Halong Bay: Majestic Sight or Over-Rated Seascape?

No trip to the north of Vietnam is complete without a visit to Halong Bay. Our travelers share their tips to see the best of this popular destination.

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Halong Bay

However, there's a lot of debate over whether it's a beautiful wonder of the world, or an over-run tourist trap full of junk boats and garbage littering the bay.

Before you book a trip there, see what other travelers have to say about this majestic sight.

Is Halong Bay Worth It?

The unique beauty of the bay with its karsts make it a natural to be added to UNESCO's World heritage listing. But, it seems the opinions are divided among travelers.

There are more than 1,600 islets in the bay, their limestone worn down by 500 million years of tropical downpours, and topped by thick jungle growth. Some of the islands are hollow, creating majestic caves. Some of the larger islands have their own lakes. 

At the centre of the bay there are 775 of the formations in an area of just 330 square kilometers – an invitation for travelers to board a traditional Vietnamese junk-boat and explore the bay, it's islands, caves, and floating villages.

The Pathway to Halong Bay

On the downside, there is now a well-worn path that leads from the hostels of Hanoi to Halong Bay.

What were once quintessential sleepy fishing villages, are now transport hubs for hundreds of vessels that ply the waters. The Irish backpacker you met at Siem Reap is likely to be in front of you in the queue to buy a ticket, and the last free berth has just been sold to a honeymoon couple from Pittsburgh.

Regulation and safety hasn't always kept pace with the popularity of the destination, and the rapid expansion of services to meet demand. In February 2011 a charter vessel sank, killing 12 people. Witnesses said a plank simply tore away from the vessel's side. Adding to worries about shoddy standards and un-seaworthiness, another vessel sank just 2 months later – thankfully with no loss of life.

So, is Halong Bay in danger of being loved to death? Should you stay away, or as one Nomad put it: "Go, find out for yourself."

Halong Village. Photo credit: iStock

What Travelers Say About Halong Bay

Here are some of the most asked questions about Halong Bay, and the answers from our Nomads. Ask your own questions, here.

Is Halong Bay Worth It?

"Is Ha Long Bay (one of the new 7 Wonders of Nature) worth visiting?" – Surenio

The quickest answer came from those who love the place, such as Quang Minh, "It definitely is, cheap place too. Unique and can't be found elsewhere."

Sentiments echoed by Dwight Z a World Nomad, and local tour operator, who's either biased, or completely in love with the place!

"Ahhhh! Let's see. I've been there three times and will go back. Ha Long Bay is a Natural Wonder. It's great just to kick back for 24 - 48 hours. Light shows? (Lighting in the caves?). I've been swimming there (watch the currents if you're swimming off the boat) and I don't drink (my bottled water is cold). Book a reliable boat and crew. Relax and enjoy!"

Queen of Sheeba (welcome your Majesty) was another happy Nomad:

"We've been on a cruise about 1 1/2 weeks ago and we truly enjoyed it. We went on a 2 days/1 night cruise and that's enough to see the Bay, but if you want to relax some more then better take a 3 day cruise. We went on the Bhaya Classic 4 and it was nice, cabin was nice, food was good and it didn't cost an arm and a leg."

But, Bob Bobbus wasn't so sure:

"After spending the money, not convinced. A must see, or a 7 new wonder hmmm... still not convinced, but as I always say, go, find out. Not expensive for westerners and life is short. Got one day to live? Go elsewhere and avoid bad light shows, no swimming warnings, warm beer etc. Oh and canoe paddles that sink and cost you $20 to replace, as they dive down to get them back."

Junk boat in Halong Bay. Photo credit: iStock

Ethics and Travel to Halong Bay

Then we came across this question from Drejah, expressing concern for ethical travel. It certainly caught our attention:

"How controversial is it to visit Ha Long Bay? I've heard that the area is being compromised environmentally."

Halcyonicole's answer was enlightening:

"I visited Ha Long Bay in June 2011. I felt that its environment was heavily compromised. The place is overrun by tours with very little concern for waste, and conservation. However, part of my visit included Nam Cat island, and rock-climbing with a company who are conscious of these issues. When we went to Moody Beach for the climb, we spent a while picking up rubbish left by the local fishermen and chatting about the issues. But there are people and companies around who care to preserve Ha Long Bay's beauty, so you just have to find them. Nam Cat was also much cleaner with a helluva lot less tourists, and just as beautiful."

And Travelbuggy chipped in:

"It's a beautiful place! 360 views of huge amazing lime stone cliffs! It's truly a gorgeous place but I imagine the tourism is not helping preserve this heritage. We witnessed so many workers throwing garbage off our boat into the water. Sad but true this was couple years ago now so I can imagine the struggle to keep up on it and keep it a world heritage place... I'd still love to wake up there."

Finding a Good Cruise in Halong Bay and Other Recomendations

Finding a Reliable Cruise

So, you've decided to give it a go, or at least get there before it's totally compromised, and like Brain Thacker you want to find a reliable cruise, as you're worried by news reports of boats sinking.

"Anyone recommend a good cruise in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam? I don't want overcrowded booze cruises or posh boats full of old people! Something in the middle."

To that, Catharina Stam said:

"I think they are all about the same, and they each have a day, two days/1night or 3days/2nights option. I would recommend 3 days, so you can really get to see Ha Long Bay properly, and then also experience Can Ba Island - which is one of the biggest islands in Ha Long Bay. I went with a company whose boats were labeled FantaSea. We had some younger people, some older people, and families. I am 28, and not a party animal and I thought that our particular group was a nice mix."

TravelEater had a word of warning:

"Be careful. Lots of scams on these cruises. Double check your paperwork to be sure you get what you paid for. Tour companies will charge you what they think they can get away with, and many misrepresent the amenities you will get on board. And everyone on your boat will have paid wildly different prices for the same thing. It's beautiful, but proceed with caution."

Getting to Halong Bay from the South

In terms of logistics, Halong Bay is about 150 kms from Hanoi, and the guesthouses there will provide or recommend a reliable mini-bus service to get you there. But what about those coming from south Vietnam?

"How do you get to Ha Long Bay from Ho Chi Minh?" Asked DirekJet.

KLDavis is all about the destination, and so if you've got limited time, take a flight.

"I would fly. There are cheap airlines throughout if you can book in advance. The bus will take at least a day or two. And less travel time will probably equal costs to fly."

But this local, Nguyen Van, was all for taking the slow road.

"It depends what feeling you would like to enjoy. You can travel by train to see Vietnamese life, or chat with people when joining tourist bus, or get there fast on the plane. You can book a tour or rent private car. Good luck!"

Have you been to Halong Bay? Share your experience below!

25 Comments

  • Christiaan said Reply

    Go for the muli day trip, the castaways tour. The daytrip is not that good because you will only visit the touristic places!

  • Rochelle said Reply

    We went to Ha Long Bay last June 2016. We took the 2D/1N cruise with Huong Hai Sealife Cruise. We booked this cruise online a month prior to departure from a travel agent in Hanoi after an extensive research. Ha Long Bay is a magnificent tourist destination. Our experience with the cruise was purely magical. It was worth it.

  • fran sheean said Reply

    I wasn't interested in kayaking and found the 1 night tour to be great. While some of our party took to the water, the rest of us sat on a pontoon dangled our feet in the water and had an equally great.

  • jcs_ph said Reply

    Halong Bay is beautiful, yes, but I was disappointed when I was told out that I cannot swim in it. An alternative, might I boldly add, better altenative, would be El Nido or Coron in the Philippines. Similar breathtaking sceneries and visitors can fully enjoy the water.

    • Tribal Adventures said Reply

      Interesting comment by jcs_ph that El Nido or Coron are better bets than Halong Bay because you can swim in the Northern Palawan destinations. With Halong Bay teetering environmentally, as an operator in Coron/El Nido we feel even more the burden of ensuring we preserve our Karst environments. If I can make a further point: The beauty of Coron is not just physical; Coron Island and its waters are owned and controlled by the native Tagbanua people who are keen to keep it pristine. The relationship of island to islander makes the experience that much more special--but ultimately more expensive--a cost, I would say, that is well worth it.

    • Jill K said Reply

      Having been to both Ha Long Bay and to El Nido and Coron in the Philippines, I agree that Coron and El Nido are more beautiful and less touristed. I just hope Palawan can stay that way. The coral reefs are pristine and the lagoons and lakes are truly amazing. The cost of day trips from El Nido and Coron are very reasonable.

  • Robin said Reply

    Yeah it was a bit of a madhouse, but still worth it. It's soo amazingly pretty. We took a multi-day cruise that also took in Bai Tu Long Bay nearby which was less impressive but more real. We swam and kayaked and thoroughly enjoyed it.

  • Martha said Reply

    I had researched the different tour operators in advance to see what activities were offered and also read reviews in advance, just as I would when choosing any hotel or tour - some tours and experiences are "budget" and some more average, and some deluxe. All tours are not equal- and some multi-day tours will take you to both HaLong Bay and other nearby areas. But even after the research and having in mind a particular boat because of schedule complications with other things, I didn't reserve in advance, and in the end, I asked the hotel concierge to set up a 1-day tour for me so that I could at least see the area. It was magnificent and I would go again and possibly do a multi-day tour. One thing about driving up there - we had a small van with driver and tour guide for myself and my two travel partners, a private tour. The tour guide pointed out things along the way and explained a lot about the history, culture, and every day life of Vietnam. Because it was just us, a small, private group, it was really a conversation and not a canned speech - and we could ask questions about the things we were interested in. We saw people working in rice paddies, water buffalo - different things typical of VN - and we great photos on the way. Also, compared to what you pay for private tours in other countries, this was very, very inexpensive. The whole tour including the drive up there and the boat ride was not costly, and we also had an included meal on the boat which was very good. I would certainly recommend this at least for a day trip. As for the pollution - it's true you shouldn't swim, but the problem is not only the tourist boats. Until quite recently they had a community of people who had a floating village, all living in boats together, and fishing in the area - they were finally made to move inland to minimize pollution, and there are many things they could do to improve water quality even while accommodating tourist. I did not see visible pollution where we went - it looked beautiful - but I knew not to plan on swimming. It is definitely worth visiting, and the day trip is very worthwhile. I would add - I don't remember the name of our tour operator, but we were staying at the Hilton Hotel next to the Opera House in Hanoi, which was very moderately priced, but excellent quality (lower cost compared to Hiltons in other major cities, but still Hilton quality). They arranged my tour, and everything about my day trip was excellent quality.

  • Trish said Reply

    My BF and I did 3day/2nt cruise.
    All food on board was fried. You can get cheap drinks and snacks from ladies in row boats that come to the junks. The itinerary eas very misleading- we wanted to kayak quite a bit so chose trip based on that. We got to kayak both dYs but had to pull a favor in order to the 2nd day. Both days we spent time collecting trash from the water- bottles, cans, chunks of styrofoam, and candy wrappers.
    All the junks stop in the same spots each night so its quite crowded.

  • Justin Harrison said Reply

    I have been to Halong Bay many times. I especially loved the seaplane tour of Halong Bay from the air. You fly directly from Hanoi Airport to Halong Bay and skip the long bus ride. It gives you a great view from above and shows you just how large Halong Bay really is. The boat tours had great food and service. Don't cheap out and go for the cheapest tour, but sometimes more money doesn't equal better quality in Vietnam. So do some research. The evenings and early mornings on the boat were beautiful. Make sure you get up for Tai Chi!!

  • Đạp Vịt said Reply

    There's only one way to see Ha Long bay in its entirety, by Seaplanes. www.seaplanes.vn

  • David said Reply

    It was hardly serene, and far from a relaxing cruise, but the scenery definitely makes it worth visiting despite that.

    I'm glad I did the three-day / two-night trip, as the middle day was much more pleasant and less crowded than the first and last days which were the same as the regular two-day / one-night itinerary. On that middle day we got to go swimming and kayaking in a much quieter bay, shared with only one other boat.

  • David said Reply

    I usually avoid tourist destinations, preferring more undeveloped places, but I really enjoyed Halong Bay, and would love to go again. I went on a two day/ one night tour in 2013. Booked a day before and chose not the cheapest, but the next one up. Thought it would avoid the oldies on the more expensive tours, and that proved right. My friends went on the most expensive tour, and did not have as good a time as me.

  • ed said Reply

    We were on the Celebrity Millenium in Fedruary and took a tour of a famous cave along with a ride thru Halong Bay . DO NOT EVER TAKE THIS SHIP EXCURSION! Our Junk was rammed by another and windows were smashed and the side of the junk smashed in - way to many tours from the ship running at the same time - the cave port and inside the cave were way to over crowded, although
    after the cave tour, the ride back to the ship past some of the islands was very beautiful- even broken windows and smashed side panels.

  • Kendra said Reply

    We went there in February 2012 and it wasn't ideal. I was a little disheartened at the slick of oil and actual rubbish from the amount of Junks on the water. For a UNESCO site it's not well looked after.
    The cave tours were extremely busy and it all just felt very overdone.
    If the weather were nicer and we had booked with the right company to suit our personalities more (our Junk was full of sleepy retirees) I might be more inclined to suggest it.
    It's one of those 'if you're there already, do it' kind of places but I wouldn't suggest going out of your way to see it.
    Hoi-an in Vietnam on the other hand is well worth it

  • Susan J. Smith said Reply

    I was disappointed with the overcrowding, trash and touristy aspects of Halong Bay. It is a beautiful area and I posted photos on my blog DesignDestinations.org of it but hope the Vietnamese will figure out how to regulate the boats so that the experience is better for visitors and not so hard on the environment.

  • Anon John said Reply

    My trip to Ha Long bay was the worst experience I've ever had traveling. We were scammed at every step. (One night on the boat, after we'd paid for two. No beach bungalow as expected, just a concrete hotel far from the sea. One room, with one bed for FOUR people, when we'd paid for four beds in two rooms. Extra charges for drinks we'd already paid for. Extra charges for kayaks we'd already paid ... etc.) Sure, the bay is a natural wonder: you can tell by the giant floodlit UNESCO logo that has been blasted into the million-year old rock face (!). The water was very polluted, maybe because of us and the hundreds of other boats along side our own. So my advice? Just be very careful where you book! Oh, and they are lying to you — about everything! Expensive. Polluted. Crowed. Welcome to Ha Long Ga!

  • Tomislav said Reply

    A big scam. Hundreds of boats heading for the same bay, doing the same thing, polluting on the way. Enormously commercial (like the rest of Vietnam)... A perfect example of how men destroy nature for profit. I am sorry to have contributed.

  • Katie said Reply

    Don't support this polluting tourist trap.

    If you were to take a quiet boat ride through Halong Bay 30 years ago, maybe it would have had some appeal.

    I went last year - the area is crammed full of boats, including some party boats (because what trip to an area of stunning natural beauty is complete without some banging techno music?)

    The water is polluted. I watched fellow (Vietnamese) passengers literally throwing bags of rubbish into the water.

    We need to stop supporting tourism to areas that are so mistreated. Yes, the local economy will suffer, but maybe that's the only way people will learn to think about the long-term effects of their actions. Greed has led to short-term profits over long-term environmental, or even economic, considerations.

  • Ninna said Reply

    I used to work there two years ago and in my opinion this is no world wonder... Water is incredibly dirty, which is also visible most of the time. Various reasons - due to no waste management of the people living on land or on water, ships disposing what they should not, a busy nearby industrial port etc..
    Worst part of the hlb story is the business that the boat companies are producing thanks to the peole that live in the floating villages in the bay, without giving anything in return. They are taking tourists to drive around the village in a bamboo boat, staring at the villagers like animals in the zoo... Horrible.. At the same time, there is minimal return or benefit for those villagers..they could at least provide some school equipment formthe kids every few months if not more often. But nobody did that back in 2013, dunno if anything chamged.
    Another very important fact is that none of the boats have adequate safety eauipment or even safely functional boats. They all pass the inspections with bribes and in case of emergency, there have been several cases of death casualities. Last I have read was that one of the biggest and high end boats sank in the port.
    But hey, the cruise is nice.. Especially if you wake up on a boat inside the bay :)

  • ed yatscoff said Reply

    Halong Bay is a UNESCO site where all the tour ships dump their sewage just before returning to the harbor. Long brown streaks. In the caves the Viets were climbing all over the cave formations and smoking. We arrived a f't find their door keysew weeks after the 12 people drowned and were told it was an engine cooling intake valve that was left open. But the Viets did act fast putting in escape measures if it happened again such as hammers beside the windows and windows that open inwards, making it easier to get out against the weight of the water. The people drowned because the couldn't get out of their cabins. In the mad scramble they couldn't find their keys. The two young men who escaped left their key in the door. The area is an exotic, intoxicating sight, worth the price.

  • John said Reply

    I was totally blown away by the beauty of Halong Bay. It is truly an amazing place. But on the other side is the pollution. It's there in abundance, but I tried not to see it. Some serious legislation needs to put in place to at least slow the pollution. I'm an EAGLES fan, and the lyrics from the song "The Last Resort" went around in my head..." they called it paradise. I don't know why. Call some place paradise. Kiss it goodbye." As for cruises we went on a smaller "junk", which had an intimate feel with only about 12 people. Food was all good, in fact we probably had too much. We would go to special locations for swimming, not hard to figure out why. More people than ever are venturing to North Vietnam and Halong is a must see. The government agencies need to put huge amounts of money back into preventing the pollution that is ongoing in this wonderful location.

  • Robert said Reply

    I've just booked a 2 day 1 night trip that starts tomorrow, will write a short review...

    Day one: well to be honest it stayed by day one. By morning call to give the taxi driver the destination point we was told that due to weather we can't stay on the boat over night. We decided to do at least the one day trip as we had to move on south the other day. Can't post images but the boat was awesome, we even got our cabine so we can store our luggage inside and take a shower if needed.
    Trip started around 13:30 with lunch over 5 courses... Was actually pretty good, bud the drinks were a bit expensive (canned tiger for 3$).
    First stop was at the cave where you have to hike a little but nothing that you couldn't do. The tour through the cave was a disaster, our guide was literally running so the last in the row didn't hear anything. Other groups ware s topics almost by each stalagmit and stalagdit for explaining. But the worst was the "light show" in the cave yellow, green, red lights all over the place making it look like a disco cave not a national treasure. :-(
    The next was kayaking, which was actually quiet good, almost an hour but nothing really worth to see there.
    You can do pretty amazing images from the sun deck though but we was hoping for the whole tour to shoot even more nice pictures.

    So the tour IS actually worth it but be sure to check the weather forecast before booking the trip. Enjoy the trip and if someone will do the 2 day 1 night trip please send me some pictures of the sights :-)

  • Christopher Cole said Reply

    In April 2017 my partner and I visited Vietnam for a 3 week trip. Halong Bay lived up to its reputation.
    We did the overnight cruise with Bhaya Cruises - one of the more reputable operators. It truly was spectacular scenery and a terrific cruise boat. However, our biggest disappointment was the pollution in the seas encompassing Halong Bay. There was garbage everywhere on the sea surface. Such a beautiful part of our planet is in danger of being spoilt unless steps are taken to prevent the disposal of rubbish from the hundreds of boats that do this voyage on a daily basis. I am going to write to UNESCO to tell them of the problem.

  • Jeni said Reply

    I absolutely loved Ha Long Bay, yes it's full to the brim of tourists but if you pick a decent junk boat and pay a little more (still very cheap for westerners) you will have a much less crowded experience. We went to suprising cave, a prawn farm, kayaking, had beautiful meals on board and buy one get one free drinks. It's so beautiful and our junk boat went to less crowded areas

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