Whether you’ve already booked a 2-day Halong Bay cruise or are on the fence about how long you want to stay in the Gulf of Tonkin, you’re in good hands. I took a 2-day Halong Bay overnight cruise and gathered many takeaways that I’ll share with you.
Some of the information here may go against the grain of what you’ve heard. Namely, a 2-day tour doesn’t seem much more valuable than a full-day cruise.
But I’m jumping ahead of myself.
Read on to learn about what an overnight Halong Bay trip entails, including the differences between the 2-day and 3-day cruises.
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An Overview of Halong Bay
Halong Bay is a group of approximately 1,600 islands and islets in the Gulf of Tonkin, Vietnam. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, first appearing on UNESCO’s list in 1994. But in 2000, UNESCO made “significant modifications to the boundaries.”
What did that mean for Halong Bay?
A greater amount of protected territory and an influx of tourists.
Tourism continues to boom in Halong Bay, and I say that having visited during the low season. Dozens of cruises fill the bay, making it easy to shop around at tour agencies in person or online to book an overnight excursion.
What Is the History of Halong Bay?
The history of Halong Bay started long before Halong Bay overnight cruises became a thing.
The approximately 1,500 square kilometer region formed as a result of tectonic movement pushing limestone rock above the water. Vegetation followed, and wind, rain, and saltwater have since shaped the islands and islets over millions of years.
While that’s the scientific history of Halong Bay, a local legend tells a different story. According to the legend, a dragon and its offspring protected the Vietnamese from Chinese invaders by means of spitting pearls that created the islands.
The name Halong Bay even translates to “Descending Dragon Bay.”
Do People Live on the Islands in Halong Bay?
People live on some of the islands in Halong Bay. The most populous island is Cat Ba, which has a population of about 16,000. Since Cat Ba receives approximately 2.5 million visitors yearly, you’ll likely encounter more tourists than locals.
Since most of the islands in Halong Bay are so small and the limestone is so porous, some residents live in floating fishing villages.
Certain cruise itineraries include a visit to one of these floating villages. Of these, Cua Van is the first and largest floating fishing village in the bay.
Halong Bay Overnight Cruise Basics
Let’s start with the basics. Below are some questions I had when I started planning my Halong cruise trip.
How many days do you need in Halong Bay?
You technically only need one day in Halong Bay. Group day trips are common from Hanoi, though some early risers start their trip from Ninh Binh. However, tourists commonly take 2-day and 3-day Halong Bay cruises.
I’ll compare the 2-day and 3-day cruises shortly. But for now, know that the full-day and 2-day cruises have more similarities than the 3-day Halong Bay cruises.
What time do Halong Bay tours start?
Halong Bay tours start at approximately 12:00 pm at the port. But since most people don’t spend the night prior by the port, you’re likely looking at an approximately 8:00 – 9:00 am hotel pickup if you’ll be traveling from Hanoi as part of a group tour (your bus needs time to drive around the city to pick up other passengers).
If you’re traveling from Ninh Binh, you might leave even earlier. Halong Bay is about 2.5 hours from Hanoi and about 3.5 hours from Ninh Binh, including a restroom break.
What time do Halong Bay cruises end?
The Halong Bay overnight cruises end around 12:00 pm. That means if you take a 2-day cruise, you’ll spend 24 hours on the boat. If you take a 3-day cruise, you’ll have 48 hours on the water.
Should you take a full-day Halong Bay cruise, you can expect your cruise to return to the port around 5:30 pm – 6:00 pm. That means you might get to enjoy the sunset over Halong Bay if you travel during the winter months.
Getting to Halong Bay
So, how do you get to Halong Bay, Vietnam? You have two options: By a private transfer or group shuttle bus.
I traveled by a group shuttle bus, which was the most economical ($25 round trip from Hanoi, as of January 2023). Keep in mind that the prices for transportation to and from Halong Bay are typically separate from the base cruise price.
Furthermore, if you book a Halong Bay cruise from Hanoi, the pickup areas are usually only in Hanoi’s old quarter.
So, if like me, you’re staying outside of Hanoi’s old town, you can use the Grab app to hail a ride to a designated meeting point within Hanoi’s historic center.
My Experience on a 2-day Halong Bay Cruise
I booked the 4-star Lavender cruise with GetYourGuide since they were running a 50% discount.
So, as you read through my 2-day experience, keep in mind that the itinerary may look different depending on the cruise you book. The amenities will also look different, as there are cruises ranging from budget to 5-star.
I also started and ended my journey in Hanoi, so the beginning and end of the trip will vary according to your itinerary.
Day 1: A Scenic and Activity-packed Day
My trip to Halong Bay started a day earlier than I expected—I woke up to a changed weather forecast and contacted my tour agency to see if it would be possible for me to embark on my tour that same day so I could take advantage of sunnier skies.
They confirmed I could within ten minutes. Less than an hour later, I was happily in Hanoi’s old quarter waiting for my shuttle.
The shuttle buses to Halong Bay are specifically for tourists. You’ll see standard and luxury bus options. If you have long legs, I recommend choosing the luxury option. At 5′ 4″, my legs felt cramped on the standard bus.
There’s luggage storage beneath the bus, should you be traveling with large bags.
Pearls & Restrooms
About 1.5 hours into the drive from Hanoi to Halong Bay, my bus made a 30-minute stop at a pearl farm for a restroom break.
It’s a popular rest break for buses heading to Halong Bay, and they offer a lot of information in English about the pearl farming process. You can also watch employees in action as they insert grains of sand into live oysters and harvest other oysters for pearls.
There’s a store onsite where you can purchase these locally cultured pearls and some snack stands where you can grab a bite to eat.
All About the Port
There are three main port stops within Halong Bay town. The ports sit along the same road, with the water on one side and a strip of modern but mostly vacant buildings on the other. That said, there will be some convenience stores, coffee shops, and restrooms at your disposal.
And that’s a good thing since you might have to wait around for a while before boarding your Halong Bay overnight cruise.
In my case, I arrived at the port at 11:10 am. We didn’t board the dinghy (which people also call a junk boat) until 12:00 pm. The reason for this was twofold: We had to wait for fellow passengers from other shuttles to arrive, and the cruises have a short turnover rate.
So, the previous day’s passengers would have still been on my cruise when I arrived.
Boarding the Cruise
The Halong Bay cruises never dock onshore. Instead, you’ll board a dinghy whenever you travel between land and your cruise.
I was surprised by how spacious and sturdy the dinghies were. There’s plenty of room for large pieces of luggage, and the staff will help you carry them onto the boat.
It only took about five minutes to reach my Lavender cruise anchored in Halong Bay. The staff instructed us to head upstairs to the dining room, where they gave us our room keys and 15 minutes to settle in before lunch.
The amenities your cabin offers will vary according to the cruise’s class and the type of room you book. So, what I’m about to describe is based on my 4-star single occupancy cabin.
My room had little floor space, but I was surprised by how nice it was. The bathroom was modern, and the room came with a fan and air conditioning (neither of which I used during my chilly January visit).
My favorite part was the private balcony, complete with a table and two chairs.
Speaking of two chairs, my room had two twin beds instead of one double bed. I didn’t mind, and I imagine they turn the room into a double by placing the beds side-by-side.
Next up was lunch, and I ended up being glad I didn’t pick up snacks at the port. They served family-style dishes in multiple rounds. Just when we thought there couldn’t be any more food, it kept coming.
If you have special dietary needs, let your tour agency know in advance. I’m a vegetarian and was impressed by all the custom dishes the staff made for me.
Soup, green papaya salad, a couple of different tofu dishes, and fruit for dessert fueled me for the activities that came.
Cruising Through Halong Bay
From the time we received our room keys until we finished lunch, our boat was cruising through the bay. The island views started getting exceptionally good during lunch, so many of us frequented the large windows to take photos.
We had plenty of time after lunch to enjoy the views too. Many of us spent time on the top floor’s sun deck.
During this time, our guide hung out with us, answering our questions about Halong Bay.
The ride through Halong Bay took about two hours, and it seemed to follow the same route as all the other cruises. What I later learned was that what I assumed was our first anchor spot was the only anchor spot.
Again, this seems to be the case for all the 2-day cruises. I’ll talk more about it in my 2-day vs. 3-day cruise comparison shortly.
First Activity: Kayaking at Luon Grotto
Once our boat anchored, we boarded a dinghy which took us to a dock on a nearby island (the dinghy ride took less than ten minutes).
Here, we could choose between kayaking or taking a bamboo boat.
The bamboo boat is a good fit for people with limited mobility or those who want to enjoy the scenery without having to focus on steering. But as a forewarning, a bamboo boat sounds cooler than it is—the boat doesn’t resemble bamboo.
I chose to kayak, appreciating that our guide arranged our itinerary according to the tide. During low tide, Luon Grotto is inaccessible by kayak, causing visitors to walk through a little cave instead of kayaking through it.
Monkey sightings aren’t guaranteed at Halong Bay, so I was thrilled when a group of monkeys were playing on the side of the cliff and along the shore. They didn’t seem to mind us watching, though I was too far away to get good photos of them.
Second Activity: Ti Top Island
After having about 40 minutes to kayak, we boarded our dinghy and headed to Ti Top Island, which was also less than a 10-minute boat ride.
Here, our guide gave us one hour of free time to explore. Some people chose to stay at the island’s base, grabbing an ice cream and enjoying the beach.
But most of us hiked to the panoramic view, which was about a 450-step climb.
Our guide timed this portion of our trip perfectly, for we watched the sunset from Ti Top Island. Photos truly don’t do justice to how beautiful it was!
Travel Tip: Check this website to determine when the sun will rise and set during your overnight Halong Bay cruise.
After taking the dinghy back to our cruise, our guide gave us 30 minutes to get cleaned up. People took “cleaning up” seriously, showering and putting on dress clothes.
I, for one, was unprepared for such a fancy experience. But if I were to do it again, I’d pack a nicer outfit to join the crowd.
The happy hour our cruise offered was two-for-one cocktails from 6:00 pm to 7:00 pm as a sunset party. Given that the cocktails cost $6 USD, many of my fellow passengers made the most of this deal.
They also provided complimentary snacks, and we hung out on the top deck while waiting for dinner.
Cooking Class and Dinner
At 7:00 pm, our guide ushered us into the dining room. There, we embarked on a small cooking class—wrapping pre-cut veggies into rice sheets. There wasn’t much to it, but it was a nice touch.
A multi-course dinner soon followed. People who eat seafood were served plate after plate of local seafood dishes, including oysters and prawns.
I was yet again happy and stuffed to the brim with the vegetarian food the cruise staff made for me.
And, of course, we got to try the spring rolls we made that they fried for us.
I happened to have a rather rowdy group of passengers on my Halong Bay overnight cruise. But even if your cruise has quiet passengers, you can still expect there to be noise at night.
All the 2-day cruises anchor in the same area at night. It makes for beautiful scenery with all the ships lit in the evening.
But it can also mean you’ll hear nearby music and people partying it up on their cruises.
A Note on Squid Fishing
Squid fishing was included in my cruise itinerary, as is the case for most overnight Halong Bay cruises. However, my group didn’t partake in this activity.
Nevertheless, I could see people on other cruises fishing for squid, which they did directly from the first floor of the ship.
Day 2: Sunrise, Cave, and Saying Goodbye
The water was calm during my Halong Bay visit. But even so, I was surprised that I didn’t feel any rocking movement while lying in bed. However, I did feel a bit off balance at times when showering and especially during Tai Chi.
Tai Chi and Sunrise
Our guide invited us to a Tai Chi class at 6:15 am, shortly before sunrise. As an early bird, I arrived with energy to start the day, though about half the passengers on my cruise skipped this class.
The Tai Chi class lasted 15 minutes, just in time for us to watch the sunrise.
There were too many clouds to see the sun, but the pink and orange colors that filled the sky made for stunning scenery. It’s easy to see why Halong Bay is one of the most popular destinations in Southeast Asia.
They served breakfast from 6:45 am to 7:30 am. This was the only time when drinks were included (aside from one bottle of water they placed in our cabin). We had access to self-serve coffee and tea.
As with the day before, the staff served us breakfast in different courses. Yet again, I felt gratefully stuffed to the brim.
Sung Sot Cave
Sung Sot Cave, which also goes by Surprise Cave, was our final activity, meaning that we had activities on three different islands during our 2-day overnight Halong Bay cruise.
We spent about 40 minutes at Sung Sot Cave, and our guide accompanied us, sharing information on how its stalagmites and stalactites formed.
It was fun walking through the three chambers, making it feel like I got to see multiple caves during a single visit. If your cruise doesn’t stop at Sung Sot, it may take you to another cave, such as Bright Cave or Thien Canh Son Cave.
Travel Tip: Wear a rain jacket if it’s raining the day of your Surprise Cave visit. Even though it’ll feel like you’re indoors, rain seeps through the cracks in the limestone.
Getting More Full at Brunch
Upon our return from Sung Sot Cave, we had time to pack our bags. Our guide asked us to leave our rooms by 9:30 am, handing in the keys so the staff could prepare them for the next guests arriving in a few hours.
We left our bags in the dining room, where a beautiful multi-course brunch awaited us.
They served us even more food than they did at breakfast, and I ate everything they gave me despite still being full.
Returning to the Port
Shortly after we returned from Sung Sot Cave, our cruise started making its way back to the port. So, we got to enjoy the stunning views of Halong Bay yet again.
Our cruise ship anchored in the same area as before, and we boarded a dinghy to the mainland at 11:45 am.
At this point, our guide helped us each get to where we needed to go—some people were heading to Cat Ba Island, others to Hanoi and Ninh Binh.
My shuttle to Hanoi picked me up at 12:15 pm, and it made a 15-minute restroom stop during the 2.5-hour trip back to the city.
2-day vs 3-day Halong Bay Cruises
Now you’ve got a feel for how a 2-day cruise looks. But what about a Halong Bay 3-day cruise?
Due to a lack of proper research on my end, I was surprised that my 2-day Halong Bay cruise didn’t travel further through the islands. I had heard many people online and at agencies talk about how Halong Bay overnight cruises are the way to go because you’ll see more than during a full-day excursion.
And while that undoubtedly has truth, I’d argue that there’s a much greater difference sightseeing-wise between the 2-day and 3-day cruise than there is between the full-day and 2-day.
The biggest difference between the 2-day and 3-day Halong Bay cruise is that you’ll see more islands in Lan Ha Bay (the region that Halong Bay sits within) with the 3-day cruise. You’ll also cruise through the Bai Tu Long Bay region.
So, what is the best way to visit Halong Bay?
In my opinion, the full-day or 3-day cruise is the best way to visit Halong Bay. Although the full-day tour makes for a packed day, you don’t see many more sites on a 2-day tour, and you’ll save a ton of money by not taking an overnight Halong Bay cruise.
Nevertheless, I’d be remiss not to point out that you won’t travel as far through the islands with the full-day tour compared to the 2-day tour.
In contrast, although the 3-day cruise will dig into your bank account, it offers many more sightseeing opportunities.
Which Halong Bay Route Is Best?
The best Halong Bay route depends on the amount of time and money you have to spend on your tour.
Most full-day, 2-day, and 3-day Halong Bay tours take the same route within their designated timeframe. The stops that individual cruises make along these routes vary, though.
For example, the full-day tour often includes a visit to Thien Cung Cave and Ba Hang fishing village or another fishing village for kayaking. In contrast, the 3-day tour will take you to Bai Tu Long Bay, an area that fewer tourists visit.
Halong Bay Cruise Price
So, how much is a trip to Halong Bay? It depends.
The cheapest way to visit Halong Bay is via a full-day group tour. In contrast, the 3-day Halong Bay cruises are the most expensive.
Cruise class also impacts the price. Many luxury Halong Bay cruise options exist, with 4-star and 5-star cruises being displayed at the forefront of online booking agencies and tour agencies in Hanoi.
The bottom line is that the best Halong Bay cruises vary according to personal preference and budget.
Best Time of Year to Visit Halong Bay
The best time of year to visit Halong Bay is from September to December. The temperatures are pleasant during these months, the chance of sun is high, and rain isn’t too frequent.
That said, September marks the end of the typhoon season. So, traveling towards the end of September will decrease the chances of weather-related cancellations than traveling at the beginning of the month.
The worst time to visit Halong Bay is from January to March. Cold, foggy days are frequent during these periods. My guide showed us a photo he had taken of thick fog in Halong Bay and you could barely see the front of the boat, let alone the islands.
April and May are shoulder months where the weather is often more hit than miss. You also won’t encounter as many tourists as during the high season.
How Do I Book a Halong Bay Cruise?
Whether you’re seeking a day trip Halong Bay cruise or a luxury cruise with a spa, you can book online or in person.
There’s no shortage of tour offices in Hanoi. But after years of traveling abroad, I’ve gotten out of the habit of making tour bookings at in-person agencies. I found it was too hard to know what I’d get quality-wise.
I booked my Halong Bay overnight cruise online with GetYourGuide, which offers various cruise styles and budgets (and even some discounts sometimes, like the 50% discount I received).
But as long as you book with an online agency that has many reviews for the cruise package you want to purchase, you should be good to go.
Can Someone Visit Halong Bay on a Low Budget?
Visiting Halong Bay on a low budget may be possible, depending on your definition of “low budget.” You’ll definitely want to avoid the 2-night Halong Bay cruise or a luxury Halong bay cruise of any length.
Most likely, a group day trip from Hanoi to Halong Bay will be your most economical option.
Wheelchair Accessibility at Halong Bay
Sadly, wheelchair accessibility is poor at Halong Bay. It starts with the port, which has a series of steep cement steps that passengers must traverse.
According to my guide, there aren’t any Halong Bay overnight cruises at this point that offer wheelchair accessible cabins.
However, he said that the cruises can accommodate wheelchair users that are able to walk some, and the staff goes out of its way to help passengers with limited mobility.
FAQs About Halong Bay
If you still have questions about Halong Bay, read on to see if I answer them here. I also recommend checking out my guide on Halong Bay cruise tips for more aspects of cruising that I didn’t discuss here.
Is it worth staying in Halong Bay?
In most cases, it isn’t worth staying in Halong Bay city. The area around the port becomes a ghost town in the afternoons and evenings. The only situation where it would be worth staying in mainland Halong Bay is if it works well logistically for you as a means to arrive at a different destination.
On the other hand, many people feel it’s worth staying in Halong Bay if they spend at least one night. The 2-night Halong Bay cruise is an especially great way to see more islands.
How many days are enough for Halong Bay?
You can see Halong Bay in one day. However, taking a Halong Bay overnight cruise, especially if you make it a 3-day cruise, offers a more relaxing and immersive experience.
Most cruises don’t offer tours beyond three days, as that’s a sufficient amount of time to see Halong Bay.
Is Halong Bay too touristy?
Halong Bay may feel too touristy for some, especially around the port. But there’s nothing touristy about cruising through the islands, which are untouched pieces of nature.
However, you’ll encounter many tourists visiting Halong Bay year-round. So, when you get off to explore the different islands you may feel that it’s too touristy because of how many people are there.
What makes Halong Bay unique?
Halong Bay is unique because of its limestone pillars that form over 1,000 islands and islets off the coast of northern Vietnam.
Its attractions include exploring caves, kayaking in areas where you could see monkeys, visiting floating fishing villages, hiking for panoramic views, beaches, and more.
How does tourism affect Halong Bay?
Over 100 cruises operate in Halong Bay, including day and night cruises. This is excellent for the local economy, where locals benefit from year-round jobs and tips from tourists.
However, there’s an environmental downside to so many cruises operating. I saw many pieces of trash in the water, particularly around the port. I also saw patches of oil floating on top of the water. Luckily, there are organizations working to reduce the negative environmental impact of water pollution in Halong Bay.
So, Is Halong Bay Worth Visiting?
Taking a Halong Bay overnight cruise is worth it if you have the time and money. If you decide to go with the overnight rather than the full-day option, I recommend taking the 3-day cruise so that you can see more of the islands.
Do you have questions about visiting Halong Bay? Leave a comment and I’ll be happy to help.
I’d also love to hear from you in the comments after your Halong Bay trip. How was your experience? Were you happy with your cruise choice, or is there anything you’d do differently?
P.S.—Be sure to check out my guide on 27 Halong Bay Cruise Tips.