This post was last updated on February 20th, 2020 at 09:59 pm
In the Gulf of Tonkin lies an absolute masterpiece of mother nature. More than 1,600 limestone islands rise from the sea to form the mighty Ha Long Bay. The landscape is a mysterious and breathtaking spectacle and is on the UNESCO World Heritage List for good reason.
Legend has it that the famous Ha Long Bay came into existence when a large dragon plunged into the water and shaped the landscape with its tail. Dragon or not, there is a beautiful landscape waiting to be discovered by you.
A day cruise actually gives too little honor to the landscape and an overnight stay on a boat or island in the bay is a must.
Due to the enormous popularity there is a huge proliferation of cruise providers. It can be difficult to make a choice. That is why you will find a specially compiled overview here.
Three Bays With the Same Landscape
In this article we talk about Ha Long Bay but the area actually consists of 3 bays; Ha Long Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay.
Consider the following…
90% of tourists book a tour to Ha Long Bay while you can admire the same beautiful scenery in the other bays without the huge tourist crowds.
Ha Long Bay
This is where every cruise starts and where most ships sail. It’s very busy, because almost 90% of all cruise ships sail through this area.
Take it from us that you should not book a cruise that only sails through this area.
Bai Tu Long Bay
In our opinion this is the most beautiful area to sail through but it comes with a price tag. Fewer cruise ships are allowed in Bai Tu Long Bay, so it’s limited to middle class and luxury tours.
Lan Ha Bay
Lan Ha Bay is an excellent alternative to the busy Ha Long Bay and also has excellent options for travelers on a smaller budget.
The Best Time to Visit Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay attracts a lot of tourists throughout the year. But depending on the time of year, the experience that you get will also change.
Expect a somewhat cold and drizzling weather in the months of January to March. Swimming is not possible, but the mist and fog that occasionally hangs in the air gives a very special atmosphere to the landscape. This period of the year is enjoyed by all the photographers among us.
The best time to visit Ha Long Bay is in the spring (March, April) and fall (September, October). The temperature is pleasant (not too hot) and there isn’t a lot of rainfall.
The low season, from October to December, is perhaps the second best time of the year to visit Ha Long Bay. It is still nice and warm and due to the smaller amount of tourists it’s also a lot less crowded. Whenever you go, the experience is always unique.
The high season starts in the month of May and ends in September. Most days the weather is fine with good visibility.
The rocks in Ha Long Bay are made of limestone, causing them to erode due to rain, sea water, and wind. As a result, dripstone caves and underground ponds have been created in a few places that make the whole view even more “fairytale-like”.
Especially when a mind-blowing sunset is added! Although it is one of the most visited places in Asia and it can be quite busy, it remains incredibly beautiful and spectacular!
This is what you can expect in Ha Long Bay. It’s already reason enough to travel to Vietnam!
13 Best Things to Do in Ha Long Bay
The thousands of islands and floating villages already make for an unforgettable experience, but there is more to see and do at Ha Long Bay. Most of these sights are included with the tour that you book in Hanoi. Therefore, pay attention to which tour you book. Below you can read the best things to do at Ha Long Bay.
1. Cruise Through the Bay
You can hardly escape this. The Ha Long Bay cruise is one of the most popular, if not the most popular, tours in all of Vietnam. Touristic? Yes. Impressive? Yes. Go there! Ha Long Bay wins the hearts of tourists by letting them sail through the bay on a number of boats.
It sounds cliché, but it’s really beautiful here. You certainly won’t be the only one here, but if you stand on the deck of the boat as you sail past the limestone rocks and watch the sun go down, that is really a moment to remember.
There are countless tours to book, usually organized in Hanoi or Cat Ba. You can choose between one-day or multi-day tours on a boat while prices range from US$70 per day to 2-day trips for US$250 a day. Pay close attention to where you book and when. More expensive Ha Long Bay tours do not always mean they are better.
Tour boats have different dimensions; there are ships with 10, 20 or 24 cabins. You can even rent a private boat. It’s slightly more expensive, but a very beautiful experience!
2. Fly Above Ha Long Bay
You can explore this impressive bay by boat, but if you’re looking for an amazing experience you can also fly over it with a small plane or a helicopter. It is not really suitable for budget travelers, but it is a unique experience.
The advantage is that the touristy areas won’t bother you while you probably take the most beautiful pictures out of everyone. There are various options for booking. You can fly over the bay in a helicopter or in a small plane.
Cost of the Flight Tours
The helicopter tour is quite expensive. The helicopter won’t depart for less than US$7,000. A flight with a plane is shorter (25 minutes) but it costs “only” US$100. Just a small difference, right? 😉
TIP – You can book a plane tour at SeaPlanes.
3. Rent a Kayak
The calm water and the beautiful islands of the bay make it perfect for kayaking. This activity is done by many travelers once they have booked a cruise here. A kayak is an ideal option to discover the beauty and essence of Ha Long Bay itself.
You don’t have to be an experienced kayaker. The water is calm here and the crew will gladly help you on your way if you are not sure what to do.
With a kayak, you can get to places where the larger boats cannot reach. You can paddle around for hours along rocks, bays, floating villages, and through caves. You can even book professional kayak trips through Ha Long Bay.
You can also kayak to the floating villages or go snorkeling at various places in the bay. A kayak tour is also one of the options, although you may be a little less flexible about where you can go kayaking. And since the weather and the water here are fairly mild, you can always do it yourself.
TIP – A one-day tour costs between 500,000 and 700,000 VND (US$21.50 to US$30). Renting a kayak costs around 270,000 VND (US$11.60) per day.
4. Explore the Floating Villages
Ha Long Bay is not only known for its limestone rocks, spectacular caves, and beautiful beaches, but also for its floating villages. Some of these floating villages are Ba Hang, Cua Van, Cong Dam, and Vung Vieng. You can visit all of these.
It is a unique experience to see how the locals live here, both with and on the water. The locals here are very social, friendly, and enthusiastic. Always ask before you walk in or take a picture. Although they are used to tourists, it does not hurt to respect their privacy.
5. Enjoy the Beaches
One of the best things to do in Ha Long Bay is just relaxing on the beach or swimming. With thousands of caves and rocks, Ha Long Bay offers countless places where you can swim, sunbathe, snorkel, fish, kayak, or cruise around.
For example, if you stop at Cat Ba Island, there are several well-known beaches where you can relax. The beaches don’t have very original names since the best beaches are called Cat Co 1, Cat Co 2 and Cat Co 3.
Although this region is not known for its beautiful beaches, it is nice and relaxing to lie down on the beach in such beautiful surroundings.
6. Explore Cat Ba
Cat Ba, the largest island in Ha Long Bay, is a rugged island covered with jungle. Travelers who come here are looking for adventure and tranquility. Apart from Cat Ba Town, with its concrete hotels, the island is unspoiled with an idyllic Ha Long Bay just off the coast. Nature here is so beautiful because half of the island has been declared a National Park.
You can travel to Ha Long Bay and spend the night on Cat Ba. It is the most popular region in this bay to spend the night. You also have a lot to do here. You can visit old forts, explore the national park, ride a scooter around the island, or take a trip to the beautiful Lan Ha Bay.
And that is just a small part of what you can do on Cat Ba Island. For more things to do on Cat Ba take a look at this page.
7. BBQ on the Beach
You can enjoy traditional Vietnamese delicacies during a cruise through this bay. Nothing is more fun than a BBQ in a unique location. Such a BBQ is often organized at more famous places and beaches in the bay, such as Soi Sim Beach and Ba Trai Dao Beach.
You often see couples because it is quite a romantic affair. You sit on a quiet beach, surrounded by impressive rocks rising from the sea while the sun sets and the waves roll onto the beach.
It’s without a doubt a once in a lifetime experience!
8. Explore the Many Caves
In addition to relaxing on the beach, adventurous travelers can conquer the cliffs and rocks by climbing them. It is an activity that is not just exciting; it also gives you the best views of the beautiful 3,000+ limestone cliffs rising from the water.
Cat Ba Island is the best-known place for climbers to book a tour or climb the rocks.
Make no mistake. These aren’t small rocks that you climb as some are more than 30 meters high. It is recommended to use safety lines in some high-risk areas. But, if you really can’t keep your balance anymore, you can “just” jump down into the water.
TIP – Count on around US$55 per person per day for climbing.
Sung Sot Cave
Sung Sot Cave has a special place among the other 58 caves as one of the largest in the entire Ha Long Bay region. Inside it is wide, long and surprisingly spacious, making it easy to walk around.
9. Visit Lan Ha Bay
As we’ve briefly talked about before, everyone knows Ha Long Bay, but have you also heard of Lan Ha Bay? Most tour companies focus on Ha Long Bay, the most famous bay in this region. Lan Ha Bay is rarely visited.
The smaller Lan Ha Bay is just as beautiful as its larger brother Ha Long Bay, it is only a lot smaller and it is visited a lot less. A big advantage is that there are far fewer tourists. The only drawback is that there are fewer boats sailing and there are fewer organized tours because there is less demand.
This bay once belonged to Ha Long Bay but became an independent archipelago in an effort to protect nature from tourism. It is an ongoing effort to also protect Ha Long Bay since they face many problems due to increasing tourism (you might even see some plastic bottles floating in the water).
10. Wait for the Sunset
You don’t have to do much for this if you cruise the bay on a boat or just relax on one of the beaches. The sunset always provides a spectacular scene in Ha Long Bay. We are a big fan of sunsets at sea, but the one in Ha Long Bay has something special. Not primarily because of the beautiful location.
There is nothing more beautiful than slowly seeing the sky turn orange/purple while you float at sea. It sounds a bit cliché, but this is a must-do when you’re in Ha Long Bay. Grab a beer, make sure your camera is charged, sit down on the deck of the boat, or the beach, and enjoy this piece of art from Mother Nature.
11. Bai Tho Mountain
The viewpoint of Bai Tho has become famous on instagram, and for good reason. The view of Ha Long Bay from here is truly breathtaking. Bai Tho is close to Ha Long City.
12. Visit Tuan Chau island
Tuan Chau is a newly developed tourist zone just outside the city of Ha Long, for those who want to enjoy a number of recreational activities and beach resorts.
13. Visit Dau Go island
This is a very popular swimming and diving spot due to the coral and deep caves with three lakes. The caves can only be visited with a rowing boat at low tide.
Tips for Choosing a Ha Long Bay Tour (Cruise)
You have decided that you would like to do a cruise through Ha Long Bay. And rightly so because it is a unique travel experience that you will never forget. And for a lot of travelers, Ha Long Bay is the highlight of their trip through Vietnam. But how do you choose the right cruise?
It is not that there is not enough choice. On the contrary, there is such a huge variety that it seems almost impossible to choose one. And why is there such a huge difference in prices? Why is one US$50 for a two-day cruise while the other is US$300? And this is only what you may have found on the internet. Wait until you walk through the streets of Hanoi.
It seems like every travel agency, hotel and pet in Hanoi is a provider of some kind of Ha Long Bay cruise.
Therefore, we have some tips to take into account when you’re choosing a cruise.
Set a Budget
There is a suitable Ha Long Bay cruise for every budget. You can assume that with a higher budget facilities such as food, rooms, the boat and the service level are better than with the budget cruises.
But, perhaps the facilities are less important to you and you just want an affordable cruise of reasonable quality and where you can also meet other travelers with the same mindset.
In any case, it is advisable to think in advance about what you want to spend. That makes it a lot easier to exclude a whole lot of cruises. And no matter what budget you set, you will eventually see the same beautiful landscape.
But there is something else to take into account. Avoid the absolute floor prices. It is simply not possible to get a high-quality Ha Long Bay cruise for these extremely low amounts. Moreover, a number of these ships would absolutely not pass the inspection and be detained in the port.
How Many Days to Go Cruising?
First, a day tour is not recommended. Before you set foot on the boat after driving all the way from Hanoi you can almost return.
To see the best of Ha Long Bay, choose a 3-day, 2-night cruise. This is because on day 2 you can really go deep into the bay and get to places where the ships do not come during the two-day cruises.
However, a three-day cruise is also a lot more expensive, and especially if you want to go with the whole family. Two days is an excellent alternative.
From Hanoi to Ha Long Bay
The question of how to get there is usually of little importance since almost everyone goes on an organized cruise from Hanoi.
If you want to go to Ha Long Bay on your own from the capital, ask your hotel to reserve a minibus for you. The journey takes around 4 hours.
If you are coming from Ninh Binh, you can go directly to Ha Long Bay by bus or taxi. Count on a journey of around 4.5 hours.