Halong Bay is the most famous and popular tourist attraction in Vietnam and a Unesco World Heritage site. There are almost 2 000 limestone islands, raising like towers from the blue water. The area has an important role in Vietnamese legends – Ha Long actually means “Descending Dragon” in Vietnamese.
Booking the trip
A trip to Halong Bay was in our plans already before moving to Vietnam. When our friends from home came to visit us, we decided to make the trip together. We lived in Hanoi back then, and Hanoi is the most natural and common starting point for trips to Halong Bay.
We made the bookings online three weeks before the trip. There are dozens of travel companies selling trips to Halong Bay, and it is very difficult to evaluate which ones are better and more reliable than others. We got some recommendations from our local friends and ended up buying the trip from Royal Palace Cruise.
The trips are usually packages of one, two, or three days, including transportation from and to Hanoi, a cabin for two persons, meals on board and short, guided excursions made during the cruise. We chose a 2-days-cruise in a standard cabin. The price for two persons was 330 euros. The reservation and payment was easily done in the company’s website. One day before the trip, the company called us to confirm the time and place of departure. From the start, the company handled everything in a very positive and reliable manner.
From Hanoi to Halong Bay
It may become a surprise to many travellers how long it takes to drive from Hanoi to Halong Bay. The distance is 170 kilometres, but the driving time 3,5 hours! It takes time to get out from Hanoi downtown in the morning rush. And for most parts, the road is in a very bad condition.
Our small bus had air conditioning, but otherwise it was quite uncomfortable for us with our long Western legs. This is a common problem when travelling in Vietnam, by the way. Luckily our guide was a very funny guy and his English was quite good. He told us interesting stories about Vietnamese people and everyday life and made the long drive feel a little bit nicer.
On the halfway we had a half an hour break in a café-souvenir shop. It was quite a big establishment with a large selection of clothes, silk scarves and ties, bags, and everything else that is sold also in Hanoi Old Quarter. In this store, the prices were much higher than in Hanoi, so all we bought was some bottles of water and a can of lotus seeds for snack.
Just before arriving at the harbour of Halong Bay, the bus took us to a big pearl shop where we also got some information about the pearl culturing process. The place was interesting but it was not included in our original travel itinerary. We drove there because we had to wait for our turn to enter the dock, explained our guide. Well, I was getting anxious to finally get on board and was not very interested in shopping pearls!
The whole trip from our front door in Hanoi to our cabin on the boat took five hours! It felt really good to finally get there and start the cruise.
The cruise started with a lunch, which we very gladly welcomed! We were starving, six hours after having breakfast in Hanoi. After the lunch, the cruise manager gave us info about the itinerary and some instructions relating to safety.
The best onboard activity is just to sit and enjoy the spectacular scenery of Halong Bay. But we were offered some other activities, too. After the lunch, we got into kayaks and spent an hour paddling around the small bay. After the sunset and dinner, there was octopus fishing. We also got a short Tai Chi –lesson in the early morning.
In the second day, after the breakfast, we arrived in front of the Sung Sot cave. This cave is one of the biggest and most famous caves in Halong Bay area. It is also called “Surprise Cave” or “Amazing Cave”. The visit to the cave was well organised and took about an hour. It really was worth a visit!
After we had returned to the boat from the cave visit, we started the return to the main harbour. On our way back, we had lunch from a buffet table.
From the harbour, we immediately started the drive back to Hanoi. We arrived home at around six in the evening.
Boat, Cabins and Food
The boat was clean and cozy – nothing luxurious but better than we expected. The cabin was quite small, but had a comfortable bed and nice bathroom with shower. The cabins and the big common breakfast/dining/living room had air conditioning, which is a must there! It was a very hot and humid weather and we had to spend most of the time inside, admiring the scenery through the big windows.
The food was fresh and delicious and there was enough of it – it actually surpassed our expectations!
There was a Wi-Fi network but it did not work all the time.
With some twenty adult travellers onboard, the atmosphere was very relaxed and tranquil. No partying, no noise at night.
Some General Comments
One night and two days -trip was very suitable for us. One day -trip from Hanoi would have been far too busy and stressful. Two nights and three days would have been too much for us, especially for our friends with a tight schedule of only two weeks in Vietnam. There are so many other beautiful places to see in Vietnam!
Beforehand, I did not fully understand how busy tourist trap Halong Bay actually is. There are thousands of people and hundreds of boats cruising in the area at the same time. However, if you choose an overnight cruise, you get to experience more tranquil areas, further away from the biggest rush.
Unfortunately, the tourism industry and the heavy load of cruise boats in the area have caused some environmental problems, which can be seen by every traveller. The water is not clean in the busiest parts of the bay. You wouldn’t like to swim in that water! Let’s hope the local authorities will take some effective measures in solving these problems before it’s too late.
Overall, Halong Bay is one of the most interesting destinations in Vietnam and very worth of spending two or three days and some hundreds of euros or dollars!