If you are reading this, you probably already know that Halong Bay is one of the most visited tourist attractions of Vietnam. Almost 2000 islands make up the archipelago known for its stunning limestone peaks and cerulean waters. Open any coffee table book featuring images of travel in Asia, and you’ll be sure to spot iconic images of this fan favourite.
There are however some essential facts to know before booking a visit to Halong Bay.
1) Getting there
Until recently, the most popular route to Halong Bay was a 4-hour road trip with a predictable mid-way bathroom/souvenir stop calculated in. In 2018, Vietnam opened a new express highway that takes half that time, removing the need for a half-time snack break. This travel improvement allows you to do Halong Bay in a day trip – not that I think it should be, but it could be.
For a dramatic entrance to the UNESCO World Heritage site, clients can opt to fly in by seaplane, however it’s important to set expectations with clients as often the seaplane is cancelled if weather conditions aren’t optimal.
2) How long?
This is a question everyone asks as vacation time is always tight, but my recommendation would be to do a 2-night, 2-day option – at least for North American clients.
A day trip is an option but not a good one. So many boats offer day trips on Halong Bay, but they can’t travel very far, so they all end up going to the same caves and seeing the same sights. It can all start to feel a bit like a tourist trap.
I’ve done both the day trip option and the one night option. Even with the one night option, it’s around noon by the time you board the boat. You have both lunch and dinner on board plus an excursion, and before you know it, it’s time to sleep and then your luggage has to be packed outside early the next morning. Time passes in a flash, and you barely get the chance to unwind. That one extra night makes all the difference.
There are now longer itineraries available as well, but I think more than two nights might be too much for most people.
3) Which boat should you choose for your clients?
I’ve done sight inspections now on quite a few, from intimate one cabin cruisers perfect for honeymooners to larger 32 cabin boats that might be better suited for clients who prefer a livelier crowd. One thing I would say, it’s worth paying a bit more and getting at least a 4-star cruising experience. Anything less than 4-star and the service starts to suffer. Goway recommends The Heritage Line, Bhaya Cruises and Paradise Cruises. I’m excited to see the newest luxury ship Heritage Cruise that begins its maiden voyage in May of 2019. This 5-star option will offer 1, 2, 3 and 4-night itineraries and from what I saw from artist renderings, this ship will impress even the most discerning clients.
4) Which itinerary is best?
You’d think it doesn’t matter, but wow, it so does. Choosing the wrong cruise departure for your client can make or break their Halong Bay visit. I can’t stress enough how important it is to select an itinerary that travels into less charted waters. The big caves on the less expensive cruise options and the day tours are riddled with mass tourism. So many people move through the caves hoping to capture that perfect photo only to have a selfie-stick photo-bomb their attempts. It can be frustrating. In addition, someone thought it would be a great idea to add in fake water features to increase the “wow” factor. It ultimately makes you feel like you’re in an amusement park along with the Griswalds. I say skip it.
Better are the itineraries that go out as far as Lan Ha Bay, where clients can disembark the boat and take a bicycle to one of the local villages five kilometres in, and support the local projects. Or kayak around some of the inlets where at best, you might only see 3 or 4 other boats, not the hundred you’d see if you were on one of the shorter trips.
Insider tip: For clients who do take my advice and do the two-night cruise, at time of writing, only the Auco ship (part of the Bhaya Cruise line) allows clients to relax onboard the whole time if they want to. Other boats require clients to get off the ship during the day and do excursions while the boat returns to port to pick up more passengers. Once the Heritage Cruise launches, however, this flexibility will be one of it’s selling features.
5) Should clients spend a night on land in Halong Bay instead?
As of now, there aren’t a lot of great options when it comes to hotels. This will change in coming months for sure. Halong Bay seems to be exploding with ongoing construction happening on every corner, but for now, I’d say skip it.
6) Best time to visit Halong Bay?
Mid-Feb to May would be optimum. Summer can get hot and humid with a high chance of rain. Fall would be the second best time, but I’d avoid Dec to mid-Feb – It’s cold and overcast on most days.
For a complete list of Goway cruising options in Halong Bay, visit our Vietnam Cruising page on Goway.com