My desire to visit Vietnam was ignited the first time I glimpsed a photograph of Halong Bay. It countered the image of Vietnam I had conjured in my head; the one where chaotic streets are overcrowded with motorbikes and stifled with pollution. The Halong Bay pictures showed a different scene entirely – one of tree-covered karst mountains rising from an azure sea. I was intent on traveling to Vietnam just to see Halong Bay with my own eyes. I didn’t know it then, but my expectations would be surpassed when we sailed through the karsts on a 2-night Halong Bay cruise.
How We Chose Our Halong Bay Cruise from Hanoi
When we traveled to Vietnam during our yearlong journey around the world, we had less than a month to explore the country (due to a bit of misunderstanding regarding our visa application). Our time was limited, but beyond our first two nights’ accommodation at the Serenity Diamond Hotel in Old Town Hanoi, we had made zero other plans.
Our online research was highlighted by scam alerts, making us weary of booking anything in advance. Instead, we decided to allow our instincts from personal encounters guide our way through Vietnam. We hoped to gain insight from fellow travelers, but it was in our conversations with our hotel staff at the Serenity Hotel that led us to book a 2-night Halong Bay tour from Hanoi.
Choosing from the Best Halong Bay Cruises
As we waded through the mounds of glossy brochures while eating breakfast at the hotel, the staff helped explain our options from a cheap Halong Bay day trip to an extravagant Halong Bay luxury cruise. Although there are numerous Vietnam cruise companies, they all seemed to offer similar packages that include single day trips or multiple day, overnight expeditions. We were told that the differences in price would be apparent, not just in the quality of the junk boat but also in the food and the experience of the tour guides too.
Taking Halong Bay Cruise Recommendations
The hotel steered us toward the Halong Bay boat company that they highly recommended. (Whether it was because a cousin worked there or honest feedback from fellow guests, we’ll never know.) Although we were on a budget, we knew a Halong Bay day tour would not be long enough for us; we wanted to experience a Halong Bay junk boat overnight. We settled on a mid-range option. However, the biggest decision for us was the length of time: Should we go on a Halong Bay 2-day cruise…or push our budget for a better experience on a 3-day cruise?
Halong Bay Cruise Overnight for 1 or 2 Nights?
We knew we wanted to be on a Halong Bay overnight boat – but we had to consider three major factors when choosing between a Halong Bay 1-night cruise or 2-night trip: time, money and experience. How the Halong Bay 2-night cruise won us over was the advantage of having a full day on the water that was further from the crowds. A Halong Bay 3-day cruise features deeper bay exploration with a more intimate group of travelers.
Halong Bay was what lured us to Vietnam in the first place, so we were willing to stretch our budget for an extra day on the sea amidst the giant landmasses. We feel we made the right choice; because in hindsight, the full day of Halong Bay sightseeing was one of the highlights of our time in Vietnam.
Check now for the best prices for Halong Bay Cruises on Booking.com!
Halong Bay Itinerary
Wondering what to do in Halong Bay for three days? No need to worry! If you visit Halong Bay on a junk cruise all of the activities are already planned – and will include all the top things to do in Halong Bay. While small details may differ, each Halong Bay cruise itinerary includes similar attractions – like hiking, swimming, kayaking and squid fishing. In our following Halong Bay cruise review, we outline the features and highlights of our Halong Bay junk cruise day-by-day.
Day One of Our Halong Bay Boat Trip
Our first day was highlighted by getting our first glimpse of the bay, meeting the crew and fellow passengers, swimming in the sea and feasting on on-board fare.
Hanoi to Halong Bay
On the morning we left for the Halong Bay islands, we were informed that we’d been upgraded to a better boat with the same company. (We are unsure if this is a common practice or not.) Included in our Halong Bay tour package was transport from Hanoi to Halong Bay via shuttle bus. We were picked up at our hotel at 8:00am for the four-hour drive. At the halfway point, we stopped at a shop where we could stretch our legs and use the bathroom.
As we traveled from Hanoi to Halong Bay, our on-bus tour guide provided useful information about the area and gave us insight to customs and modern life in today’s Vietnam. Although we were eager to get to Halong Bay, we were enthralled by the passing scenery. We drove through the countryside passing villages and small towns along the way, giving us our first look at Vietnam outside of Hanoi.
Junk Boat Halong Bay: A-Class Opera
When we arrived to the Tuan Chau Marina, we could see hundreds of karsts dotting the water and the sight was astounding. We were tendered to our junk boat, AClass Opera, and were greeted with the smiling faces of the crew. After a brief review of the itinerary of our Halong Bay excursion, we were shown to our room.
The room itself was compact and not as glossy as the photos, but we weren’t on a Halong Bay overnight cruise to stay inside. The walls and ceiling were dark wood, there was a rainfall shower in the private bathroom and a small window so we wouldn’t miss a single sight. Best of all, our room had an ice-cold air conditioner.
Once everyone had boarded and the captain’s course was approved, we set off on our Vietnam Halong Bay Tour into the aqueous terrain of thousands of karsts.
Our First On-Board Meal
Much more like a traditional cruise than I thought it would be, we were assigned to a table for meals and had activities succinctly planned throughout the day and evening. Lunch was the first item on the agenda. We were treated to an amazing feast of seafood as plate after plate after plate of goodness was delivered to our table family-style. Fortunately, we fell into easy conversation with our four other table-mates, who were also two-night cruisers.
Rooftop Deck Views
After lunch we retreated to the rooftop deck, mingled with the other passengers and stared in awe at our surroundings. The rocky islands that have evolved in the last 20 million years vary in size and shape and are covered in dense flora. Entrances to caves can be spotted as well as wildlife. We were eager to see monkeys, but only saw a great assortment of birds.
We passed by remnants of floating villages, where generations of families have lived. (However, most of the inhabitants have just recently been required to vacate their homes and move onto land.) Small fishing boats, usually painted a teal color were scattered about. Rowboats served as floating convenience stores pulling up alongside the junk boats offering water, batteries, beers and cigarettes.
Kayaking in Halong Bay
The first scheduled activity was kayaking. We tendered to an abandoned floating village stocked with kayaks and hopped in for a one-hour paddle through karsts and caves, finding more beauty around every corner. The shallow, green-blue water was still and easy to maneuver in, but regrettably was also ripe with litter.
We were naturally inclined to clear the trash from the water. We collected a few items – a miscellaneous sandal, a water bottle, a beer can – before we realized we were fighting a losing battle. It is quite sad that the natural beauty has been slightly marred by years of careless human interaction. As unsightly as it was, it didn’t impede us from being in awe of the enormous rocks and peaceful atmosphere.
Hiking to Ti Top
The second activity on our full itinerary was a hike to the top of a karst. Ti Top, a karst which features a man-made beach has 425 steps (we counted!) to the top, offering sensational views of Halong Bay. In the humidity, we were dripping with sweat, but every step was worth it for the incredible scenery.
We looked down on the hundreds of little islands, like green paint droplets dripped on a mat of swirling blue. As the sun was beginning to set, the slanted light made the scene all the more magical.
Halong Bay Beach at Ti Top
After descending the karst, the man-made beach was a welcome sight and we plunged into the semi-cool, blue water without hesitation. The water was salty and buoyant (or I’ve just been eating too much rice!) and we floated effortlessly as the sky turned pink above us. We made it back to the boat as the last splash of sunset brightened the orange sky.
On-Board Dinner, Karaoke, Squid Fishing
The daylight was gone, but the day was not over. Dinner, much like lunch, consisted of an incredible array of local dishes. Still more to come, we had an obnoxious, yet entertaining, round of karaoke and then a try at squid fishing. We came up empty, but the entire day had been more than fulfilling. Exhausted and anticipating an even more stellar Day Two of our Halong Bay cruise, we went to bed early and were gently rocked to sleep in our cove.
Day Two of our Halong Bay Junk Boat Cruise
On Day Two, we quickly learned why a Halong Bay Cruise 3 Days 2 Nights is worth it. As we ventured further into the bay away from the crowds, we found secluded spots for the best Halong Bay attractions: kayaking, hiking and swimming. In the afternoon, we were allowed to jump from the boat into the clear and crisp water.
Waking Up On Halong Bay
Soft morning light was filtering through the window of our cabin and I quickly rubbed the sleep from my eyes as I remembered where I was: on a junk boat in Halong Bay, Vietnam. It was the second day of our 3-day Halong Bay cruise and we would be spending the day exploring the UNESCO World Heritage site.
It was only a little past 6:00am, but I tossed on clothes, grabbed my camera and dashed up to the rooftop deck to take Halong Bay photos at dawn. The boat engines hadn’t yet started and a stillness of the early morning was only broken by a flock of birds soaring across the bay. Of all the Halong Bay sightseeing, the moment of silence and solitude was my favorite part of the Halong boat trip so far.
It wasn’t long before we were on a schedule again with breakfast being promptly served at 7:00am and our day boat arriving just an hour later. We, along with our four table mates – the only other 3-day passengers on our boat – were making the trip deeper into the bay while the other passengers headed back for the shore. The impending adventure was the reason we booked a 2-night cruise in Halong Bay, Vietnam.
Exploring Lesser-Visited Halong Bay
Our day tour guide, Gam, gave a brief introduction to the day: hiking, swimming, oyster farm, swimming, lunch, kayaking, and more swimming. And the bonus: Unlike the Halong junk boat, we were allowed to jump, dive and flip off the top, side and bow of this boat.
The smaller boat was able to navigate narrow coves and shallow waters, taking us through even more astonishing scenery than we had seen the day before. As we made our way into an area more compacted with karsts, the crowds thinned out and – besides the fishing boats – we were the only other visible vessel. Gliding among the towering rocks was tranquil; the magnificence never ceasing to take our breath away.
Hiking and Swimming in Halong Bay
The sun was still coming up, but the heat was already overbearing by the time we made our first stop at a karst with steps to an outlook and a man-made beach on the shore, very similar to what we had seen at Ti Top the previous day. There were fewer steps (only 300-some-odd steps vs the 425 at Ti Top), but it was no less strenuous. The hike was worth it though, as it delivered on spectacular views of the water below with no other boats in sight. Once back down, we didn’t hesitate a moment to get into the refreshingly cool water, not yet heated by the sun.
Oyster Farm Visit
On the move again, we cruised to an Oyster Farm set back into an inlet. Several floating buildings, including a museum, housing for the staff, a work room and showcase room were all connected by an old, creaking boardwalk that bowed under the weight of us.
Gam explained how pearls are made and then took us into the workroom to peer over the shoulders of the workers as they used precise, dentist-like tools on the oysters to aid in the pearl-making process. It was quite interesting and the final product, set in gold and silver, was gorgeous. But even at direct-from-farm prices, the pearls were not within our budget.
Jumping from the Boat
We continued exploring Halong Bay, this time motoring to a private spot where we could jump from the boat and swim in the open water. The guys all raced to the top deck and flung themselves over the side. Without my flip flops, my feet were burning on the wooden deck, giving me little time to contemplate my actions before I, too, went overboard.
After I recovered from a mouthful of the salty water, I floated in the bay and watched and laughed as the sides of the boat were used as launch pads to dive and flip from (quite entertaining for the crew as well!). The nearby natural beach was within swimming distance, but instead of sand, the sea floor was covered in sharp, jagged shells and after a few nicks I opted instead to remain in the refreshing, deeper water.
While we swam and explored, the crew had been busy preparing lunch – which turned out to be an even more impressive spread than we had on the large junk boat! Whole grilled fish, stuffed crab, spring rolls, salad, chicken, prawns and other unknown dishes covered our table leaving hardly any room for our plates and completely filling our stomachs. It was incredible how they managed to create such a feast on board the small boat.
Halong Bay Kayak Tour
Soon we arrived at our kayaking spot and moved together as a group, with Gam guiding us. We easily paddled past the giant sea mountains through a series of bat-filled and hidden caves that led into small, secluded lakes, exploring Halong Bay in a way I never imagined.
Surrounded by towering limestone cliffs, we seemed to be cut off from the rest of the world. Our only other company were the giant jelly fish that swam by. Monkeys inhabit the islands, but we weren’t lucky enough to see any.
Back at the boat, we were back in the water for one last relaxing float with the karsts overhead looking down on us. On the hour-long ride back to our junk boat, we lounged on the bow and chatted with Gam. So open and sincere, she told us about her life in Vietnam.
Insight to Local Life
Gam’s parents are rice farmers from the countryside. After Gam got married, she moved from the farm onto the floating fishing village where her husband’s family lived. They – along with their two kids – have lived on the water for four year. Just two months ago, however, they were required to move to land, which has been an adjustment to say the least.
Always smiling, she expressed a sense of gratefulness that her children will have a better education and better life on land; but she also told us of the struggles of her husband’s family who lack land-living skills, like driving, and are unable to find work.
She brightened though when she talked about how much she loves her job and meeting people from all around the world. She said getting to do that was like taking a vacation every day as she learned about different people, customs and lands. All quite humbling, actually.
Rejoining Our Junk Boat
Our day of exploring Halong Bay was complete and we joined the new passengers on our junk boat who were on Day One of their Halong Bay cruise. We were treated to a glass of wine and an intense, fiery sunset on the rooftop deck with both the sky and sea turning flame orange. The day had lived up to the hype and we were stoked that we had splurged for the two night cruise, rather than just one. Spending time with a local in such an insanely beautiful, private setting was more than we ever expected.
Day Three of our Halong Bay 3-Day Tour
On the final day of our Halong Bay junk boat tour, we participated in on-board activities and took a trip to Amazing Cave. As we sailed toward the marina, we relished our final hours on the water among the karsts.
Tai Chi at Sunrise
On our second morning of cruising Halong Bay, Vietnam, we woke up early again. Instead of racing outside to take photos, I joined a small group on the rooftop deck at 6:30am for a lesson in Tai Chi. Thankful for the clouds hiding the sun and the cool morning breeze, I followed the moves of the instructor and stretched my way out of my slumber.
Halong Bay Cave: Amazing Cave
After a quick breakfast of Pho (they eat it for every meal here in Vietnam!), we tendered to Amazing Cave, which was, in fact, amazing. The limestone karsts often contain caves as rain and sea water have left their mark over the past couple million years, but this is one of the largest. Stairs and paths led us through three connected caves, each one bigger than the previous.
Enormous stalactites dripped from the ceiling onto their counterpart stalagmites below. Colored lights illuminated the stones, which somewhat disturbed the natural setting, even though it was pretty. Getting a glimpse of the rocks both inside and out made us wonder just how much more there was to discover in the bay.
On-Board Cooking Class
Alas, one activity remained when we returned to the boat: a cooking demonstration. The chef was teaching us how to make the popular Vietnamese spring roll. Pork, sprouts, two kinds of mushrooms, carrots, potato (at least that is what he said it was – some starchy vegetable in any case), spices and herbs were all finely chopped then mixed by hand.
We were given thin sheets of rice paper and a scoop of the mixture to make into spring rolls. I have a sneaking suspicion this just may have been a ploy to put us to work after loafing on the boat for three days. All the same, I, with my love of cooking, thoroughly enjoyed it.
Meeting the Captain
While the staff was frying up our spring rolls and the rest of lunch we had free time. We were already cruising back to port. Despite the heat, I headed out of the air conditioned cabin (where the staff had decided to put on a DVD of the 2012 movie, 21 Jump Street) to get my last look at the karsts while cruising Halong Bay, Vietnam.
As I passed the wheelhouse, I asked the captain if I could take a picture inside. He surprised me by saying I could also take the wheel. This was not at all the lazy, barely-move-the-wheel steering. I had to spin the wheel, making up to 12 rotations, just to slightly alter our direction. With all the junk boats heading back to port and the many fishing boats in the water, it was quite the task.
Lunch and Departure
Our final meal was as fabulous as all the others (the spring rolls were the best yet!) and we continued to wonder how they were able to turn out so much food so quickly that was so good. Soon we were back on land and our three days of cruising Halong Bay, Vietnam had come to a close. Back in a van, we started the long four-hour trip from Halong Bay to Hanoi with all the people, chaos and honking.
Halong Bay Map
Use this link to Google Maps for a Halong Bay, Vietnam Map.
Halong Bay Boat Cruise FAQs
How Do Halong Tours Work?
As we understand it, most of the junk boats carry 1- and 2-night Halong Bay cruise passengers on every ship. On our first night, there were about 25 passengers, only six of us were on the boat for two nights. In the morning, while we boarded the smaller boat that maneuvered deeper into the bay, the rest of the 1-night cruise passengers visited the cave and then sailed back to port (following what would be our Day Three itinerary). The boat then welcomed new passengers and sailed back into the bay. When our second day of exploration was complete, we joined them for wine on the deck, then dinner and subsequent activities.
Halong Bay Day Cruise
We quickly determined that a Halong Bay one-day tour was simply not long enough for us. Besides the required time of making the Halong Bay trip from Hanoi, the island-dotted sea is what brought us to Vietnam – and we wanted to fully experience it. However, if a Halong Bay 1-day tour is all that fits into your budget and overall Vietnam itinerary, we think it is worth taking the trip! You can book a highly-rated One-Day Halong Bay Boat Trip on Viator.
How To Get From Hanoi To Halong Bay
Cruise passengers from Hanoi will not need to worry about how to get to Halong Bay. The shuttle bus to and from Hanoi is included in the price of the cruise. A guide will ride in the bus as well, which allows time to ask questions and learn more about Vietnam. Not everyone on the shuttle bus boarded the same junk boat. There is a stop mid-way through the drive for a bathroom break and souvenir shopping.
How Far is Halong Bay from Hanoi?
The Hanoi to Halong Bay distance is about 175km. It takes about 3.5 hours, once all of the Halong Bay boat tour passengers have been picked up from the various hotels. UPDATE: As of 2019 a new highway has opened and has reduced the Hanoi to Halong Bay travel time to approximately 2 hours.
Halong Bay Cruise Price
We paid $400 USD total for two people for the 2-night Halong Bay Cruise with Aclass. After we booked, we were informed by our hotel staff that we had been upgraded to a better ship without extra cost. We are not certain if we were lucky or how common this practice might be. The Halong Bay 3-day cruise price that we paid was less than the prices we saw stated in the brochures.
Alcoholic beverages and other drinks are not included in the Halong Bay tour price and need to be calculated into your overall Halong Bay cruise cost. A can of beer aboard the junk boat cost about $2 USD – and it was only slightly cheaper to purchase drinks (or other goods) from the floating ‘convenience stores.’
Luxury Cruise Halong Bay vs. Cheap Halong Bay Cruise
We heard more than once that you get what you pay for a Halong Bay cruise. Halong Luxury cruises, while expensive, will no doubt have nicer sleeping quarters and better cuisine. On the flip side, cheap cruises provide the basics and little more. The good news is that there is a middle ground of mid-range priced cruises that may lack sophistication, but still provide quality services.
Our Top Tips for Your Halong Bay, Vietnam Cruise
Our best Halong Bay cruise recommendation: Don’t get too caught up in the details. Last minute changes may occur. Like a lot of things in Vietnam, what is presented isn’t always exactly what is delivered. Try not to agonize what is happening behind the scenes; instead focus on the big picture: getting to spend time on the water while marveling at the karsts.
- The iconic Halong sails will most likely not be raised on any of the boats.
- Jumping from the big Halong Bay junk boats is no longer allowed – and may not be possible from the smaller boats either.
- Beautiful Cave (or any other cave) might be visited instead of Amazing Cave.
- The guide on the shuttle bus may not be the guide on the boat.
Final thoughts on our 2-night Halong Bay Cruise
Looking back at our experience on Halong Bay, we couldn’t have imagined spending only one night on the junk boat. We think we would have felt rushed – in and out and gone. On the first day of our 2-night Halong Bay cruise, we sailed into surrounding karsts. However, we did so with about 20 other boats the same size as ours. Although the scenery was like nothing we had seen before, watching several boats all anchor in the same cove was a bit of a racket.
Perhaps if our visit to Vietnam had been limited to only one week, then one night might have sufficed. But, spending the second day on Halong Bay away from the crowds and in the hidden coves was exactly how I first envisioned visiting Halong Bay would be. We felt solitude among the quiet nature – just us and the karsts and the sea.
Halong Bay Weather
Halong Bay, Vietnam weather varies by season. Check average monthly temperatures and the weather forecast for Halong Bay before your trip on Weather.com.
What You Need for Your Trip
Make sure you pack the essentials! In warm weather, you will need a swimsuit and sunscreen. In cool weather, you will need a jacket. Also, don’t forget to pack a pair of lightweight and comfortable walking shoes for the caves. I (Sarah) traveled with these shoes by Skechers. Kris prefered wearing these shoes by Merrell.
We’re certain you’ll be snapping tons of photos of Halong Bay. Rather than relying on your mobile phone to capture the sights, upgrade to an actual camera for higher quality photos. We travel with a Canon Rebel (which takes amazing photos, but can be a bit clunky) and a Canon PowerShot ELPH (which takes beautiful pictures, is slim and lightweight).
We think travel insurance is essential! If you haven’t already obtained travel insurance for your trip, travel protected with World Nomads.
For more information and to book this cruise or check out the best Halong Bay tours, go to the official website of Halong Hub.
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