How to choose a Halong Bay cruise – surely it can’t be that hard? I didn’t think so until I heard travellers complain of being put on boats they didn’t book and forced to share ‘single’ rooms with strangers. We thought it time we shared our tips to how to choose a Halong Bay cruise that’s best for you.
Northern Vietnam’s UNESCO World Heritage listed Halong Bay – also written as Ha Long Bay – sprawls across an area of 1,500 square kilometres in the Gulf of Tonkin, 170 kilometres east of Hanoi. It’s a gobsmackingly gorgeous seascape of 1,600 lush islands, craggy islets, limestone karsts, and schist outcrops that rise dramatically out of the jade waters.
A Halong Bay cruise features on most travellers’ Vietnam itineraries. These can range from small cruise boats with 2-5 cabins that can be privately chartered for as long as you wish (best for a family, couples or a group of friends) to 1-2 night all-inclusive cruises on larger boats with a range of on-board activities and excursions (if you abhor organised tours these are not for you). There are also day-tripper boats, including party boats.
How to choose a Halong Bay cruise that’s right you isn’t rocket science. It can be time-consuming, especially if you’re travelling with family or a group of friends with different interests. However, it shouldn’t be overwhelming – especially if you follow our advice.
Yet for many travellers, who are at a loss as to where to start when it comes to how to choose a Halong Bay cruise, the experience can be stressful. And when they do their cruise and discover that it’s not what they thought they booked or if it was what they booked but didn’t meet their expectations, it can be terribly disappointing.
Having tested out six Halong Bay cruises, including one last week, I thought it time to share our tips to how to choose a Halong Bay cruise that’s right for you so you don’t end up being one of those people.
How to Choose a Halong Bay Cruise That’s Right For You
Winding up our recent 22-day Vietnam Culinary Tour with a Halong Bay cruise was the best thing we could have done – enjoying a leisurely three-day/two-night cruise through breathtaking scenery on a brand new boat with beautiful rooms with balconies and fun travelling companions was a grand way to end a great trip.
I have to confess that how to choose a Halong Bay cruise isn’t a mystery for a travel writer, and it wasn’t too arduous. I approached it as I might the selection of a resort. It also helped that Terence and I had already tested out a handful of cruises for Australia’s Ocean magazine, trying different vessels, from a private wooden boat booked by dot.com millionaires to a sleek small ship considered the most luxurious on Halong bay at the time.
Click through to read about the Halong Bay cruise boats we tested out, along with a new review of the boat I took my little Vietnam Culinary Tour group on last week.
Based on that experience I know how different each Halong Bay cruise can be and what distinguishes one boat cruise from another – what it is that makes one trip inspire someone to return to Halong Bay (because we’ve met people who’ve done multiple cruises) and another left thinking Halong Bay wasn’t that special.
Having said that, the boat I originally selected when I started researching our recent Vietnam Culinary Tour earlier this year wasn’t able to accommodate all participants in their own rooms for our dates and two had been expected to share a twin for one night.
That meant that just a few days before our trip (the afternoon of the evening we were taking an overnight train to Sapa) I had to sit down and think about how to choose a Halong Bay cruise that was best for our group – quickly.
After an hour scrutinising itineraries and inclusions and studying images of the vessel, I had us on an even more luxurious boat, the Orchid II. Here’s what I did…
How to Choose a Halong Bay Cruise Step-by-Step
How to choose a Halong Bay cruise that was best for our group wasn’t all that hard because I worked my way through a series of considerations in a logical order. There are the things you need to consider and make decisions about when it comes to how to choose a Halong Bay cruise that’s right for you:
Decide on the Duration of Your Halong Bay Cruise
When it comes to how to choose a Halong Bay cruise that’s best for you, begin with the duration. Most people can adjust their budget and shift their finances around if they need to, however, it can be harder to add a day to their trip, especially if there’s a a job or school to return to.
To decide how long you want to spend on Halong Bay, ask yourself a few questions. Is this your once-in-a-lifetime trip? Are you scheduling Halong Bay at the end of your Vietnam holiday because you’re looking for some relaxation? Or do you envisage you’ll return again one day and you are just looking for a taste of what Halong Bay offers?
If it’s your once-in-a-lifetime trip and you’re heading to Halong Bay at the end of a busy holiday, then you’d be wise to book a 3-day/2-night cruise. It’s not worth doing a Halong Bay cruise for one night unless you are on an unavoidably tight budget or schedule or you just want a taste of the bay.
It’s important to note that the 2-day/1-night night experience really only amounts to one night and one day, as you board your boat around noon on the first day and the ships dock back at port so you can disembark around 11.30am the second day. The 3-day/2-night experience is a 2-day/2-night itinerary with a half-day on day one, a full day on day two, and a half-day on day three.
Don’t even think about a day trip without an overnight experience as you’ll spend more time in the vehicle there and back than you will on the boat.
Tip: if you’re opting for a 2-night cruise because you’d like to enjoy some downtime, then also opt for a balcony room. There are few more pleasant things to do on a Halong Bay cruise than sit on your private balcony sipping a glass of wine with a good book in hand.
Decide on Your Budget and Boat Category – Luxury, Mid-Range or Low-End?
The next thing you need to consider when it comes to how to choose a Halong Bay cruise is your budget and the level of comfort you want.
How to choose a Halong Bay cruise needn’t be a headache if money is no object. If budget isn’t an issue, don’t even think about doing anything other than a high-end cruise, which should (in theory) be comparable to a five-star luxury hotel stay.
Expect a beautiful well-maintained boat, with spacious well-equipped and luxuriously furnished cabins, with the facilities and amenities of a five-star hotel room.
On the Orchid II, I had an enormous bathroom with roomy shower and a freestanding bath with bay views, massive bed, a banquette style lounge by a large window, a desk, and table and chairs on my private balcony. There was air conditioning, a safe, tea and coffee making facilities, a mini-bar, and a flat screen TV I didn’t even switch on.
The boat also had an elegant restaurant serving a combination of buffet (very generous) and a la carte (Euro-Asian fusion), two bars (with a decent cocktail and wine list), a rooftop deck with sun-beds, lounges, tables and chairs, and a spa and gym. Other boats will be similar.
You should expect a high ratio of staff to guests, which means attentive service, an array of well-organised excursions and on-board activities, and there should be a good guide to accompany you on tours.
Recommended Luxury Cruise Boats*
How to choose a Halong Bay cruise gets a little harder at the mid-range. If you’re watching your finances or stretching your funds over an extended period of travel, but don’t want to make too many sacrifices then you probably prefer to opt for a mid-range cruise.
At the top end of the mid-range level the cruise boats will be on par with a 4-star hotel and at the low-end of mid-range will be comparable to a 3-star hotel or a good 2-star.
Keep in mind that the boats will be a little older than the high end boats, will have fewer facilities and amenities, and won’t be fitted out as well. The cabins won’t be as spacious – in fact, some will be very snug (as little as 10-12 square metres in comparison to 20-30 square metres) – the furniture might be looking a little worn and chipped, and the furnishings a little tatty or stained.
If you’re lucky there’ll be a hairdryer, but there’s hardly likely to be a television. You might not get a balcony at the low-end of the mid-range spectrum and if there’s a window it might only be a porthole.
There will probably only be one restaurant-bar, all meals will be served buffet style and there’ll probably be a beach BBQ. There’ll be a short wine list and cocktails might not extend far past gin and tonics.
There’ll be less staff and most probably won’t speak English, and there’ll be fewer activities, with little guiding involved.
If you’re booking a mid-range cruise boat, try to book one at the high end of mid-range.
Recommended Mid-Range Cruise Boats*
Low-End Budget Cruises
How to choose a Halong Bay cruise if you’re on a tight budget? This is where things get tricky. If you’re considering a budget cruise boat, it’s worth doing some additional research, as this is where you can get into trouble. While there are some new gems cruising Halong Bay in the budget category, such as the Flamingo, which I’ve heard good things about, the budget boats are usually the boats that most disappoint.
The budget Halong Bay cruise boats can be very old and badly maintained, with peeling paint and basic furnishings, no facilities (you definitely won’t be getting a spa or gym), and few amenities (forget about the free toiletries let alone a hairdryer at the lower end of this category).
There will probably only be one common area used for lounging, eating and socialising and the simple home-cooked style food will probably be dished out on plates passed around to guests while barbecues are also popular.
There’ll be few staff – don’t be surprised if the captain doubles as the cook at the lowest end of this category – and most probably won’t speak English. They will probably be living full-time on the boat (tell tale sign: a clothes line).
You’re essentially booking the equivalent of a 1-2 star hotel or B&B at the top end of the budget category and a backpackers or hostel at the lower end of the budget category, so you shouldn’t be surprised if you end up having to share a room on a $360 a night cruise that you bought from a dodgy Hanoi travel agent.
When you read about the horror stories – such as travellers randomly separated into groups on arrival at the port, shuffled onto boats that look nothing like they booked, and directed to stuffy bunk rooms they’re to share with other passengers despite paying for their own private cabin – they’re about this category of boat. Basically, you get what you pay for.
Warning: many of the budget boats are party boats, so if you’re not heading to Halong Bay to party, head to Trip Advisor to scrutinise the reviews.
Recommended Budget Cruise Boats*
Consider the Size of the Boat
Check the size of the boat, number of cabins, and how many passengers it takes. If you enjoy socialising or you’re a solo traveller who wants to meet people, choose a medium to large size boat with more people, but note that on a medium size boat it’s hard to escape people if you realise you don’t have much in common with your travelling companions.
On a bigger boat, there are more new people to befriend and more public spaces to move to, especially if you want some alone-time. If you’re on a honeymoon or travelling with a group of close friends or family, consider chartering your own small boat.
Consider the People You’ll Be Travelling With
Just like a tour, every group of people is different. It’s impossible to predict who you might be travelling with, but you can get an idea of the types of people the boat attracts by checking the reviews on Booking.com and Trip Advisor and looking at the cruise company’s images and the photos that people upload to review sites and share on social media.
Is the restaurant full of 2- and 4-seater tables or is it set up with long tables for big groups? Do you see more couples, groups of friends or families? Are they young backpackers, middle aged or retirees? Are people doing tai chi and cooking classes or are they partying and jumping overboard?
Consider the Food You’ll Be Eating
Cruise boats might serve Vietnamese food, Euro-Asian fusion, and/or Western dishes, and there’s usually seafood in abundance. You’re at sea, after all. The best will offer kids meals. Boats generally serve a combination of buffets (for breakfast, brunch and lunch), set menus and/or a la carte (lunch and dinner).
The cruise companies that make it a priority to feed their guests fine food will have magazine-style images on their websites of mouth-watering dishes and the chef plating up in the kitchen. The boats that don’t care about the food they’re serving probably won’t have any photos of food on their site.
Also look at passengers’ images and the words “beach BBQ” on the cruise boat site, which generally means ‘backpacker food’. Don’t bother reading Trip Advisor reviews: how can a person know their boat had “the best food on Halong Bay!!!!” when they only tried the food on one boat on Halong Bay.
Luxury cruise boats can usually deal with food allergies and intolerances, but if you’re going on a mid-range or budget boat it’s best to email the cruise line before booking to make sure they can accommodate.
Check if Transfers are Included
Most Halong Bay cruise lines charge extra for transfers from Hanoi to the port, although the high-end cruise boats are increasingly including transfers in spacious luxury vans with business class airline-style seats and many boats will throw in transfers during the low season or rainy season.
Check if transfers are included and if they’re not, what they cost. If you’re paying extra for transfers for a family, add up the cost as it might be worth using that money to upgrade to a more luxurious boat that includes transfers.
Note the type of vehicle used – is it a shuttle bus that will pick up passengers from other hotels or can you book a private car? – and the duration of the journey. It’s no fun travelling 4-5 hours on a cramped mini van with your knees under your chin.
The luxury boats use the new toll way that takes just two hours. The duration is especially important if you’re flying out after your cruise.
Check the Cruise Routes, Destinations and Excursions
Routes and Destinations
Not all Halong Bay cruises go to the same places. While the vast majority of the boats sail the same routes and include the most popular sights in their itineraries, some Halong Bay boats are taking alternative routes and docking closer to lesser-visited points of interest.
If you detest visiting crowded tourist sights on land then you’re not going to like them at sea either so you might enjoy yourself more on a cruise that goes to more off-the-beaten-track spots and drops anchor with just a few boats for the night (for safety and security reasons) rather than a dozen or so.
Look to see which routes the cruise boats you’ve short-listed take and where they spend most of their time.
Halong Bay actually consists of three different bays: Ha Long, Bai Tu Long and La Han Bay. Ha Long Bay is actually the area closest to shore and is the busiest area with the most popular spots.
Adjacent to Ha Long Bay and to the east of Cat Ba Island, Lan Ha Bay is less touristy, yet still has some 400 lush islands and islets, and is home to Van Gia floating fishing village, Monkey Island, Nam Cat Island, Van Boi beach, and Luon Cave.
Encompassing three quarters of the Halong Bay UNESCO World Heritage site, Bai Tu Long Bay is lesser visited than Ha Long Bay yet still boasts some 3,000 islets and islands with sandy beaches, such as Ngoc Vung, Quan Lan, Cong Dong, and Cong Tay, and is also home to a national park, as well as Cong Dam and Vung Vieng fishing villages and Thien Canh Son cave.
Part of the experience of a Halong Bay cruise are the excursions to caves, floating fishing villages, islands, and beaches, so it’s important to choose a Halong Bay that has the right mix of excursions for you.
Nearly every Halong Bay cruise itinerary includes an excursion to a cave and some caves are more stupendous than others, such as Sung Sot Cave or Surprising Cave in Halong Bay, one of the largest at around 10,000 square metres. The most spectacular caves, are obviously on more itineraries and are therefore more crowded. While the lesser-visited caves naturally won’t be as busy they will be less impressive.
On Bo Hon Island, beautiful Luon Cave is little more than a short tunnel and low arch, accessed by a small boat or kayak, that leads to an almost crater-like lake surrounded by walls dripping with cycads, ferns, orchids, and Benjamin’s fig trees. If you’re lucky, you may spot some cheeky monkeys fooling around on the cliffs.
Two excursions that are a must: a visit by small wooden boat to a floating fishing village such as Vong Vieng which is absolutely fascinating to get an insight into the everyday life of the locals on Halong Bay, and a bicycle ride on Bac Ha island, which is really lovely on a fine day. Skip it if it’s raining.
Other activities include kayaking, bamboo boat rides, swimming, and beach barbecues.
Tip: scrutinise the list of inclusions carefully if you’re going to choose a Halong Bay cruise specifically for its activities.
Consider On-Board Activities and Downtime
If quality downtime for you means lounging around with a good book or taking naps in your room, then the number of on-board activities on offer probably won’t be of consequence.
What will be important is the quality of the day boat. The 3-day/2-night Halong Bay cruises transfer passengers from the main boat to a smaller ‘day boat’ for activities for the full second day, while the main boat returns to port so the 2-day/1-night passengers can disembark and new passengers board.
Day boats can range from mini versions of the main boat with a restaurant, bar, lounge, and sun deck to little more than a transfer boat. You therefore need to investigate what kind of day boat your Halong Bay cruise boat has if you’re not planning on doing all the activities.
If you’re really out to relax with a book you may wish to stay on the main boat and split your time between your cabin and the rooftop. Do let staff know as they’ll be busy cleaning rooms in preparation for new arrivals and might need to make special meal arrangements for you.
If you’re hoping to work on your tan, take a good look at the images of the boat and how many sun-beds there are on the deck and also look at how many cabins there are on the boat. Will there be enough to go around?
If you like the idea of pampering and massages, then make sure you’re booking a boat with a spa, email for a menu of treatments and massages, and once on board book yourself in as spas are usually very small, even on the luxury boats.
If you prefer to do things in your downtime, then note what complimentary on-board activities are offered. The good mid-range to luxury Halong Bay cruise boats will include sunrise tai chi classes, cooking classes, squid fishing, and movies. Some boats also offer yoga classes.
Cooking classes are generally cooking demonstrations, with most cruise boats offering little more than instruction in rolling fresh or fried spring rolls. They usually take place in the early evening during happy hour providing a chance for guests to socialise.
Squid fishing, which is little more than dangling a line and lure over the side of the boat, can be fun if the staff and other guests are fun and if they’re not then make sure you have a drink in hand.
Movies on the rooftop deck can be lovely with Indochine, the French epic partly set on Halong Bay and featuring Catherine Deneuve and Vincent Pérez, being the most popular film to screen. Take tissues and prepare to fall in love with Halong Bay.
Have you been to Halong Bay? Do you have any tips to how to choose a Halong Bay cruise?
*Links to cruise boats go to our affiliate partner Booking.com from whom we earn a small commission if you book a cruise. You won’t pay any extra and you will be supporting our work and the information we provide on this site.
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