good off beat route to experience the bay in all its glory without the crowds.
On the other hand, a 2*/3* cruise may not provide a lot of the facilities/services and will most likely be restricted to cruising around Halong bay only, rather than going further to the truly isolated sites.
Remember: Only 30 cruises are permitted to cruise around the less crowded Bai tu long bay/ Lan ha bay
2.OFF SEASON BOOKING IS THE BEST
Or more specifically during May 1- June 30 (July-Aug is the typhoon season).
There are huge discounts during this time (I am talking about discounts to the tune of 100 USD!!! on a 4/5* cruise) and you can easily find something better for your budget at this time!
The other great advantage is the absence of crowds as less people are booked on the cruise. It’s way quieter, peaceful and you get personalised attention on the boat!
We got individual kayaking lessons on our 2nd day with our very patient guide and this was possible because there were only 3 couples on board!
Remember: Crowds always mar the beauty of a place
3.PRE-BOOK YOUR CRUISE BEFORE LANDING IN VIETNAM
Since we were planning a one week trip only, we did not have the luxury of landing in Hanoi and then making the rounds of tour agencies looking for bargains. Of course it will be cheaper that way, but it’s not suitable for people like us who have only limited vacation time.
Also, there is always the risk of not getting a room in the cruise of your choice if you go and search only 1-2 days before.
Therefore it’s highly advisable to pre book the cruise and organize everything from before so that you can just relax on arrival.
Remember: This is a holiday! So don’t fill your short stay with these hassles!
4.BOOK A HANOI HOTEL + CRUISE COMBO PACKAGE
In the course of my planning, I mailed many hotels and travel agencies, as well as checked the official site prices of a number of different cruise companies.
Invariably, it was the hotels which offered the best (Read Economical!) packages which included accommodation in their Hanoi hotel, cruise, airport pick up (and return) as well as the shuttle van transfer to Halong City. These packages can be easily customized to alter your itinerary, increase your stay, upgrade your room etc.
Some hotels throw in a few extra perks like free water puppet tickets, one hour cyclo tours of the old quarters, spa discounts and limousine transfers especially during off season!
Remember: Don’t book the first offer you find! Do your research, mail various parties and choose a package that suits your budget and your itinerary.
5.USE YOUR CREDIT CARD SMARTLY
In case you pre book your package, most hotels will require you to pay a certain advance by credit card, while allowing you to pay the remaining amount in the hotel.
Usually, an extra 3% is charged by the hotels for this credit card payment. So it’s better to pay the remainder by cash at the hotel to avoid that extra charge.
In case you don’t want to pay by cash (like us!) talk to the hotel about this before booking. Many of them let go of this 3% charge. For instance, we booked our package from India and had to pay a 30% advance deposit by credit card and also the 3% extra charge, but our hotel was gracious enough to let go off this extra charge on the remaining 70% amount, that we again paid by credit card at the hotel! That was some major saving indeed!
Remember: Be clear on all the inclusives and taxes before finalizing the amount.
OUR EXPERIENCE : A REVIEW OF SIGNATURE ROYAL CRUISE
After doing tons of research on the subject, we finally chose the 3 days 2 nights option in Signature cruise which is one of the 5* cruises operating there with great reviews.The cruise goes to Ha long as well as Bai Tu long bay, following an off beat route. Since this was a once in a lifetime experience for us, we decided to splurge on it !
Signature has 2 vessels – Signature and Signature royal. We were upgraded to the royal vessel on arrival, which was a big bonus for us! The cruise was extremely luxurious with great staff. We had chosen a balcony room to enjoy the views privately. Our room even came with a jacuzzi ! For those opting to stay in non balcony rooms ,there is always the deck and the dining room to enjoy the passing scenery.
As is evident from these pictures ,we could not find a single fault. Being the off season, there were only 3 couples on board,which was a delight for us. There were a number of different activities arranged for the passengers. On our first afternoon we were taken on a trip to Vung Vieng fishing village and a pearl farm.We were given the option to kayak or be taken around on small bamboo boats.We choose the bamboo Boat option and enjoyed a pleasurable afternoon.
On our 2nd day, we were transferred on to a day boat which took us deep into the bay and to tiny hidden beaches.Again there was the option to kayak ,swim or simply relax on a beach! For us, this was the best experience of the whole cruise.There were no other boats where we went and just utter peace. (We also visited the beaches of Hoi An which were utterly different from these secluded ones with more of a lively and vibrant atmosphere)
The Food : Nothing short of Master-chef worthy dishes ! Buffet breakfasts to delectable 5 course lunches and dinners, with big portions,leaving us a lot heavier! We even made our own Bun cha (barbequed pork rolls-a classic Vietnamese dish) on the last night ! Apart from this, every evening there was a Vietnamese cooking demonstration for making spring rolls,bun cha and the like.
Happy hour during Sunset made for a great party ! After dinner, you could take part in squid fishing ,watch a movie in your room or simply relax on the deck. Spa services were also available on board.
The service : Brilliant at all times.Staff actually remembered both of our names and were always ready to help us and take feedback from us to improve(which imo there was no improvement needed) At the end of our trip, we returned to port completely refreshed and relaxed and thankful to have this once in a lifetime experience,which we will always cherish.
So this was our detailed Halong bay cruise guide. Hopefully this guide answered all your queries and gave you what you were looking for. In case you have any questions, drop in a comment or message and i will be more than happy to answer. Feel free to share any additional tips or info in the comments. For more travel inspiration, subscribe and stay connected. Happy travelling!