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, or has it been loved to death? Expert Nikki Scott shares her insights.


Halong Bay Photo © Getty Images/cristaltran

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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.

Before you book a trip, see what travel expert Nikki Scott, founder of South East Asia Backpacker, has to say.

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. Photo credit: Getty Images/ninelutsk

Is a Halong Bay cruise worth it? 

Says Nikki Scott of South East Asia Backpacker, “It's no wonder that 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!

Read about the different types of Halong Bay Tours here.

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? Nikki's answer is an emphatic yes. She suggests 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,” says NikkiThe 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.”

Read more about Cat Ba Island here.

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,” Nikki tells us. “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.)”

Read more about Lan Ha Bay here.

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. Nikki says 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,” she says. “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.”

She adds, “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, says Nikki. “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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  • Christiaan said

    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

    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

    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

    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

      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

      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

    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

    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

    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

    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

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


  • David said

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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 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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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


    • melissa said

      Hi Jeni,
      Which comnpany did you travel with and did you do one or two night cruise?
      thanks Melissa


  • Felicia Dutil47 said

    l like it


  • Andrzej Ejmont said

    Man, this place never ceases to amaze me! Such a beautiful place! I cannot wait to see it again! Have you been on any of these cruises: Wondering which one to try next...
    All best guys and happy travels!


  • George Corea said

    As I write this I am on one of the more luxe boats in Halong Bay on a clear night with a lovely sunset just passed...AND wishing I was back in El Nido, Palawan. I was there on a wet few days where all boats were cancelled on one day and just on day tours booked the day before, but still it was so much nicer.

    You can snorkel and see more in el nido, the formations are grander but not as numerous. Less polluted as well. Boats here are probably better though...I was in Palwan exactly two years ago in the rainy season.

    Will go back there anytime...but would think twice before returning to Halong.


  • halong said



  • 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!
    [email protected]


  • 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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