Halong Bay Cruise

A cruise through Halong Bay is certainly the highlight of any visit to northern Vietnam. The phenomenal string of jungle-covered karst islands rivals the surreal beauty of similar landscapes in Thailand, Laos, China and the Philippines. To the south of Halong, stunning Cat Ba Island beckons travelers with limitless possibilities for kayaking, hiking, or lounging on white-sand beaches.

Thomas and I had the extraordinary luck to share our amazing Halong experience with a fantastic group of fellow travelers on the Imperial Deluxe Junk. Beautiful suites, excellent food, and great company, what more could we ask for? Our three day trip through Halong Bay and neighboring Lan Ha Bay featured stops at the Hang Sung Sot caves and the national park on Cat Ba Island as well as an overnight stay on the idyllic hideaway of Monkey Island. Our experience was superb.

But don’t plan that trip without seriously doing your homework. Halong is certainly one of Southeast Asia’s most amazing natural attractions, but there’s one major caveat. Vietnam’s most beloved destination is also one of its most hated due to the endless tour scams which plague travelers to the region. For some reason, the Vietnamese government continues to allow this mess to worsen causing major damage to its tourist industry.

Tips on Organizing a Halong Bay Tour

1. Determine which type of tour is best for you. Essentially, there are four basic classes:

  • Super-budget party tours are best for people interested in very low-cost drinking tours. 2-day tours can be as low as $25.
  • Budget tours are low cost options for people who want to see Halong Bay, but require less luxury. 2-day tour $40-$50, 3-day tour $60-80
  • Luxury tours emphasize beautiful boats and good food in addition to natural attractions. 2-day tour $80-$90, 3-day tour $110-$150
  • Super-luxury tours offer increased luxury and unique itineraries. You can spend as much as you want in this class.

I frequently check out what’s on offer and just came across the Orchid Cruise Halong Bay. It’s a gorgeous highly-rated cruise ship with 14 luxury cabins, including balconies, bathtubs and the like. Make sure to check it out to see what a 5-star ship looks like.

But remember, price never guarantees quality. Insist upon seeing pictures of your boat and cabin before booking. (Also, be sure to read about 3-day tours below.)

2. Do your homework and ask for recommendations, but keep some important things in mind

It is important to research companies online and ask your friends and fellow travelers for recommendations before choosing a tour company. However, remember that Halong tour operators regularly post fake positive reviews of their own companies and negative reviews of their competitors.

Similarly, each traveler’s experience with a particular company can be quite different. Some people pay for a budget tour but are upgraded to luxury boats without their knowledge. These travelers may tell you not to waste your money on a luxury tour because the budget boats are so nice. In reality, they might have been on a luxury tour without even knowing it.

3. Be specific when booking your cruise and get details in writing

Insist on having a cabin which is away from the dining room as well as the generator. Never assume anything. Ask whether you will have electricity (fan, air con) during the entire trip or only at night. Are all meals included? What will be served? Is kayaking included? How many kayaks will be available? Will there be karaoke on board? (I personally hate karaoke and did not want to listen to people screeching for three days.)

As annoying as it may sound, if booking agents recognize that you know what you are doing, you are more likely to get a good booking. Low maintenance people often discover that they end up getting bad cabins, bungalows, hotel rooms, etc.

If booking agents refuse to answer your questions or have no pictures of the boats, go somewhere else.

4. Report any problems immediately

When you board the boat, report any problems (bad cabin, broken air con) immediately. The longer you wait to resolve a problem, the less likely it is that the problem will be resolved.

5. Never pay in advance

Many tour booking companies insist on full payment before the tour. We booked the Imperial Deluxe Junk tour through Hotel Thien Trang in Hanoi and they allowed us to pay after the tour was completed. Not surprisingly, our tour was perfect while those who paid up front experienced several problems.

Many of these problems are not caused by the tour company itself, but rather by unscrupulous booking agents who book lower value accommodation while charging their customers for premium cabins. (Remember that within each tour class, there are still quality differences between cabins, bungalows, hotel rooms, etc.)

Unfortunately, if you book from abroad, you may be required to pay in advance to ensure your booking.

6. Extra attention is required for 3-day tours

In our opinion, 3-day tours of Halong Bay represent much better value than the 2-day packages. Travelers on 2-day tours spend much of their time traveling back and forth between Hanoi and the port. However, booking a 3-day tour requires a bit of extra attention.

Most 3-day tours spend the second night in a hotel on Cat Ba Island or in a bungalow on one of the islands in Lan Ha Bay. Many travelers fail to focus their attention on the quality of the accommodation they receive on this part of the trip.

We specifically booked a premium bungalow for the second night, a beautiful piece of island eye candy backed by towering cliffs with a panoramic view of the bay. Several travelers, many of whom paid far more than us, were packed like sardines into shanty-like huts with no view at all. Make sure you know what you are booking and demand a refund if you don’t get what you have been promised.

7. If you discover you are on a bad tour, sit back and enjoy it

Many travelers discover that despite their best efforts, they end up on a bad tour. If that happens, give up, sit back, and enjoy the scenery. The main reason you’ve come to Halong is to see the incredible landscape. Don’t let unprofessional tour operators ruin that as well.

UPDATE Feb.18, 2011

Many people are coming to our site after the recent tragedy in Halong Bay in which 12 people on a Halong cruise died when a cruise boat sank during the night.

Clearly, safety is an additional factor that must be considered when arranging a Halong tour. Tourists should make it very clear that boat quality and safe procedures are an essential requirement before booking with any company. Also, when boarding, take time to consider potential escape routes should an accident occur. Again, refusing to pay until after the tour gives you the option of leaving should the boat look unsafe.

Cabin on Imperial Deluxe Junk

The bathroom in our cabin

Beautiful premium bungalows on Monkey Island

Interior of premium bungalow on Monkey Island

Discount bungalow on Monkey Island

17 responses to “Halong Bay Cruise”

  1. avatar Katy Fox says:

    Great write up guys and very accurate. Hmmm, would like to be back there PLEASE! Keep up the great work, have been loving your blogs xx

  2. avatar tz says:

    Hi! Im interested to know how will you compare Ha Long and El Nido as these two places are top on my list to see.

    • avatar Tony says:

      Hey TZ,

      Halong was a beautiful destination and the cruise aspect adds a bit of luxury to the experience. But in my opinion, El Nido (and Palawan in general) is a far more spectacular destination. There is a much greater emphasis on nature and exploring the landscape in El Nido. And the water in El Nido is far cleaner and more enjoyable for swimming.

      One thing I didn’t mention in the article above is how many tourists there are in Halong. There are A LOT! But of course, there is still room for exploration in Lan Ha Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay.

      El Nido is a much smaller destination, although it still feels packed in peak season.

  3. avatar carrieannmarco says:

    Stunning video and super informative blog. Thank you!

  4. Nice post guys. The tips are pretty relevant as well. there is a lot of ‘bad cruises’ up there, scam and everything.

    So yeah, be carefull when choosing,


  5. avatar Chang Noi says:

    Nice trip indeed and good advice also. I did this trip about 12 years ago for the first time and about 2 years ago for the last time. A lot has changed, bot not really for the worse. Just different. Halong Bay is really magnificent.

    I just did write a small item about my trip here.

  6. avatar tz says:

    Thanks for the feedback! Im getting more and more excited as i will be going there this January. Its one of my dream places to go.
    Hopefully I can experience Halong Bay too one day and compare it myself.
    Im sad your Vietnam trip will end soon but it only mean a new beginning with a new exciting destination.
    Im an avid follower of your blogs.
    Happy travels!

  7. avatar oleh says:

    hi, thank you for a very enlightning sharing. I wonder if you could help me to understand whether it is cheaper and more reliable to book with the cruiseships directly via their website or to book through a tour operator/agent? I am looking for a luxury tour such as Violet but am not willing to grossly overpay, just to pay what it’s really worth. Thank you for your kind reply.

    • avatar Thomas says:

      When we booked the cruise through our hotel, it was cheaper than it would have been if we had booked it directly with the tour operator. In our case, we didn’t have any particular company in mind and we just shopped around to see what was available. If you have set your heart on going with Halong Violet, booking directly through their website probably makes sense. Also if you are NOT in a rush, you could look around in Hanoi, get some offers and then make a decision. If you can’t find anything you like, you could probably still book the trip through their website – even on short notice.

      I just checked out their website and all I can say is – you have excellent taste. I wouldn’t mind spending a couple of nights on that boat.

  8. avatar May Bianca says:

    Great blog! Thanks for all the tips!
    And also, I was wondering, wich agency did you use? We are going there in april, and I wonder if its best to wait until we get down there to book the cruise. Yours look just amazing! The cruises I found just looking on the internet is way more expensive than yours, like doble the price!

    • avatar Tony says:

      Hi May,

      We booked the Imperial Deluxe Junk tour through Hotel Thien Trang in Hanoi. The boat is owned by Vietnam Opentour, but they do not usually offer the best price. We DID NOT book online. Even directly at the hotel, we had to be VERY specific about what we wanted checking and checking again that the best room onboard was selected AND the best bungalows for the second night of the trip. We also had the huge advantage of having the time to wait for the trip we wanted. If you rush into a hotel and try to book the first trip, you’ll get whatever is left over. We, like many people, went to Hanoi, booked a trip to Halong for the following week, took a side trip to Sapa and Bac Ha, and then returned to Hanoi for our Halong tour.

      Let them know that you know what you are doing and do not want to be messed with at all!!! Be serious, professional, and double/triple check everything (the name of the boat, verify the pictures you are looking at of the rooms you will be staying in, food is included, best quality bungalows are included, be very clear you will not tolerate cheap bungalows if you are paying for a deluxe trip, demand access to kayaks, etc.) There are HUGE differences between rooms onboard most boats!!! This simply has to do with the shape and build of the junks. Demand the best, and then bargain hard for the price. We had the best rooms onboard and on the island and most people paid more for the trip than us. If they hear you questioning absolutely everything, they will be less likely to cheat you. By the way, EVERY company doing Halong tours is playing games.

      Good luck. And remember our advice in the article: if you do get cheated and end up with a bad boat/room and you see there is no way to change boats/rooms, sit back and enjoy the scenery and then deal with the crap when you get back to Hanoi.

  9. avatar May Bianca says:

    Thanks again for all the good tips! We will arrive Hanoi wednesday morning, and will look up the tour operators from there. Vietnam Opentours website had WAY cheeper prices than the website I found, so I will take your advice and talk to the guys myself.


  10. We were the victims of a scam by a company called The Black Pearl. We paid a deposit in advance for 3 days two nights. On arrival at Halong Bay we were told that due to a typhoon all boats were grounded. We were offered a night in a hotel and boat trip the following day or our money back if we returned to Hanoi. As we were with friends we chose the hotel and one day trip. We were dumped in a hotel nearby, the food was inedible and we had nothing to do. The trip booked was bike riding, hiking on Catba island but this was not provided. We had to hire bikes ourselves as on this island for 24 hours. Couldn’t eat the dinner which was battered tofu and potato. Then we had one day on a junk with others who had paid $40 a day, the cheapest trip and not what was advertised when we paid $139 each for four people. We did not see as much as when we were there two years ago. Very unfriendly crew and charged extra for everything. Nothing luxury about our trip despite the advertisement. When I complained requesting a refund as we were put on a cheap boat with the $40 a day crowd I was told that I was a liar, no one paid $40. They made $560 out of our group for a dump of a hotel, food you would feed a pig with and no activities provided. I am writing to every website to say how bad the trip was. Another couple on our boat paid more than us for a night on Catba island that they didn’t get. I am sending The Black Pearl’s Mr Binh the links to every website I write to so that no one books on the internet with this company as its a rort.

    • avatar Tony says:

      Yep, we’ve heard dozens of similar stories. I don’t know when Vietnam is going to realize that Halong has earned itself one hell of a bad reputation. And it is such a shame because the region is stunning.

  11. avatar Kay Amable says:

    Interesting tips. I am looking forward to a Halong Cruise with a particular company. They had great price for the ship we wanted. I am going to pay deposit, but after reading this I decided to pay when in Hanoi. Happily, they agreed. Hope all gonna be good.

  12. avatar Paradise Cruise says:

    Hi there. Thanks a lot! Love your blog!.

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