Visiting Vietnam is on a lot of people’s travel bucket list, and rightly so. Vietnam
is a beautiful country with stunning scenery, the food is absolutely
delicious and the Vietnamese people are among the most respectful, kind
and welcoming I’ve experienced. Which is why we couldn’t wait to plan
our two-week trip there.
One of the first questions I asked was, “Is it worth visiting Halong Bay?” Now I’ve visited Halong Bay
I can safely say yes, yes it is definitely worth visiting! Floating
past thousands of uninhabited limestone cliffs is absolutely
breathtaking, doing it on an ethereal junk ship is once-in-a-lifetime.
When I started planning our trip to Vietnam
I had no idea where to start so, like a rookie, I went straight to
Google and put in the words, ‘Halong Bay cruise.’ In 0.41 seconds Google
gave me over 600,000 results. The next few hours of my life are a blur.
The number of cruise and junk ship websites out there for Halong Bay
is overwhelming and the reviews of mid-price companies is mixed. Some
people rave about them and say they are great, others totally pan them,
telling horror stories like finding rats in their cupboards! Ugh!
Knowing how confusing it was for me to find a company and make a
decision, I thought I’d use my experience to put together this guide to
help anyone else who is planning a trip to Halong Bay and needs to find a
great cruise company.
Best time to visit
We visited in October and the weather was glorious, so I can
personally recommend October-November as a good time to visit. Outside
of that, the tropical storm season is from May to September which may
impact your ability to travel (make sure your tour company has a policy
in place to compensate/refund if the tour is cancelled due to bad
weather). February to April is cooler but can have drizzling rain and
fog, that may sound dodgy but it can make for stunning ghost-like
Ask a friend
The best thing you can do is get recommendations from people you
know. Get in touch with any of your friends or friends-of-friends who
have visited Halong Bay and ask them which company they used. Even if
they had a terrible time, it’ll help you narrow down the list of
companies you look at.
When you’re talking to a friend, make sure they’ve got the same
travel ethos as you do. What I mean by that is, if you like to go first
class, five-stay luxury the whole way, don’t go asking your backpacking
mate which cruise they took.
Decide on your budget
My research experience gave me the impression there are three main
categories of cruise: cheap, moderate and high-end. The price difference
between those three is vast! Trust me, once you get on your boat and
set sail you’ll be able to spot the high-end boats a mile off.
Once you’ve got a budget in mind you’ll be able to make faster
decisions about whether or not a cruise is going to meet your needs.
Bear in mind that when it comes to cruises you get what you pay for,
there are budget cruises for as little as $55US for a two-day cruise.
But if you’re paying little and expecting a lot, you may be disappointed
so choose a cruise budget that meets your personal needs and
expectations for the trip.
Get an idea of what you want to see
Not all cruises go to the same places, there are many cruises which
visit many different areas and, this part may shock you, Halong Bay is
only one part! It is surrounded by many other areas just waiting to be
visited and discovered by tourists. There are lots of forums online
which will give you the ‘scoop’ on less touristy areas and it’s up to
you whether or not you want to see them.
Do your research, work out if you want to see places like Bai Tu Long Bay, Cat Ba Island, Vong Vieng Floating Village, Trong Cave, Lan Ha Bay, Sung Sot Cave and Cong Do or Cong Dam.
There are a LOT of places to visit, so work out what’s important to you
then look for cruise companies within your budget who have itineraries
that match your needs.
Decide on the length of your cruise
You can charter a private boat and sail for as many nights and days
as you like or you can join a group cruise. The group cruise’s tend to
have two options: 2 days 1 night OR 2 nights 3 days. We decided to do
the 2 night cruise and were really happy because we saw how dejected all
the people who had to leave after 1 night looked. Once you get out
there, you really do want to stay longer because it’s so beautiful.
How it works
- Most of the cruise companies, if not all, will have a transfer
service. A driver will pick you up from your hotel and you’ll pile into a
mini-bus or car and drive out to Halong City. The drive is a long one,
around 4 hours from Hanoi, so make sure you’re prepared with snacks and
drinks or travel sickness tablets if you get a funny tummy on bumpy
- From here you’ll most likely jump on a small tender boat and be
taken out to your ship where you’re welcomed by the crew. You set sail
and follow your set itinerary, there may be times when you jump back on a
small tender boat to go on day trips to visit the floating village,
caves or more secluded areas.
- Halong Bay is busy and there are a lot of ships there. A lot of
people on forum’s said they didn’t like this and felt it detracted from
their experience, I was the total opposite and quite liked seeing all
the other ships. After all, I can’t really see the ship I’m on, so I
want to see all the other ships to get photos of them. At night, the
ships light up and look beautiful floating on the water.
- If your budget allows, I recommend paying extra for a cabin with its
own balcony. We did and were really happy with that decision,
especially after we saw the other cabins which were smaller and didn’t
have a balcony. It gave us a private space to sit and enjoy the cruise
by ourselves, whereas people who didn’t have a balcony had to either sit
in the common areas or in their rooms. It also meant our room was
bigger and we had great photo opportunities from our balcony too.
If you’re choosing a budget option, you really need to do your
research. Food and accommodation in Hanoi is very affordable, so if
there’s one place you should splash a bit of cash, it’s on your Halong
Bay cruise. A recommended, decent starting point is Saigon Cafe Tours.
They are by no means the absolute bottom, basement, bargain but they’re
a cheaper option which, by all accounts, appear to be quite reputable.
Paloma Cruise: We
booked the Paloma Cruise based on the recommendation of one of my best
friends who had done it a few years earlier. The staff were great, the
food and drinks were delicious, the rooms were comfortable and clean and
the itinerary took in everything we wanted to see. Paloma is a great
mid-range option for those who want to have a great Halong Bay cruise
but don’t want to go broke over it. Think of all the extra food you can
buy back in Hanoi!
Paradise Cruises: Paradise
was recommended to me by my dad who has taken a cruise with them and
absolutely loved it. These guys have great reviews on TripAdvisor, are
very well-known and reliable and are the ultimate in luxury cruises in
Halong Bay. Another luxury company you may like to check out is Bhaya Cruises who also come highly recommended as a great luxury cruise operator.