The best Halong Bay cruise boats range from petite boats with just a few berths that you can hire privately to big gleaming white boats with five-star hotel facilities. We’ve tested a handful of them and these are the Halong Bay cruise boats we recommend.
If you are as enchanted by the idea of spending two to three days sailing through the craggy limestone karsts of Halong Bay in Northern Vietnam as I was after seeing the film Indochine many years ago, then you need to make sure that you do your research and choose the right Halong Bay cruise boat for you.
Or, just use our guide to the best Halong Bay cruise boats, below. We tested out seven different types of boats over the years and will test out more again this year.
Best Halong Bay Cruise Boats
The vast majority of tourists experience Halong Bay on an officially registered cruise boat, from traditional-style wooden junks to sleek, shiny modern vessels.
Don’t expect to see the dark-brown teak wood junks with red sails you see in the ads and on the websites. They were all painted white, sadly. While stories varied wildly about the reason behind the order, the official reason is for safety.
Choice of Halong Bay cruise boats range from day-tripper boats — usually crammed with backpackers and package tourists — to one- or two-night cruises, which are by far the best options for getting the most out of the bay.
Bear in mind that Halong Bay is one of Vietnam’s most popular destinations, so the best Halong Bay cruise boats often fill during high season so make sure you book in advance.
These are the best Halong Bay cruise boats as far as we’re concerned and we’ve tested out six boats so far, each on a 2-3 day itinerary.
Our Picks of the Best Halong Bay Cruise Boats
Orchid Cruises’ luxurious Orchid 1 and Orchid 2 boats must be the most handsome ships sailing Halong Bay right now. I just spent three days and two nights on the three-month old Orchid 2, which is a five-star vessel with just 14 cabins and two staff for every guest.
The super spacious cabins (the smallest 36 square metres, the largest 72 square metres) are in a chic, contemporary style with polished dark wooden floors and furniture, warm furnishings in camel, slate and pale grey, and breathtaking views from the freestanding bath, comfy sitting area with a banquette against enormous windows, and balcony with two seats and a table.
The spare contemporary style continues through the public spaces which include a small indoor lounge within the sizeable restaurant, and an expansive rooftop deck with a bar, two lounge areas with sofas plus tables chairs, and a separate deck with sun beds and umbrellas. There’s also a small spa and tiny gym off the reception area.
Meals were served both buffet-style (breakfast and lunch) and a la carte (brunch and dinner). However, unfortunately the food was inconsistent and often disappointing, ranging from a perfect omelette for breakfast to a strange sort of modern global fusion for dinner. (Note: they assured me they’re working on improving the menu, so we’d love to hear your feedback if you do this cruise).
The Orchids sail the less traveled route from Halong Bay to Bai Tu Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay via Thoi Quyt, Coc Ngoi islet and Cua Van to Ba Trai Dao beach. While this means you’ll see far fewer cruise ships and day tripping tourist boats than you’ll see on the routes taken by the cruise boats below, those are beaten paths for a reason with more spectacular caves and more stunning kayaking spots.
Excursions include kayaking, swimming at Ba Ham Lake, a cruise by bamboo boat through a floating fishing village, and a guided tour by bicycle to Viet Hai village.
On board activities include sunrise tai chi, a nightly cooking demonstration during happy hour, and squid fishing. Unfortunately there was no on-board commentary from the guide to know which islands we were passing. And no post-dinner movie as there are on other boats, so I missed gawking at Catherine Deneuve and Vincent Pérez this time and instead gazed at the moonlit bay.
Book Orchid Cruises online with our booking partner Booking.com.
Au Co Cruises
The gleaming white Au Co boats (they currently have two in operation) are hands down two of the best Halong Bay cruise boats and are easily two of the most luxurious with 32 spacious, beautifully decorated, light-filled cabins that wouldn’t be out of place in a five-star resort.
Each cabin boasts big bathrooms, comfy beds and romantic balconies. There are plenty of public spaces to relax in, including rattan sofas in the bar area, an enormous and very elegant restaurant, and a wonderful expansive sundeck offering sweeping vistas.
The service and cuisine – served a la carte style with a choice of dishes – are unrivalled on the bay. The 3-day/2-night cruise itineraries include Cát Bà Island, Sung Sot Cave and a floating fishing village, as well as the ubiquitous cooking class.
This was easily the most luxurious of the cruises we tested out and is the best if you are accustomed to staying in five star hotels.
Book Au Co Cruises online with our booking partner Booking.com.
Favoured by dot.com billionaires and celebrities for their privacy and personal attention, the delightful Legend fleet is dedicated to customised private charters.
The means you could do anything from an overnight cruise to a week if you wanted and you could have them dock to explore caves or anchor so you can hang out on a beach. Or you could simply relax on the boat.
There are eight different vessels offering one, two, three or four en-suite cabins that can be configured for double or twin accommodation, plus a spacious dining room and deck areas with seats and sun beds. Rates include all meals (set menus) and non-alcoholic drinks.
My only complaint was that there was no interior sitting area with sofas — a must during the winter months when it’s too cold to be on deck.
I loved the privacy and intimacy of our little Legend — the experience is akin to staying in a private villa with staff compared to a hotel — I just wished there was more room comfy sofas to curl up in with a book.
Book Legend Halong online with our booking partner Booking.com.
Bhaya Cruises Classic Line
Generally comparable with Heritage Line’s Violet, above, and the Jasmine boat, below, in terms of the overall experience, service and quality of the cuisine, Bhaya Cruises Classic Line of boats are a cut above the rest if you book the charming Terrace Suites, which we were lucky to have.
While the rooms are snug at just 16.5 square metres, we had a private balcony terrace with panoramic bay views. One evening the crew organised a romantic dinner under the stars for us on the private deck. We almost felt like we weren’t working.
Bhaya Cruises’ Classic Line is small, with just 15 and 20 cabins, depending on the boat. When full to capacity the public spaces can sometimes feel cramped, but it makes up for it with a modern design (the boats were refurbished in 2015) that still retain a touch of Oriental charm.
If you don’t dine on your private terrace, meals are served buffet style. The 3-day/2-night itinerary includes visits to Vung Vieng fishing village by rowing boat, cycling on Cát Bà Island, and a visit to Sung Sot Cave.
Book Bhaya Cruises Classic Line online with our booking partner Booking.com.
Heritage Line Jasmine Cruise
There are two classes of rooms on the Jasmine and it pays to pay that bit extra for the premium room, as the difference between the two is that between a four- and five-star hotel room.
In the style of a traditional wooden junk (before it was painted white!), the Jasmine maybe a tad old-fashioned but it has an Oriental charm that first-time visitors fine appealing.
The Jasmine is on par with the Bhaya Cruises’ Classic in terms of quality of amenities, service, and cuisine. While meals are served buffet-style, the quality of food was a notch above the Bhaya Cruises’ Classic, above.
The Jasmine, however, offers more space with a bar area attached to the restaurant and two expansive deck areas that were a real delight to kick back on and take in the spectacular scenery.
Cruises are three days and two nights and the boat visits Cát Bà Island, Tien Ong Cave and Cua Van Fishing Village. Overall, the Jasmine offered a nice combination of old-fashioned Oriental charm and comfort — as long as you book the better rooms.
Book Heritage Line Jasmine Cruise online with our booking partner Booking.com.
If you’ve been to Halong Bay we’d love to hear about your experience and whether you have any additional candidates for the best Halong Bay cruise boats that we should be testing out on our next trip. Please do leave comments below.
Vietnam Visa on Arrival
Travelling to Vietnam? Click through to arrange your Vietnam Visa on Arrival through our Visa Partner, the most respected Vietnam Visa agent. Visa approval letters take just 2 business days, although urgent visas can be arranged in as little as 4 working hours and up to 1 working day. More visa information here.