Halong Bay, North Vietnam – Travel Guide

Halong Bay at dusk  

Known to the Vietnamese as the ‘Bay of the Descending Dragons,’ the UNESCO world heritage site of Halong Bay in Northern Vietnam is on every traveller’s bucket list. 

The spectacular area is made up of almost 3,000 limestone islands that jut out of emerald waters everywhere you look, creating a truly magical landscape. As you sail through the waters on your Chinese Sail Boat or ‘Junk’ you’ll glance floating villages, buoyant huts tied to rocks, tiny beaches and local children fishing.

Colourful houses make up the floating village at Halong Bay, Vietnam
Colourful houses make up the floating village at Halong Bay, Vietnam.

Halong Bay is located in the North of Vietnam, three hours east of Hanoi. The gateway to Halong Bay is Haiphong City, a crowded polluted place that you’ll want to get out fast. Most people start Halong Bay tours from Hanoi, which includes transport to and from the city.

Did you know? Those limestone karsts of Halong Bay are actually part of an ancient coral reef that stretches as high up as Guilin in China and as far down as Krabi in South Thailand. In these parts of Asia, you’ll see strikingly similar scenery.

How to visit Halong Bay

While we’re big fans of independent travel, Halong Bay is one of those places that is difficult to experience without a tour. (This is because, basically, you’d need your own boat to access the bay!) What you need to be mindful of, however, is that tours can vary widely in what they offer their passengers. There are boozy party tours, luxury cruises, and budget backpacker boat trips.

Some Halong Bay trips include the chance to sea kayak and swim into caves and lagoons. Make sure you choose one of these! From the water’s surface, you can really feel the vastness of the area, peering in caves, listening to seabirds; it’s a wonderful way to experience the true beauty of Halong Bay.

Kids and floating village, Halong Bay
Halong Bay, Vietnam.

Trips to Halong Bay (via Haiphong City) can be booked from any of the travel agents and many hostels and guest houses in Hanoi. Trip prices range from $100 to up to $400 and you definitely pay for what you get. If you can afford it, we suggest you go mid-range, where the boats and food served are a lot better quality.

The trip you book and where you book it will determine the crowd you end up with. (E.g. The Halong Bay trips booked at popular backpacker hostels tend to turn into booze cruises, so be aware of that.) Make sure you ask about the activities and itinerary before you depart. One tip would be; don’t rush it. You need time to savour the environment fully – and an overnight on an island in Halong Bay is well worth it!

If you’re struggling to decide which tour is best for you, also see our article: How to choose a Halong Bay Tour.

Kayaking Halong Bay
Which Halong Bay Tour is right for you?

How many days to spend in Halong Bay?

3 day/2 night tours of Halong Bay

Many of the Halong Bay trips offered from Hanoi recommend a 3-day, 2-night experience. We would also recommend a trip of this length so that you can really get out into the bay and see all that it has to offer! It takes around 3 hours to reach Haiphong City (where the harbour for Halong Bay is located) from Hanoi, so remember that you will spend almost half a day each way getting to and from the capital city. This is why a 3-day trip is the most relaxing. Many of the three day trips to Halong Bay include one overnight stay on the boat, and one overnight stay on an island, whether this is Cat Ba Island, or a private island, like Vietnam Backpackers’ famous Castaways Island.

2 day/1 night tours of Halong Bay

If you’re short on time, it is possible to get out on the bay on a 2-day, 1-night trip from Hanoi. These trip will usually include an overnight stay on a boat or on an island in Halong bay. These trips also offer activities such as kayaking, swimming and boat jumping and are a decent way to get a feel for the landscape in a short amount of time.

Day trips to Halong Bay from Cat Ba Island

Day trips from Hanoi to Halong Bay are NOT recommended. There simply isn’t enough time to get back and to from Hanoi and experience the bay and you would spend most of your time in transit! However, day trips into Halong Bay (and nearby Lan Ha Bay) from Cat Ba Island are possible and are a good option for backpackers travelling on a shoestring. Read this DIY Guide to taking a Halong Bay day trip from Cat Ba Island here.

Overnight stays on Cat Ba Island

Some of the more traditional 3-day, 2-night trips offer an overnight stay on Cat Ba Island. A tropical, mountainous isle covered in dense forest and dotted with golden sandy beaches. You will likely spend some of the time during your tour exploring this island, hiking in the national park, visiting local beaches and doing a spot of karaoke in the town! If you are booking a tour from Hanoi, be sure to ask what is included in the trip.

The uncrowded beaches of Cat Ba Island, Vietnam.
The uncrowded beaches of Cat Ba Island, Vietnam.

As mentioned above, you can also make your own way to Cat Ba Island, book yourself a hostel and book a Halong Bay or Lan Ha Bay trip from there. For more information, see our Cat Ba Island Guide here. To get to Cat Ba Island, you will need to catch a bus to Halong City, take a taxi to Tuan Chau Harbour. Then, take a ferry from Tuan Chau to Cat Ba Island (It takes around 2 hours to get to Cat Ba from Tuan Cha Harbour.) From teh pier at Cat Ba, you can then call a taxi or motor bike driver called  “xeom” to take you to Cat Ba Town.

Overnight stays on Private Islands

Castaways Island

Some of the most popular Halong Bay cruises offer overnight stays on spectacular private islands. For example, Vietnam Backpacker’s Hostel own their own private island, called Castaways, where backpackers spend the night in cabana-style accommodation in a stunning setting right on the beach.

The Huts At Castaways Island, Halong Bay, Vietnam.
The Accommodation At Castaways Island, Halong Bay, Vietnam.

This tour is one to choose if you’re in the mood for a party! The trip also includes activities such as rock-climbing, wake-boarding, water-skiing and high-speed tubing. Or just a spot of beach volleyball as you take in the stunning scenery all around you. Then as night falls, a unique full moon party experience awaits… You can book Castaways Island here. 

Hideaway Island

A cheaper alternative to Castaways Island is the Halong Hideaway Tour that offers backpackers the chance to stay on the beautiful Hideaway Island in Halong Bay. On the 3-day, 2-night cruise plenty of activities are offered on what’s been dubbed the cheapest Halong Bay trip for backpackers.

Halong Hideaway Island
Hideaway Island, Halong Bay, Vietnam.

Freedom Island

The more upmarket Oasis Bay Party Cruises offer passengers the chance to stay on Freedom Island, an amazing island made up entirely of sand that’s flanked on both sides by enormous limestone karsts. Read more about the Oasis Party Bay Cruise here.

Freedom Island, Halong Bay, Vietnam.
Freedom Island, Halong Bay, Vietnam.

Lan Ha Bay

Being one of the most popular tourist attractions in Vietnam, Halong Bay gets crowded, and sadly, polluted. A great alternative to Halong Bay is the nearby Lan Ha Bay which can be visited directly from Cat Ba Island or via a 3-day, 2-night tour from Hanoi. This area is no less beautiful than Halong Bay, but with a fraction of the tourists! If you’re looking for a peaceful experience far away from the tourists, Lan Ha Bay may be a great alternative for you!

Viet Hai Village in Lan Ha Bay
Viet Hai Village in Lan Ha Bay.