We’ve put together the definitive guide to the best Halong Bay cruise tours in Vietnam you’ve been waiting for ⏤ featuring our top recommendations for touring world-renowned Halong Bay, detailed trip report from our own experience, PLUS helpful first-hand tips for your journey!
A Halong Bay cruise was near the top of our list of things to do while visiting Hanoi, and we wholeheartedly recommend putting it at the top of your list too!
Before our trip, Lori and I were under the impression that taking a top cruise to this legendary UNESCO World Heritage Site might be out of our budget. Turns out, the best Halong Bay cruise tours are much more affordable than we thought.
As you’ll quickly discover in our list below, there is a Halong Bay cruise available to suit nearly every budget – from spectacular luxury cruises to no frills budget options as well.
If you’ve been dreaming of experiencing spectacular Halong Bay for yourself, you won’t want to miss our guide to the best Halong Bay cruise tours and excursions in 2023.
Can’t wait to dive in? Here’s a preview of our top cruise picks to jump-start your travel planning!
- Best Halong Bay Cruise – Cruise Hunters 2-Day Cruise
- Best Luxury Cruise – Stellar of the Seas 3-Day Cruise
- Stylish 5-star Cruise – Scarlet Pearl 3-Day Cruise
- Best 1-Day Tour – Hanoi Green Travel 12-Hour Cruise
- PLUS our guide for booking a basic boat tour on a shoestring budget
Read on for all the details, with helpful first-hand tips for making your trip truly unforgettable.
Why Cruise Halong Bay?
Visitors come from across the globe to experience a bucket list cruise like none other.
Hạlong Bay is dotted with around 2,000 limestone islets, taking some 500 million years to form into what we see today.
Humans have called this place home for tens of thousands of years, and the area has long been the setting of many significant events in local history and folklore.
In 1994, Hạlong Bay was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for its outstanding, universal aesthetic value.
In 2000, its listing was updated to include recognition for its outstanding geological and geomorphological value as well.
Simply put, cruising Halong Bay is an unforgettable experience of a lifetime you won’t find anywhere else on the planet!
Keep reading for our top recommendations for putting together the best Halong Bay cruise possible in 2023 and beyond.
These Are the Best Halong Bay Cruise Tours to Take in 2023
There are so many Halong Bay cruise tours operating these days, it’s hard to know which to choose. In short, if we were looking for the best of the best Halong Bay cruise tours right now, this would be our short list.
It’s worth noting that most budget to mid-range options are booked through companies with multiple vessels in their fleet.
While the photos you see on booking sites might feature the newest vessel of the bunch, expect comparable itineraries and level of service across the fleet for a particular company.
If what-you-see-is-what-you-get is important to you, the Stellar of the Seas and Scarlett Pearl cruises below are excellent options to consider.
Our Overall Top Pick for Best Halong Bay Cruise in 2023
2-Day Halong Bay Cruise by Halong Bay Cruise Hunters ⏤ We think this mid-range, all-inclusive tour offers the best balance of amenities, stops, and activities for the price, making it our top choice for best Halong Bay cruise. Includes en-suite air-conditioned cabin, meals, and stops at the top Halong Bay attractions, plus a unique squid fishing boat experience (seasonal). From US$149 per passenger for Option: 2D/1N-BEST SELLER-HALONG 3*.
Best Luxury Halong Bay Cruises
Looking for the very best Halong Bay cruise with all the amenities? These are our top 5-star luxury picks for 2023.
3-Day Luxury Halong Bay Cruise by Stellar of the Seas ⏤ If you want the very best luxury Halong Bay cruise on the market today, we think Stellar of the Seas is that and more! Experience this incredible corner of the world in comfort and style with world-class amenities (including a upper deck swimming pool!), luxury air-conditioned accommodation with private balcony, excellent cuisine, renowned service, and a superb itinerary. From US$1,090 total per cabin (2 passengers).
3-Day Luxury Halong Bay Cruise by Scarlet Pearl ⏤ Another fabulous top-rated 5-star cruise offering world-class comfort and style for three magical days and two restful nights on one of the most luxurious and well-appointed boats sailing the Halong Bay! Featuring stylish suites, hot tub, evening entertainment, and an onboard spa for an unforgettable journey through this amazing place. From US$1,085 total per cabin (2 passengers).
Best Halong Bay Day Trip (1-Day Cruise)
12-Hour Halong Bay Tour by Hanoi Green Travel ⏤ If you have just one day to see Halong Bay, this is the cruise to take! Enjoy a full day of sailing around Halong Bay with a stop at stunning Sung Sot Cave (Surprise Cave), traditional Vietnamese lunch, and sunset party on the boat. From US$55 per passenger.
Cruising Halong Bay on a Shoestring Budget
There are numerous options for doing a Halong Bay cruise on the cheap. If you’re looking for the absolute lowest price, your best bet is doing what we did – waiting until the very last minute and booking in person in Hanoi.
We DO NOT recommend going this route for a number of reasons.
For one, it’s incredibly stressful and takes a lot of effort, not to mention taking time away from actually seeing Hanoi. Add to that the real possibility that your top choices might very well be fully booked. Plus, you never know what you’re going to get with the cruises on the lowest end of the price spectrum.
Admittedly, we got lucky. But we were also traveling in low season, had flexibility with our travel dates, and ended up paying a bit more than we planned to for the next higher class of cruise.
If you’re curious what a budget to mid-range 3-day cruise actually looks like, keep reading for our full trip report, plus tips for your own Halong Bay cruise.
Our 3-Day Halong Bay Cruise Experience
There are a lot of different options for seeing Halong Bay, ranging from day trips from Hanoi on up to tour packages lasting a couple of weeks.
The three day Halong Bay cruises are some of the most popular, as they offer a good amount of time to tour this spectacular corner of the globe without breaking the bank.
If you’re thinking about doing your own Halong Bay cruise, or are simply curious about what there is to do and see in Halong Bay, read on!
Booking Our Halong Bay Cruise
Given the flexible nature of our travel plans around Asia, we were hesitant to book a Halong Bay cruise very far in advance.
We arrived in Hanoi and were able to reserve a cabin with a reputable company about three days prior to departure.
Granted, this was rainy and chilly November. But we still felt like we got lucky.
If you have firm dates set for your visit to Hanoi, plan to visit in high season, or want to book one of the more popular Halong Bay cruises (like the ones we’ve listed above), I’d strongly recommend booking your Halong Bay cruise well in advance.
After slogging around Old Quarter visiting all the cruise ticket agents we could find and either not being impressed with the offerings or getting a shady vibe, we returned to our guesthouse and asked the manager for a recommendation.
The manager produced three hardbound books featuring three different cruise companies.
Like Goldilocks, one company was too expensive for our budget, one company was too bare-bones, and the third one seemed like a good bet.
That company was Cristina Cruise (not to be confused with Cristina Diamond Cruise).
About the Halong Bay Cruise Boats
Once upon a time, all of the cruise junks plying Halong Bay were brown. Around 2010, that began to change.
A new law required that all Hạlong Bay cruise boats be painted white, presumably for safety reasons, but we don’t really know.
The white is nice, but it does tend to age very quickly. Our boat had recently been repainted, but the harsh conditions looked like they were already taking their toll on the hull.
The interior of our boat had also been refurbished around the same time, and all of the woodwork looked superb.
I don’t know how many liters of lacquer were used on each of the cabins, but it had to be substantial.
Our cabin included two single beds (pushed together) and a full marine head including a toilet, sink, and shower.
Each of the rooms on the boat opened up to the outside deck and had windows facing out to the water.
Our 3-Day Halong Bay Cruise Itinerary
We booked a three-day trip from Hanoi. Our package included transport from our Hanoi guesthouse early on Day 1, returning us to our guesthouse on the evening of Day 3.
All passengers spent the first night on the boat and the second night in one of two locations of their choice:
In a hotel in Cat Ba Town on Cat Ba Island, or a thatch cabana on the beach at a small island to the east of Cat Ba Island.
We chose the latter.
Our package also included all meals and a variety of activities including visiting island caves and an island full of monkeys, kayaking, cooking lessons, karaoke, and hiking.
We enjoyed the guided activities, but our favorite activity was sitting on the top deck of the cruise boat with a coffee or beer and getting to watch this amazing place unfold before us.
Lori and I knew our tour wasn’t going to be the very best Halong Bay cruise on offer, but the itinerary and amenities seemed to fit what we were looking for.
- 09:00 Transfer from guesthouse in Hanoi Old Quarter to Ha Long City (2.5 hrs.).
- 12:30 Board the cruise boat, settle in. Boat leaves harbor and sails towards Cat Ba Island. Eat lunch provided on boat while underway.
- 14:00 Transfer by small boat to an island to explore Sun Sot (Surprise) Cave for about an hour.
- 15:00 Kayak in a nearby cove and/or hike up to a nearby viewpoint (90 minutes).
- 16:45 Back on the boat for happy hour and to wash up (boat is anchored in a bay for the night).
- 18:00 Cooking class on the boat. Learn how to make spring rolls.
- 18:30 Dinner is served.
- 20:30 Karaoke and free time.
- 08:00 Breakfast is served while underway.
- 09:15 Arrive on north end of Cat Ba Island. Hike to a lookout tower.
- 11:30 Shuttle to Cat Ba City for lunch and a walk around.
- 14:00 Board a smaller tour boat and head to a traditional fishing village.
- 14:30 Arrive at Monkey Island.
- 15:45 Arrive at Cat Ba Sandy Beach Resort, our stop for the night. Get settled into our cabana, relax on the beach, and drink sundowners.
- 18:30 Dinner served.
- 06:30 Breakfast
- 07:30 Depart Cat Ba Sandy Beach Resort on small tour boat and return to Cat Ba City.
- 09:15 Board cruise boat in Cat Ba City.
- 12:00 Return to Ha Long City on mainland, have lunch, and board shuttle back to Hanoi.
- 17:00 Arrive back at guesthouse in Old Quarter.
Our Halong Bay Cruise – Day One
Here’s our personal, day-by-day experience on Cristina Cruises in November.
Your experience will most certainly vary depending on which of the Halong Bay cruises you take, the time of year you cruise Halong Bay, and how many days you sail.
If you choose a 3-day budget to mid-range tour, your experience may be very similar to ours.
After a 2.5-hour shuttle ride from our Hanoi guesthouse, we arrived in Ha Long City, where we promptly caught a tender to our cruise boat.
We settled into our quarters and relaxed while the boat set sail through the bay, passing some of the most stunning scenery anywhere.
We took our cruise in late November, not ideal by many people’s standards, given the cooler, rainier weather.
But for us, it was perfect.
We actually thought that the misty conditions enhanced the mystique and aura of Halong Bay, and the cooler, foggy weather was a welcome change after four months of traveling through tropical heat and humidity.
Sung Sot Cave (Surprise Cave)
Our first stop was Sung Sot Cave, also known as Surprise Cave.
We boarded a small dingy to take us to the base of a towering limestone peak, where we followed a narrow catwalk to a trail (and then a long set of stairs) up to the mouth of the cave.
We weren’t the only ones with the same itinerary this day, apparently. The bay is vast, but the majority of cruise boats tend to cluster together at a handful of popular attractions.
We were told that on the first day we’d encounter a lot of other boats and cruise passengers, but by the second and third day, our boat would peel off from the crowds to do its own thing, and by and large it was true.
In general, for every day you add to your Halong Bay Cruise, expect to be in the company of fewer other cruise boats.
Despite the many boats vying for moorage in cramped cove after cove, the places we stopped were still very enjoyable and didn’t feel completely overrun.
Unexpectedly, we were even afforded a few solitary moments inside the colorfully-lit cave.
Kayaking & Viewpoint
Then, it was time for a little bit of kayaking around the picturesque cove.
We would have liked more time to kayak around than we were allotted, but there were places to go and things to see.
Such is life on a package tour, but in hindsight, I don’t think we missed out terribly because of it.
Next, we stopped off at another one of the islands to ascend some stairs to an even more commanding view of our surroundings.
The rain was a common feature of our cruise, particularly on the first day. But again, it seemed to add to, rather than take away from, the experience.
We certainly didn’t feel robbed by the rain like we often do at the beach.
Happy Hour, Cooking Class & Dinner
At the end of the first day, we dropped anchor in a bay full of other cruise boats, though thankfully far enough away where that really didn’t matter.
After a jam-packed day, we were excited to sit back, relax, have a few beverages and dig into dinner.
But first, one more activity — learning how to make fresh spring rolls!
Our Halong Bay Cruise – Day Two
Both of us awoke early following a blissful night’s sleep on the water.
We stepped out of our berth to find that the fog and rain of the previous day had moved on, leaving overcast skies, cool temperatures, and smooth seas.
After breakfast, we enjoyed a leisurely morning, taking in the majestic karst formations of the dozens of islands around us from the top deck of the boat as we sailed to our next stop.
Around mid-morning, we transferred to a smaller boat, which took us ashore a large island with a wild, rugged, and largely undeveloped interior.
Hiking Observatory Loop in Cat Ba National Park
We hiked to the top of a ridge and then ascended a lookout tower for sweeping views of the island’s interior and Cat Ba National Park.
Lunch in Cat Ba Town
After the hike, we boarded a shuttle that took us to Cat Ba Town on the southern tip of the island where we had lunch.
Boat Ride Through Traditional Fishing Villages
After lunch, those who opted for the beach bungalow boarded a smaller day cruise boat and set off for Monkey Island.
On the way to Monkey Island, we passed through a narrow strait packed with wooden fishing vessels and floating fishing structures.
When you start feeling out of place, you know you’re in someplace unique and worth visiting.
I liked being on the small, rickety old boat cruising slowly through the strait. I didn’t feel like we were disrupting the fishermen’s’ daily activities too much, and weren’t lingering in any one spot for too long.
The route provided us with some sense of the daily lives of people here without being too conspicuous.
Land Ho! Monkey Island. Aptly named for it’s…you guessed it…numerous ill-tempered monkeys.
We were advised by the boat crew to stay a safe distance from the monkeys and did just that.
After a hike to a viewpoint and some more time watching various passengers get their just desserts from the island’s furry residents, we re-boarded the boat and headed on to our final destination for day two of our Halong Bay cruise: Cat Ba Sandy Beach Resort.
Cat Ba Sandy Beach Resort
We really had no idea what to expect before arriving at the island, but certainly weren’t expecting this.
If not for the chilly and windy weather (and cold water), I’d think we landed in paradise.
The resort looked recently refurbished with a lot of new construction, and the white sand beach was immaculate.
The main attraction, however, was clearly the surrounding scenery within this secluded bay. We had some time before dinner, so we took a walk around the island as far as we could go.
It was low tide, so it was possible to walk a fair distance. The ground had a silty consistency, and the water seemed a bit brackish.
Yet, I’m sure on a hot day at high tide the water would still make for a nice swim.
Our Halong Bay Cruise – Day Three
We awoke on day three to a thick mist obscuring the tops of the jungle-covered limestone cliffs jutting out of the water.
The chilly morning breeze greeted us at the doorway of our thatch cabana as we stepped out onto the beach.
Despite the cool temperatures outside, Lori and I slept surprisingly comfortably within the protection of the reed walls of our cabana.
We walked the grey coastline once more, ate breakfast, and gathered up our things. By mid-morning, we were walking back out to the tender.
🔥 HOT TIP 🔥
If you’d like to stay at Cat Ba Sandy Beach Resort without booking a cruise, you can!
Reservations can be made here and the resort will even arrange roundtrip transport from Cat Ba Town on request.
Our route back to the cruise ship passed through the same fishing village we’d seen the day prior.
It was hard to tell whether the people we were passing were just waking up or settling down for some shuteye after a long night’s work.
Whichever it was, it was apparent the small village was in transition from one state to another.
We returned to Cat Ba Town to join the others who had stayed in a hotel the previous night and board the Cristina.
It had been 24 hours since we left the Cristina and boarded the tender for Monkey Island and Cat Ba Sandy Beach Resort.
We walked out to the end of the long jetty to catch the small tender back to our cruise boat, passing other cruise boats docked along the quay.
Back onboard the cruise boat, we washed up, grabbed some hot tea, and went out onto the deck to take in the last few hours of our Halong Bay cruise.
All too soon, the skyline of Hạlong City appeared through the mist, and we knew our time on the bay was quickly coming to an end.
Doing a Halong Bay cruise is one of those unique bucket list adventures that we feel very fortunate to have been able to experience and highly recommend it to anyone planning a trip to Vietnam!
But was the tour we ended up with the best Halong Bay cruise for us?
At the time and with our shoestring backpacker budget, we felt it suited us quite well. The accommodations met our needs and three days felt about right. Anything shorter and we would have felt short-changed. Anything longer and we may have started to take this incredible place with its stunning landscape for granted.
However, if we were to do a Halong Bay cruise again, we’d definitely book one ahead to eliminate some of the stress and guess work, and would step-up the price point one or two notches for a bit more comfort and a few more amenities.
And our top picks for best Halong Bay cruise at the beginning of this guide would make up our short list. The hard part, of course, is choosing just one!
Halong Bay Cruise FAQ
Which is the best Halong Bay cruise?
Halong Bay offers so many cruise tours and such a diversity of ways to tour Halong Bay, it’s impossible to single out one cruise that will work for everyone. In our guide, we offer five unique ways to experience Halong Bay to suit a variety of travel styles and budgets.
What is the best month to visit Halong Bay?
Halong Bay is a place that can be enjoyed year-round. If you’re looking for the best weather (warm temps and lowest rainfall), September & October will be your best bet. But it’s also one of the busiest times of year here. For the best balance of weather and smaller crowds, consider visiting in March or April.
What is the difference between a 2 day and 3 day Halong Bay cruise?
A 2-day Halong Bay cruise generally covers the main points of interest in Halong Bay, with brief stops at limestone islands, caves, and lagoons and an overnight stay on the boat. A 3-day cruise offers more time to explore the area beyond the most popular tourist areas, often adding cultural stops and the option for staying one night off the boat on one of islands.
And That’s Our Guide to the Best Halong Bay Cruise Trips for 2023!
Have you taken a Halong Bay cruise recently? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below!
Cover photo by Taylor Simpson on Unsplash.