In Sino-Vietnamese language, “Ha” means “descending” and “Long” means the mythical creature “dragon”. Therefore, Halong Bay is also known as “Bay of the Descending Dragons”.
Legend has it that thousands of years ago, Vietnam was a newly-formed country. Vietnam was under constant attack from Northern invaders. The Jade Emperor who is known as “Ngoc Hoang Thuong De” in Vietnamese,sent the Mother Mother Dragon and the children to assist the Vietnamese.
While the most of the Vietnamese army was fighting in the main island, the navy in the Eastern sea was suddenly attacked. The Dragon Family appeared from the sky and incinerated the enemies with their divine fire and giant emeralds. The emeralds from the Dragon’s mouth scattered around the marine battlefield and formed into the islands and islets in Halong Bay today.
Halong Bay has been named as one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World” and it is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
No trip to Vietnam is complete without a visit to Halong Bay, but how do you choose a Halong Bay cruise among the thousands of cruises available?
I encountered the exact same problem when I was planning my Vietnam trip.
After going through countless Halong Bay cruise websites, I finally began to see some pattern.
Getting to Halong Bay by Public Transport
There are 5 ways to get from Hanoi to Halong Bay (from cheapest to most expensive):
Public Bus (4-5 hours depending on traffic condition)
- Take City Bus 34 to Gia Lam bus station where you can buy ticket for Mini Bus to Bai Chay (Ha Long) for VDN$120000 (SGD$7.20) at the ticket counter)
- Take City Bus 34 to My Dinh bus station where you can buy ticket to Bai Chay (Ha Long) for VDN$100000 (SGD$6)
USD$15 one way, pick up and drop off at bus station (not recommended according to Lonely Planet forum and Wikitravel )
Pick-up and drop-off at Hanoi Old Quarter, USD$10 per way. 4-6 hours journey depending on how many stops driver makes to pick-up and drop-off passengers.
Take the cargo train from Hanoi to Yen Vien (Gia Lam) and then to Quang Ninh. USD$10 one way, hard sleeper only. The train starts at 4.30am and arrives at Ha Long City at 11am. The terminal at Ha Long City is near the Bai Chay bus station and about 5 km away from the harbour. Expect train delays and cancellations without notice. (Not recommmended by Wikitravel).
Traveling by private car or taxi gives you the flexibility, quality and safety that you need. It is around USD$85 per car per trip, or USD$150 for 2 days 1 night trip.
This is definitely more expensive than all the other 4 options mentioned above. It gives you a once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing Halong Bay from the sky. The journey is also much shorter, just 45 minutes from Hanoi to Halong Bay. Hai Au Aviation provides scheduled and chartered flights to Halong Bay.
Halong Bay One Day Tour
If you have limited time, you can go for a Halong Bay One Day Tour. You will have a seafood lunch on board the cruise ship followed by a visit to one of Halong Bay’s caves (Hang Dau Go/Hang Sung Sot/Hang Thien Cung).
If you have more time, you should definitely do a 2 days 1 night or 3 days 2 nights cruise to see more of the beautiful Halong Bay. The 2 days 1 night cruise is the most popular option among travelers and that’s also what my girlfriend and I did.
Halong Bay 2 Days 1 Night Cruise Itinerary
The itinerary for Halong Bay 2 days 1 night cruise is more or less the same across all the different companies. What you are actually paying for is the type of junk ship that you will be staying on. This is what a typical Halong Bay 2 days 1 night itinerary looks like:
7.30am – 8am: Pick-up from hotel in Hanoi Old Quarter.
12pm: Check into cruise, welcome drink and briefing by cruise manager and staff.
2pm: Have lunch as the cruise journeys toward Bai Tu Long Bay.
4pm: Visit one of the caves in Halong Bay (Hang Sung Sot/Hang Dau Go/ Hang Thien Cung)
5pm: Visit Ti Top Island
6pm: Sunset Party
7pm: Dinner on cruise
8-10pm: Leisure time
8am: Kayaking in Halong Bay
10am: Visit Pearl Farm
12pm: Vietnamese lunch as cruise goes back to Bai Chay pier
1pm: Disembark at harbor, take van back to Hanoi
5pm: Arrive back at Hanoi Old Quarter
If you are taking the 3 days 2 nights Halong Bay cruise, the third day will be spent visiting floating village and watching traditional water puppet show.
Types of Halong Bay Cruises
Just like hotels have star grading system, Halong Bay cruises can be grouped into 3 grades:
1-2 Star Cruises / Super Cheap Cruise
This type of cruise ship can get as cheap as USD$20 per person, but it is not advisable. These junk boats scrimp on boat manintaince which resulted in cases of cruise ships catching fire and sinking.
3-4 Star Cruises /Mid-Range Cruises
Examples: Golden Star Cruise, V-Spirit Cruises, Oriental Sail, Huong Hai Junks, Indochina Junks, Phoenix Cruise, Syrena
This is most suitable for budget travelers and backpackers. It costs about USD$90-150 depending on your itinerary. The cabin rooms are clean and comfortable, the food quality is fabulous and you won’t have to worry about safety.
5 Star Cruises / Luxury Cruise
Examples: Paradise Cruise, Au Co Cruises, Jacada Travel
These top-range luxury cruise ships will pamper you while you enjoy the beautiful Halong Bay. Library, restaurant, bar, spa and jacuzzi, every creature comfort you will ever want. Of course, the price is very pretty too, expect to pay USD$200-500 per person.
2 Days 1 Night Halong Bay Cruise with Golden Star Cruise
Now that I have shown you all the different types of Halong Bay cruise, let me give you a real-life example. I present to you the 2 days 1 night Halong Bay cruise I took with Golden Star Cruise.
My girlfriend and I have decided way before the trip that we definitely have to try a Halong Bay 2 days 1 night cruise. I searched the internet for days before our trip, trying to find one that is right for our budget. There are literally hundreds of Halong Bay cruises and it’s all so confusing. I ended up not booking any cruise before the trip.
I stumbled across Sinhcafe Travel on the second day as I was visiting the tourist attractions. I passed by the shop and I thought to myself:” I need to book the Halong Bay cruise, maybe I should just go in and have a look”. A pleasant-looking young Vietnamese girl attended to me and she spoke English reasonably-well. According to a signboard outside, there are Chinese-speaking staff too. I like that she did not try to get me to buy the more expensive cruises. Instead, she asked what my budget was and recommended a few 3-4 star cruises to me. I ended up choosing Golden Star Cruise which cost me around USD$100 (~S$138.50) per person.
It was only when I was researching for this article did I realize that Sinhcafe Travel is an internationally-recognized travel agent. There are many rave reviews on TripAdvisor about this company. I am so lucky to have found such a good travel agency.
We were asked to wait at the hotel lobby at 8am. While waiting for our guide, my girlfriend and I each bought something for breakfast. I bought a banh mi and she got a bowl of soup noodles. At around 8.30am, our guide arrived and led us to the minivan that was parked some distance away. There were two Korean uncles, a few other Singaporeans and the rest of the group were mostly Americans. There were around 20 of us in the group. The 4-hour bus ride was not boring at all as our guide talked about the history of Vietnam and he even performed a song for us!
There was a toilet stop in the middle of the journey at Production Workshop for Disabled People. These disabled people weaved beautiful Vietnamese paintings which are sold to give them income. There are also figurines and silk scarves of every colour which are perfect as souvenirs. The things here are a little pricey, but just take it doing charity and you won’t feel the pinch so much. There is a display of Vietnamese gong at the back of the workshop, my girlfriend and I had so much fun playing with the gongs.
We arrived at Tuan Chau International Marina at around noon and we checked-in to the Golden Star Cruise ship. This is a two-deck cruise with a restaurant at the bottom deck and a sundeck at the top. We assembled in the small restaurant and had a plate of fruits and vegetables as our guide handed out our cabin keys. I opted for a lower deck room since it is slightly cheaper. Luckily our room was in the middle, if not the noise from the engine at the back of the boat would have kept me up all night.
Our twin room is a small wooden room that is clean and tidy. There is an attached bathroom which is clean. There is even a small window where I can look outside. It’s perfect!
After putting down our bags and freshening up, we were asked to go back to the restaurant for lunch. I honestly wasn’t expecting such a spread. Fruit and vegetable salad, clams, prawns, stir-fried chicken, fried chicken and tofu. It’s such a feast and everything is so fresh.
The cruise continued on its way towards Bai Tu Long Bay as we enjoyed lunch. I bought a bottle of Ha Long Beer and drank it on the deck, admiring the view.
After lunch, we were ushered onto a small boat which brought us to Hang Sung Sot (Cave of Surprises). Situated on Bo Hon island, Hang Sung Sot is a popular tourist attraction. You need a ticket to go into this cave, which is included in our cruise package. Hang Sun Sot is filled with unusual rock formations, which are highlighted by coloured lights. These formations include a Buddha and a large tortoise. The most well-known rock formation is a massive phallus in the second chamber, lit by a pink spotlight. The penis-shaped rock is known as a fertility symbol to locals. The entrance and exit of Hang Sung Sot are perfect for taking amazing photographs of Halong Bay.
After Hang Sung Sot, the small boat brought us to Ti Top Island. We have a choice of climbing to the top of Ti Top island or swim and laze on the beach. It is said that the highest point of Ti Top island offers the best views of Halong Bay, so we decided to give it a try. There are 400 steps and it’s steep, but the breathtaking view makes it all worth it.
The small boat brought us back to the cruise ship where we had the Sunset Party. We learned to make Vietnamese spring rolls (gui cuon) and drank red wine. It is magical watching sunset in Halong Bay onboard a cruise ship. Dinner is another grand fiesta of fried chicken, prawn cocktail, steamed fish, stir-fried vegetable and french fries.
Our day started early with breakfast at 7am. After breakfast, we took the small boat to the kayaking station. Kayaking is so much fun! After kayaking, we went to the only Pearl Farm in Halong Bay. It is so interesting to know how pearls are cultivated!
We had our last meal on board the cruise My girlfriend and I spend the last few hours of the cruise on the sun deck. The sun warmed our bodies as the cruise made its way back to Tuan Chau International Marine. The minivan took us back to Hanoi Old Quarter.
Opt for the 3 days 2 nights cruise if you want more time to explore Halong Bay. The third day will most likely include activities such as traditional water puppet show, visiting a floating village and other caves.
We were very well fed and taken care of during the 2 days 1 night Halong Bay cruise. The Golden Star Cruise ship may not be top-notch, but it is clean and comfortable. I highly recommend the Golden Star Halong Bay 2 Days 1 Night Cruise. I personally feel that the USD$100 per person is very worth it.
Sinhcafe Travel Booking Office (Hanoi)
Address: 27 Lan Ong, Hang Bo, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
Telephone: 0904 26 06 86