If you’re planning a trip to Vietnam then chances are Halong Bay will be on your list. We’ve all seen the pictures or footage on nature documentaries of those towering limestone karsts, who wouldn’t want to visit?! The area is stunningly beautiful and well worthy of its fame.
Whilst it’s easy to organise a trip to Halong Bay there are more than a few things you might want to know before hitting the ‘book now’ button.
Here are 11 things no one tells you about Halong Bay to help you better plan your trip.
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1. Not all “Halong Bay cruises” actually visit Halong Bay - yes really!
If you have your heart set on going to Halong Bay itself, email the company and ask specifically if they visit that bay. You’ll be surprised at how many companies claim to visit Halong Bay but actually take you to Lan Ha or Bai Tu Long.
These bays are similar to Halong Bay, but Halong has the highest density of limestone karsts. It is also however the busiest….by a long way.
2. Only Halong Bay itself is a World Heritage Site
Before arriving in Vietnam, we thought that the whole huge area of limestone karsts was classified as Halong Bay. But there are actually three bays that make up the Halong Bay area - Halong Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay.
Currently only Halong Bay itself is UNESCO World Heritage listed - although Cat Ba Archipelago covering Lan Ha Bay is on the tentative list.
3. All trips are shorter than you think
Sadly you will never spend a full 24 hours onboard a cruise round any of the bays. The majority of cruises board you at 1pm the first day and then return you to the dock at 10 am the following day. This means that a 2 day/1 night cruise is actually a 0.75 days/1 night cruise.
We were really glad to have stayed overnight on Halong Bay and wouldn’t have missed the chance to see the stars and watch a sunrise over the karsts. Having said that if you’re more interested in the off shore sites and just seeing the karsts by day, then you will get that on a day trip.
Just check the time your boat departs Halong Bay. We saw many day cruises leave Ti Top Island after sunset which means they saw everything we did on our longer cruise.
4. It will be crowded
Crowds can have a big impact, so we’d recommend going in low season if you can pick the time of your trip (tourism is slowest in Spring and also the month of February).
Whilst you’ll never have the place to yourself, the difference between 30 and 90 boats of people will have a dramatic impact on your enjoyment. However the weather may not be as good (although thick fog can obscure views at any time of year).
5. You are not given long at any of the sites off the boat
To be honest, we are not fans of tours and one of the many reasons why is this one: on any cruise in Halong Bay you are given no more than an hour at any of the stops. For the kayaking you are only given 45 minutes.
This makes every stop feel like a rush and isn’t helped by the fact that the tour companies are incredibly unimaginative. They all follow the same itinerary, arriving at the same spots at the same time. Crowded doesn’t seem like an adequate word to describe how we felt when we got off the boat.
6. Avoid the $39 trips offered in Hanoi
When something sounds too good to be true, it is. In Hanoi you’ll see several travel agents offering $39 USD day trips to Halong Bay, including transfers, food and the boat.
Trips to Halong Bay are not worth taking a risk on and there have been stories of some of the super budget boats sinking at worst and having rats and other vermin on board at best. Find a reputable company and pay a little more - it definitely pays to read reviews and not just rely on the tour operators word.
If you’re on a budget, we would recommend hiring kayaks to explore Lan Ha Bay or even take the public ferry to Cat Ba from Dao Tuan Chun (check out our blog all about it). Otherwise you can organise day trips from Cat Ba Island to Lan Ha Bay for a reasonable rate.
Read more: Adventurous things to do in Da Nang
7. If you want to go to Bai Tu Long Bay, always talk to the tour operator before booking
Not all Bai Tu Long Bay trips actually go there. We looked at several websites where Bai Tu Long Bay was used simply for SEO purposes and others where the cruise went to Halong Bay, not Bai Tu Long Bay. When you ask them directly they usually become a lot more honest..
8. You get what you pay for
We were travelling around Vietnam on the cheap, but when it came to Halong Bay (a bucket list experience) we decided to splash out on a luxury cruise. This was after hearing so many stories about dodgy boats and over crowding.
Whilst it was expensive, we had an unforgettable experience with a really nice cabin, private balcony and a dinner that was fine dining - yep, we got a seafood platter that was freshly caught before the entree! Others we know were not so lucky and didn’t end up enjoying Halong Bay because of it.
9. You need to read the small print
Check the small print for your chosen boat - for example, on our cruise if we had gone for the two night option we would have had to have changed boats after the first night, which would have been a pain. We also read that the second boat was much smaller and not as nice, but there is no reduction in cost!
10. Not all cruises include food….even if they are overnight
Check for additional costs. For instance, some won’t include the food, which will add a lot more to the cost or cause you hassle (we caught an extremely high end company doing this which we thought was very off - what are you supposed to do? Buy pot noodles and take them with you?!) Many companies do include food, but few include drinks.
If you are interested in things like kayaking, then check whether that is also an additional cost. When you see what they often charge you versus the price they pay at the jetty, it will turn your stomach. The kayaking is worth doing and the only offshore excursion we enjoyed though.
11. If you don’t mind which bay you visit, you don’t have to take a tour
If you decide that Halong Bay itself is not the be all and end all, then you should choose to do our favourite experience in all of Vietnam: kayaking in Lan Ha Bay (from Cat Ba Island).
We spent all day paddling around the limestone karsts and didn’t see another soul until we pulled up at one of the inhabited islands. To say this day was magical is an understatement. The scenery was spectacular, we got to see this beautiful area independently, there were no crowds and it was by far the cheapest way to explore the Halong region.
We were glad to see both Halong Bay and Lan Ha on our trip and wouldn’t have missed either, but this kayaking was the highlight. Here’s more on that trip and other things to do on Cat Ba Island.
How we explored Halong Bay
We chose to visit the Halong Bay area both on an overnight cruise on Halong Bay itself, and an independent kayaking trip on Lan Ha Bay. Both were fantastic experiences.
We chose the Paradise Elegance luxury cruise on Halong as we were celebrating Joe’s birthday and were very glad that we did. Having a private balcony and also a ship that had a great outdoor deck that no one used allowed us to feel like we were experiencing this amazing place on our own (that is until we got off the boat!).
Kayaking Lan Ha Bay
Kayaking on Lan Ha was not just one of the best things we’ve done in Vietnam but in the whole of Southeast Asia. Paddling alone between the limestone karsts for a day was something we will never forget. We are glad we did both but if we had to choose one it would be the kayaking.
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Are you planning a trip to Halong Bay? Have you been and think we should have added anything? Let us know in the comments below!