One of the most gorgeous and unforgettable experiences in all of Vietnam is a cruise of Ha Long Bay.
Located about two and a half hours east of the capital city of Hanoi, Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its thousands of islands, islets, and rock formations that jut up out of the blue-green water. The islands are mostly made of limestone, and many feature caves, grottos, and a covering of green foliage. Some of the larger islands even have beaches and permanent inhabitants. It’s an otherworldly place, and the absolute best way to experience it is on a Ha Long Bay cruise.
We arrived in Hanoi on February 5, 2011, after a long overnight bus ride from Vientiane, Laos. While we were certainly excited to explore Hanoi and immerse ourselves in our Vietnamese adventure, one of our first priorities was to arrange a cruise in Ha Long Bay. We ended up doing so through our guest house (not the one with the giant rat) with the help of our front desk attendant and a friendly Australian traveler who happened to overhear us talking about it. Although we had only intended to do a day trip, they both strongly encouraged us to do an overnight cruise instead. On our backpacker budget, the $55 price tag felt like an extravagance, but we ended up being very glad we took their advice.
Two days later, we were on our way.
While the scenery is spectacular, a lot of the charm of a Ha Long Bay cruise comes from the ships that serve as both hotel and transport. Many are traditional wooden ships or “junks” with full sails. Ours was called the Sapphire Sail, and even though it was by no means the fanciest ship in the bay it still had character to spare.
Our bus ride from Hanoi and boat shuttle to the Sapphire Sail had been pretty gloomy, so we were thrilled when the sun came out soon after boarding. Even if our cabin hadn’t been as small and dimly lit as it was, we still wouldn’t have wanted to miss the scenery and ambiance available up on deck.
Once we were underway, the islands began to come into view almost immediately. It was a hazy day, so they were mostly silhouetted at first, their hulking shadows looming off in the distance.
As we floated along and reveled in the scenery, a lone woman rowed up to the Sapphire Sail in a little boat filled with snacks and drinks for sale.
Afterward, more and more islands and rock formations began to appear all around us, as well as other wooden ships. The views were breathtaking.
Some of the ships we began to pass were pretty impressive, and the setting only made them more fascinating.
Later in the afternoon, we made our way into a little bay-within-the-bay that is one of the busiest tourist areas of Ha Long. There were more permanent structures here, as well as a cave system, shrines, and plenty of boats docked all around.
It was here that we were able to disembark the Sapphire Sail and get up close and personal with the bay and its topography. First up was some kayaking, which we undertook with the aid of some life vests whose lifesaving ability was questionable at best.
The kayaking itself, though, was pretty cool. As huge as these limestone formations seemed from the decks of the Sapphire Sail, they loomed even larger while gliding right on top of the water.
After we finished kayaking, it was time to check out one of the dozens of caves and grottos that dot Ha Long Bay. We happened to be near one of the largest and most popular: Sung Sot Cave. This massive cavern is located on an island called Bo Hon, also one of the biggest in the area. Not only is the cave itself spectacular, but the views as you climb the hundred steps to the cave entrance aren’t too shabby either.
If you’re the kind of person who feels claustrophobic underground, Sung Sot might be the cave for you. It’s one of the largest and most open caverns I’ve ever entered, with room for literally hundreds of people to stand without crowding each other (if they didn’t have to keep to the walkways, that is).
I was completely awed by the size and scale of the cave. Everywhere you turned, there were massive stalactites, stalagmites, and other rock formations, all lit up with multicolored lights.
With our spelunking behind us, it was time to return to the Sapphire Sail for the night. Darkness soon fell and obscured the islands, leaving us to enjoy dinner on the ship and the gentle rocking as we bobbed on the water.
The next day was all about cruising and enjoying the views, though unfortunately we eventually had to return to the harbor in Ha Long and start the drive back to Hanoi. Despite another round of heavy cloud cover, it was hard to say goodbye to this remarkable place.
Vietnam is an incredible destination – perhaps my favorite in Southeast Asia – and Ha Long Bay is one of the best reasons to go. Cruising among the countless and massive limestone formations was an unforgettable experience, and my only regret is that we didn’t spring for a two-night trip instead. I would have loved to have spent another day exploring some of the more quiet and remote corners of the bay, poking into ancient caves, spotting shrines perched up in the rock faces, and perhaps wandering a little beach at the foot of a cliff.
Yet another reason that I need to book a return flight as soon as possible.
Ha Long Bay Cruise Tips
- If you’re considering visiting Ha Long Bay, I strongly encourage you to take at least a two-day cruise. A day trip, especially if you’re making the drive from and back to Hanoi the same day, just isn’t enough time to truly experience and appreciate the wonders of the bay. Devote two nights to the journey if you can, as even our two days didn’t feel like enough.
- One of my favorite tour companies is Tours By Locals, and they offer some nice private tour options for Ha Long Bay and Ha Long City.
- The best (and busiest) time to visit Ha Long Bay is October to December, when the weather is great and the storm/typhoon risk of June through September has passed. Spring (March through May) is also a pleasant and less crowded time to go. We visited in February, which is known for clouds and drizzle, and still had a great experience, so it’s up to you! Just watch out for major holidays like Tet and the Lunar New Year, which bring big crowds and high prices.
- If possible, pack lightly for your overnight cruise, as many onboard cabins are small.
- While I recommend basing yourself in Hanoi and booking a cruise package that includes transportation from the capital, you can also grab accommodations in Ha Long City. It’s not the prettiest or most interesting town, but it’s closest to the action.
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