Choosing a Halong Bay cruise can be really overwhelming, with the numerous choices available. Being one of the most visited destinations in North-east Asia, Halong Bay is never free of bucket-loads of tourists, no matter what time of the year you decide to go. In terms of cruises, you will find several options not only based on your budget but also the duration (day cruises, overnight stay for 1 or more nights, etc.).
While I'm someone who always recommends DYI tours over organized ones because exploring independently is not only more adventurous but also allows you flexibility in your plans, Halong Bay is one of those places which need to be booked through a company. And while it is true that there are hoards of people that visit here every season, there are ways to enjoy a peaceful and memorable time in this magnificent bay that is very worthy and deserving of its title as one of the prettiest World Heritage Sites.
You will be spoiled for choice when it comes to Halong Bay cruises and if you can shell out a few extra bucks for a private cruise, you definitely should! The towering limestone rocks and the emerald waters nestled between them, make for one of the most romantic & stunning settings, and a private luxury cruise in Vietnam is unlikely to burn your pockets as compared to anywhere else in the world. The good news is that the bay is spread over 1,500 sqkm, however, only about 300 sqkm of that is open to visitors. Nevertheless, the area is replete with caves, floating villages and islands. I would highly recommend to spend at least 1 night on the bay, so while choosing a Halong Bay cruise, make sure to go for something that allows for a comfortable stay, entertainment on board & a food and beverage package.
For a budget solo traveller like me, it was important to choose a Halong Bay cruise that was reasonably priced but also included all the activities such as kayaking, visiting a cave, etc. I picked Swan Cruises and their package of $115 included a pick & drop service from Hanoi, which was very convenient for me. I was very happy with my choice- the room was great, the sunbathing deck was my favourite place, there was a party at night where I got to interact with other tourists and their sundowners were quite reasonably priced as well!
Choosing a Halong Bay Cruise - Swan Cruises
Swan Cruises offer a reasonably priced overnight stay in comfortable rooms, a chance to visit the Thien Canh Son cave, kayaking & swimming, and onboard entertainment. The itinerary was perfect and the experience was quite good and thus, I recommend for a budget traveller who doesn't mind being on a big boat with several other travellers, to opt for this cruise.
It is worthy to note that Swan Cruises take you to Bai Tu Long Bay (which is technically different from Halong Bay itself and is more towards the North) which is a great choice because this bay mirrors the beauty of the more-popular Halong Bay minus tourists and thus offers a calmer, more charming & less crowded experience overall. The trip also offers the same experiences as the more popular Halong Bay cruise - you visit a white sandy beach on an island with an opportunity to kayak, you visit a cave with incredible stalactites & you get to experience local cuisine on board the cruise & interact with people from all across the world.
While all the meals (Lunch & Dinner on Day 1, Breakfast & Lunch on Day 2) are included, drinks (even the egg coffee) are to be paid for separately. And while drinks are more expensive on board that they are in the city, Vietnam is not that expensive overall so you can get away with a glass of beer at $2 and wine at about $5. All other activities such as kayaking are included.
Day 1: Lunch & visit Cap La Island (swimming, kayaking)
I was picked up from Hanoi Old Quarter at 8.30 am on a shuttle bus and after a 3-hour journey, arrived at Ha Long. With an English-speaking guide on board, we learned quite a bit about the Vietnamese people, the culture, the language and how hilariously "Pho" has been pronounced through the years. After a nap and some socializing with other members on board, we reached the port where we waited for almost an hour before boarding the cruise. At 12.30 pm, finally on the cruise, we received a quick safety briefing before we were led to our rooms (which I instantly fell in love with). A quick change of clothes before we were served lunch at 1 pm, where we got to taste some exquisite local cuisine and the popular Vietnamese egg coffee. After that, we had time to retire either in our rooms or sunbathe & take in the majestic landscapes from the sundeck while the cruise sailed in the emerald waters.
At 3.30 pm, we took a boat to Cap La Island's white sandy beach where we had the opportunity to swim. The water was a little too cold for my comfort (I visited in December) so I decided to take a kayak instead to explore the area. To be honest, Vietnam's beaches aren't really the best in the world, so I wouldn't describe the waters as 'pristine' but the place was peaceful, not crowded and more than the waters itself, the towering jagged cliffs provided a splendid view. We spent some time here relaxing and enjoying the activities, heading back to the cruise right before sunset.
Swan Cruises offer Happy Hour Sundowners (buy two, get one free deals on the drinks) which was a great way to relax on their deck and enjoy the views. The vibe was lively yet relaxing, and it was the perfect opportunity to interact with other guests on board.
At 7 pm, dinner was served. For those interested in squid fishing (I was not), there's a special session at 8.30 pm. Other games, entertainment and karaoke singing ensued, making the night quite fun & enjoyable.
Day 2: Thien Canh Son cave & Return
Swan Cruises expect you to start your day quite early so for the morning people (again, I am not one), there's Tai Chi on the sundeck at 6.30 am, which I imagine must be a mesmerizing experience. Breakfast is served at 7 am so make sure to get yourself there in time!
At 8 am, the boat departs to Thien Canh Son Cave. Unfortunately, my not being a morning person worked against me and I missed the boat but Swan Cruises were nice enough to arrange for a special transfer for me. The cave is a must visit - mostly because of the gorgeous views from the vantage point (you need to be prepared to climb some stairs to get there). I would recommend people with mobility issues to take extra care if planning to visit this cave.
It is interesting to note that until a few years ago, some tour operators could organize a candle-lit dinner in the dark grotto, which I imagine would have been a surreal experience. However, due to some incidents where the stones & stalactites in the cave were damaged, this was banned to protect the area. Take some time to walk around the cave because of the spectacular views. There is also a white sand beach nearby, where you can relax before heading back to the cruise at 9 am.
Once back on the cruise, the fun is not over yet. You get to attend a cooking class where they teach you to make Bánh Cuốn (steamed rice rolls), a traditional Vietnamese dish, which is also your (early) lunch. The cruise continues to sail towards the Hon Gai harbour, where you will eventually disembark at around 12 pm. To be honest, I felt that the second day was a little short and I would have loved to spend some more time on the Bai Tu Long Bay. But the cruise also picks up the passengers for the next day and to make the most of it, they make sure to start early and end early on Day 2.
An alternative to an Overnight Halong Bay Cruise
Although I did not have the opportunity to visit Cat Ba island, a lot of locals recommended that an alternative to taking the Swan cruises could have been to board a train from Hanoi to Cat Ba Island or a bus + ferry. The journey usually takes about 4 hours.
From Cat Ba Island, which is one of the largest islands situation bang in the middle of Halong Bay, one can enjoy a day cruise in the bay but also indulge in several other activities such as visiting Monkey Island and Lan Ha Bay, kayaking, diving snorkeling & trekking. This, of course, gives your itinerary a lot more flexibility than being bound to an overnight cruise, but you also miss out on the cruising experience, which allows you to sleep amidst ethereal beauty while gliding on the calm and gorgeous bay waters.
Book your stay in Cat Ba Island here.
Read about visiting Sa Pa, Vietnam here.