The World Heritage seascape of Halong Bay, dotted with jagged limestone pinnacles, is one of Vietnam’s biggest attractions. The most popular way to experience the bay is on a cruise, and unsurprisingly every travel agency and hotel in Hanoi has tours to sell.
Choice is a great thing, but the multitude of trips on offer can be overwhelming. Here’s the skinny on Halong Bay touring to get you started.
Want to spoil yourself? Halong Bay has some sumptuous cruise options that are basically luxury hotels on water. You’re paying for the experience of five-star amenities here – not for any particular divergence from the typical cruise itinerary – but if you want to live it up from a swanky sun-lounger while watching the sun set over a vista of craggy jungle-topped islands, you can’t really go wrong.
For a luxury cruise, bank on spending around US$220 for an overnight trip.
Pros It’s a serious treat; and the romantically inclined are sure to score brownie points with their partner.
Cons Those looking for good value should probably look at midrange options. Overnight trips (marketed as two-day-one-night trips) usually involve 24 hours or less on the actual boat, which can rankle given what you pay for the experience.
Most Halong Bay visitors go for midrange or budget cruises, but there is a huge range when it comes to price and value for money. At one end of the scale are some ultra-budget boats where on-board safety is not top priority; at the other end are some excellent midrange options offering cosy hotel-style cabins, knowledgeable on-board tour guides, and kayaking stops. If purse strings are tight, for facilities, comfort and safety considerations it’s sometimes better to choose a day cruise with a midrange operator rather than a bargain-basement overnight trip.
Budget cruise prices start from a rock-bottom US$60 per person for a day trip. Paying between US$110 and US$130 should get you a worthwhile overnight midrange cruise.
Pros Competition is fierce, which means plenty of operators add freebies into the itinerary, such as kayaking and private minibus transfers from Hanoi.
Cons You have to wade through a lot of options, which can be confusing. It’s worth doing a bit of pre-trip research.
Get ready for a truly local experience. Bai Chay Tourist Wharf in Halong City is the bustling hub of Halong Bay’s day-tripping tourist boats, which whisk visitors out onto the water for excursions of four to six hours. If you’re not fussed about added frills, don’t mind sharing boat space with gaggles of other folk, and just want to cheaply get out on the water and quickly see a couple of highlights, this is a good option.
A four-hour trip, stopping at big-hitter cave highlights Hang Dau Go and Hang Thien Cung, costs 100,000d (around US$5). The Halong Bay entrance fee (120,000d) and individual cave entry fees (30,000d) are additional.
Pros These are cheap and easily organised tours right on the spot in Halong City. Plus there’s free entertainment on board provided by karaoke.
Cons Crowded. Did we mention the karaoke?
Most decent midrange Halong Bay cruises will offer an hour or so of kayaking. Paddling around the karsts allows you to experience the limestone towers from a completely different angle: up close, at sea level and without the constant thrum of an engine in the background. For more experienced kayakers, there are also kayak-only trips. These trips are run by a handful of operators based in nearby Lan Ha Bay (off Cat Ba Island) rather than Halong Bay itself, though Lan Ha’s islet-scattered sea has just as much wow factor as Halong Bay and is much less visited.
Full-day kayaking trips from Cat Ba Island cost between US$25 and US$30 per person.
Pros In one of southeast Asia’s most popular tourist destinations, this is a way of escaping the crowds.
Cons On a full kayaking tour you’re only going to see a sliver of the area. To see more, it’s a better idea to take a cruise that includes a kayaking stop.
One of the most important reasons to steer away from the ultra-budget cruises is safety. Due to a boat sinking (and the loss of 12 lives) in 2011, new safety regulations were brought in for Halong Bay cruise boats, but scrimping on safety does still go on with some fly-by-night operators. In particular, check that any included kayaking stops are accompanied by a guide. Due to the variable and surprisingly strong currents close to the karsts, a safety-conscious operator won’t allow kayakers to paddle off from the boat by themselves.