A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994, Halong Bay is one of the most beautiful places to visit on Earth. Spread across 600sq miles, it houses more than 2000 islets made of limestone. The name Ha Long means "a descending dragon". The natural untouched beauty, flora and fauna, emerald waters, vast stretch of limestone mountains and many secrets and surprises it holds for tourists is just incomparable. A trip to Vietnam is incomplete without visiting Halong Bay.
It is quite commendable to see the efforts of the Vietnam Government to protect this beauty. Only a small portion of this bay is open for visitors and cruises are allowed to sail only among those allotted areas. A regular police patrolling is conducted every night for overnight cruises to check on any illegal activities. Also, the Government has stopped registering any new cruises and boats to be built or sail. The taxes are quite high in Halong Bay city as compared to the rest of Vietnam, again as a measure to avoid over-tourism.
Now let me answer some tricky and vital questions for you:
1) Best time to visit: October - December (pleasant weather and a very low chance of rain), June - September - avoidable due to frequent typhoons and sea storms. We visited in January during the Chinese new year. We were lucky enough to have decent weather on the first day. On the day when we were heading back, we witnessed heavy rains (which is not very common in that season). I would suggest visiting during the Chinese New Year break, as most of the cruises are not functional during that time (hence, you can have clear pictures, without cruises obstructing your view 😛) and the country is beautifully decorated during Tet (as they call it).
2) Which island to visit: There are mainly 3 regions which are visited - firstly the Halong Bay itself, secondly Lan Ha Bay and thirdly Bai Tu Long Bay. As compared to Halong Bay, the other two are less touristy and crowded. They are mainly for relaxation, have lesser activities and are less polluted and unspoiled as compared to the former. Its mostly luxury cruises that run on those two bays, hence comparatively more expensive. Among the three, Bai Tu Long Bay is the farthest and is harder to reach. My husband and I are adventure buffs and wanted some activities along with our cruise, so we opted for Halong Bay.
3) Duration of the cruise: One-day tour, 1 night, 2 night and so on. From my experience, 1 night is the best, not less not more!! If you are thinking of a one day tour to save time, I would suggest skipping the bay in that case.
4) Which cruise to select: There are over 500-1000 cruises that sail in Halong Bay. There are 3 variants - budget, mid-range and luxury cruises. The itinerary is more or less the same. It's just the quality of the rooms, service and food that differs (which is important right??). The budget cruises range from around $100-$200, mid-range from $200-$400 and luxury mostly above $300. I saw a lot of blogs suggesting to select boutique and junkyard cruises. To me, they seemed very worn out and old. Also, a very important deciding factor for me was the view from my cabin. I narrowed down my list of cruises based on the view they were offering (like large windows, good size balcony, etc). After a lot of research, we finally selected the SilverSea Cruise. We chose the premium room with a balcony and I have no regrets or complaints!!
5) What's included in the price of the cruise: This differs from cruise to cruise. Please ensure you look through carefully what all services your cruise offers for the price you pay. For an overnight cruise, usually, the price includes 1) Food - 1 lunch, 1 dinner and 1 brunch (drinks are for an additional charge) 2) Entry fees and overnight taxes for a stay in the bay 3) Renting charges for kayaking 4) Entry fees to the sightseeing points
Note: There is a policy of tipping people fairly well in Vietnam. There is a common tipping box for the staff. Also, most of the cruises have an English speaking guide. You need to tip him separately.
6) How to get to the port: The duration from Hanoi to Halong Bay is almost 2.5 to 4 hours (depending on traffic). Once you have booked the cruise, they usually let you know the port number that you need to arrive at. There are mainly 3 ways to reach the bay - private transfers (book a taxi for yourselves - quite expensive), book a seat on a bus going to the bay, book it with your cruise company ( best option).
7) Food restrictions: For all the meat and seafood eaters it is a delight. But for vegetarians/vegans like me, it was luckily not challenging at all. All you need to do is, inform your cruise well in advance about your dietary restrictions and they will take care of it from there!!
So here's what we did on our magical 1-night cruise: We were picked up from our hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi at 8 am. We were almost around 24-26 people on the bus including our guide Tony. After 90 minutes, we stopped at services and had some refreshments. At the services, there are various local products which are sold. My advice would be not to buy them as they are overpriced. You can get the same souvenirs in Hanoi city.
We reached the bay by 12.30 pm and were transferred in a small boat to get to the main cruise. At the main cruise, we were greeted warmly by the staff with local tea and hot towels and off course a happy and cheerful Xin Chao (means 'Hello' in Vietnam). We were seated in the dining hall and were handed over the keys to our luxurious rooms. After 45 min we gathered again at the dining hall and were pampered with a scrumptious 5-course lunch.
We were asked to gather at the lower deck after an hour to start our activities for the day. The first activity was kayaking and a floating village. We were again transferred to the small boat and within 15 min we were at the village. They mostly had 2 seater kayaks. My husband and I quickly got onto it and ventured into the untouched parts of the bay. There were marked areas and we were allowed to be row only in them. (The cost for this activity is usually included in the cruise price). Those who don't wish to kayak had an option to visit a small museum at the village explaining oyster farming and the types of seafood available. After an hour of building our tricep muscles, we gathered again at the village and headed to the next destination - Titop Island.
Titop island or AKA Titov Island was named after the Russian cosmonaut Gherman Stepanovich Titov who, together with President Ho Chi Minh, visited the island in 1962. There are almost 430-460 steep steps from the base to the peak. Once you get to the peak, you get a bird's eye view of the bay. Luckily, there are a few midpoints on the way where you can relax and catch your breath while enjoying the view. (Trust me the climb was not easy, but when you get to the peak, its completely worth the effort). This island has calm waters and white sands and hence is good for swimming and snorkeling. There is a shop on the island where you can rent the swimming/snorkeling gears. A dip in the water was very relaxing after that climb!!
We got back to the cruise by 6 pm and were requested to be in the dining hall at 7.30 pm. I prepped my jacuzzi and quickly jumped into it. We had a huge window right next to the jacuzzi, so you can imagine the view while lazing in hot water!!
Completely charged up, we then headed to the deck where we had some drinks and the DJ played us some amazing songs. Hearing our stomachs grumble we knew, it was time for dinner. And yet again, with their superb hospitality, they served us some of their delicious delicacies. After dinner, we had a fun-filled Karaoke session, where our guide Tony and some of his colleagues on board were singing melodious Vietnamese songs. There was another activity lined up for the night, which was squid fishing. Since we weren't interested, we just hit the bed!!
Our morning started with a calming Tai Chi class on the deck at 6 a.m. and a quick breakfast session post that. We were then transferred to the small boat for our final excursion - Surprise Cave.
Sung Sot Cave aka Surprise Cave was founded by the French in 1901 and was deemed as Grotte Des Surprises! This cave is one of the biggest and the grandest ones on Halong Bay. There are around sixty steps to get to the mouth of the Grotto. The cave spreads across an area of 10,000m2 and is divided into two parts. The first one is known as the 'waiting room' and the second one 'serene castle'. The former is a small one with stalactites and stalagmites forming various figures and creatures. The latter can be reached through a narrow passageway and is dawned by natural light creeping in from holes in the ceiling. This chamber is grand and vast with high ceilings. Here as well, you can find many rock formations in the shape of a dragon, lady Buddha, lovers kissing, a finger pointing to a hole in the ceiling. This is one of the finest natural caves I've ever seen. It is completely untouched and is a stunning natural wonder.
After spending almost 2 hours at the cave, we got back to our cruise. We quickly freshened up, packed and gathered in the dining hall. Our guide then conducted a class for local Vietnamese rice rolls for all those who were interested to participate. We had started making friends by then and were more interested in chit-chatting with them!! We then had our last delicious meal, settled our bills and headed towards the port.
To be honest, Thailand may have many such kinds of places to visit. But, personally, an overnight cruise in the Halong Bay has a charm of its own. I was mesmerized by the stunning beauty and serenity of the place.
Hope you liked Part 1 of our trip to Vietnam. Look out for our next two parts which are on Hanoi, Danang, Hoi An and Bana Hills.