The limestone islands of Halong Bay
Ha Long, or the bay of the descending dragon, is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places to visit in Vietnam. Thousands of limestone islands in hundreds of shades of green appear in front of you like a mysterious haze amidst the dreamy turquoise water.
The limestone rocks on these uninhabited pieces of paradise indeed look a bit like the giant scales of a sleeping dragon!
Every island looks completely different and the views never get boring. Most islands are uninhabited, but on some you can set foot on land. You’ll find -impressive!- underground caves with stalagmites and stalactites that are a few meters high.
If you think that the views can’t be more beautiful than from the boat, wait until you climb to the top of such a limestone island (or even better: make a panoramic flight over Halong Bay). Magical is definitely an understatement here!
Hanoi to Halong Bay
The best way to visit Halong Bay is to book a one or multi-day excursion from Hanoi. Or you can arrange a bus on your own.
I discuss both possibilities.
Hanoi to Halong Bay with a tour
To explore the wonderful bay it’s probably best to book a tour from Hanoi to Halong Bay.
There are options for one day, two days or three days.
I myself chose the two-day Halong luxury cruise from Emeraude Cruises and I was very satisfied with them and thus I can’t help but recommend their tour.
A Halong Bay one day tour is much too short in my opinion. You’ll be on the road for four hours just to get from Hanoi to Halong. In total you’re on the road for eight hours. Add to that your actual visit to Halong Bay and you immediately notice that one day is much too little.
I think that two days and one night is the perfect way to discover Ha Long without rushing and losing comfort.
Three days is a good idea if you want to take it really easy. Trust me, you’ll not get tired of the beautiful limestone islands. Not even after three days!
Hanoi to Halong Bay by bus
From Hanoi it’s a four-hour drive to get to this paradise. If you prefer to arrange everything yourself (or stay in Ha Long for longer than three days), you can always take the bus from Hanoi to Halong Bay.
Personally, I think this is the least interesting option. If you’re going to arrange everything yourself, you often pay more than when you book a package that includes a bus ride and a cruise (and food + park fees).
Are you arranging everything yourself because you want to explore Ha Long City? Save yourself the trouble, because, although it is a big city, it really isn’t that special. You see almost nothing of the beautiful nature nearby and everything seems very focused on tourists: the local culture seems to have disappeared.
There are several options if you want to take the bus from Hanoi to Halong.
Either you take a big tour bus, or you opt for a limousine service.
If you’re going for the bus trip, then I recommend to book the limousine service. The price is about the same, but you get a lot more luxury instead (and they are also much faster, instead of four hours they only take 2.5 to 3 hours).
A limousine service from Hanoi to Halong can be booked online for +/- €18 or $20 per person.
Usually you can also book a shuttle bus at your accommodation, but I noticed that the prices are often (slightly) more expensive than when you’re booking it online.
Please make sure that you always get to see photos of the tour that you’ll be booking, because I got a few unpleasant surprises after booking through my accommodation… (the bus wasn’t very modern or the legroom was anything but comfortable)
Make sure the bus from Hanoi to Halong Bay is comfortable, because it’s a long ride!
What to see in Halong Bay?
The reason to go to Ha Long is of course the fairytale-like limestone landscape that has been formed over the course of millions of years.
This place is so special because there are so many small islands floating so close to each other and thus creating a very special environment. As you sail slowly past them you’ll see densely planted mini rainforests that are surprisingly high and wide in the foreground, while the islands in the background stretch out as a kind of mysterious fog which seems to pull you into the bay deeper and deeper…
It still amazes me how beautiful I find these landscapes. One day, two days or three days; I think it’s impossible to not fall in love with these views!
On most (multi-day) cruises to Halong Bay you can set foot on land to get to know some of these islands a bit better.
The exterior is impressive, but the actual ‘inside’ of such an island is certainly not bad either! The gigantic underground caves are dotted with pointy stalagmites and stalactites and the non-stop dripping sounds make it clear that these complex formations haven’t stopped growing for a long time to come!
There are also some islands where you can climb to the top. During my Halong Luxury cruise with Emeraude we visited ‘Titov Island’ and enjoyed the best views from up here. You’ll definitely break a sweat and your knees will be anything but grateful to you, but the views you get from this high are worth that effort nonetheless.
For those who don’t want to make friends and family jealous with beautiful vacation pics, there’s also a (small) beach on this island where you can admire the views from.
It’s also nice to know that there’s a lot of entertainment going on on the boats. Making spring rolls together, starting the morning with Tai Chi, stuffing yourself with freshly made pancakes (or other tasty food) and of course a cheerful happy hour.
You’ll not get bored quickly, because as you can see, there is more than enough to do and see during a cruise along the Ha Long Bay!
Halong Bay Cruise 2 days 1 night: a typical itinerary
I myself explored the beautiful nature of Halong Bay together with Emeraude Classic Cruises. I booked the two-day Halong Bay luxury cruise. What can you expect and what will you see on the way? I’ll tell you what I did during my 2 days 1 night Halong Bay cruise.
During my four-star 2 days 1 night Halong Bay tour I was picked up early in the morning in a luxurious bus that took us to the starting point of the actual cruise in about four hours.
Not unimportant to know: the seats of these buses can be reclined almost completely flat: the perfect way to catch up on some sleep!
On the way you make one single stop in a warehouse where you can buy something to drink or eat, or perhaps even purchase some Vietnamese souvenirs. There are of course no obligations, so if you don’t want to leave the soft seats of your luxurious shuttle you can just stay in the bus.
Once you’ve arrived you are checked into the cabin you’ve chosen (there are several options: the more luxurious, the more expensive it gets of course).
Once you got the keys to your room you get some time to refresh yourself, but I recommend not to lose too much time with that because the landscapes that you’re sailing next to are already fantastic.
Afterwards you are greeted on the upper deck with a welcome drink during which you can listen to the safety instructions and afterwards you’re invited to go to the restaurant for a tasty and extensive lunch. On the boat you’ll find typical Vietnamese meals, but spaghetti bolognese or other dishes are also offerend in case you’re not so fond of Asian cuisine.
Sung Sot Cave
After you’ve enjoyed the gliding by of some islands for a bit, it’s already time for your first trip. We went to the ‘Sung Sot Cave’ (surprise cave) to explore one of the underground caves. Impressive! And the view when you come back up from the cave isn’t bad either.
To compensate all the stairs you have climbed on this island, you are pampered on the boat with some fresh crêpes and lots of beautiful views, of course…
Oyster farm and/or kayaking
Have you always wanted to see how oysters create pearls? Then the next stop is definitely worth some of your time. On a floating oyster farm you’ll learn everything about how these shellfish can come up with the perfect pearl. At first I thought that this would be quite a boring part of the cruise along Halong Bay, but I have to admit that I actually found it quite interesting!
From this very same place I also rented a kayak. And I highly recommend to do that too!
I think that half an hour is more than enough (you can also choose an hour) to get slightly closer to the limestone formations. From these small boats you can really see how big (and beautiful!) this place is. Paddle along the dense, steep slopes and enjoy the peace and quiet. If you’re lucky, the sun has already begun to set. And the best way to experience a sunset over Halong Bay is definitely from in a kayak!
Eat, drink and enjoy the sunset
I said it before, you’ll never be hungry here! After your visit to the oyster farm (or kayaking) there is a Happy Hour, and you can learn how to make spring rolls or even try to fish for squid. Between seven and nine o’clock in the evening you can feast on the buffet while Ha Long Bay is slowly turning dark. Once the night has fallen, this magical place is lit up by some of the passing boats. And that definitely is a mesmerising sight!
To get the most out of your last day, it’s not a bad idea to get up early. You really don’t want to miss the sunrise! From early in the morning you’re immediately welcomed with tea, pastries and other delicacies.
If you wish to do some exercise, I recommend to go out and practice some Tai Chi: the relaxing moves are the perfect way to wake up.
Around 7:30 in the morning you visit ‘Titov Island’ from where you probably get the most beautiful views over the bay. It’s a bit of a heavy climb, but the views are wonderful. Don’t linger too long on the platforms along the way, because it gets very busy on the actual lookout point once everyone reached the top!
I recommend to take a quick shower after this little hike. You have to check out around 09:30 AM. You leave your luggage in front of your cabin, and from there it will be brought to the shuttle bus for you later. All you have to do is enjoy your last moments. The beautiful islands soon make way for the harbor of Ha Long and around eleven in the morning it’s -unfortunately- time to say goodbye to this wondrous place.
Fly over Halong Bay for the best views
A cruise along Halong Bay will undoubtedly be a great experience, but if you absolutely want to go for the best views then I recommend to book a scenic flight.
Following right after the cruise with Emeraude, you can book a twenty-five-minute round trip over Ha Long together with Hai Au Aviation.
With a seaplane you ascend from the harbor of Ha Long. This in itself is an adventure, because it’s already quite exciting to ascend from the ocean! Within seconds you’re already flying a few hundred meters up in the air while hundreds of islands extend in front of you. I have to be honest: the cruise was great, but the view from the plane is absolutely breathtaking!!
The milky blue water combined with the dark green islands are one of the most beautiful things I ever saw.
Twenty-five minutes long you fly past and over these floating limestone formations and believe me: it’ll be over in the blink of an eye! When the flight is almost at its end, you also get a panoramic view of Ha Long City and it’s only then that you realize how gigantic this city is.
A flight above Halong Bay costs $120 (about 100 euros). Not cheap, but if you compare it with a helicopter flight or scenic flight over other tourist attractions this is certainly not excessive.
Trust me: this is an experience you don’t want to miss!
Weather in Halong Bay
In order to fully enjoy your cruise in Ha Long, I recommend that you also take into account the weather and the seasons.
The best time to go from Hanoi to Halong Bay is between September and November or between March and May. During these months there is little rain and it’s not too hot. June, July and August are often very hot months and storms often occur during this period, which may lead to the cancellation of the cruise.
Another important tip: always check the cancellation policy of the cruise company when you book. On the internet I read that many organizations cancel the tour to Halong Bay when bad weather is predicted and no money is returned. An advantage of booking only at websites such as GetYourGuide is that you can cancel any tour free of charge up to 24 hours in advance.
Some more facts about the Halong Bay
- The bay is about 120 kilometers long and covers more than 1500 square kilometers!
- I’m not exaggerating when I say that you can see thousands of islands here! In total there are no less than 1960! Most of these islands haven’t yet been visited by humans because they are too steep or too dangerous to enter.
- Although the many islands aren’t very big, you can also find a lot of animals on (or between) them. Along the way you might meet fish and shellfish, birds, lizards and other cold-blooded animals and even antilopes!
- Hollywood also noticed the beauty of Halong Bay! In the James Bond movie “Tomorrow Never Dies” some scenes take place in this wonderful setting.
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Hi, I'm Sam Van den Haute. The last three years I've been traveling the world almost constantly. Heading out for an adventure and visiting the most beautiful places are what I love to do! Let me inspire you with great stories, beautiful pictures and handy tips from my adventures and travels. On my facebook page and instagram account you'll get to see the latest updates and photos to inspire you for your next vacation.