Few places on earth are as naturally spectacular as Halong Bay in Vietnam. If you have seen photos of this beautiful, mysterious place then you know that a tour of Halong Bay is an essential experience for anyone travelling to Vietnam.
For many, a visit to the idyllic limestone isles and caves of Halong Bay is a once in a lifetime experience and the promise of gorgeous photos, relaxing on the deck of a junk boat and meeting other travellers makes it a trip to be savoured.
However, finding and agreeing on the best Halong Bay cruise can feel like a never ending pursuit. Traipsing through hundreds of tourist agencies while on the ground in Hanoi, comparing prices and options and perusing countless websites and reviews and forums online is likely to leave you more confused and overwhelmed than when you started.
Due to the sheer number of Halong Bay tours on offer, selecting the best one for you can be an incredibly difficult process. And with prices ranging from $45 USD to more than $250, the quality of a Halong Bay tour can vary wildly.
For the best advice, follow these simple steps to book and prepare for your trip to get the best value for money:
Book in Hanoi
- feel free to read up on Halong Bay tours to help make up your mind what sort of tour you will be looking for but, for the best prices, be sure to book in Hanoi.
- with a larger population base and many more tourists passing through, tours in Hanoi are generally much cheaper than in Halong City, where there will not be as much room for negotiation
- travel agencies will be able to explain the itinerary and you will get to see pictures and/or videos of the actual junk boat you will be joining and its amenities; cabins, top deck etc.
- it doesn't hurt to read reviews on specific companies on sites such as TripAdvisor and TravelFish but often it’s the tour guide who makes the trip so special and not the tour company itself – and tour guides are likely to join other companies if word gets out that they’re any good
- ask other travellers who have done the tour about their experiences and what you should look out for, whether the tour guide was good and if the travel company can be recommended
- although it will feel tedious traipsing between booking agencies in Hanoi, it is worth staying another night in Hanoi if you have to, to get a good Halong Bay tour rather than a poor one
- the most common complaints about poor Halong Bay tours centre around rats onboard the boat, poor quality food, terrible accommodation and uncomfortable seating above deck (ie. No cushions on the sun loungers)
- enquire as to what are the options and benefits in choosing a specific tour. Will you spend a night in a bungalow on Monkey Beach and one night on the boat? Or will it include a night in a two star hotel on Cat Ba island? What is the food going to be like?
- two nights is best, as you will not spend much time on the boat if you just opt for one, and it allows you to spend some time getting to know your fellow travellers and explore Cat Ba island as well
Remember that Halong Bay weather can be cool between November and March so you are unlikely to be swimming. Pack appropriate clothes to ensure you stay warm and can sit out on the deck for the best views. Also take your own water and snacks as these can be expensive when purchased on board the boat.
When on board
- some of the optional activities such as kayaking or taking a local boat through some caves may be overpriced so try and negotiate if you wish to do these. You may be equally happy spending some time with your new friends at a local bar on Cat Ba than seeing another cave or yet another Monkey Island or Monkey Beach.