11 questions to ask yourself for the perfect Halong Bay cruise

Halong Bay as seen from the Alova Cruise boat top deck

If you asked me to pick a word to summarise a Halong Bay cruise, I’d say ‘overhyped’. Yes Halong Bay is beautiful, but taking a cruise there is not what I’d classify as a ‘do before you die’ adventure.

That shocks people. I’ve had friends visit and remark that it’s the most tranquil place they’ve ever been. However, perhaps Jo and I weren’t asking the right questions.

So learn from our mistakes with these 11 questions to ask yourself. We’re pretty sure you’ll be commenting in no time about how amazing Halong Bay is.

1- Do I really need to see Halong Bay?

Sounds like a ridiculous question but it is one you need to ask yourself. Jo and I always wanted to see Halong Bay, simply because it had been talked about so much.

Here's a rather dismal Halong Bay, taken from the cruise.
Here’s a rather dismal Halong Bay. Fisherman’s rock is in the centre, an apparently lucky rock that even features on Vietnamese money. Taken from the cruise.

Yet the closer we came to it, the less excited we were. We’d heard stories of travellers having terrible times with old and dirty boats, typhoons, and rushed tours which don’t even go to Halong Bay properly.

It’s up to you. Personally, I regret seeing it on the day tour we took. The friends we met on the day were amazing, but Halong Bay felt incredibly touristy and the cruise was rushed and of pretty poor quality. Maybe an overnight stay would have improved things.

2- What’s the weather like?

Super important question to ask. While the weather in Vietnam is unpredictable at best (see our tale of that here), try to get some clarity about the local situation. Bad weather could mean the Halong Bay cruise is cancelled altogether. So if you’ve got some flexibility, try to go when the weather looks brighter. No one wants to see fog all day instead of the splendid limestone mountains.

This rain shower, pictured in the south of Vietnam, wasn't a rarity. Be sure to check the weather and, if it's wet, pack accordingly.
This rain shower, pictured in the south of Vietnam, wasn’t a rarity. Be sure to check the weather and, if it’s wet, pack accordingly.

3 – Do I want to sleep on a boat or try a day cruise?

I hate boats. All of them. They make me feel clastrophobic and sick, and that’s why I’m never going on a cruise holiday. With that in mind (and the extortionate price of anywhere between $130 – $300 for a one night cruise) Jo and I decided to do a day tour. Big mistake.

A typical Halong Bay cruise ship. This is pretty low on the comfort scale, but even the higher comfort ones don't seem a lot more attractive.
A typical Halong Bay cruise ship. This is pretty low on the comfort scale, but even the higher comfort ones don’t seem a lot more attractive.

Halong Bay is three to four hours from Hanoi, so more time was spent on a bus than on the bay. And with only four hours to look around, we went to the main tourist places.

However, it only cost $100 for us both. Still pricey though.

4 – What’s the maximum I am willing to pay?

The prices vary a lot between cruise operators. If you want top quality, one night per person could be $300 dollars. If you want to possibly die in a rowing boat, then just spend $30 dollars. A general rule of thumb is to spend at least $100 per person an overnight cruise.

For one day, Jo and I wanted to pay no more than $100 (which was about what one week of accommodation cost us on our trip). When you have found your budget stick to it. There are many operators on offer so shop around and try to get what you want.

5 – What level of comfort do I want?

As noted above, more price generally equals more comfort. Take a look at all the operators and decide what is best. But please, don’t be fooled by the pictures you’ll see when wandering around Hanoi. Most of them are stock images. Stick to Tripadvisor for actual traveller photos.

6 – Does the cruise offer the activities I want?

Some cruises offer activities like rock climbing, kayaking, or staying on Monkey Island. Most of it is pretty touristy though, so again look for reviews online and decide what you actually need to do. Our activity was the Sung Sot cave (also know as Paradise Cave) which is, frankly, horrendous. It’s a beautiful cave ruined by fake lighting and stupid stories of monkeys leading explorers into the area.

Inside Sung Sot cave (Paradise Cave) in Halong Bay, Vietnam
Inside Sung Sot cave (Paradise Cave) in Halong Bay, Vietnam

7 – Can I get the price down a bit?

Always haggle, for everything and everywhere. We knocked at least $140 off an overnight cruise offer we had (which we accepted too late so never did). Don’t ever settle for the price you are given right away: most of the Halong Bay cruises are the same, on near identical boats, and doing practically the same things. So if one operator is double the price of another, and there’s no obvious difference in quality, then don’t do it.

8 – Can I get it cheaper still?

Once you’ve haggled once, haggle again. The Vietnamese are always willing to go lower in price. And while sometimes you should just stop – let’s face it, saving one dollar is not worth fighting about – the Halong Bay cruises can be some of the most inflated prices around.

9 – Can I get there cheaper on my own?

Short answer: no, probably. We’d met some people who travelled there solo and then just hopped onto a cruise at the last minute. But generally I would not advise getting there alone.

10 – Can I afford to take days out of my schedule?

Looking back, Jo and I should not have bothered. Sapa – the border area of Vietnam and China – was a far more enjoyable experience, even though that was far from perfect. So see what you have time for. Personally, I’d not spend too long in Halong Bay, but it’s all up to you.

The beautiful Sapa valley - an infinitely better place to visit than Halong Bay.
The beautiful Sapa valley – an infinitely better place to visit than Halong Bay.

11 – Is the town of Halong worth seeing?

From what I saw, not at all. It’s a worn down port primarily, surrounded by factories and a few motorways. It’s hardly the sublime, serene place a lot of travel pictures would have you imagine. But if you want to see how a Vietnamese city works away from tourists (not many venture into town) then it could be a good place to explore.

All will be illuminated

Ask these harsh questions to yourself and you’ll see what need you have to see Halong Bay.

And if you decide to go, that’s great! Chances are you’ll have a wonderful time if you’re realistic and have planned ahead a bit. So do what you’ve got to do.

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