Halong Bay, a UNESCO site located outside of the capital of Hanoi, should be a must for any visitor to Vietnam. It is made up of over 1,960 karsts that jettison up out of the water. Cruises are offered through Halong Bay as a day trip only, 2 day/1 night, or 3 day/2 night. We opted for a 3 day/2 night cruise and will share why we chose that itinerary, how we picked the cruise company and why, and what our family thought of the cruise overall.
We visited Halong Bay in June, which is considered the low season. Escaping to the bay turned out to be just what our family needed. Sea breezes packaged with lots of swimming opportunities made for a great respite from the incredible heat and humidity of Hanoi.
This was our first visit to Vietnam, and when we researched top things to see, Halong Bay continually ranked at the top of each list we read. We now know it was for good reason. The scenery is mind-blowingly spectacular and the warm water makes kayaking and swimming sublime yet refreshing. Because of its popularity, we read the bay can be rather crowded with day-trippers and the overnight cruises. So we opted for the longer of the most common cruises (the three day) because it allows you to get further out into the bay where it is more secluded.
One of over 1,900 kartsts in Halong Bay
There is a cruise for everyone, from quieter adventures geared towards families and those seeking solace to big day-trip and overnight party-barges. We chose Swan Cruises for our cruise company. It had strong reviews online for its ships and staff, and seemed geared more towards the onboard family-friendliness we were seeking. To hold our family of 6, we needed to book two cabins and the cost for the 3 days cruise ran just over $1,350, which was for an above-average ship. There are cheaper and certainly more expensive companies, depending on your budget and taste, but this felt right for us. That price included door to door pick-up and drop-off from our hotel in Hanoi to the pier, lodging on the boat, and all meals and activities. The only things extra were what we chose to bring onboard (snacks) and any drinks we purchased onboard (soda and alcohol is not included in the price and costs extra).
The morning of our cruise the trip director came into our hotel’s lobby to get our bags and get us on the air-conditioned motor coach. (The air conditioning is key.) The trip from Hanoi to Halong Bay is just under 4 hours, as the roads aren’t great and corresponding speed limits and therefore low. Next year a new highway is scheduled to open that will cut the drive time down to 1 ½ hours. For us, the door to pier transfer by Swan was easy and made the drive a chance to catch up on some books and sleep. A trip director stayed with us for the entire trip, all the way until our return at our hotel on the third day at the conclusion of our cruise. They planned the daily activity schedule, were the point of contact if anything needed to be addressed during our cruise, and managed all the on-board boat staff. Due to scheduling, each day we had a new trip director on the boat, and each day we were impressed by their responsiveness, knowledge of Halong Bay, and management of the ship. Their service was above and beyond. In fact, our daughter turned 16 while we were on the cruise and each night they organized a different celebration on the cruise in her honor. She felt like a million dollars and we appreciated their attention to detail for her on this special occasion.
Our trip directors did a wonderful job helping us celebrate our daughter's 16th birthday. They didn't tell us their plans in advance, but they had a few tricks up their sleeves to make her feel special and recognize the occasion. And that made us feel great. Swan Cruise's service and attention to detail was stellar.
The ships aren’t very large as they all need to conform to certain government standards, and we chose a ship on the smaller side for more personalized service. Our cruise had 20 guests on it, including us. We originally had booked two connecting cabins for our family, but due to a few cabins on our ship that weren’t booked, Swan Cruises gave us an extra cabin to spread out a bit more, which was very welcomed! The only real areas on the ship was the dining room for all meals and on-board activities, top deck sun lounge (which was too warm to sit on most days but nice at night), and our staterooms. Our dining room and staterooms were both well air-conditioned so we spent most of our ship time in there.
Our ship on the Swan Cruise Line
Upon embarking onto our boat we were served lunch in the ship’s dining room. Each meal was served family style at our table served by the ship’s wait staff. We didn’t know what to expect for food while on the ship and packed some extra dried noodle bowls from a Hanoi grocery store just in case. We travel with a few selective (picky) eaters. During the ride to the pier our trip director asked us what type of food we ate – beef, pork, chicken, fish, shellfish, squid, or vegetarian. We didn’t realize our answer would determine our meals the entire cruise, but it did. We said we did everything but squid and had one vegetarian in tow. What that really meant was at each meal we got a ‘course’ that included all of those. The food was endless, both in quantity and flavor. Our pickiest of eaters were all blown-away by the chef’s ability to create masterpieces, dish after dish, course after course. The food was nothing short of phenomenal. Our only complaint was the quantity. So much was served at each course it seemed as if, especially given the economics of the average Vietnamese, that more prudence could have been observed. But that was more about our moral standards, because mealtime became a favorite of ours. And we ended up lugging our emergency noddle bowls back off the ship and back to Hanoi.
The dining room (above) aboard our ship. Casual and comfortable! And even the mocktails (below) are served up extra fancy!
Not sure what was best: the soft sand, the warm water, or the incredible views
Activities included everything from kayak trips around some of the many karsts, stops at small, secluded private beaches for swimming and R&R, cooking demonstrations, caves tours, and on-deck get-togethers. Herein lies the key difference between the two-day and three-day cruises: two day cruises lasted Day 1 lunch through Day 2 lunch (roughly a full 24 hours) and much was crammed into those 24 hours which to us seemed like trying to check too many boxes in too short of time. Cave tour? Check. Cooking demonstration? Check. Kayak and swim? Check, check, and check. The three day cruise did all that but with an extra day sandwiches in-between to go deeper into Halong Bay for more scenic boat sightseeing (where we barely saw another boat during the day), more stops for swimming, and a visit to an old fishing village and pearl farm. This day was the favorite amongst our crew, and because our ship held both 2 day and 3 day cruisers simultaneously, our “bonus day” only had 8 cruisers on it, including our family of 6. The peace, quiet, and attention couldn’t be beat.
Starting the day with a 6:30 am Tai Chi class led by the ship's Tai Chi master (above) and one of the many secluded beaches available for R&R (below)
One of the excursions was a day trip to a remote floating fishing village (below) and pearl farm, touring around via a small bamboo boat
It would be hard for a traveler to visit Hanoi and not go to Halong Bay. The tour companies make it as convenient as they can given the distance from Hanoi, and the jaw-dropping scenery is not to be missed.
Sunset on Halong Bay