Halong Bay is best seen by taking an overnight cruise, but how to choose the best Halong Bay cruise? Check out this guide to Halong Bay + a full review of the Au Co Cruise.
Over a thousand tall towers of limestone island topped by lush rain forests, clear emerald blue waters that invite visitors to dive in and go down into the deeps, startling sunrises and sunsets that leave viewers with a sense of wonder and amazement. These are just a few of the things that make up Halong Bay, Vietnam, and the best way to soak it all in is by far taking an overnight cruise in the bay.
But before getting into the details of the cruises and what’s the best cruise in Halong Bay, here it’s why you should plan a visit to Halong Bay.
Halong Bay: An Introduction
Halong Bay is a wondrous natural beauty that is located in northeast Vietnam, near the Chinese border. In Vietnamese, Ha Long is translated to mean Descending Dragon, and legend has it that the bay and its limestone towers were formed from the fire of dragons who came down to the earth to protect the people of Vietnam from invaders. Archeological investigation shows that the limestone karst in the bay evolved over at least twenty million years and that there is evidence of human occupation going as far back as 18,000 BC.
Today, Halong Bay is northern Vietnam’s number one-tourism hub and is made up of more than 1600 tower islets which tourists come from all over the world to marvel at. Halong Bay is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it’s not difficult to understand why.
Visitors to Halong Bay can cruise around in its beautiful waters and head into the center of the Bay, where there are 775 formations in a mere 127 square miles. In this small space, you’ll find islands, floating villages, and caves.
Halong Bay is typically reached from Halong City and is under the city’s administration. From the city, you can get to Halong Bay via bus or taxi.
However, most passengers of Halong Bay cruises come from Hanoi, which is 103 miles away and an easy 2-hour drive.
➤ CHECK OUT HERE all the transport options from Hanoi to Halong Bay – you can find a bus for as cheap as $7 or you can book a faster and more luxurious car or shuttle.
Halong Bay Off The Beaten Path: Lan Ha Bay and Cat Ba Island
You might have heard it many times: Halong Bay is overcrowded, Halong Bay is polluted, Halong Bay is too touristy… And sadly, this is partially true, at least if you go where everyone else goes.
Cat Ba Island is the largest of all the islands in Halong Bay – if after your cruise you decide to spend some more time soaking up the beautiful views of the bay, this is where you’ll probably stay.
The island, in fact, features hotels, restaurants, and plenty of tour operators, but it’s also easy to get away from all of this. If you like hiking, lush nature and silence, Cat Ba Island is the perfect place for this.
Lan Ha Bay is an extension of Halong Bay, and the limestone karsts that litter it are just as breathtaking as those of Halong. Because Lan Hay Bay is a fair distance away from Halong City, it is not typically as occupied with visitors as Halong Bay is. Its isolated nature makes it more appealing to tourists who like to experience natural beauty without running into lots of people.
What’s the best time to take an Halong Bay cruise?
The weather in Halong Bay is fairly decent all year round, and tourists can be found visiting on any given month. However, the weather gets fairly cold from November to March, with temperatures ranging between 12ºC – 20ºC. This makes swimming a little less convenient.
Summer runs from late May to early September, and while there is lots of sunshine, there can also be rain and typhoons which can disturb visiting plans.
The best time of the year to visit Halong Bay seems to be March – April (Spring) and September – October (Fall). At these times, the weather is cool, the water is warm, and you can enjoy the very best of the bay.
How To Choose The Best Halong Bay Cruise
When it comes to choosing a cruise in Halong Bay, it’s really not that easy! When you google it, you’ll find tens of results advertising different companies and it can be pretty overwhelming.
In my opinion, the things you should look at when deciding what cruise to book are:
▶ Budget and level of comfort/luxury
You’ll find cruises for all budgets, so you won’t have issues finding a cruise that fits yours. However, this is one of those occasions where it might be worth it to splurge on a more luxury cruise. You get what you pay for, and stories of cockroach-infested boats are not unheard of.
Make sure you understand what your cruise price includes (are drinks included? kayaking? transportation from/to Hanoi?) and read review from previous travelers before booking a cruise.
▶ One night or two nights?
I’ve taken two cruises in Halong Bay, and both times they were 2-night ones. Both times, I felt that I would have wanted to spend more time in Halong Bay, not less. I can imagine that a one-night cruise might feel rushed and you probably won’t go very far. If you have enough time, I definitely recommend a 2-night cruise.
▶ Where will you sail to?
Will you stay in Halong Bay, or you’ll sail to other areas such as Lan Ha Bay and Cat Ba Island? If you’re looking for a more unspoilt experience, where you’ll rarely see another boat, choose a cruise that goes off the beaten path. Lan Ha Bay is as beautiful as Halong Bay, minus a million tourists. For me, it was an easy choice.
▶ Is the company sustainable?
This might not be important to everyone, but I’m deeply committed to responsible tourism and I try to choose companies that are giving back. Especially in fragile environments such as Halong Bay, it’s something you should consider.
We went with Au Co Cruises and were very satisfied. The cruise, in fact, ticks all the boxes for me. Here a full review that can help you decide if this is indeed the very best cruise in Halong Bay.
A Full Review of Our Halong Bay Cruise with Au Co Cruises
DAY 1 | THE CRUISE STARTS: FLOATING VILLAGE & FINE DINING
We started the experience with pick-up from our hotel in Hanoi. Transportation to and from Halong is optional – guests can choose to go on their own, or opt for transportation by a luxury van, that was truly comfortable with leather seats. The journey used to take a 3-4 hours, but now thanks to a new highway, the journey is reduced to a couple of hours.
➤ If you’re choosing to get to Halong Bay on your own, CHECK OUT HERE all the transport options from Hanoi to Halong Bay or down here.
Once we arrived to the pier, we were welcomed into a beautiful lounge where we had a welcome drink and canapes. The cruise manager, Sam, came to introduce himself, gave us the key to our room, and made sure we didn’t have any special dietary needs.
Great thing he did, as we realized that quite a few dishes in the menu were spicy. We are not used to the level of spiciness that’s common in Southeast Asia, so he made a note to the chef for our meals to be non spicy. We were very impressed that our waitress at the restaurant always made sure that our food wasn’t spicy – it’s a very personalized level of attention.
We also could choose the fragrance to burn in our room, and this is what I mean when I say that Au Co is a truly luxury cruise. For us, it’s the attention to the details that really make an experience stand apart, and we experienced this from start to finish on our cruise boat.
Around mid-day it was time to board the boat; we were welcomed with a band and one more welcome drink, and it was time to check out our room.
And oh wow, what a room! If you’re thinking about the typical, crammed cruise room with literally no space around the bed, think again.
We were upgraded to one of the two Au Co Suites, two beautiful rooms at the bow of the boat. The room is spacious, well appointed with a maritime white and blue theme, and features a bathroom with both a shower and a bath tub.
But it’s the balcony that made us go wow. The Au Co Suite has a private balcony that goes all the way from the front to the side of the boat. Imagine waking up at sunrise and be able to start the day with unobstructed views over the bay. Actually, you don’t even have to get up from bed! If you pull the curtain, you can lie in bed and see the limestone karsts go by through multiple windows. How cool is that?
We just had a few minutes to unpack and refresh, and it was already time for lunch. The moment we stepped foot in the restaurant, we knew it was going to be good.
We honestly did not expect such fine dining on the cruise. It was like dining at a luxury restaurant for every meal. The food was plated with great attention to details and we really enjoyed all the fresh fish dishes.
The meals were served, except for the second dinner where the starter and the soup were served, and then there was a BBQ on the deck with fish and meat, and it was buffet style.
Drinks are not included in the price of the cruise (except for water, which is unlimited) and guests can decide to either order drinks from the menu, or buy a beverage package in advance. The beverage package includes 3 drinks per meal per couple, and we mostly opted for glasses of wine (Cabernet Sauvignon for Fran, and Chardonnay for me).
The main activity for the first day consists in visiting Cua Van Floating Fishing village, the largest fishing village in Halong Bay with over 700 people living on floating houses.
We could choose between kayaking around the village, or going by rowing boat. We love kayaking, so we chose this option.
Kayaking in Halong Bay is probably the best way to soak in the views. Get a few meters away from everyone else and enjoy the silence, and the view of the majestic karst formations all around you.
It was very interesting to witness the way these people live their everyday life. There is no electricity and no running water, and our guide explained us that kids need to live in the mainland in order to get an education.
There are no schools or hospitals here, and life is all but easy, but the residents came back to the floating village after the government tried to relocate them. This is the life they were born in and that they knew, and life on land didn’t work for them. It makes you think with humility how my life would be different if I were born here rather than in my country?
Every day from 5,30 to 7 pm on the boat is Happy Hour time (buy one drink, get one free). It’s the time to mingle with other passengers if you want, and they made this time more entertaining by offering a spring roll cooking contest.
I decided to be the photographer while Fran had a lot of fun rolling spring rolls, but ehm, let’s just say he might not be a professional spring roll chef anytime soon!
We then escaped back to our room to enjoy the sunset from our balcony, ’cause there was no way we would miss it!
After being served another incredible meal, guests had a choice to try out squid fishing or watch a movie under the stars on the deck. We preferred to get back to our room and sleep early – the days are pretty full and we needed our beauty sleep 😉
DAY 2| CAT BA ISLAND & BATH WITH A VIEW
After a great night of sleep (the bed is so comfy!), breakfast was ready in a buffet style. There are both Asian and Western choices, so you can have anything from pastries to fried rice and fresh fruit, and made-to-order eggs. We went crazy for the cheese selection and the mini pancakes with caramel syrup.
First thing on this day’s full schedule was a visit to Viet Hai Village, located in a remote area of Cat Ba Island. Cat Ba National Park is stunning. The island is lush and green, and doesn’t see the influx of tourists that other locations in Vietnam do.
Three years ago, when I first came to Halong Bay, I spent 3 days on the island taking in all the beautiful landscapes, deserted beaches, and incredible sunsets. I was happy to be back although just for a few hours to explore a part of the island that is only reachable by boat.
Once docked, we were able to choose between biking around 4 kms, or going by buggy. It was pouring raining when we arrived to the island, but when else we’d have the opportunity to bike around such a beautiful island? So we accepted the offer of some (not very fashionable) green raincoats, and there we went! It’s a very easy bike ride, and you really don’t need to be fit to be able to do it.
Our guide showed us around the Viet Hai Community Farm, one of the sustainability projects of Bhaya cruises – read more about the corporate social responsibility of Bhaya cruises in the paragraph about sustainability, it deserved its own full paragraph.
After biking back, it was time for another sumptuous meal, then we had an option to either kayak again or take a boat to a nearby beach.
The beach actually leads to Trinh Nu cave, and to another beach on the other side of the cave where we could lay down, relax, swim for a while before returning to the ship.
During the cruise, every couple can book the Jacuzzi for 30 minutes. The hot tub is located on the stern of the boat and there are great views from there.
We booked it at sunset time, but make sure you book it as early as possible when you get to the cruise since there’s not much free time during the 2 days on board, and everyone wants to go at the same time. There is also a spa on board, but we didn’t try it.
It was time for yet another incredible meal, this time it was meaty.
After dinner we went straight to bed with the intention of getting up early for the sunrise tai chi session. If you’re afraid of getting bored on a cruise like this, don’t be – the activities are so packed if you decide to join everything that by the end of the day you are exhausted!
DAY 3 | CAVES & GOODBYES
If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know that I’m not an early riser. At all. But I was excited to see the colors of the sunrise over the bay, and to try out Tai Chi on the sundeck.
If you’ve never heard of it, Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese martial art that includes elements of mindfulness and breathing control. In the early morning, you can see people of all ages practicing tai chi in parks all over Asia, so we were curious to see what was all about.
To be honest, we didn’t really get it. We followed the movements of our instructor, but we felt pretty awkward. It was fun to try it, but I doubt we will practice it again ahaha.
It was barely 7 am, and we were ready for the second activity of the day: a visit to Sung Sot Cave, also known as Surprise cave. This is the most popular cave in Halong Bay, and most cruise ships stop for a visit. With its two huge chambers full of stalactites and stalagmites, I must say it’s pretty impressive!
The best part of the cave visit for us were the great views over the bay from the top. Halong Bay is always stunning, and from the top even more… also when it’s foggy.
Time to go back to the ship for breakfast, and sadly it was already time to check out. We were really sad to leave. We would have totally loved to spend more time on the cruise… I mean, can you blame us??
▶ Check out RATES & AVAILABILITY for the Au Co Cruise
SUSTAINABILITY OF AU CO CRUISES
When it was the time to pick the perfect Halong Bay Cruise, I must say it wasn’t easy. There’s a huge variety of choices for all budgets, but in the end we decided to go with the most sustainable cruise of all.
In places like Halong Bay, which is sadly becoming polluted and overcrowded, is especially important to choose companies that are doing their best to protect the environment. Bhaya Cruises, the group that owns the Au Co cruises, is committed to operate in a responsible way towards the environment and the local communities.
Bhaya Cruises is currently focusing on 4 different corporate social responsibility projects: let’s take a look at them.
▶ Bhaya Green: to reduce the footprints on Halong Bay, Bhaya Cruises is implementing a few measures to save electricity, water and diesel. Other actions include cleaning up the beaches of Halong Bay and banning the use of single-use plastic aboard the cruise. Guests will find paper straws and glass bottles in the room to be refilled at the bar.
▶ Bhaya Community: Bhaya Cruises has an active relationship with the Village of Viet Hai, on Cat Ba Island. They support the Farm, which produces the organic vegetables and fruit used on the boat, and organize events for the community.
▶ Bhaya Care: Bhaya Cruises is committed to support staff members and employees with continued education programs.
▶ Save the Langur: This Conservation program is to support the Cat Ba Langur , one of the rarest and most endangered primates in the world.
All in all, we had an incredible time in Halong Bay and would recommend the Au Co cruise to anyone looking for a luxury cruise with a soul.
We were guests of the Au Co Cruise, but we really had an incredible time! The opinions expressed in this post, as always, are exclusively our own.