A three and a half hour drive from the bustle of the city of Hanoi lies a peaceful set of 1,600 islands and islets, Halong Bay. This bay has been the backdrop to many movies, including the Oscar winning Indochine, and taking a Vietnamese junk boat cruise on the bay has also been featured on many things to do before you die lists, including my own.
So, when my travels landed me in Hanoi there wasn’t even a question that I’d spend one day taking a seven hour round trip van ride to witness one of Vietnam’s UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Gulf of Tonkin.
What is Halong Bay
If you have ever wanted to travel to Neverland, then Halong Bay may be just the right place for you. Located in Quang Nihm Province, a cruise along Halong Bay is one of the most popular (and best) tourist attractions in northern Vietnam. Thousands of karsts and isles, tropical evergreen biosystem, and a seemingly endless emerald sea creates one heck of a magnificent view.
Most of the area consists of picturesque limestone islands, only a small portion of which is inhabited. But that’s not all! Halong Bay is also home to many endangered species of animals, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage sit and has been the set of numerous films, including the 2015 movie “Pan”.
The name Ha Long means ‘descending dragon’ and when you see this surreal place the mystical creature will arise in your imagination.
Halong Bay Day Trip Cruise
Many people choose to stay one night, or several, cruising on a Vietnamese junk boat in Halong Bay, but if you don’t have that much time don’t think you can’t do it in one day! We only had the time for a Halong Bay day trip tour from Hanoi—we needed to get back to the city to indulge in more weird street food in Hanoi—and even though it was a long day, it was beyond worth it. Besides a twelve hour day is like working a Friday at my Italian restaurant, except this one would be minus a backed up grease trap, complaining employees and dirty dishes. Easy Peasy.
Tips for Choosing the Best Cruise
You can explore Halong Bay with either a limited budget or with luxury comfort, and you can arrive there by car, minibus or even a helicopter—the options really are endless. But, if you want to have a relaxing experience, make memorable photos, or just spend time with pleasure – choose the tour wisely.
- #Tip 1: Answer these 3 Questions
- How much are you willing to pay? Your budget can determine the type of cruise you get. If you are opting for an overnight cruise, it is recommended to book higher cabins with big windows or balconies for better views. Whereas, with a day trip what is important is that you are spending enough time on the water cruising Halong Bay and that the food being served is delicious.
- How long are you going to cruise? There are one to four-day cruises. Many travelers recommend taking a two-day cruise since one day feels too short for them and three+ days are better if you want to immerse yourself in the local culture. But, like I said before, it is totally doable in one day! So, if your option is a day trip from Hanoi or not going at all, choose option one!
- Which route do you want to take? There are 3 main routes:
- Halong Bay: This destination is the most crowded spot, also it has lots of ancient caves.
- Bai Tu Long Bay: This spot is much more peaceful, but there are no such great caves as in the former.
- Bai Tu Long Bay + Cat Ba Island. This is a small island near Halong Bay with numerous bars, restaurants, hostels, and recreational activities.
- #Tip 2: Avoid Scams: There are many scams built around booking your cruise in Halong Bay. So, it is better to book a cruise either with your hotel or online in advance (see recommendations below).
- #Tip 3: Do the Homework: To avoid disappointment, double-check everything that is included/excluded in your cruise. During the peak season, the cruises are more expensive, so it is better to book in advance. Many of the cruises offer special menus for vegetarians or people with different food preferences, just notify your cruise provider in advance.
What to Expect on Your Day Trip to Halong Bay
Your day trip to Halong Bay will definitely leave a trace in your memory. With the isles of different shapes, pretty beaches and mystical villages, it will be hard to forget! This is the story of my experience:
A long 12+ hour day was about to begin.
We left the city early in the morning, heading towards the bay when a traffic jam stopped us in our tracks. Two buses collided and caused a halt in every direction on the main route. We maneuvered out of the way to take the longer route. Add an hour to that previously mentioned twelve.
The driver had warned us prior to arriving to Ha Long Bay, that the weather is typically rainy or misty with the slimmest chance of escaping one of the two. Especially on this particular week where every tour he led resulted in the guests ducking into the covered portion of the boat instead of enjoying the view from the top deck. There goes the photo ops.
But, when we got there is was cloudy and that’s it. There really was no sun, but we weren’t getting wet. I’ll take it.
We boarded our junk boat, which was a touch smaller than the Hong Kong junk boat that had taken me through Victoria Harbour. Though on this tour there were only a total of six people, the entire boat was reserved for three guests and three crew.
After a brief introduction to the boat, lunch was served as we made our way towards the islets of Ha Long Bay. We would not be going hungry on this tour. We were served a cucumber salad, spring rolls, shrimp, fried pork with sesame, squid, rice and a whole fish that the crew deboned table side. There was enough food to feed a dozen passengers, not just our quaint little group.
After enjoying lunch, we climbed to the spacious top deck and relaxed on a lounge chair to marvel at Ha Long Bay, a name that means ‘bay of the descending dragons’.
According to legend, when the Vietnamese were fighting off foreign invaders, the gods sent a family of dragons to assist in defending their country. These dragons began spitting out jewels that turned into the islands and islets that now are scattered around the bay. The may even be prettier than diamonds!
Along the route we passed through a collection of floating homes, though nobody actually lives in them anymore. The former tenants were moved to the mainland in order to protect the environment. Although you can still see the fisherman out on the bay, working on their small boats, sometimes with their children in tow.
Before finishing this jaw-dropping tour of Ha Long Bay the boat stopped at the Dao Go, a three chambered cave. There were 90 steep steps to climb in order to witness the hundreds of stalactites falling down from the roof, which in some areas was 82 feet high. I had mixed feelings about the rainbow colored lights enhancing certain formations.
It made the natural beauty of Dao Go seem more like an amusement park attraction. But, there was still no denying that it is a breathtaking part of the world.
Heading back towards our starting point, Peter and I were able to catch an essential selfie, just a couple minutes before the sprinkles of rain started. Thank you mother nature for cooperating.
3 of the Best Halong Bay Day Trip Cruises
This is the cruise that my husband and I took. It was a small-group tour in a comfortable minivan from Hanoi. You will enjoy the scenery on the boat with a seafood lunch break and an English speaking guide, who will show you the best places including a popular Sung Sot Cave.
If you want something a little more luxurious, then you can have the opportunity to get a luxury day trip in a group of 12 or fewer people. It includes a newer air-conditioned boat, more than 10 dishes of traditional Vietnamese food, and a pleasant atmosphere—what can be better? Tourists are offered an optional stop at the water cave of Hang Luon. Insurance, entrance, and sightseeing tickets are included in the price. Kayaks can also be rented for an additional fee!
A comfortable shuttle bus transfers you to Halong Bay. You will have 4,5 hours of cruising through the waters, hiking to Dau Go Island, exploring Heavenly Cave, and kayaking in Ba Hang Village. Don’t forget to take some food with you, because their lunch is a light one.
With its natural beauty, recreational activities, fresh seafood, ancient caves and unique flora, taking Halong Bay day trip should be one for the memory books. If you haven’t yet added this breathtaking place to your bucket list, don’t waste another minute!
More About Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) Bucket List: 34 Things to Do in Vietnam’s Main City
Hoi An Bucket List: 21 Things to Do in Vietnam’s Ancient Town
Eat Worm Cakes (& Other Street Food) in Hanoi
Vietnamese Theatre: A Traditional Water Puppet Show in Hanoi
Other Things to do in Hanoi