Side trip from Hanoi: Ha Long Bay Vietnam

Ha Long Bay is one of the most iconic places in Vietnam, offering a unique natural scenery. The bay and the city itself can be quite puzzling and chaotic for visitors. However, with some planning, we manage to have a quite a good time in Ha Long and would recommend it to other visitors to Vietnam.

In the year that we lived in Saigon, we have been to the most amazing beaches in Vietnam, from Nha Trang, Da Nang to Mui Ne. Therefore, going to Ha Long is not very tempting to us, knowing that the water is nowhere as inviting as the beaches in the South. However, since we live in Hanoi now, we finally made it to Ha Long Bay and had such a good experience that we didn’t expect.

About Halong Bay Vietnam

Ha Long Bay or Vinh Ha Long is about 3 to 4 hours drive from Hanoi. The city of Ha Long does not offer much in term of night life, so most visitors choose to pass by or spend only a day there. To meet that demand, many tour companies offer package tours that include transportation from Hanoi, so you don’t have to worry about the thing from the time you leave the capital.

HalongBay Vietnam
Side trip from Hanoi: HalongBay Vietnam

We decided to visit Ha Long during the Labor Day weekend last year. While the weather is nice, and our tour went smoothly, it is definitely not recommended to do so!

The best timing to visit Ha Long is debatable, however, the worst timing has to be during Vietnamese holidays, when the docks are packed with people, the cruises are packed with people, and you will be taking pictures of the backs of people’s heads in the caves.

It’s best to visit Ha Long during the early summer, and early fall. Halong Bay weather can get extremely hot during summer. The month of July and August is stormy season, when cruising on boat can be dangerous and not recommended. Halong Bay weather is most pleasant in April, May, September and early October. These months are not too hot and definitely less rainy, which makes perfect weather for an exploring trip in the bay. The winter months are also popular among foreign visitors, due to less local crowds and less rain. However, keep in mind that it can get pretty cold, especially if you are to spend the night on the cruise. The cold weather also makes it hard to enjoy a swim there.

Our Halong Cruises Experience

Because of the limited time and for convenience, we decided to take a day tour from Hanoi. The bus picked us up from a meeting point in the old quarters at about 7AM, travel for 4 hours and arrived in Ha Long around 11AM. Our group waited a bit on the dock, and finally, we are ushered on to our cruise and have lunch there.

Halong Cruises
Our group waiting to get on the cruise

After lunch and some pleasant conversations with our new tour buddies, we stopped at a floating house, which is also a kayak/boating rental business. Paying $4 each, we are given our own kayak boat to paddle around.

I have only kayaked once in Laos prior to this trip, and was quite nervous. The only thing that saved me from cap-siding that first time was the experienced tour guide who did all the paddling and navigating. However, kayaking in Ha Long Bay is extremely easy. Even with Mr. Frugal playing with his GoPro most of the time instead of paddling, we still make it through the round and come back in one (dry) piece.

Kayak and boat in Halong Bay Vietnam
Wandering kayak and boats

The Kayaking experience is probably the highlight of this trip. From the boat rental service, we are directed to kayak underneath an opening of this rock mountain. Getting through the “tunnel”, we were wowed by the scene in front of us.

The rock has formed a big valley in the middle of the ocean. There was only one entrance/exit as pictured above. The close circuit of rocks created such a quiet, peaceful, and gorgeous haven. We were able to move along at our own pace, keeping a distance from other tour members and having just a moment to ourselves to enjoy the gorgeous scenery.

If you are not inclined to kayak, there are little boats that you can sit on and be taken around. People on our tours seem to enjoy this option too, constantly snapping pictures along the way.

After the boats/kayaking session, we gather back on our cruise and head to the next stop: the Heavenly Palace Cave (Dong Thien Cung). The cave is not as big as the Phong Nha or Paradise Cave in Quang Binh. However, it is impressive and worth visiting nonetheless. Sadly, because we visited during the holiday, the cave is packed with tourist and taking pictures proves a challenging tasks. I do recommend that you visit Ha Long Bay Vietnam and its cave on a non-holiday, preferably in the off season if possible!

Ha Long Bay - Heavenly Palace - Dong Thien Cung
Inside Dong Thien Cung – Heavenly Palace in Ha Long Bay

After the cave, we are back on to our cruise. Throughout the ride, we were allowed plenty of time to take pictures of the bay and enjoy the pleasant breezes. Our tour guide was great at providing information and little jokes here and there, keeping us entertained throughout the long ride.

Overall, the trip is a great break away from the hassle and bustle of Hanoi, although not as peaceful as our Mai Chau visit. Ha Long Bay is still a popular tourist spot, and that comes with certain chaos and messiness. However, seeing the bay with our own eyes is such a great experience that we did not regret it at all, even with the crazy crowd that day.

Tip for visitors

– Tour or No Tour: While you can certainly travel to Ha Long Bay on your own, in the end you may still need to buy tickets on cruise to visit the bay. While you are on the cruise, it will also be as if you are on a boat tour anyway, having to follow a certain schedule and sharing your space with other enthusiastic tourists. So I recommend arranging a tour from Hanoi, as it takes out the hassle, and it’s probably cheaper with the transportation included in the package.

– Select Ha Long Cruises: When you select your cruise, however, keep in mind that Halong cruises vary in term of prices and quality. Therefore, do your research to avoid getting ripped off. Also, never go on a shady cruise with no reviews, just to save a few bucks. Quality matters here, because in the past couple of years, there have been fatal accidents when the cruises went down without any life jacket or anything for passengers. Our cruise wasn’t the cheapest option, but it has a long, sparkling record on Tripadvisors and other review sites. It does make a difference as the cruise were new and feel safe enough.

– Overnight trip: The journey back and forth from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay is doable in one day, as we did. However, it can be quite tiring. Therefore you should plan the trip accordingly and allow some rest time the next day. For a more relaxing trip, two-day or three-day cruise trips are also available, giving you the chance to spend the night on the cruise. These trips often cost more, but the cruises are also usually better equipped to keep guests comfortable. The longer trip also comes with a longer itinerary, including stops at some islands around the bay and more caves.

Looking for more trip ideas? Read our recommendation for weekend trips from Hanoi!

Find the best deals for Halong Bay Hotels and Cruises on Agoda

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