Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site that is both magnificent and mystical and one of Vietnam’s major attractions. The emerald waters are dotted with 2,000+ limestone karsts that never fail to impress and best explored by taking a tour on a cruise ship or a traditional junk boat.
The tranquil beauty of the bay spans across an area of nearly 1,500 sq km with plenty to see and do on the Halong tours, such as exploring the rocky outcrops, caves and numerous grottoes.
Most of the Halong Bay cruises operate out of Halong City which is the coastal town that looks out over the bay. There are literally hundreds of travel agencies offering a tour of the bay – although most act as resellers or consolidators and don’t actually run their own cruises.
Halong tour packages can start with the low-cost boat excursions for backpackers that include a half-day trip or a longer stay on the water with basic accommodation; but for the more extravagant trip there is the chance of staying on a luxury paddle streamer, such as the Emeraude with its 37 meticulous cabins and high-quality amenities.
If planning to travel to a more off-the-beaten-track destination, such as Bai Tu Long Bay, the minimal time for a cruise is in the region of two or three days because of the longer travel distance.
Organizing a Halong cruise is a process of shopping around and talking to other travellers. Try to avoid the ultra cheap trips at $15 per person for a one or two day tour of Halong Bay because it isn’t likely to turn out too well.
Basic to mid-range cruises
The most popular type of Halong cruise is the basic and mid-range cruises, but there is a massive difference in the value of the trip and price. Tours can start with the ultra-budget boats that don’t seem to be overly concerned with on-board safety to the more acceptable mid-range options with a hotel-style and cosy cabin, well-informed Halong travel guide, and stops for activities like cave exploring by kayak.
It is best to go with a mid-range operation rather than the basic overnight trip for the greater safety considerations, comfort and facilities. A basic cruise with a rock bottom price is in the region of $55 per person for a day-trip, while an overnight excursion on a mid-range cruiser can cost about $115-$125 per person.
By shopping around for the mid-range cruises, it is usually possible to get added extras, such as private minibus transfers and kayaking tours included in the itinerary.
Halong luxury cruises
For the travellers looking to spoil themselves there are plenty of cruise options that are much like a luxury hotel on the water. A sumptuous cruise makes it possible to enjoy the 5-star amenities and feel totally relaxed on the sun deck while watching the jungle-topped and craggy islands pass by. The cost of this type of overnight trip is in the region of $225 per night.
Day-tripping tourist boats
For an entirely authentic experience, a tour on one of the day-tripping tourist boats is certain to appeal with trips out into the karst filled waters that last in the region of 4-6 hours. This kind of boat trip is perfect for the travellers that simply want to get out on the water at a relatively cheap price and aren’t too concerned with sharing a boat with other tourists.
A 4 hour excursion that includes a stop at a cave system like Hang Thien Cung or Hang Dau Go can cost in the region of $5.50. Other fees that may apply include the Halong Bay entrance fee at about $5.00 and individual cave entry fees at $1.35. A major plus of this type of trip is the ability to easily organise in Halong City without needing to go through the travel agencies.
A great place to visit on the Halong tour packages is Cat Ba Island, which is one of the largest islands in Halong Bay at nearly 260 sq km. By exploring the national park, it is possible to admire the local wildlife, including the endangered langur monkey that makes its home among the limestone cliffs, waterfall and lakes. Plus, the area is a top destination for those travellers interested in rock climbing.
The preferred time to experience the Halong cruise is from April to October when the weather is warm, the skies are blue and the seas are calm. However, the height of typhoon season in September can lead to boats being cancelling because of poor weather conditions. Also, the weather in January and March can start to get quite drizzly and cool, but even in this time of year, the Halong tours are still a pleasurable experience.
The major tourist season for Halong Bay is June to mid-August when the local area starts to get fairly congested. Tourist boats and cruises are likely to change or alter the cruising itinerary year-round to comply with the local sea and weather conditions.
How to get there
Halong City is easily reached by travelling from Hanoi (Hanoi – Bac Ninh – Halong) and is the major departure point for the Halong cruise. It is a total distance of approx 155 km and takes in the region of 3.5 hours to complete by road journey.
Alternatively, the Halong tour packages will usually include a seaplane or land transfer to reach the bay for those travellers departing from Hanoi.
Eat and drink
Halong has a few worthwhile restaurants that serve the pleasant local Vietnamese or western dishes.
A visit to the Bien Mo Floating Restaurant makes it possible to experience a floating restaurant in Bay Chay that serves some of the finest seafood dishes. Dishes are cooked using a local-style with popular items on the menu including succulent oysters, prawns, lobster and crab.
The Green Mango restaurant and bar overlooks Cat Ba harbour and serves a creative menu with a mix of Western, Asian and Vietnamese dishes. This restaurant has a very relaxed, classy and comfortable atmosphere.
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