Is Halong Bay Worth Visiting? Our Experience & Tips

An aerial view of Halong By at the top of the large rocks with lots of boats cruising in the bay taking in the sheer rocks with the sunrise.

Halong Bay is one of the top destinations in Vietnam and is an incredible UNESCO World Heritage site.

It’s undeniably famous, but with that popularity comes a lot of tourism, which can make people wonder: Is Halong Bay actually worth visiting? Or is it too touristy and overrun? If I go, will it be a good experience, or should I spend my precious time in Vietnam elsewhere?

To be honest, Halong Bay has developed a bit of a bad reputation as being overcrowded, dirty, and underwhelming. So while we went into our trip a little wary, we ended up having a fantastic time in Halong Bay.

The only way to experience Halong Bay is by doing a cruise, whether it’s a day cruise lasting a few hours, a 2 day/1 night cruise, or something a bit longer.

So, the experience you have in Halong Bay is going to be directly related to the cruise that you pick, and to some extent, your expectations going in.

After a flurry of research, we ended up booking this 2-day/1 night cruise of Halong Bay and had an incredible experience. It’s truly one of my happiest memories of traveling in Vietnam!

short on time? here’s the tl;Dr:

Halong Bay is definitely worth it… if you’re on the right cruise. I’m convinced that this is hands-down the best cruise in Halong Bay.
It’s 2 days/1 night, takes you away from the crowds into neighboring Bai Tu Long Bay, has excellent food, fun activities, beach time, a beautiful wooden boat, and a fantastic tour guide.

A Little Bit of Information About Our Cruise

The cruise we did provided round-trip transportation from Hanoi. This is very common in cruise tours in Halong Bay.

We were actually coming from Ninh Binh before going to Halong Bay, so we just arranged our own transportation in a luxury van to the bay and met up with our group there (and then rode the bus back with them to Hanoi at the end to catch a flight to Ho Chi Minh City).

Our boat was a small, wooden “junk boat” – one of only 6 historic wooden boats left in the bay. There were just 20 passengers on the ship, along with a personable and vivacious tour guide. This combination of friendly and engaging guide with a small group immediately made the experience feel intimate and cozy.

Our cruise left from the port in Halong Bay and then immediately cruised into neighboring Bai Tu Long Bay. This was incredible because it got us away from the crowds of other boats and into a more serene and quiet environment. There were a couple of other small boats moored by us at night, but it was still a very peaceful and relaxed atmosphere.

So, technically, this was a cruise into Bai Tu Long Bay, not Halong Bay. However, the bays are virtually identical, and all cruises depart from the same port in Halong Bay (and also sail through Halong to get out to Bai Tu Long).

We cruised around for several hours and then got the chance to enjoy some activities, which I’ll get into in the next sections.

Is Halong Bay Worth It? 7 Reasons You Should Visit

In the following sections, I’m sharing several aspects of visiting Halong Bay that definitely made it worth the time, effort, and money.

1. The Scenery is Truly Breathtaking

2 tall sheer grey and yellow rock islands sitting in the middle of Halong bay with multiple rock islands in the background.

Truly, it was just insane to look out the window of your Halong Bay cruise boat and see these massive cliffs rising up out of the water everywhere you looked. It was a little bit foggy when we started, so it almost felt like something out of a fantasy novel, with the outlines of ridge after ridge of sheer cliffs rising out of the fog.

2. It’s Actually Remarkably Clean

A picture of the clean teal water along the side of the rocky, grass overbrush on the sheer rock islands.

Only a few years ago, Halong Bay had the reputation of being extremely dirty, with a ton of trash floating in the water, especially right in the port.

Thankfully, in 2020, the city of Halong made a concerted effort to clean up the bay, and today there continue to be boats out picking up any trash that might have dropped into the water.

During our boat cruise in Halong Bay, the water was incredibly clean – we saw maybe 1 or 2 pieces of trash in the water the entire time we were on our cruise. And we actually saw a small boat out picking up any of the infrequent trash that was found in the water.

It’s important to note that the water in Halong Bay is naturally murky, but not due to pollution. Instead, it is because the limestone from the cliffs runs off and dissolves in the water, creating murkiness.

So although there are coral reefs in the bay, you actually can’t see them very well when snorkeling. On a clear day, though, the water is still a beautiful turquoise color.

3. It’s Totally Possible to Get Away From the Crowds in Halong Bay

A woman in a white floral dress leans on the outside railing of the cruise looking at the rock islands in Halong bay with lots of ferns and overbrush covering the islands.

One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard about Halong Bay is the crowds – the bay is filled with other boats and the activities you do and places you visit are packed with other travelers.

And yeah, if you just take a day trip from Hanoi for the afternoon and take a 3 hour cruise, you’re never going to get far enough into the bay to really get away from other boats. And some overnight cruises still keep you close to dozens of other boats.

However, neighboring Bai Tu Long Bay is a great Halong Bay alternative that sees far, far fewer visitors. Only a few cruises go into these bays, making it a fantastic option for anyone wanting a serene nature experience, away from crowds, and surrounded just by water and mountains.

Most of the time we were the only boat in sight, cruising in and of out the karsts in calm, quiet waters.

4. The Food is Fresh and Fantastic

A specialty seafood dish with shrimp on a cup like dish and flowers and peppers on the side.

Of course, it’s really not a big surprise that a coastal destination would have good seafood, but it’s worth mentioning here, because the seafood you can eat in Halong Bay is varied, high quality, and delicious.

As someone who likes some fish and seafood, but not all kinds, I was really impressed with the quality and variety offered on our Halong Bay cruise.

We tried everything from prawns, to oysters, to fish soup, to sea bass, to squid, to stuffed crab. Everything was undeniably excellent quality, and I really appreciated the opportunity to sample so many types of seafood available in the bay (even if every type of seafood wasn’t my personal favorite).

5. Plenty of Exciting and Interesting Activities

A woman with a gray lifejacket sits in a canoe looking at a large sheer rock formation.

An overnight cruise in Halong Bay will give you the chance to experience quite a few activities in and around the bay. The most common activities include kayaking, swimming, visiting caves, visiting floating villages, and fishing.

On our cruise to Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay, we kayaked through the bay to a small, private beach, where we had the chance to relax on the beach and swim for an hour or two.

A man and woman hold hands on the shore of one of the floating islands with sheer cliffs and lots of green ferns on the sides.

We also visited a cave in Bai Tu Long Bay that was used long ago by villagers to shelter in during storms. This cave has beautiful rock formations covered in glistening, ancient coral.

We got to enjoy activities on board the boat, such as sunrise tai chi, a cooking demonstration, and storytelling about the legends of Halong Bay. And we even were able to try squid fishing off the boat at night!

>>Ready to Book? Check prices and availability for our Halong Bay cruise here

6. Halong Bay Cruises Are Quite Affordable

The room along a Halong Bay cruise with a king size bed with white sheets and a deck that shows view of the teal a water and floating islands.

Okay, so I’ll start this section out by saying that our Halong Bay cruise was definitely the most expensive item in our Vietnam travel budget. Compared to prices in the rest of Vietnam, Halong Bay cruises are comparatively expensive.

However, if you live in the United States or Europe and are visiting from there, the cost of an overnight cruise, particularly when you consider everything that is included in the price, is an excellent value and very affordable.

7. It’s a Bucket List Destination

Look, in some ways, this type of bullet point gets a bad rap, sometimes particularly among travel bloggers, where the idea is that it’s cooler to not like the big attractions and only like going super far off the beaten path where no one else is.

And I love a secluded, unknown destination as much as the next person. (I am the enthusiast of the unknown, after all.)

But also, the big, bucket list destinations can be fantastic. And while I don’t travel JUST for the “check mark” on my list, I do love being able to go to a bucket list spot, experience it, enjoy it, and then be able to say “I’ve been there!

I’m sure some of that satisfaction comes from being a person who gets enjoyment from making a list and checking things off (where are my other list makers at?). But some places live up to the hype – and I think Halong Bay, under the right circumstances, is one of those places.

How to Get to Halong Bay

There are a whole host of tours that run from Hanoi to Halong Bay, a journey that takes approximately 4 hours by bus. You can easily join a tour group going to Halong Bay that will take care of all transportation logistics for you.

If you prefer to arrive in Halong Bay yourself, or your tour doesn’t offer round-trip transportation, it is easy to hop on a bus or a luxury van yourself and get taken to Halong Bay from destinations in northern Vietnam. There are no trains that go from Hanoi to Halong Bay.

Additionally, many hotels in Hanoi will store your luggage for you if you want to leave some bags behind while heading to Halong Bay.

Best Time to Visit Halong Bay

Weather-wise, spring and fall are the best times to visit Halong Bay, as the weather is milder and less rainy during these months (Mar-May, Sept-Nov). Summer is extremely hot and much rainier.

However, during fall time prices and crowds are much higher than other periods of the year.

Potential Cons To Visiting Halong Bay

While I certainly believe exploring Halong Bay is worth it, these are a few of the negatives you may experience:

>>There Are a Lot of People in the Port

When you arrive at the Cruise Port, there will be a lot of people, there’s no getting around it. There’s one main hall where a whole bunch of cruises gather their passengers and depart from, so when you arrive, you will be with many other people.

>>The Cruises Had a Very Specific Itinerary

The cruise we did, and it seems like most cruises are this way, definitely had a very specific itinerary that they followed. Thankfully, our cruise staff and the tour guide were so friendly and made sure that everything we did felt special and new for us.

>>The Cruise You Book May Not Be Your Style

Be sure that you’re booking the right cruise for your travel style. If you want serene, quiet, and immersed in nature, the cruise we did is probably also a great fit for you.

However, if you want to party and enjoy a more boozy cruise, then the cruise we did isn’t going to be a good fit (although our cruise did have an open bar throughout the trip).

>>No Matter How Long You Stay, It Won’t Be Enough

Whether you do a one night or multi-night cruise, I can assure you, it won’t be enough time! I loved cruising through the bay and was sad to leave.

The Wrap-Up Is Halong Bay Worth Visiting?

I definitely think that it’s worth the time, effort, and money to visit Halong Bay… but with the caveat that the cruise you choose to do is going to greatly impact what your experience is like.

For that reason, I’d highly recommend the 2-day/1 night cruise into Bai Tu Long Bay that we did. The route, the itinerary, the activities, the food – really, everything was perfect!

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