Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site in North Vietnam, about 4 hours drive from Hanoi. Ha Long with an area of 1500 sq. km, thousands of limestone karsts and small islands is the biggest bay in the area. It is best experienced on a Halong Bay overnight cruise. Positioned to the east of Halong Bay is Bai Tu Long Bay. Bai Tu Long is the less traversed region.
The name Ha Long means “descending dragon”. The name was given to this area in the 19th century and there is a myth involving dragons fighting against invaders to save Vietnam behind it.
Choose between day or overnight cruise
Halong Bay is indeed a marvel, but with the fame comes the crowds. Halong Bay attracts more than 6 million visitors every year, traveling from around the world to gaze at the outstanding scenery. The first step in planning your trip to this region is to decide what type of cruise you want to take. Your options re between a day cruise or an overnight cruise. A day cruise is obviously cheaper, but doesn’t give you the feel of exploring the bay at length. Overnight cruises are more expensive, but they give you the chance to see the bay in all its glory.
Most cruise packages include a pick-up and drop-off to Hanoi. The crowds make a day trip to Halong Bay not such a good experience. If you are staying in Hanoi, Halong Bay lies at a distance of about 170 km and the road drive is through some not-so-scenic areas. I wouldn’t recommend it as a day trip from Hanoi.
Halong Bay and more so, Bai Tu Long Bay is great to experience on an overnight cruise. Halong Bay offers a higher density of karsts than it’s neighboring Bai Tu Long Bay. But the crowds and the litter at Halong Bay are visible everywhere. Bai Tu Long is pristine, quiet, and a great alternative to Halong Bay. But the protected status of Bai Tu Long Bay prohibits boats from anchoring overnight.
Best time for Halong Bay cruise
The best season to visit Halong Bay is either spring (March, April) or autumn (September, October). The weather is cool and the bay is serene.
Summer (from May until early September) is alright with sunny days and warm weather to swim. There could be rains that could lead to a cruise cancellation at times. Winter (from November until early March) is not ideal for Halong Bay as the weather is cold and not good for swimming. December and January is peak season for Vietnam. So you are bound to meet crowds even at Halong Bay during these months.
Avoid any long weekend or Tet holiday time to visit Halong Bay.
Halong Bay with kids
I recommend including Halong Bay in your Vietnam itinerary if you are travelling to this country with kids. While choosing a cruise, do inquire as to what child-friendly activities they offer. Kids can swim, kayak in the bay. They will enjoy the scenery of 2,000 limestone karsts sprinkled along the water.
What to pack for a Halong Bay cruise
You have to consider the local weather conditions and what activities interest you, while packing for the trip. Do check this comprehensive Vietnam packing list. For an overnight cruise, you should pack clothes that are light and can be easily layered, as the weather can vary from cool to warm. If you intend to go swimming and kayaking in the bay, you would need swimsuit, swim shoes and a towel. It is a good idea to bring a dry bag to keep all your belongings safe while you enjoy the water activities. You would need to pack sun screen and insect repellent for sure for the cruise. And it is good to wear comfortable walking shoes.
Best Halong Bay cruise recommendation
We hit upon a great Halong Bay / Bai Tu Long Bay cruise with IndoChina Dragon Legend cruise. It is one of the best Halong bay cruise recommendation as per several reviews. Dragon Legend is a luxury operator in Halong and Bai Tu Long Bay area. They offer several night cruise options – 1, 2 and 3 nights – on board a luxury junk. This overnight cruise starts at Halong Bay and take you further ahead to Bai Tu Long Bay where the boats are lesser and it is much quieter.
Each Dragon Legend boat features 24 luxury cabins, 4 decks with both inside and outside restaurants, a spa, bar and a sundeck area. We found our large cabin room to be well-furnished and the service through the cruise was excellent.
The luxury experience starts with the minivan that they sent to our hotel for pick-up. It is equipped with drinks and mini bar, air conditioner, free WiFi connection, USB charging ports, larger and more comfortable seats.
We reached the boarding area and I was amused to hear that the boat is referred to as Junk!
We were transferred to Dragon Legend smoothly via a smaller boat. One look at our luxurious cabin and the large bathroom and my 5-year old daughter was delighted!
Lunch was served in the main dining room of the cruise. It was plentiful and fresh. The window seat made for a nice viewing. We ate and chatted while taking in the scenic limestone karsts and fishing villages pass by. If you inform the staff of any dietary preferences (being vegetarian) or any allergies, they will serve you food keeping in mind those restrictions.
Magical evening and sunset on board
The best part of the cruise was yet to come. With an overnight cruise, you are able to go much further within the Halong Bay where it is quiet and all the day boats have left. There would be just one or two junks to us visible during the sunset time.
We climbed up to the highest deck on the boat to see the spectacular sunset unfold in the sky. The colours were a riot and kept changing every few minutes. Our luxury junk was anchored on a spot. With the sky on fire, a lovely breeze wafting by, this evening hour was really magical.
Dinner was much more lavish than the lunch. There was an option to sit outside in the open as well as inside the dining room. My daughter was quite taken with the intricate way the vegetables had been cut / carved to decorate the dishes. The open air tables get full quickly so make you inform the steward of your table preference earlier in the evening.
We had signed up for the optional kayaking adventure the next morning. I highly recommend this for the entire family. The calm sea water of Bai Tu Long Bay is well suited for kayaking. You get a feel of the water and the karst formations of the bay in a fabulous way.
The adventure started with a brief introduction by the guide and a quick list of dos and donts. The water around some parts of the bay has jellyfish, and the guide warned us against putting our hands in the water. The guide got in the kayak and showed us the correct way to row and make turns.
My husband and I chose a double kayak. We weren’t sure we had the stamina to kayak solo for the next hour. Our 5-year old daughter had never been in a kayak before. We weren’t confident of making her sit between us and row comfortably. The guide made it easy by opting to take her with him. While we were comfortable with her going with an expert guide, she hesitated a bit and I asked the guide to be close to our kayak at all times. He rowed faster than both my husband and I together, and we struggled to chase him.
But what a wonderful adventure it turned out to be! We rowed to a hidden lagoon and a piece of white unspoilt beach. We were required to secure our kayaks first on the beach. Then there was time for swimming, making sandcastles and generally having a good time.
For the trip back to the junk, we opted for a ride on a small boat but there were several who kayaked back.
There was another optional tour in the overnight cruise, and that was a visit to a nearby cave. My husband wanted to relax in the room as did my daughter, so I went for the cave visit with the rest of the group.
Several of the islands in the area are hollow with massive caves. You can visit these caves to see interesting stalactites and stalagmites. We went to see the 1000-year old Thien Canh Son cave in Bai Tu Long Bay. This is one of the 59 discovered caves in the entire area. A small boat got us to the shore of Paradise island. We climbed up the 100 odd steps to the entrance of the cave.
Thien Canh Son Cave comprises of 3 caverns in total, each one strewn with stalactites and stalagmites. While I liked the cave and the formations within it, I enjoyed the view of the other lush, green islands and limestone formations spread over the bay even more.
We spent about an hour reaching and exploring the cave and then it was time to head back to the junk.
Final verdict on Halong Bay luxury cruise
An overnight cruise on Dragon Legend is expensive. But with its focus on great service, fresh and healthy food, great adventure options like kayaking, a route that takes you to the quieter Bai Tu Long Bay, large well-furnished rooms, your money is well spent. It is definitely one the best Halong Bay cruise options on offer.
Another great option for a short trip from Hanoi is Tam Coc, or ‘Ha Long Bay on Land’ with its limestone karsts and emerald river.
[This post was originally published in 2018, and later updated with fresh content]
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Have you visited Halong Bay or Bai Tu Long Bay? Did you take a day trip or an overnight cruise?
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