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Travel Report: Halong Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

Halong Bay cruise Vietnam.

Halong Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

April 2018.

Cat Ba Island had served up an amazing four days of adventure. In fact, with its pretty harbour and beach, World War II Cannon Fort, Vietnam War Hospital Cave and stunning national park, I’d been left nonplussed by how few people actually bother to go there. 

Now, at the end of my stay, I was ready for what I’d been told is of Vietnam’s definitive highlights. Indeed all you have to do is take a cursory glance at the so-called Best of Vietnam, and you’ll immediately see the towering limestone monoliths of Halong Bay.

A misty cruise through Lan Ha Bay in Vietnam

Halong Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

Back in 2018 there was a host of tour operators claiming to offer “the best” Halong Bay cruise. However, the scene was positively riddled with cowboy companies. Some had shoddy boats barely fit for purpose. Others lied about the length of the cruise and even skipped over the bay’s highlights. Shameful but predictable stuff for anyone who’s been around the circuit in Asia.

Cat Ba Green Trail Travel.

After much consideration I booked my tour through Green Trail Travel, based in Cat Ba Town. These guys had a glowing online footprint and seemed friendly and genuine when I walked into their office one afternoon. Hence I went with my gut and paid the $20 for a spot on one of their midweek cruises.

Halong Bay Cruise.

Halong Bay Cruise Green Trail Travel

Halong Bay Cruise.

In truth I’ve always hated group tours. You know, where they stuff as many people in as they can. When you’re on somebody’s else’s timetable: “Now we go here… you’ve got five minutes here…. this is what we’re eating” etc.

I had looked into private cruises but the costs were exorbitant. So I bit the bullet and resolved to try and get into the spirit of things. To cross my fingers and trust that Green Trail Travel were as conscientious about their service as everyone said.

Halong Bay Cruise with tour guide Vietnam

Halong Bay Cruise.

Our guide that day was a talkative young Vietnamese man called Thang. With the boat already chugging away from Cat Ba Island’s little harbour, he wasted no time in apologising for the weather.

“You know, Halong Bay one of most beautiful place in the world” he said, addressing the group. “But unfortunately this place don’t have best weather in world ha ha. In Vietnam we have a saying. If you come to Halong and see blue skies and sun, you will have the best of luck for 50 years!”

Cruising through Vietnam's beautiful Halong Bay

Halong Bay Cruise.

Thang followed his apology with something of a revelation. “Everyone know about Halong Bay right?” But actually not many people know Lan Ha Bay, this is where we go now”. 

Lan Ha Bay turned out to be a Green Trail Travel masterstroke. It is every bit as beautiful as Halong Bay, but further from the mainland, away from the well-trodden tourist route. “Less boats and more clean waters” smiled Thang. “You can much more enjoy!”

Lan Ha Bay.

Lan Ha Bay Cruise Vietnam.

Lan Ha Bay, Vietnam.

Located to the east of Ca Ba Island, Lan Ha Bay stands as Halong Bay’s elongated tail. Home to over 300 karst islands and dozens of floating villages, Lan Ha Bay is every bit as stunning as its famous sister, but delightfully under-the-radar.

It wasn’t long before we were passing some of the floating villages. According to Thang, fishing families have been living in and around these waters for around 20000 years. “They are still traditional people” explained Thang. “Their life is almost same now as then. Only difference is WIFI ha ha”. 

Lan Ha Bay Vietnam.

A floating village in Lan Ha Bay.

Moreover, from what I could see, some homes even had satellite dishes! “This is for football” laughed Thang. “Vietnam men and boys love the English Premier League… Manchester!” Which got me thinking, if traditional fisherfolk were getting live Premier League football zapped straight into the bay, they must be doing well from the fishing business.

Floating Village Lan Ha Bay.

Halong Bay Cruise.

“Oh yes, they making good money” confirmed Thang, nodding seriously. “So much money that Vietnam government decided too many families come here to try the fishing life”. 

Consequently, the authorities decided to enforce a ban on individuals and families who have no hereditary link to the area. This, they insisted, was necessary to help control the bay’s human population and prevent overfishing.

Floating village dog Halong Bay Vietnam

Lan Ha Bay.

We were also interested to see how many of the families had a dog. “Man’s best friend!” Thang assured. “But not bird’s best friend. Dogs are perfect for keeping those birds away from their fish”.

Adventures in Vietnam.

Fishermen shrine Lan Ha Bay.

Lan Ha Bay.

Lan Ha boasts a number of pretty, isolated beaches. This one, known locally as Temple Beach, houses a shrine to the fishermen who’ve lost their lives at sea. The region is vulnerable to severe storms, so much so that Thang reckons just about every family here has lost at least one person to bad weather. Some locals make weekly visits to the temple to pray for safe passage before long voyages out to sea.

“I don’t want talking all the time!” announced Thang suddenly. “I think for the next part we can relax and just enjoy landscape until we reach Halong”. What an excellent idea, I thought, as people began dispersing to various quiet corners around the boat.

Dark skies over Lan Ha Bay in Vietnam

Halong Bay Cruise.

Climbing up to the top deck, I found myself a wonderful view point. And as I settled down it seemed as if the sky had just gone even darker. As if the bay might somehow swallow us up altogether. Luckily things soon brightened up as the boat drifted gracefully around a corner between two gorgeous limestone peaks.

“Cup of coffee?” asked Thang with a wide smile. “Oh, yes please”. It wasn’t the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had, but definitely a case of it’s the thought that counts.

Halong Bay Cruise.

Cruising through Halong Bay in Vietnam

Halong Bay Cruise.

“Haaaaaalong Bay!” called Thang, “let’s gather downstairs”. At last we were approaching the presumed main act. Amusingly, as if to rubber stamp its touristy reputation, a lone boat appeared and began cutting a determined path towards us.

With the boat fast approaching, I realised it was a local woman and her floating snack store. Sadly for her, drinks and munchies were included in our tour, thus there were no takers. “Don’t worry” laughed Thang, “she’ll find some customers”.

Floating store Lan Ha Bay Vietnam.

Halong Bay Cruise.

When I said the two bays are identical, I wasn’t kidding. If Thang hadn’t told us we would never have known that we’d exited Lan Ha and entered Halong. What we did notice though was that the waters were getting busier. More vessels, more noise and a distinct increase in floating garbage. Ah, people…

Travel Report Halong Bay Cruise.

Halong Bay Cruise.

Nevertheless, I wasn’t going to let anything spoil the undeniable appeal of Halong Bay’s ethereal beauty. “In Vietnam we call this Bay of Descending Dragons” cried Thang dramatically. “Legend says Vietnam people descend from Dragons. And that in ancient times Mother dragon god and her children helped the people defeat hostile invaders”. 

Halong Bay Cruise guide.

Halong Bay Cruise.

“These formations are 500 million years old!” he continued. “Sculpted by tectonic movement and home to first commercial port of Vietnam in 12 century”.

We also learned how the country’s great kings have sailed through here, such as King Le Thanh Tong in 1468. He was so charmed by Halong Bay’s beauty that he wrote a poem about it and carved it onto Bai Tho, one of the area’s prettiest mountains. How I wish I’d managed to get up there for a look.

Kong Skull Island Halong Bay Vietnam

In modern times Halong Bay has caught the attention of international filmmakers. Take Jordan Vogt-Roberts, for example, who set up camp here in late 2015 to shoot scenes for his movie Kong: Skull Island.

Adventures in Vietnam.

Swimming in Halong Bay Vietnam.

Halong Bay Cruise.

Following our history lesson, Thang stopped the boat and encouraged us to take a swim in the bay. I’d been really looking forward to this and, with around half a dozen others, wasted no time in jumping into Halong’s warm green water.

Buffet lunch Halong Bay Cruise Vietnam

Halong Bay Cruise. 

When we clambered back onboard there was a giant feast awaiting us, spread across the tables of the lower deck. The food certainly surpassed my low expectations. There were chunks of herby omelette, fried spring rolls and peppery slices of potato. A delectable beef stir-fry, fresh salad and chilled prawns. Not bad at all.

Kayaking in Halong Bay Vietnam.

Kayaking in Halong Bay.

It’s crazy to think that I’d never been kayaking before. If truth be told I’ve never been into water sports. But I took the Green Trail Travel tour as an opportunity to test myself a bit and try something different. In the name of safety, we all got paired up and I found myself buddied with a friendly, laid-back dude called Samuel from Switzerland.

Halong Bay cruise with kayaking Green Trail Travel

Halong Bay Cruise.

I needn’t have been so concerned. Kayaking turned out to be a breeze and I loved exploring the bay at water level. Forming a snake-like squadron, we spent an hour twisting and turning around a stunning section of the bay.

The highlight was undoubtedly passing through the “Death Tunnel” (Thang’s words), where the intense current does its best to suck you back the way you came. Happily, we managed to execute our oaring just as he described in order to avoid capsizing.

Halong Bay Cruise.

Kayaking in Halong Bay.

Fun and games in Halong Bay.

Back on the boat we began the long return cruise to Cat Ba Island through both bays. Along the way we stopped at Monkey Island for an hour. Just enough time, as it turns out, to enjoy a short hike and meet a few of its famous residents. 

Monkey Island Halong Bay.

Monkey Island.

The island is tiny, with a singular idyllic beach home to a basic bar and restaurant. They also have a cluster of bungalows for those wanting to stay awhile. Strolling down the lovely golden sands, we watched as dozens of long-tailed macaque monkeys darted around looking for mischief.

Monkey Island Halong Bay cruise.

Halong Bay Cruise.

Others, like this gruesome looking fella, gorged on fruit up in the trees. Thang, ever wary of our safety, urged us not to get too close to them. “They will bite!” he warned. “And trust me, you are not wanting that”. So, rather than risking rabies, we set off on the short but challenging scramble up the rocks to a lovely viewpoint over the island and Lan Ha Bay.

Halong Bay cruise Vietnam Monkey Island

Halong Bay Cruise.

Oh how I wish I’d worn proper footwear that day. The climb up had been arduous in my sandals, and if anything it was even trickier on the way down. Truly I was lucky I didn’t slip and injure myself on either if not both legs.

Halong Bay Cruise.

Hiking on Monkey Island in Halong Bay Vietnam

Monkey Island.

It didn’t take us long to get back to Cat Ba Harbour from Monkey Island. I don’t remember much about that last part of the cruise. For me the moment that marked the end of the tour was a fellow group member taking my picture on a large beach rock on Monkey Island.

I was feeling tired but happy that I’d given the group tour a chance. It hadn’t been so bad and I’d got to see one of the most beautiful places on Earth for a mere $20. For that, I’ll always wholeheartedly recommend Thang and the good folk at Green Trail Travel.

Visit Monkey Island Halong Bay.

Halong Bay Cruise.

Like this? Then why not have a leaf through my many articles from across Vietnam.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

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  • Little Miss Traveller

    The Halong Bay Cruise looks idyllic and an absolute bargain to experience such beauty. Kayaking is fun too as long as the water is calm. Have a great weekend. Marion

    September 24, 2021 - 8:51 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for dropping by Marion! It’s been a lot of fun editing all these gloomy photos and trying to make them passable.

      September 24, 2021 - 8:56 am Reply
  • pedmar10

    I went with individual boats and jet ski nice nature could not believe there was a big war there all looks natural like nothing happened. Great shots indeed. Cheers

    September 24, 2021 - 9:16 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading! This is definitely one of those places that lives up to the hype.

      September 24, 2021 - 9:19 am Reply
      • pedmar10

        It’s a pleasure. Brings back many nice memories of Vietnam that thanks to whatsapp still in touch with folks there. Cheers

        September 24, 2021 - 9:20 am
  • 100 Country Trek

    Loved our time cruising around Halong Bay and cruising the caves in the kayak. Might have been there around 2018. Love your writing. Anita

    September 24, 2021 - 12:17 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you so much Anita. Sounds like we were there roughly the same time. Was it also dark and misty?

      September 24, 2021 - 12:19 pm Reply
      • 100 Country Trek

        No I think we skipped the mist…

        September 24, 2021 - 12:27 pm
      • Leighton

        Oh, lucky you!

        September 24, 2021 - 12:30 pm
  • WanderingCanadians

    The scenery and landscape looks breathtaking. Glad to hear that the group tour wasn’t too bad.

    September 24, 2021 - 1:28 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading guys and contributing to the thread. If I could’ve taken a private cruise that day I would have. But it wasn’t meant to be and indeed the group tour turned out pretty well.

      September 24, 2021 - 1:36 pm Reply
  • wetanddustyroads

    We’re also in the corner of “not being very fond of tour groups” … but sometimes it pays off. I absolutely loved your post about Lan Ha Bay and Halong Bay. And though it was a misty day (unfortunately, no luck for you for the next 50 years 😉), I do find your photos lovely – especially the one of the dog!

    September 24, 2021 - 2:26 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Ah thanks so much, that feels good after what was admittedly a very long and tedious photo editing project.

      September 24, 2021 - 2:29 pm Reply
  • kagould17

    One of those places in the world that looks more like a dreamscape than reality. Thanks for sharing Leighton. Hope your week is going well. Allan

    September 24, 2021 - 3:09 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Yeah it is an undeniably otherworldly place that has to be experienced to be believed. Cheers Allan!

      September 24, 2021 - 3:13 pm Reply
  • Memo

    Rugged rocks, indeed. All that photogenic scenery and a feast. Best kind of tour. Love how those monoliths have eroded around the base and are recessed at the water line. Would I be correct that this is due to the action of the tides?

    September 24, 2021 - 3:36 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I think you’re almost certainly right Memo. Though this is certainly not an area of expertise for me. Still, the two bays are definitely among my favorite world landscapes.

      September 24, 2021 - 3:46 pm Reply
  • ourcrossings

    Wow, what a trip! Gliding across the emerald waters of Vietnam’s Halong Bay on a boat looks like a great way to take in the serene landscape of the World Heritage-listed Halong Bay and hundreds of limestone karsts that rise dramatically from the calm waters of the bay. Thanks for sharing and have a nice day 🙂 Aiva

    September 24, 2021 - 7:36 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Aiva, I appreciate you taking the time to read and contribute to the comment thread.

      September 24, 2021 - 8:25 pm Reply
  • grandmisadventures

    Wow-incredible pictures of the bay! Thang sounds like best and greatest of a tour guide to have 🙂

    September 24, 2021 - 10:52 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey, Meg! I missed this comment somehow. I can’t help but wonder how Thang has been weathering the Covid times.

      October 6, 2021 - 9:33 pm Reply
      • grandmisadventures

        No worries 🙂 I hope he’s been okay during all this. My heart hurts for those whose livelihood has been so strained these last couple of years.

        October 6, 2021 - 10:12 pm
      • Leighton

        I know, us too. Throughout this whole ordeal we keep reminding ourselves how lucky we’ve been to be able to keep working online.

        October 6, 2021 - 10:42 pm
  • Diana

    I have never heard of the other bay either. They both look lovely!

    September 25, 2021 - 4:49 am Reply
    • Leighton

      I think I preferred Lan Ha Bay as it was quieter. Thanks for reading!

      September 25, 2021 - 9:07 am Reply

    The devil is in the detail huh …love the trivia around satellite dishes and dogs! Sounds like you got a very good deal in a place notoriously riddled with rogue tour operators

    September 25, 2021 - 4:29 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Yeah, you can’t knock an experience like that for a mere $20. Plus I think it’s good for me to do a group tour every now and then to remind me how to be sociable ha ha. Thanks for reading!

      September 25, 2021 - 4:32 pm Reply
  • Rebecca

    I’ve heard a boat tour around Halong Bay is the highlight of a trip in Vietnam. If there’s one thing that one needs to do whilst in Vietnam with limited time, it looks to be this! I’m okay with going on group tours: even if they can be crowded and don’t really offer that deeper, intimate vibe, they are convenient and typically less-expensive than private ones.

    September 26, 2021 - 6:21 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Glad you enjoyed this virtual tour of Halong Bay!

      September 26, 2021 - 8:41 am Reply
  • salsaworldtraveler

    Group tours aren’t bad sometimes as long as there is no forced shopping. This one looked great. I did basically the same tour although just in Halong Bay, I think.

    September 26, 2021 - 6:30 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey John, I think I’ve become even more grumpy in recent years when it comes to the idea of group tours and crowds in general. And then COVID has probably added another layer to that. I guess I should work on taming my inner Walter Matthau.

      September 26, 2021 - 8:45 am Reply
  • travelling_han

    I’d love to do this one day – it looks incredible!

    September 26, 2021 - 7:39 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Han, it’s definitely one of those special world locations that should be on everyone’s list.

      September 26, 2021 - 9:29 pm Reply
  • rkrontheroad

    Enjoyed this! I once spent an overnighter in Halong Bay on one of those boats and I still thinking of that jaunt as one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. I woke up early when the sky was just starting to lighten, stepped over the bodies of staff sleeping in the main room and climbed up to the deck to watch (and photograph) the sunrise. One person on a neighboring boat was out doing the same thing. We waved and I could feel a kindred feeling past between us. A memorable moment in an amazing place.

    September 27, 2021 - 1:46 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Ah so you did the overnight thing! Excellent, and glad to hear it was a success as I’ve heard several accounts claiming it was disappointing and not worth the money. That sunrise moment sounds perfect.

      September 27, 2021 - 8:28 am Reply
  • Lyssy In The City

    Looks amazing!! I’d love to go kayaking there.

    September 27, 2021 - 4:18 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Lyssy, the kayaking was great. And, I think, it’s the only time I’ve ever done it.

      September 27, 2021 - 8:36 pm Reply
  • Lookoom

    Such a beautiful place but one cannot help but see the bad sides.

    September 28, 2021 - 12:09 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Mass tourism is never pretty but I’ve seen far, far worse than Halong Bay. Or at least the cruise we took, which was set away from the worst of the boat traffic.

      September 28, 2021 - 12:13 am Reply
  • Danny Explores

    Lovely write up Leighton, think I’ll be adding the kayaking to my list of things to do when we finally get to Vietnam!

    September 30, 2021 - 8:31 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Danny, thanks for reading and taking the time to add to the thread. Hopefully Vietnam will open up again next year.

      September 30, 2021 - 8:54 am Reply
  • Toonsarah

    You seem to have had very similar weather to us. We decided to splurge on one of the overnight cruises. While it was very good and took us to one of the quieter bays, I feel one night was enough – we were glad we hadn’t gone really mad and booked a two night one!

    October 5, 2021 - 8:41 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Ah, this more or less fits with what I’ve heard from other people. Did you get a good night’s sleep out there?

      October 5, 2021 - 9:01 pm Reply
      • Toonsarah

        Oh yes, I slept very well. The cabin and bed were very comfortable 😌

        October 5, 2021 - 10:22 pm
  • Monkey's Tale

    I love the fishing villages in Lan Ha. We visited a couple of quiet areas in Ha Long too, but I don’t think we got as far away from everything as you. The fishing villages we saw seemed to be much smaller. Sounds like you had a great tour there. Maggie

    October 7, 2021 - 6:08 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Yeah the Lan Ha fishing villages are so quaint. Give me good WiFi and I could live there for a while. Cheers Maggie!

      October 7, 2021 - 6:33 pm Reply

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