Halong Bay, one of Vietnam’s most prized treasures and one of Mother Earth’s most amazing natural wonders. This place is the reason that I wanted to visit Vietnam. I had seen so many of those stunning mountain and ocean view photos and I wanted to experience it for myself. Located only 170 km to the East of Hanoi, getting from Hanoi to Halong Bay is very feasible.
No trip to the north of Vietnam is complete without a visit to Halong Bay. The crystal blue waters scattered with beautiful limestone peaks, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most iconic natural beauties in Southeast Asia. The name “Ha Long” means “Landing Dragon” which should give you a little insight into the extreme landscape of the area. This name originates back to an old legend about a family of dragons who descended to protect the bay from foreign invaders. The mystical story certainly ties in with the otherworldly scenery found here. It’s truly breathtaking and beautiful.
If you’re wondering how to get from Hanoi to Halong Bay, there are actually quite a few different options. We used a bus service that was organized by a tour company for which I will provide you with more information below. I will also give you insight into the various other options available. We stayed in Halong Bay for two weeks, which is longer than most people would stay. If your time in Vietnam is very limited, you have the option to do a day trip from Hanoi to Halong Bay. I wouldn’t recommend this since it’s not nearly enough time to explore the area, but it’s nice to have that option if necessary. If you’re thinking about doing a Hanoi and Halong Bay trip, check out this post on how to spend 2 days in Hanoi.
Introduction to Halong Bay
If you’re planning a trip to Vietnam, Halong Bay has more than likely come up as one of the absolute must-visit destinations. Not too far from Hanoi, this place is one of the new Seven Wonders of Nature and a treasured World Heritage site. Thanks to the numerous photos I had come across on social media, my expectations for Halong Bay were high. Yet somehow this place was even more beautiful than I had imagined.
Found in the Gulf of Tonkin, in Quang Ninh Province, Halong Bay is made up of more than 1,600 islands. These islands form a spectacular seascape of limestone pillars which contribute to the exceptional scenic beauty of the area. Due to their precipitous nature, the majority of these islands are uninhabited and unaffected by human presence.
But, some of these islands are hollow and visitors are able to take guided tours inside to explore their majestic caves. A few of the larger islands even have their own lakes. So there’s plenty of beautiful things to see here.
Halong Bay is formed by Cat Ba island to the South, Van Canh islands and Ngoc Hung to the East, and the Vietnamese coastline to the North and West. The bay covers a total area of 1,553 square kilometers. The central World Heritage area stretches for 434 square kilometers and occupies the heart of the bay between Halong town and Cat Ba island.
While Halong Bay is the main tourist attraction in Quang Ninh Province, the main residential area and capital is Halong city. There are two main areas to the city. Hon Gai over the other side of the bridge and this where you can experience the real local life, and Bai Chay which is the main tourist area on the Halong Bay side.
Getting From Hanoi to Halong Bay
With a distance of about 170 km from Hanoi to Halong Bay, you should expect to spend at least a few hours of travel time between the two. We booked a bus through a tour operation company and the trip took between three to four hours.
Here’s all the possible ways you could travel from Hanoi to Halong Bay.
By Shuttle/Tour Bus
This is the option that we chose and it cost us 260,000 VND ($11) each. It’s more like a minibus taxi than a bus, but don’t expect anything too extravagant. It’s a bus organized by the tour company so it’s definitely better than taking one of the local buses. The bus is airconned, has space for luggage, is properly organized, and in our experience runs on time. The tour company also includes a hotel pick-up if you are staying in the Old Quarter area.
We booked our Hanoi to Halong Bay bus ticket through the Crossing Vietnam tour company. But there are plenty of other companies who offer the same thing for pretty much the same price. We did have a great experience with Crossing Vietnam though and I would highly recommend them.
Since the above option was very convenient and cost-effective we didn’t give much thought to a private transfer. But, if you are looking for something a little more luxurious and flexible for time, then a private transfer would be great.
Private transfers usually cost between 1,840,000 VND and 2,300,000 VND ($80 to $100) and ensure the convenience of door to door pick up and drop off. Depending on what your needs are and how big your group is, a private transfer may be worth it.
We decided to book a private taxi from Halong Bay to Hanoi airport at the end of our trip. We used Halong Open Tours and it only cost us $55. Since we wanted to get directly to the airport with all our luggage hassle-free, we thought a taxi would be a much better option. It was well worth the money.
Local Bus (Coach)
If you’re brave enough you could use the local bus. We never used a local bus in Vietnam so I can’t give you firsthand information. But I would think that you would need to ensure that you aren’t travelling with a lot of luggage since the buses get pretty packed.
You can buy a bus ticket at the bus station for about 172,500 VND ($7.50). This really isn’t that much cheaper than the bus organized by the tour companies, and I’m not sure if the hassle is even worth saving a few $$.
This is by far the cheapest option, but with 6 hours of travel time from Hanoi to Halong Bay, it will take you nearly double the amount of time of any other option. If you’re on a tight budget it might be worth it since a train ticket will only cost you 80,500 VND ($3.50).
Just keep in mind that this option is likely not comfortable and you will also need to think about the extra cost of getting from the train station in Halong Bay to where you need to be. The upside to this option is that the train ride is apparently quite scenic.
Rent a Motorbike
I wouldn’t recommend this option unless you are familiar with the Vietnam traffic and roads. The roads in Vietnam are notoriously dangerous and probably the most manic that I’ve ever seen. We would never try navigate our way around on the roads there. But, I know there are a few people who like the option of renting their own transport.
Renting a motorbike to get from Hanoi to Halong Bay isn’t difficult, even for foreigners. There are many rental stores operating in the Old Quarter and the West Lake area. There are different monthly, weekly, and daily payment options available, depending on how long you will require the motorbike for. Some companies to check out are; Hanoi Motor Tour, Rent a bike Vietnam, and Phung Motorbike.
You may also be wondering about renting a car. Well, after doing some research, I discovered that it’s not legal to hire a car in Vietnam unless you have a Vietnamese license. This means that you would need to hire a car with a local driver. So this is another option for you, although you should expect to pay quite a significant amount for this service.
Hanoi to Halong Bay Tour
Your other option for travelling from Hanoi to Halong Bay would be to join an organized tour group from Hanoi. This is the easiest option and probably best if your time in Vietnam is very limited. All of the tour operating companies in Hanoi offer excursions to Halong Bay. These tours are advertised as being easier and usually cheaper than trying to organize it yourself.
There are a variety of different tours available, including day trips, which I wouldn’t recommend. To travel three to four hours from Hanoi to Halong Bay and another three to four hours back to Hanoi in one day, it really doesn’t leave you with much time in Halong Bay itself. On top of that you will probably be left feeling exhausted after the trip. The most popular tour is the two-day, one-night trip, where your night will be spent on a boat at sea. The other option is a three-day, two-night tour which I would personally go for. The second night is usually spent on the beautiful Cat Ba island.
If you have more time in Vietnam I would recommend spending more time in Halong Bay. It’s so beautiful and you don’t get to experience nearly enough of it on a quick organized tour from Hanoi. We spent a whole two weeks there since we are full time travelling while working. Between three to four days would be enough if you are visiting just for holiday.
Halong Bay Tours
The Halong Bay cruises mostly run out of Hanoi, but there are a few running out of the coastal town of Halong City. We actually really struggled to find one from Halong Bay itself. We did numerous google searches and every option that came up were tours from Hanoi to Halong Bay. Even when I googled “Halong Bay tours from Halong Bay,” all I could find was trips from Hanoi.
Eventually we went to the marina area on Tuan Chau island and found the Halong Open Tours office. Their tour packages were also specifically for Hanoi to Halong Bay. It seems this is what all of the tour companies offer. But we explained that we were already staying in Halong Bay and arranged to join a day tour that was coming from Hanoi. We booked the tour and they organized for a taxi to pick us up from our apartment on the day of the tour. We then joined the group that came from Hanoi.
The tour cost us $40 each and included a traditional lunch. If you’re coming from Hanoi, the cost is $55. We visited Thien Cung Cave, Titop island, and had the most incredible kayaking experience as part of our trip. All costs were include, except drinks. The drink prices on the boat are quite inflated, but you are able to take your own drinks with.
There are hundreds of different agencies selling tours and trying to find one can be very confusing. Very few of these companies actually run their own boats. Most of them are consolidators or resellers. Therefore organizing a tour is a buyer beware scenario. You need to talk to other travellers and shop around. If you find a two day tour for $15 a head, you can be sure that it will be a bit dodgy. Most day tours will cost between $40 to $50 and two day tours start at around $100.
Where To Stay in Halong Bay
Most travellers come from Hanoi to Halong Bay just for the boat cruises around the islands. Few seem to spend any time on Halong Bay mainland. But some choose to spend a night on the mainland before their cruise, which is also a good idea. Ultimately, Halong Bay is all about cruising on a boat exploring the different islands.
If you are looking to spend some time in Halong city, there are many hotel options on offer, ranging from low-priced to high-end accommodation. There are also numerous Airbnb accommodation options available. Since we stayed in the area for two weeks, we booked an apartment through Airbnb.
If you haven’t yet signed up on Airbnb you can follow my link here and get £33 off your first home booking, and £12 to use towards an experience worth £40 or more.
Our apartment was in the Green Tower Bay block, located on Hoang Quoc Viet street, which is the main street going through the town. From our apartment, we had a beautiful view of the Halong Bay cliffs. We were in close proximity to the main area of restaurants, cafes and shops. We also weren’t too far from Tuan Chau island, which is where the marina is situated. This is where the boat cruises leave from. If you only plan on spending a night in Halong, then Tuan Chau may be the best area to stay in.
Quite a few tourists also opt to stay on Cat Ba island. It’s more budget friendly and a chilled out island with a few nice beaches, rich history, and several spots with a good nightlife. If you do want to stay on Cat Ba island, it’s recommended to stay close to the pier in Cat Ba town. This is the busiest area and where you can find restaurants, bars, and easy access to all the best activities.
The Best Things to do in Halong Bay
If you like the idea of spending a few days in Halong Bay before embarking on your cruise, there are quite a few things to do in and around Halong Bay. Sure, it’s all about the beautiful islands, but you can certainly keep yourself busy on the mainland.
Climb Bo Thai Mountain
If you are looking for that stunning, iconic view of Halong Bay, then Bo Thai mountain is where you can find it. Getting there is a little strange because you have to go through a local residence to reach the viewpoint. Here’s my guide to climbing Bo Thai mountain, which could be helpful. The climb will take about 25 minutes and the views from the top are truly breathtaking.
Royal Lotus Rooftop Bar
We came across the Royal Lotus rooftop bar on our first day in Halong Bay, and it was surprisingly quiet. Happy hour is between 17:00 and 21:00 and you can get some well-priced drinks with some great city views. Unfortunately, there aren’t good views of the bay and islands (which we were expecting), but it’s still a cute little bar with some good drinks.
Visit Bai Chay Beach
Bai Chay beach is a bustling artificial beach in the center of Ha Long Bay. While the fact that it’s artificial takes away from its appeal, it’s still a great little beach to spend a few hours. The Halong Bay views from here are really pretty and the sea is nice and warm. You can also do parasailing here.
Tuan Chau Beach
The beach on Tuan Chau island is also an artificial beach, but it’s also worth a visit. The most beautiful beaches of Halong Bay are found on the islands. So your best bet on the mainland are these artificial beaches. There’s a cute little beach bar which is worth checking out here on Tuan Chau.
The Best Time To Travel To Halong Bay
As with most places you travel to, the best time to visit Halong Bay will depend on what you are looking for. If your biggest concern is weather, then between September to November and March to May are the best times to travel from Hanoi to Halong Bay. The pleasant temperature and dry climate make for the perfect trip.
If you are on a tight budget, then between June to September is a good time to visit. This is considered to be low season. Many cruise ships offer great discounts on cabins during this time. You can save as much as 40% on a cruise trip in comparison to other times of the year. The cons during this period, especially in July and August, is that sporadic hurricanes and storms are possible. This can result in cancellations or delays in your cruise. These storms won’t typically last longer than 3 to 4 days.
Peak season is between October to December. The downside during this time, is that it can become overrun with tourists. This is especially true between Christmas and New Year. So if you don’t like the crowds, then you’re going to want to avoid this time of year.
Why a Trip to Halong Bay is Worth it
Whether you take an organized tour from Hanoi to Halong Bay or put together your own trip and spend a few days in Halong Bay, it’s absolutely worth it. I would recommend at least spending a night or two in Halong Bay. But, if a day trip is all you can manage, then don’t miss the opportunity. You really shouldn’t come to Vietnam and miss the chance to visit this iconic and breathtaking part of the country. The landscape is truly magnificent and the views are absolutely stunning!
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