A major highlight of any trip to Vietnam is of course a cruise around Ha Long Bay. Located in Northern Vietnam, about a four hour drive from the city of Hanoi, Ha Long Bay is a beautiful natural wonder that now attracts thousands of visitors each year.
During our visit to Vietnam last year we were very excited to jump aboard a cruise around Ha Long Bay and explore the hidden treasures that can be found all around the bay.
From tiny fishing villages to secret caves and the endless limestone cliffs that emerge out of the ocean, there really is just so much beauty to explore in this little pocket of the world.
About Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, due to it’s beautiful limestone islands and islets that cover the bay. Spreading over 1,500sqkm and home to more than 1,600 of these epic inlets, it’s not hard to see why it received it’s UNESCO status.
Over more than 500 million years Ha Long Bay has been subject to tropical downpours, erosion and environmental change that have created this beautiful area. Some of the limestone islands are small and hollow, where caves have formed and rock pools are everywhere. Others are much larger, home to their own lakes and communities themselves.
Our Cruise with Paloma
After a lot of research into all the different cruises, where they go and what they offered, we finally decided on the Paloma Cruise for a one night, two day overnight cruise.
Paloma Cruise ticked a lot of the boxes we were looking for in our Ha Long Bay experience. It was at least 4 stars (we had heard some horror stories about budget cruises), it included Bai Tu Long Bay on it’s itinerary which we were keen to visit, and it was all inclusive which meant we didn’t have to worry about anything except alcohol on board.
We were picked up from our Airbnb at about 7:30 in the morning and started the long drive out of Hanoi north to the marina. We paid a little bit extra for private transfers which were fantastic, as we didn’t have to waste time picking up other passengers, and we could really stretch out and get comfortable in the back of the minivan.
After arriving at the marina, check in in for our cruise and waiting around a little bit, we were finally able to board and get all settled in our room. Our room was lovely, pretty big considering we were on a boat, and with a lovely bathroom as well. We also had a private balcony which overlooked the back of the boat, so we had beautiful views over the bay for the whole cruise.
As we took off for our cruise we were served lunch in the ships dining room. We were introduced to our crew for the next two days, and told a bit about our ship and the places we were going to visit. Our cruise offered a menu of traditional Vietnamese cuisine and trust us, fresh spring rolls at every meal is never a bad thing.
We cruised into the afternoon, exploring around the boat and just enjoying the views we were passing around the bay. There’s no doubt about it, Ha Long Bay is a magical place. All the limestone islands and cliffs that surround you are simply beautiful and after a couple of hours we had left all the other boats and it was just us enjoying this idyllic scenery as we headed to Bai Tu Long Bay.
Thien Canh Son Cave
Our first stop of the afternoon was Thien Canh Son Cave found in the middle of Cong Do Island. This wild cave has formed in the middle of a limestone cliff island and is one of the top highlights of Bai Tu Long Bay.
There’s about 100 limestone steps that take you to the cave, and as you twist and turn around the island, literally looping around the cave it feels like, it’s easy to see why it’s such a landmark in Vietnam.
The landscape is insane and once you enter the cave itself it feels like things juts get even more surreal. After climbing through some narrow passages, the cave opens up to a huge chamber, where you can really see the natural beauty that’s on offer here.
The views from this island are just as amazing, and in my opinion some of the most beautiful of the whole bay. It’s very easy to see why Bai Tu Long Bay is such a popular spot to visit in this region.
We spent about an hour on Cong Do Island exploring the cave and small beach where the boats docked before heading back onto our cruise boat. There were quite a few boats in this area while we were there, but luckily there were no other boats exploring the caves at the same time as us, so it didn’t feel too crowded or overly touristy.
Once we were back on the boat we had some free time to kick back and relax or go kayaking around some of the smaller islands. Thom decided to go for a kayak around the islands while I enjoyed taking photos from pretty much every angle I could!
In the evening we were treated to a Sunset Party, watching the sunset over the bay while twinkling fairy lights came to life on the top deck boat. It was pretty cloudy on our cruise, so we didn’t have the best sunset but other than that it was a great night.
The cruise offered Happy Hour cocktails during the party which were just delicious, and we got to know the members of the crew a little bit better. Hearing their stories, where they had come from and what their dreams were for the future was actually really lovely.
We had dinner before retiring to our rooms for the night. We actually had such a great sleep on the cruise boat. Our room was cosy and comfortable and it didn’t even feel like we were on water at all. We had such a great sleep in fact that we slept right through 6am Tai Chi and only just made it to breakfast at 7am!
Vung Vieng Fishing Village
The second day on the cruise was just as big as the first, starting early in the morning with a trip over the Vung Vieng Fishing Village. This quiet little town gives you a look into the local fishing life out on the bay.
The families that live in this village have been here for generations, working hard as fisherman for all their lives. The women of the town now operate the bamboo boats that show tourists around the village. Many of the townspeople go about their business like they are not bothered by the tourists whatsoever.
We were lucky enough to have the guide from our cruise in our bamboo boat, so he gave us a bit of an extra guided tour around the village, telling us what the different buildings were and a bit about the customs of life out on the water.
The houses and boats that we passed around the village all had nets flung out in the water around them, as if it didn’t matter whether they were home or actively fishing, they just always kept their options open.
Our bamboo boat ride lasted for about an hour before it dropped us off at the Pearl Farm in the village, where we were treated to a short demonstration about how natural pearls are formed and grown. A walk through the pearl gift shop was also very tempting, some of the jewellery was just so beautiful.
Traditional Vietnamese Cooking Class
We hopped back onto our boat to check out of our rooms before heading to our last activity of the weekend, a traditional Vietnamese Cooking Class.
The crew on board had transformed the dining room into a cooking class, where we learnt how to make traditional spring rolls from scratch. Our chefs for the day were entertaining and engaging and it was great to get our hands dirty and learn how to make one of Vietnam’s most popular and loved dishes.
Our creations were then cooked for us and served with our lunch so we could taste our efforts from the morning. And I have to say, so delicious! Before we knew it our cruise had come to an end, and we were disembarking the boat and settling in for our four hour drive back to Hanoi.
Inclusions with Paloma Cruise
Different cruises to Ha Long Bay have all different inclusions. We chose Paloma Cruises because they included pretty much everything in their base cost, including –
- An English speaking guide on the boat
- All meals on board the boat (2 lunches, 1 dinner and 1 breakfast)
- Kayaking and squid fishing
- A traditional cooking class
- Bamboo boat trip rowed by locals and a tour around the fishing village
- Sunset party with happy hour cocktail deals
- Service charges and insurances on board
Really the only extra charge was alcoholic drinks on board the cruise. Once you add all that into the cost, it really was a reasonably priced cruise for a luxury experience.
Prices start from $250 USD for a double cabin, depending on what time of year you travel.
Choosing your Ha Long Bay Cruise
When you start researching Ha Long Bay cruises it can be super overwhelming. There are so many options, going to so many different places, seeing different sites and offering different inclusions.
Here are a few things you should remember when you’re choosing your cruise –
Not all of the cruises actually visit Ha Long Bay. Some of them visit nearby bays and don’t actually take you to Ha Long itself. If there’s somewhere very specific you want to visit it’s a good idea to send the cruise you’re looking at an email to confirm whether they visit that area.
Time flies when you’re having fun and the trip will actually be shorter than you think. If it’s an overnight cruise, remember that you will probably be departing and returning around midday, so you won’t have two full days of cruising or exploring the bay, it’s more like 24 hours on the boat.
You definitely get what you pay for. There are no shortage of cheap cruises, offering “luxury experiences” for a heavily discounted rate. Be very weary of these – take the time to read reviews on the cruise, choose a high star rating if you actually are looking for a luxury experience and put time into researching all your options.
Following on from the last point, not all cruises include food. Even if they are an overnight cruise. Make sure you read all the fine print and really find out what’s included so you’re not surprised by a hefty bill once you’re on board.
Although it has been said in recent years that Ha Long Bay is overly crowded, touristy and has lost it’s authentic charm, we didn’t find that to be the case at all. Our cruise steered away from overpopulated areas and we often felt like we were the only cruise in the area.
It’s a beautiful way to experience this iconic part of Vietnam. My only regret was that we were there during winter when it was a bit cloudy and overcast. I’m sure Ha Long Bay during the summer would be even more amazing.
Have you been on a cruise around Ha Long Bay? What was your experience like?
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