There’s a magic about Halong Bay Vietnam that is difficult to describe in words. Prepare to be in awe of nearly two thousand towering limestone islets reaching up to the heavens from the emerald waters, many topped by rainforests. A Halong Bay Cruise is the best way to explore this natural wonder.
Despite hearing about hundreds of boats vying for position and caves filled with tourists, we found the opposite. We spent the day on a Halong Bay luxury cruise, visited a Halong Bay cave alongside only one other small group, and were the only group at a fishing village.
Perhaps it was the luck of the draw. I attribute it to research. This page outlines how and why we carefully chose Amazing Sails for our Halong Bay day cruise.
- Things to think about before you choose a Halong Bay cruise
- Starting city: either Halong Bay or Hanoi
- Choosing the length of your cruise
- Type of Halong Bay boat
- Activities included with the cruise
- Independent booking in advance, booking on the spot, or a Halong Bay tour from a cruise ship?
- Our choice: Amazing Sails Halong Bay cruise
- Amazing lunch onboard
- Relaxing or staring out from our Halong Bay cruise
- Tien Ong Cave
- Cua Van fishing village
- Vegetable carving, afternoon tea, and sunset to end our Halong Bay cruise
- Small group on our Amazing Sails Halong Bay cruise
- How will you choose a Halong Bay cruise?
Things to think about before you choose a Halong Bay cruise
There are hundreds of Halong Bay boat cruise options, and many factors to consider when making a selection. Each one affects the budget and your day.
Starting city: either Halong Bay or Hanoi
The drive from Halong Bay to Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city, takes a bit more than 2 hours. Most tours either start locally or include transportation from Hanoi to Halong Bay. However, we heard about one Halong Bay cruise from Hanoi that required guests to make their own way. Be sure to read the tour details carefully.
For us, we arrived via a small cruise ship that docked at the Halong International Cruise Port (Bãi Cháy). It’s also a popular tour starting point.
Choosing the length of your cruise
The most popular boat tours are either half-day, full-day, or an overnight cruise in Halong Bay. Typically, the longer the cruise, the higher the cost.
Half-day tour: Not optimal unless you have extremely limited time. The advantage is that it does get you out to the beautiful bay. The disadvantages are that you usually don’t have time to get out of the crowded areas and you will give up some of the added activities.
Full-day cruise: Generally affordable options, a full-day tour usually has the time and ability to get farther out into the bay. As you travel, you move away from the crowds, allowing a better appreciation of the natural beauty. The disadvantage is not getting to see the sunrise from the bay.
Overnight cruise: Perfect for people who want the full experience, including both sunset and sunrise over the towering islets. Overnight cruises have time to go farther. As a result, they often visit exclusive areas and those considered the most beautiful. The disadvantage to some is that these cruises are more expensive, and the accommodation is often only moderate.
Type of Halong Bay boat
All boats cruising Halong bay are not equal. We opted for a recently refurbished luxury boat. Be advised that the definition of luxury is slightly lower here than in western cultures. Despite this, our boat was lovely, with two decks, sun shades, an indoor area, and plenty of benches and loungers.
Activities included with the cruise
Aside from enjoying the natural wonders, the typical Halong Bay cruise includes activities like cave visits, bamboo boat or kayaking, visits to a fishing village, or swimming at a beach.
Halong Bay cave visits
Sung Sot, commonly called Suprise, is the largest and most popular cave. Frequently crowded, visitors move through rather quickly. If you want a more intimate cave experience, choose a tour that goes to a different cave.
Fishing village visit
There are four floating fishing villages in Halong Bay and many of the cruises include a visit to one as a feature of their day.
Kayaking or bamboo boats
Kayaking in Halong Bay is often a self-guided activity at one of the stops on your cruise, and most often on two-person kayaks. Kayaks are a great option for people who like to be in control of the boat, or who want a bit of exercise.
Bamboo boats: traditional crafts steered by a local. We chose bamboo boats as they were culturally different. Another possible advantage is that the bamboo boat allows for a guide in the vessel with you.
Beaches and swimming
Some of the Halong Bay boat tours stop at a beach, allowing participants time for a swim.
Independent booking in advance, booking on the spot, or a Halong Bay tour from a cruise ship?
The final choice you have to make is how you want to book your trip.
Cruise Excursion: This option only applies if you are arriving into Halong Bay via cruise ship. There will be at least one option for a Halong Bay boat tour. If you are in port for a limited amount of time, this may be the best option, as you don’t want to miss your cruise ship if your Halong Bay day tour runs late. The big advantage is that someone else does the research and planning. In contrast, if you have a window of time, you can usually save substantial money by booking independently (like we did).
Independent Booking: We opted to book independently and in advance, so we knew we wouldn’t miss out or overpay through our cruise ship. We read reviews and chose exactly what we wanted. Some consider having to do the work a negative. For me, it’s just what I do. A disadvantage is that if something went wrong and our cruise ship didn’t dock, we would have lost out.
Booking on the spot: While there appeared to be plenty of people at the Halong International Cruise Port building wanting to take our money for a tour, we would have no idea what we were really getting. While this is a fine option in some cities, Halong Bay was too important for me to take the gamble or risk that there were no available options on the day we arrive.
Our choice: Amazing Sails Halong Bay cruise
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Amazing Sails was our choice and our top recommendation.
⇒ Check price and reviews for Amazing Sails
If you are like us, you will read the above options and choose a full-day Halong Bay cruise that visits an alternate cave to Surprise, includes a meal, offers additional activities, and does it all with a touch of class.
Because Amazing Sails offers two starting options, either pick up from Hanoi or joining in Halong Bay, we didn’t start our sail at 8 am with the majority of boats. This meant that right from the beginning we were not with the crowds.
We were welcomed with a refreshing watermelon juice (and each given two bottles of water). A quick safety briefing and a review of our route, and we were off.
Amazing lunch onboard
Our seven hours with Amazing Sails included a five-course lunch of seafood soup, green mango salad with prawns, fresh spring roll with Vietnamese dressing, grilled sea bass with tamarind sauce (or pork rib with BBQ sauce), and strawberry cake with fresh fruit. I am pleased to report, mine was perfectly adapted to gluten and lactose-free. Also, both Jeff’s and mine were delicious.
Relaxing or staring out from our Halong Bay cruise
After lunch, we had time to view nature from the decks, to relax and nap, or to use the onboard gym (although I can’t imagine not spending my time staring in wonder at this magical bay).
Tien Ong Cave
Our ship dropped anchor and a tender took us to Tien Ong cave. The initial room had interpretive signs and boardwalks. As we walked further into the cave, it became more natural. We saw only one other small group while we were in this cave, and were glad we hadn’t gone to the crowded Surprise cave.
Cua Van fishing village
There were once more fishing villages in this region; today, only four remain. The largest is Cua Van, populated by generations of fishing families. It’s also called a floating village as the fishermen live in floating (but well anchored) homes with their families. There is a village school for the children, most who learnt to swim before they walked.
When we visited, we had the option of exploring the village on our own in a two-person kayak or in a traditional bamboo boat steered by a local woman. We nearly always make the cultural choice and therefore opted for the bamboo boat. Besides, we own kayaks and can use them anytime when at home.
Another advantage of the bamboo boat was our guide, who could tell us interesting information as we moved through the village. Each family is allocated 200 sq metres for their farm. Many of the fishermen go out daily in a variety of different boats.
Vegetable carving, afternoon tea, and sunset to end our Halong Bay cruise
As the afternoon wound down, Amazing Sails brought out a beautiful afternoon tea, loaded with fresh fruit. Freshly carved flowers made from vegetables decorated the table. As a bonus, one of the staff demonstrated the art of flower carving. Next, I gave it a try. I quickly discovered this is both a talent and a skill. However, I don’t think I did too bad for my first try.
And then, we sailed back as the sun set. This was a perfect day.
Small group on our Amazing Sails Halong Bay cruise
Amazing Sails always has small groups, although our group was smaller than average. However, the maximum is only 26 guests.
We loved our day with Amazing Sails and couldn’t imagine any day trip being better. Sailing from Halong Bay a bit later than most of the other boats, we avoided the crowds. The option of starting from Hanoi made our group more diverse. Plus, the cruise met all our requirements: a luxury day yacht, lunch, Halong Bay, a less crowded cave, a bamboo boat through a fishing village, and a sunset.
⇒ Check price and availability for your Amazing Sails adventure
If we had more time, we would have probably opted for an overnight boat. With no personal experience, we rely on reviews and therefore would have chosen this 2-Day & 1-Night Halong Bay & Lan Ha Bay Luxury Cruise
⇒Check price and reviews
For those whose time is extremely limited, click here for the best four-hour tour we can find.
Booking tips for your trip to Vietnam
Flights: We use flight search engines (either Skyscanner or Momondo) to find all the available flight options at the best prices.
Accommodations: Our hotel search starts on Booking.com. We love their maps feature to see where their accommodation options are located. We generally stay in 4-star accommodations; however, in Vietnam, we were on a cruise ship.
Travel Insurance: We don’t leave New Zealand without travel insurance that will cover us for medical emergencies, lost luggage, theft, or missed or cancelled flights. It’s a personal choice that has paid off well for us as we have ended up in hospitals on four continents and had a wallet stolen in the USA, resulting in a missed flight. We always start with World Nomads.
**Check out our Travel Resources page for a complete listing of the companies that we use to save money on our travels.
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How will you choose a Halong Bay cruise?
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Disclaimer: We had a media discount for our Amazing Sails cruise to aid in the writing of this page. However, the opinions expressed here are strictly our own.