If you’ve been on Instagram (which, of course you have), you’ve undoubtedly seen jaw-dropping photos of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam- stunning limestone islands, dripping with greenery, jutting majestically out of the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. This UNESCO Heritage site is one of the most visited tourist attractions in all of Vietnam and rightfully so- it’s unbelievably gorgeous. In fact, all it took was one photo of the bay to convince me I NEEDED to go to Vietnam.
It goes without saying then that, of course, Ha Long was on my husband’s and my itinerary when we made our way to Southeast Asia. But while Vietnam remains hands down one of my favorite places I’ve ever visited (read more about my experiences in Ho Chi Minh, Hoi An, and Hanoi), I so badly wish I could pull a Marty McFly and change a lot about how we experienced this beautiful spot.
So if you’re headed to Vietnam and plan to hit up Ha Long Bay, do as I say, not as I do, and have a way better experience than we did by following my tips below!
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Table of Contents
- Things We Did Right when Visiting Ha Long Bay
- Things We Did Wrong when Visiting Ha Long Bay
Things We Did Right when Visiting Ha Long Bay
First, though, we didn’t do it all totally wrong.
Actually… Don’t Go to Ha Long Bay at all
Several months and some pretty pricey plane tickets after I first saw that swoonworthy Ha Long photo on Instagram (thankfully, Skyscanner helped me score the best flight deal possible!), I was knee deep in researching the very best ways to visit this site. Something troubling kept coming up in my research, though- an endless stream of people were complaining about how crowded, overpriced, and, most upsettingly, incredibly filthy and polluted the water was.
Upon digging further, something called “Lan Ha Bay” kept coming up- it was Ha Long’s sister bay directly to the southwest, equal in gorgeousness, more reasonably priced and blessedly, cleaner and way less crowded. For all of these reasons, we wound up visiting Lan Ha instead and I have no regrets about that choice whatsoever (see? I meant the title here quite literally!).
The landscape here is unlike any other place I’ve been, and it would’ve really taken away from the experience if there were a zillion other boats and people (…and litter) around. There’s also an even more off-the-beaten-path option, if Lan Hay Bay is too mainstream for you. Bai Tu Long is actually an eastern thouroughfare through Ha Long, but completely avoids the crowded, touristy parts- seems like a win-win to me! I highly recommend going with one of these Ha Long alternates rather than the OG bay- since I only experienced Lan Ha, I’m going to be referring to that one for the purposes of this article.
As a friendly reminder, let’s be good stewards of our planet and its beautiful places, like these bays, and follow the “Leave No Trace” principles. By reducing our impact on these fragile locales (for example, don’t just throw your empty bottle of soda in the water!), others get to keep enjoying and having the same positive experiences as we do, since we’re eventually going to run out of alternate bays to explore.
Stay the Night
Justin and I always cram a TON of stuff into our travels- bouncing from place to place as opposed to more deeply savoring a one particular locale. So I briefly considered making our visit to Lan Ha a one day trip from Hanoi, an option offered by several tour operators you’ll find all over the city.
While it’s totally doable, it would be a LONG day- to get to La Ha, you first need to get to Cat Ba Town on Cat Ba island, which is approximately a two hour shuttle, a ten minute speedboat ride, and another 45-minute bus ride until you get to the launch dock. Do that twice in a 24-hour period, in addition to your luxurious Lan Ha cruise and its associated hiking/kayaking/drinking activities, and you are going to wind up having a no good, very bad (or at least, very exhausting) day.
We picked a 2 day, 1 night cruise itinerary and I’m so glad we didn’t do anything shorter. Honestly, I may have preferred to add an extra day on to explore the island a bit more, like doing some trekking around the stunning Cat Ba National Park.
Things We Did Wrong when Visiting Ha Long Bay
Going on a Cruise
Your method of exploring Lan Ha is foundational to how your experience is going to be and unfortunately, going on a Lan Ha cruise is my number one regret about Vietnam and honestly, one of my biggest travel regrets ever.
First of all, there’s seemingly endless tour operators with a shockingly huge range of prices. If you go too cheap (i.e., any less than $80 USD for an overnight cruise should get some serious side eye), you could wind up in shared accommodations on a junk boat full of partying backpackers (which could totally be fun, but wasn’t the vibe we were looking for).
While Justin and I may be past the puking backpacker stage of our lives, these kind of tours have more significant risks, like safety concerns (less money can mean less maintenance and upkeep on the boat). On the other end of the spectrum, you can pay $1000+ for a suite with a private Jacuzzi overlooking the bay, which, might be appropriate for honeymooners and the like, but is just kind of generally inconsistent with the magic of Vietnam’s affordability and Justin’s and my frugalness.
After an embarrassing amount of research, I settled on an operator that seemed somewhere in the middle- $135 per person for a 2 day/1 night cruise with Cat Ba Sisters. I picked them for a couple of reasons- we seemed to be in their target market of budget travelers in search of a hint of luxury (our own rooms with our very own fans? amazing!). More importantly, they were the only cruise operator that confirmed they could accommodate our vegan diet AND that we’d have at least two kayaking experiences during our trip, my #1 bucket list item for our time in Lan Ha.
So what was wrong about our cruise experience?
TL:DR- we didn’t get to do the kinds of activities that we would have otherwise elected to and the ones that we did were super uncomfortably rushed. The food situation wasn’t great, there wasn’t any place to escape if your shipmates start saying weird things to you, and so, in a nutshell, you’re spending two days of your precious time in Vietnam mostly sitting and being vaguely disappointed in one of the single most beautiful places on the planet.
To be clear, a cruise might be a good option for you if you: (1) feel a bit overwhelmed traveling independently through Vietnam; (2) you’re going to be in Vietnam for an extended period of time; or (3) you’re looking to totally kick back, disconnect, and literally stare at rocks (okay, but super gorgeous ones) for hours and hours on end. Otherwise, I’d seriously reconsider; after hours and hours of research, I’m confident that a lot of these issues occur on the majority of Ha Long and Lan Ha cruises, to some degree or another.
So what really was wrong about our cruise experience? Oh, let me count the ways…
1. We didn’t have a say in what activities happened on the cruise and felt super rushed the whole time.
Lan Ha cruises offer a variety of activities, like hiking, kayaking, or visiting one of the floating villages in the bay, where groups of fishermen and their families have made their homes literally in the middle of the ocean. Not all cruises offer all of these activities, so of course, part of the planning phase is researching an itinerary that aligns with your interest.
I looked for a cruise that offered hiking and kayaking excursions, but skipped the floating villages, which, given that most cruises make a stop there, seriously limited my choices. Without getting too soap-boxy, please make sure that any tours you sign up for that visit remote villages or people who have a different way of life than yours are thoughtfully and ethically done- experiences like this often make me feel like I’m in a human zoo of sorts, which is just an icky feeling and I’m sure makes the people being made a spectacle of feel much worse. The Cat Ba Sisters’ itinerary I selected checked all my boxes- no floating village, but two kayaking and one hiking stop. Perfection!
In practice, however, our itinerary didn’t totally line up with what was being advertised- we only went kayaking once and our hiking excursion was flipped to a trip biking to the remote town of Viet Hai in Cat Ba National Park. And while parts of the cruise dragged on and on (there’s lots of circling around the same part of the bay for hours on end), the activities I was looking forward to the most, like kayaking, made up a minute fraction of our time aboard the boat (as in, I feel like we kayaked, at most for, 35 minutes?) and felt ridiculously and inexcusably rushed.
For example, while kayaking, we had to FRANTICALLY paddle to try to keep up with our maniac, apparently Olympic kayaker guide. We spent so much time desperately flailing our arms about to maintain pace, we weren’t able to take in the astounding scenery. Do you hear that? That’s the sound of me kissing my Lan Ha bucket list goodbye.
It wasn’t just our kayaking experience that was like that (okay, guys, we’re moderately good kayakers; we’ve been, like, twice)- this kind of thing kept on happening. During the bicycle ride to Viet Hai, we’d bike past these totally gorgeous, out-of-this world vistas and were instantly hurried along by our guide if we wanted to stop to take a photo.
On the other hand, we were forced to linger way too long around random tourist shops, which no one in the group had interest in, because I can only deduce that Cat Ba Sisters was getting a cut of any tourist money spent there. These kind of kickback schemes are really common in Southeast Asia (think of the scam when a taxi driver takes you to a different restaurant than what you asked for) and while somewhat easily avoidable while traveling independently, you have no choice in the matter while on a cruise.
This honestly seems like a fairly consistent theme with a lot of tours in any country that I’ve ever taken- I like to choose what I want to see, on my own schedule and in my own way, which leads me to having a not great time on a tour group. If your idea of getting to know Vietnam doesn’t involve hanging around a t-shirt stand for half an hour in a remote village (when simply stunning landscapes are a short two minute bicycle ride away!), a cruise might not be the best fit for you.
2. You don’t have a choice in what you get to eat.
Unless maybe you book one of those $1000+ cruises, your meals aboard the cruise will likely be served either buffet or family-style. I thought this kind of dining experience might be an issue for Justin and I, given our vegan diet, but I was delighted when, upon my email request, Cat Ba Sisters confirmed they’d be more than happy to accommodate us. Being aware that our request was probably atypical in seafood- and pork-loving northern Vietnam, I politely emailed them a reminder of this request both a week and then a day before our cruise was scheduled to depart and was promptly informed that everything had already been taken care of (can you tell I’m going to be a helicopter parent?).
Cut to us and the other guests of the cruise gathered around the table for our first meal together, floating in the middle of the ocean. The staff proudly placed an array of dishes on the table, fit for the “Be Our Guest” sequence of Beauty and the Beast, with every single one containing some sort of sea creature perched on the platter in its full form and glory- a whole fish, prawns the size of my head, you get the picture. There were very clearly no options that aligned with our diet.
Given the assurances we had been given three times over email, I hadn’t brought any snacks aboard and in a hanger-induced rage, I snapped at the head steward about this oversight. They quickly cooked us some rice and veggies for lunch and, afterwards, totally knocked it out of the park with awesome food for us for the subsequent meals (although, to be honest, I didn’t dig too much into why certain vegetables tasted so buttery…). That being said, I can definitely see lots of cruises, especially cheaper ones, where we would have been out of luck and would’ve been swimming to shore to assuage our hunger pains.
While Justin and I elect to be vegan, one of the other guests didn’t have a choice in being allergic to fish. She alerted the crew to this fact so they could be careful about cross-contamination, asked many times which dishes contain what kinds of seafood and was careful about avoiding dishes that contained any kind of fish products at every meal. So I was pretty surprised when she complained on the second morning that she’d hardly slept as she’d been so sick all night from, what she concluded, was cross-contamination of fish products in her food. Luckily, her allergy wasn’t life-threatening and, from context clues, seemed to mostly be associated with a gnarly case of diarrhea, but what if she had been super allergic? I’m sure there’s some cruise ships that have dynamite food offerings, sparkling hygiene practices, and can ensure that someone with an allergy won’t be served a food containing that exact allergen. But I’m not exactly sure how you would suss out that kind of tour, other than blind hope and some online reviews.
Even if you’re an easy peasy traveler who eats all things edible, food on cruise ships is inevitably going to be not as knock-your-socks-off amazing as some pho you happily slurp up cooked by a 100-year old grandmother in her century-old street stall. And do you really want to waste at least four of your precious meals in Vietnam eating cruise food? Hard pass.
Protip- when on a cruise, you also don’t get much of a choice in what you drink (although some cruises are BYOB; double check before leaving Hanoi so you can pick up some rations if needed) and you generally have to buy everything you consume, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, including any bottles of water.
3. You don’t have any option on who you’re stuck on a boat with.
Part of my Lan Ha research was trying to find a trip that was the appropriate size- if you go too small (with less than eight or so people), it can be awkward like you’re tagging along on someone else’s romantic cruise. But if you go too big (like more than 30 people), your excursions are going to be crowded and mostly spent waiting for other people to get in their kayaks or get a bike helmet that fits their head or whatever. The cruise we selected was meant for 25 people, which seemed perfect! In my head, we were going to become lifelong friends with some other travelers on the ship- maybe it would be a couple from Germany with cool glasses or an artsy woman making her way through Southeast Asia on a bicycle (this fantasy was oddly specific). So imagine my surprise and disappointment when our 25-person cruise had… five people? Besides Justin and me, there was a middle-aged British couple and one lone, rather somber Frenchman named Jacques (if you know a French guy named Jacques, it was probably him).
Justin got randomly super sick our first day and spent the whole time sleeping in our cabin. So my time on the ship hanging out with the other guests sort of felt like I was on a long, awkward double date with three strangers (partly because of how giddy and handsy the British couple was, which is crazy because, well, they’re British!). To be clear, my shipmates were all perfectly pleasant and we played some rousing games of Uno while drinking overpriced beer until our 8 PM bedtime. But again, what if you wind up stuck in the middle of the ocean, with three strangers who totally suck?
Justin, the British couple, and I all left the boat on the second afternoon, whereas Jacques, who had previously signed up for a longer itinerary, stayed on. By himself. With literally no other passengers aboard. Totally wild guess, but I imagine that Jacques did not sign up for the cruise picturing himself standing alone on the deck of a large cruise boat with no other travelers to talk to, while furiously smoking a cigarette. Awkward.
On second thought, maybe having a ship to your lonesome may be better. During breakfast the second morning, our female shipmate started asking some pretty pointed, uncomfortable questions about our veganism, whether we were going to raise our (non-existent, totally hypothetical) children vegan, and what the ethics of that would be (listen, lady, I’m on vacation). Had I been in another situation, I would have politely excused myself and went anywhere else, but, at that moment, I quite literally had nowhere else to go.
To be clear, if you do the 2 days/1 night cruise, you’re going to be around these people for little more than 24 hours, so even if they’re hellions of human beings, it’s not the end of the world. That being said, don’t you like having the choice of hanging out with the hacky-sackers in your hostel, one one one with your boo, or you know, wandering down the street to the closest bia hoa stall and just seeing who you run into?
4. You. Can’t. Go. Anywhere.
I think you get the picture from the other points above, but I assume your time in Vietnam and your money are limited resources. I will ALWAYS choose going out and exploring my surroundings and trying to soak up every last drop of culture that I possibly can from a new destination, rather than being static or in a sanitized environment. Unfortunately, a cruise checks both of those boxes and makes any kind of active exploration literally impossible.
So, having said that, what would I have done differently?
I would’ve taken the shuttle to Cat Ba in the morning, taken a kayaking tour around Lan Ha in the afternoon, kayaking to my little heart’s content (at my own speed, goshdarnit) and spent the whole evening exploring Cat Ba town, with my choice of food, cheap beer, and dinner mates. On the second day, I may have went on another kayaking tour if I hadn’t gotten my fill yesterday, perhaps, instead a self-guided hike through Cat Ba National Park, or maybe even a half day cruise around the bay (for me, circling around the bay would best be an activity allotted a couple of hours rather than 24+). I would come and go to Hanoi just as I please and leave Cat Ba being so happy to have experienced such a gorgeous place, rather than leaving with a bad taste in my mouth. If you want to read a detailed itinerary of what I would have done on Cat Ba in this alternate reality, I outline all the nitty gritty details this post.
This entire article honestly is quite silly because, before heading to Vietnam, I read an Instagram post (by the way, are we friends yet?) that was basically a condensed version of my thoughts here and yet still, at the time, I was like “… but what if a cruise is great?!” Just seriously, trust me on this one- if you’re anything like me, it won’t be.
It’s Way Colder Than It Looks
This one’s a bit of a throwaway, but make sure to bring a jacket. All the tour groups’ websites are covered with hot ladies in small bikinis, happily lazing about in what appears to be warm, turquoise waters. When we went in late March, the water was a bit chilly, but standing for long periods of time on the crazy windy deck was downright COLD. The jacket I had brought on the trip had long been lost in a Japanese airport bathroom stall (RIP, pleather jacket from Target), so all of those many hours of staring at rocks on the boat deck were quite uncomfortable for me. While the skies just stayed cloudy, but dry during our stay, I’ve heard the bay can be quite rainy at times, so I’d recommend bringing along a waterpoof jacket. I’ve been using this one for years (it comes in 28 colors AND comes in sizes from extra small to 3XL!) and here is the equivalent for men.
So there you have it, how to not make all the same easy mistakes I did and have the very best time exploring Lan Ha Bay. Have you traveled to Lan Ha, Ha Long, or Bai Tu and had a totally different experience? Let me know in the comments below!