Is a Trip to Halong Bay Really Worth It?

No trip to the north of Vietnam is complete without a cruise on spectacular Halong Bay – or so they say. But does it live up to the hype? Nikki Scott, founder of South East Asia Backpacker, shares her insights.


Halong Bay Photo © Getty Images/cristaltran

There's a lot of debate over whether Halong Bay is a beautiful wonder of the world, or if it has become an overrun tourist trap where party boats and garbage litter the bay. The answer is not a simple one.

Before you book a trip, here are some things to consider.

Why should you visit Halong Bay?

The unique beauty of the bay, with its towering limestone karsts, make this a natural wonder worthy of a UNESCO World Heritage listing. 

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, and visitors can take guided tours inside to explore majestic caves. Some of the larger islands even have their own lakes. 

At the center of the bay there are 775 formations in an area of just 127mi² (330km²) – and this is where travelers onboard a traditional Vietnamese junk boat can explore the bay's islands, caves, and floating villages.

The downsides to Halong Bay

On the downside, there is now a well-worn path that leads from the hostels of Hanoi straight 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 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 haven't always kept pace with the popularity of the destination and the rapid expansion of services to meet demand. So, should you go? Or has it been loved to death? 

Kayaking through a floating village in Halong Bay.
Kayaking through a floating village in Halong Bay. Photo credit: Getty Images/ninelutsk

Is a Halong Bay cruise worth it? 

Halong Bay is a magnet for tourists from all over the world. However, some things are popular for a reason, and Halong Bay is definitely one of them. No one can deny the unique beauty of the bay, and depending on which cruise you choose, it is possible to have a relaxing and memorable experience that isn't ruined by a bucket-load of tourists.

While I am often in favor of independent travel over organized tours, Halong Bay is one of those places that cannot be experienced without booking some kind of group tour. (Unless you have your own sailboat, that is!) It's important to know that the tour you choose will greatly affect the type of experience that you have – so choose wisely. If you don't want to end up singing karaoke at 4am on a boat decked out with neon lights and a disco ball, then be sure to do your research.

A fisherman paddling in Halong Bay.
A fisherman paddling in Halong Bay. Photo credit: Getty Images/Mark Keelan

Alternatives to Halong Bay

Are there ways to have a more authentic experience here? Absolutely! I suggest Cat Ba Island or Lan Ha Bay instead.

Is Cat Ba Island worth visiting?

Budget backpackers may consider getting themselves to the island of Cat Ba from Hanoi (via bus and ferry), and booking a day tour of Lan Ha Bay and Halong Bay from there. The tours that can be booked from Cat Ba Island can be much cheaper, sometimes even 1/10 of the price! Plus, you get the added bonus of getting to spend more time on Cat Ba Island itself, where there is a lot to explore. You can go hiking in Cat Ba National Park, visit the abandoned Hospital Cave, or relax on one of Cat Ba's lovely beaches. A motorbike is a great way to get around the island. Tours can be booked from travel agencies or backpacker hostels, and start at around US $20 per day.

Is Lan Ha Bay worth visiting?

Lan Ha is a neighboring bay to Halong that's equally as stunning, but for some reason receives a fraction of the crowds, You can book a two or three day tour to Lan Ha Bay from Hanoi (around US $300 for a luxury tour), or you can arrange a cheaper day tour from Cat Ba Island. We recommend booking a two or three night tour where you spend one night on the boat in the middle of Lan Ha Bay, and one night in a homestay on one of the small beautiful islands in the bay.

As well as being less crowded than Halong Bay, Lan Ha Bay is less polluted, as fewer tourist boats make it here. This means that you have a better chance of spotting wildlife – birds and mammals such as the highly endangered Cat Ba langur that is native to this area. There are also loads of adventure activities to do in Lan Ha Bay, from kayaking into caves and even rock climbing and hiking on some of the islands located in Lan Ha Bay. (Cat Ba Island itself is actually located in Lan Ha Bay.)

Are Halong Bay cruises eco-friendly?

Some travelers have reported seeing a lot of trash around Halong Bay, or felt that some tour operators didn't seem concerned about waste or conservation. There's some truth to that.

Unfortunately, we have heard reports from members of the South East Asia Backpacker Community of operators dumping waste off the boats into Halong Bay. Especially by the harbor, it's possible to see a lot of trash in the water, a sight that is sadly common throughout Vietnam. However, as you get out into the bay (and in particular, Lan Ha Bay), the waters become cleaner and are safe for swimming.

While many tour operators claim to be eco-friendly and have concerns for the environment, it's important to do your research. We advise that you ask the tour operator several important questions before booking their tour in Halong Bay. What environmental practices do they have in place on board? What do they do with the plastic on board? Do they recycle? etc. A good tour company who cares about the local area will be more than happy to answer your questions.

Tips for getting to Halong Bay

A great way to travel Vietnam is by train. The trains are comfortable and clean, and you can watch the landscape of Vietnam change out of the window. The train network runs all the way from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. If you prefer to travel by night and save money on accommodation, the sleeper trains are actually very comfortable and you can get a good night's sleep while covering a great distance. (We do not recommend taking night buses in Vietnam as there have been many accidents caused by drivers that are overtired.)

The jumping-off point for Halong Bay is Hanoi. From the capital, you can get a bus three hours to Hai Phong Harbor and then set sail to Halong Bay from there. Most tour operators include transport to and from Hanoi in the price of their trip. 

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  • Ninna said

    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 :)


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  • Nita Handa said

    I went to Halong Bay in 2009, and it was wonderful. Quiet, not too crowded, and the junk travelled far into the Bay. We saw very few other junks. Early in the morning, I woke up to see the mist rising over the cliffs, and it was serene and spectacular. We swam in one of the Bays, the water was clean.

    I went again in 2016-- and shall not return! Packed with tourists, heavily over-priced, dirty, very noisy. Since the two accidents in 2011, the junks stay together and do not venture out much. The place is therefore overcrowded with junks all around, and our junk , while stationary,decided to give us a cookery lesson on spring rolls to distract us. I would have preferred to be sailing out in the Bay, enjoying the breeze, the views. I woke up early in the morning , 5.30 am,as I wanted to see that magical mist again, as the sun rose, but, no, a fishing boat came along and its engine roared all around us. It was deafening, a nuisance, and no-body was willing to stop it.This roaring continued for at least an hour around our junk area, I was extremely disappointed, as I had really wanted to enjoy a quiet period of reflection in that beautiful setting. There were about 5-junks parked there, in the same bay. I was told the fishing boat was roaring to encourage the fish to swim up to the surface. It was awful. No, while I agree this is a spectacular place of beauty, it should be missed until the Government sorts it out. And, yes, there are too many scams for it.


  • Kendrick said

    Not seen anywhere else? You can see similar views in Palawan in the Philippines, only it’s less crowded and way cleaner there. I guess that’s why i found Halong Bay overrated. I would have probably loved it if i saw it first. But it was simply underwhelming after visiting Palawan.


  • Carla Price said

    Went there on a Ship Cruise March 2019 Booked a trip out to see the caves and then a ride in the little Sanpans , loved it all so beautiful cruising through the bay on the ship as well, Brought some beautiful fresh water pearls very reasonable


  • Sharon said

    We will be there Mar., 2020-
    Who did you book with to get out to the sea caves, etc? We are planning on spending one day, not staying overnight. Most reviews say it’s so dirty now. Did you think it was? Thx


  • AmeliaMcGrath said

    Hi Sharon,
    I went to Halong Bay a few years back with Intrepid, and we did an overnight tour on a junk boat. It was dirty back then (in December 2013), and I can only assume it's much worse now.
    It's still a beautiful place to see and experience, but I'm sorry I don't know of any reputable day tour companies.
    Hope you have a great trip!


  • John Lee said

    I did 1 day to Halong Bay with Escape Sails booked through Incredible Asia Journeys and it was great. The 7 hour day tour in Lan Ha Bay - The less touristy part of Halong Bay. The boat is very nice and staffs on the cruise were friendsly. They used the Limousine Bus on the expressway and it was very comfortble. Only more than 2 hour on the bus to the harbour. The scenery was so amazing.


  • Luke said

    The landscape is definitely unique and it could be so beautiful, however the extrme overcrowding and the tremendous amounts of rubbish all throughout the water make it in my opinion not worth the small fortune you have to pay to take a cruise. There is literally no direction you can look without seeing rubbish in the water and it makes swimming very unjoyable. Such a shame, I don't think I would recommend it based on these factors.


  • Hung Le said

    Halong Bay is a must for you to visit when you visit Vietnam. That is amazing with beautiful landscape. Cat Ba Island is also a great option for you and you can combine Halong Bay with Cat Ba Island.
    There is cable car from Got Harbour to Cat Ba Island and you can try it as it is wonderful.
    i really recommend VSpirit Premier Cruise in Halong Bay. We had an enjoyable time with VSpirit Premier Cruise then went to Cat Ba Island for 1 night. That was incredible.
    thank Vietnamescapetours for arranging for us a great services. That was the company we booked the cruise and hotel in CAt Ba Island for our group.


  • Incredible Asia Journeys said

    Thank you very much John Lee. We are happy to know that you had a great trip with us. Now, everything in Vietnam come back to normal and we start reopeing the office. Hope that you and other travellers will visit Vietnam and Incredible Asia Joutneys is very happy to arrange the trip for you.


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