Would you, or anyone else for that matter, ever think of visiting Vietnam without booking on a tour of Halong Bay? Probably not as that would be silly.
Whether booking well in advance, or a last minute splurge somewhere in Hanoi, a tour of Halong Bay is an absolute must whilst visiting Vietnam, and as such, there are hundreds, nay thousands of web pages dedicated to this splendorous part of the world, and rightly so! Its not by chance that Halong Bay been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, that prestigious honour is fully deserved.
But what of the the tours. What do they include? What are the junk boats like? Is the food all sea food? There are a thousand posts and web pages telling you why you should go to Halong Bay and why you should book on a certain tour, but very few that actually detail what its like once you get there.
This is my attempt at the later … although I fully accept that not every tour will be exactly the same. Therefore you probably shouldn’t take this post as gospel, but consider it more of a guideline.
Halong Bay in 6 minutes (ish)
So the easiest way for me to explain what might well be included on your Halong Bay tour, is for you to press play on the below video I put together.
The video details my Halong Bay experience from the minute I left my guesthouse in Hanoi, right to when we finish our tour and get on the bus back to Hanoi. I’d like to think it has most of the bases covered.
But, if you are unable to watch the video …
Halong Bay in pictures and words
So you cant watch the above, regretable but not the end of the world. You see I have also taken the liberty of writing down the details below for you, and throwing a few half decent photos into the mix too. That should cover everything you might want to know.
So the below (photo) is Halong Bay, pretty huh!? Even with so many boats on the emerald waters, little can take away from the stunning scene of the 1500+ limestone based islands that make up Halong Bay. To house 1500+ islands is no small feat, and there are no prizes for guessing that case that Halong Bay is pretty big, and by pretty big I mean roughly 1,553 km2, that big. But even with such a scale, as illustrated in the photo below there are still specific areas of the bay which the vast majority of tours will visit. In this case it is the Amazing Cave.
But lets backtrack a bit, as a few things happen way before you reach the Amazing Cave. They go a little something like this …
- Your tour operator will pick you up from your Hanoi guesthouse or other arranged meeting point around 8am.
- From Hanoi it is roughly a 3 hour transfer from Hanoi to Halong port. There is normally a 30 minute stop at a tourist shop, which thankfully has restrooms.
- Upon arrival at Halong Port at around 11am your guide and chosen junk ship will need to get the OK from the harbour masters before you can board and set out into the bay. It is at this point that you should note that your Halong Bay tour is in no way guaranteed! If the weather is bad, you could well be on a bus straight back to Hanoi, or shepherded to a hotel somewhere in Halong for a night. Before booking any Halong tour you should ask the tour operator what actions they undertake should the weather be too bad to take your chosen tour.
- Once given the all clear your guide will take you to a small transfer boat, which in turn will deliver you to your chosen junk boat.
- Aboard your junk boat you’ll be given an intro talk which will include a reading of your itinerary, a safety briefing, explanations about hot water, electricity and buying alcohol from outside of the ship. Lastly you should be assigned your room and given your room key.
- Check into your room and take in the view from your window.
- Lunch will be served fairly soon after your check in. Whilst the majority will be veg and sea food, other meats are sometimes available upon request. Drinks will cost extra.
- After lunch, that’s when you may get to visit the Amazing Cave. We did, spending the time in between lunch and the journey to the cave, lying out on our boats sun deck.
So the above photos show the view looking out from the cave. As you can see, I was quite high up, and that came as a result of some leg power. To both enter and exit the cave stairs are involved, but not too many.
The cave itself is really quite spectacular. Vast in size, it is lit to maximum effect and there are clear paths to wander along.
After exiting the cave, you may just have enough time to squeeze in a spot of kayaking before the sun goes down.
Once the sun has set and dinner (very much the same as lunch) has been consumed, there is usually entertainment in the form of questionable karaoke, or squid fishing under the lights of the other junk boats. I chosen the later with little success.
Sleeping on the boat was actually no problem at all, and the shower in the morning was nice and hot. Our room in fact had everything we needed and far exceed what we expected.
#And so day 2 begins. Like I said, a hot shower is the best way to start, closely followed by a breakfast of toast, fruit, eggs and sausage.
After breakfast we then visited a pearl farm, which was actually a lot more interesting than I expected. We learnt that the forming of a perfect pearl is actually a lot like artificial insemination, and can take 2-3 years. Lucky for the gf, the farm had a few of said 3 year old pearls on sale. Needless to say my wallet left the farm a little lighter.
After the pearl farm it was time to check out of our room (10am ish) and board our 3rd boat of the tour and head off to our island resort.
This transfer took around 1.5 hours, and was actually the best time to simply sit and take in Halong Bay at its finest. Whilst 3 days/2 nights sounds like a fair amount of time, the tour itineraries are fairly full on and so time spent on the sun deck or gazing out of your cabin window is quite limited. Whilst a few other slept, I very much enjoyed the down time transferring from our Junk boat to the island resort.
Landing down on your island resort will require another check in. Lunch will be the reward for your efforts.
At lunch, whilst the food is included, drinks are again at extra ost. Our island operated a tab system, but the prices weren’t too bad to be honest. We sat and ate lunch with 2 others from our junk boat, and a number of other travellers from other junk boats. Our island compatriots were a good crowd, we met some really nice people.
The afternoon on the island was ours. Like on our island, I imagine most other resorts will offer the opportunity of kayaking. Ours also offered cycling on another nearby island. This activity was noted on our itinerary and I was keen on a bit of cycling, that was until I heard it was at extra cost. Admittedly that cost was fairly minimal, but on principle of only now being told I decided that an afternoon on the beach simply staring out at Halong Bay with beer in hand was good enough for me. A little tight fisted of me really.
The weather wasn’t the best upon our visit to Halong Bay, and as a result we were robbed of a beach fire and BBQ that evening, but I gather this happens at a lot of the island resorts. Our dinner was still fantastic though, even if eaten under a half built resort extension. Consisting of spring rolls, mountains or veg and rice, chicken, pork, beef and fish, it was a meal to savour … or a meal to eat all over again. It was a buffet after all.
The next morning it was back to Halong port. This was achieved via a transfer boat from the island resort to our main junk. Then from our main junk boat to the outer reaches of Halong port, and then another smaller transfer boat back to the steps of the port. You should basically consider your entire 3rd day a transfer back to Hanoi, although a very scenic one, and including both breakfast and lunch, part of which you make for yourself via a spring roll cooking lesson.
You arrive back in Hanoi for around 5pm, again stopping at the tourist shop to break up the 3 hour transfer by minibus.
3 day 2 night tour breakdown
So in very simple terms, this is how our tour went.
- Pick up in Hanoi at 8am
- 3 hour transfer to Halong Port
- Lunch and check in once aboard junk boat
- Afternoon at Amazing Cave
- Kayaking at sunset
- Karaoke/squid fishing
- Pearl Farm
- Transfer to Island resort
- Lunch and check in
- Free afternoon – beach/kayak/cycle
- Dinner + evening drinks
- Breakfast and checkout
- Transfer back to junk boat
- Sail back to Halong port whilst learning how to make spring rolls
- Halong Port to Hanoi, arrive around 5pm
Some things you should note
The above is naturally all based upon my own tour, and whilst tours will obviously differ, from what I have read and been told by other travellers, they are all much the same. Where prices differ, this is generally said to translate to quality in food you receive aboard your junk boat, rather than the itinerary of your tour.
Anyway, here’s a few things to remember/consider when on any Halong tour.
- The weather is never guaranteed. Check and check again your tour providers policy for tour cancellations due to bad weather.
- Electricity and hot water times are generally limited
- Alcohol purchases anywhere other than on board will be taxed (unless you’re very sneaky)
- Food on board will mainly consist of veg and sea food, but other meat can be provided upon request
- Itineraries are not always stuck to, and some items may actually cost extra
- The photos you see online will not be 100% representative of your boat and tour. They were taken when the boats and island resorts were brand new, in perfect lighting and using a very wide lens. Be prepared, not to be disappointed, but that everything might not quite seem so new and shiny as shown on the website or in the brochure. For example, our island resort actually had a lot of building work happening and as such resembled a building site in places. Not ideal, and we weren’t told about it, but it didn’t totally ruin the tour by any means.
Value for money?
So there you have it, a pretty comprehensive post on what you should probably expect from your Halong Bay 3 day/2 night your.
Again I’ll say that it goes without saying that not all tours will be EXACTLY the same, but having asked around and spoken to a fair few other backpackers in Hanoi, we all seem to have had similar experiences.
Prices for the tours do vary, so it’s worth shopping and asking around. The above tour I have detailed cost £196 for 2 people, and we probably spent another £15 on drinks over the course of the 3 days. So lets say £210 total and £105 per pson. That’s not bad for transfers to and from Hanoi, nation park entrance fees, English speaking guide, 2 nights accommodation, food and activities, all within one of the most beautiful places on earth. I would argue that it was definitely value for money.
Could we have done it cheaper? Yes I would say so, the company we booked with offered two grades of boat and we chose the more expensive seeing as it was my birthday, but as mentioned above and as told to us by others we met at the island resort who had chosen the cheaper grade, the two boats were much the same, it was just the quality of food that was different. So yes we could have done it cheaper, but I really enjoyed the food aboard or junk boat, so I am more than happy that we chose the higher grade junk.
Just in case you’re interested we sailed Halong Bay with (http://www.halongimperialcruise.com/). We were not sponsored by them, and I did not receive a discount or complimentary tour for the link above, but if asked I would recommend them yes. Booked whilst in England, I worried (I always worry) at the booking or payment would go wrong somewhere, but everything went perfectly and the Mrs and I had an amazing time sailing Halong Bay.
Yes it’s a well trodden path, yes its busy, overly crowded and unfortunately becoming more and more polluted, BUT there is no question that a trip to Vietnam without visiting Halong Bay is a failed trip (unless you’ve been before of course). Even the weather upon our visit couldn’t mask how special Halong is, if anything the mist and rain added to the atmosphere of the islands.
Halong Bay definitely goes down as one of my Vietnamese highlights.
Further reading on Halong Bay
I basically stalked these two whilst they explored Vietnam, using their blog posts to plan my own trip. Well worth a read if you’re thinking of heading to Halong Bay any time soon.
Vicky Flip Flop – Halong Bay: The Most Beautiful Place In The World?
The Little Backpacker – Cruising Halong Bay On A Junk Boat