Last year, my friend Sarah and I went on a 2-day/1-night Halong Bay Cruise. Halong Bay (sometimes written as Ha Long Bay) in Northern Vietnam is one of the most beautiful places to which I’ve ever been. UNESCO designated the area a World Natural Heritage site in 1994. The Bay, which covers over 600 square miles, is home to 1,969 limestone islands. If you are planning to spend any time in Northern Vietnam, you should add Halong Bay to your itinerary. If you want to learn more about what to do in Hanoi while you’re there, check out my blog post on 48 Hours in Hanoi.
Read on below to learn what your 2-day/1-night Halong Bay cruise experience may be like.
Halong Bay Cruise – Day 1
Trip from Hanoi
The departure port for all of Halong Bay’s junk boats is about three hours from Hanoi. Your driver will pick you up from your hotel in Hanoi and drive you to the port. Along the way, you will probably stop at a rest stop/marketplace in the countryside. The goods in the marketplace are beautiful hand-made Vietnamese items like tapestries, glass bowls, woven fabrics, and lacquered vases. You know everything is authentic because you can see the goods being made right in the marketplace! Note that payment for everything, including food and drink, is cash-only. If you don’t have a chance to buy something on the way to the boat you will likely stop here again on the way back.
Port Arrival and Departure
From what we could tell, all of the junk boats departed from the same port. When we arrived there were hundreds of people waiting to board the myriad junk boats in the harbor. Our guide led us efficiently through the crowds to our dinghy that brought us to our boat. We were on board receiving the safety protocols within an hour of arriving at the port. We then had some time to settle-in and explore the three ship decks before the armada of junk boats made their way into the Bay.
Armada of Halong Bay cruise junk boats
Your visionsof Halong Bay may include a sole junk boat floating along by itself among the islands. In reality, most of the cruises travel the same routes at the same time. The boats are far enough away from each other that you don’t feel as though it is merely a ship caravan, but the only real difference among cruises was probably the accommodation and food quality. Though we were not on the most expensive cruise, we were impressed with everything our boat offered. The one issue was that WiFi was “available” but didn’t really work. Even so, this “problem” added to the secluded nature experience of the weekend.
Once our Halong Bay cruise had set sail, we were treated to the most delicious lunch. Dishes were served one at a time, and they just kept coming! There were vegetables, rice, fish, and other meat along with delicious sauces. All the food on the cruise was included, but drinks cost extra at about $5 USD per drink. If you buy drinks, you will keep a tab throughout the trip and pay at the end.
The dining room on our junk boat
Hang Sung Sot Caves
The Hang Sung Sot cave complex was the first stop for our Halong Bay cruise (and many other cruises). Hang Sung Sot means “Cave of Surprises”. Many of the islands have caves in them. The Hang Sung Sot cavern is one of the largest in the Bay. We spent about an hour hiking up to the cave entrance, exploring the cavern, and taking in the sights from a few hundred feet above the Bay. During our visit, we were told about the natural history of the caves and some Vietnamese folklore, like the importance of the dragon and the tortoise to the area.
Hang Sung Sot Cavern
View from the island with Hang Sung Sot Cave
Ti Top Island
Your next stop will be the beaches of Ti Top Island. Ti Top was a Russian cosmonaut who visited Halong Bay in 1962. During his visit to the Bay, Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh named an island after him. His statue is one of the first things you encounter when you arrive from your junk boat. Just beyond the landing site is a recreational beach with a swimming area, sand to lay on, concessions available for purchase, and even a volleyball net! Our cruise gave us about an hour to enjoy the area on the first day. We sat on the beach enjoying fresh coconut water and fruit, then spent some time swimming in the warm Bay waters. The one downside to the area is the presence of jellyfish, but overall it was a fun experience.
Statue of Ti Top that greets you on Ti Top Island
Ti Top Beach
Evening Activities Onboard
Upon returning to the junk boat, you have time to shower and enjoy a (complimentary) drink on the roof deck before dinner. With about 20 guests on board, you have plenty of space to spread out and grab a deck chair to watch the islands sail by. You also have the chance to meet some fascinating travelers from around the world. I encourage you to use your downtime on board to learn about the other guests’ experiences.
Roof deck of our junk boat
Dinner again consists of many different courses served individually. For this meal, the head chef puts on a show cooking the main dish on the stern of the ship! The V’Spirit Cruise chef put on a show for the guests with lots of fire and theatrics while cooking a fish-and-vegetable stir fry for us all to enjoy.
On-board cooking demonstration
You will probably have the option of trying to go squid fishing after dinner. When your junk boat anchors for the night and shuts off its main lights, your guide may hand out long rods with strings attached that you hold over the side of the boat in the hopes of catching squid. If you do manage to catch something, it will be served the next day for lunch. However, none of our guests had any luck fishing, so our boat had extra squid on board to serve us anyway.
Trying to spot squid for fishing over the side of the boat
Halong Bay Cruise – Day 2
You may have the option of an early-morning Tai Chi class on day two. After class, during breakfast, you Halong Bay cruise guide will tell you about the activities for the day ahead. These activities include kayaking among the islands, visiting a floating village, a cooking class during lunch, and a visit to a pearl factory on the way back to Hanoi.
I am not usually an early-riser or a morning person, but when presented with the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a tai chi class on a junk boat roof deck while floating through Halong Bay, I had to take advantage of it. The boat’s instructor led the guests through a series of gentle exercises to help wake us up, get our blood flowing, and connect with the nature around us. No rooftop or beach yoga class has ever been as peaceful as this was.
Early morning tai chi class
Halong Bay used to be filled will permanent residents in floating villages. These consisted of rafts tied together with house structures atop them for living and schooling. The residents ate mostly fish caught in the Bay. They made money by selling goods to tourists on the junk boats. Recently, the Vietnamese government provided incentives for the residents to move from the floating villages into land communities. It is considered both safer for the residents and better for the environment for them to live on land.
While controversial in many ways, one downside of this policy for tourists is the lack of floating villages to now visit. Our tour group saw just one in the area in which we went kayaking. There was one resident who pulled up to our boat to try and sell some things, but the village wasn’t as active or bustling as it probably would have been years ago.
Woman from a nearby floating village selling her wares to tourists in the Bay
The majority of day two was spent kayaking in our own little corner of the Bay. Each junk boat has its own space in which to go kayaking: no other boats were in our area. We had the choice to just kayak around the bay or explore the caves and shores of the islands around us. Sarah and I opted for the latter. We had the best time traveling between the islands to see their natural beauty practically untouched by humans.
(photo credit: Sarah)
On the way back to port you will probably receiving a cooking demonstration and class from the head chef. We saw myriad vegetables transformed into beautiful flowers with a paring knife. Then, we were provided ingredients for spring rolls and taught how to add water to the rice wrapper, choose our fillings, and wrap the rolls. These became the first course in our filling lunch, the last meal on our Halong Bay cruise.
Vegetable flowers prepared by the head chef
On the trip back to Hanoi, we first stopped at a local pearl factory. Halong Bay is filled with oysters that the Vietnamese use to create pearls. We were shown how a pearl is initiated in an oyster, how the pearl forms, how it is harvested, and how it is made into jewelry. Of course, part of this tour included the implication that the tourists should purchase some of the final products, but I found the prices outlandish for Vietnam. Luckily, the sellers weren’t too pushy and we could admire the jewelry without buying anything.
Watching pearls pulled from oysters at the pearl factory
My Halong Bay cruise experience was phenomenal; I recommend it to anyone planning to go to Northern Vietnam! If you want to have the same experience as Sarah and I, you can book the cruise we took here: V’Spirit Cruise.*
Our global cruise group and guide!
*Note that if you use this link I receive some compensation at no extra cost to you. Thank you!
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Aside from wanting to visit every country in the world, Vietnam was never high on my travel priority list. I didn’t know much about the country and had heard great things about places like Thailand and Indonesia so I thought they would be my next Southeast Asian destinations. However, last year a friend who knows how much I love traveling was looking for someone to explore Vietnam with her. She implored me to look into the country before saying “no.” After doing some research, mainly on travel blogs like The Blonde Abroad and Nomadic Matt, I determined it was a great time to visit Vietnam! See below for recommendations from our first stop, the capital city Hanoi.
Favorite Tourist Attractions in Hanoi
Hanoi’s Old Quarter
We arrived late on a Saturday night in Hanoi after traveling for over 20 hours from Boston by way of Tokyo. Our hotel, Hanoi Imperial Hotel*, was located in the Old Quarter a few steps from Hoan Kiem Lake. Though it was very late, we were able to find dinner by the lake and explore the plaza. There were locals who were sitting around on plastic stools talking and listening to music. The atmosphere was very relaxed, which was exactly what we wanted after a long flight. We bought a couple of beers from the convenience store for less than $1 and wandered around the area. The lake was beautiful with the bright red bridge in the center. Though the temple was closed at night, we still explored its exterior architecture. We even encountered a man meditating on a rock pile, who had been so quiet and still when we first passed him we didn’t even notice he was there!
Man mediating by the tree on top of the rock monument
Tran Quoc Pagoda and Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum
The next two days were spent walking all over the city doing sightseeing. We traversed the streets in the heat up to West Lake, a bustling shopping and food area with the Tran Quoc Pagoda on a peninsula in the center. This was where we encountered our first cultural difference experience. While it was easily over 90 degrees Fahrenheit, no one was allowed onto the peninsula with bare shoulders or knees. My friend was reasonably wearing a tank top. This caused her to be barred from entry not only by the groundskeeper but even other locals! This happened again later at Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, showing that the custom relates more to their perception of respect and reverence than religion.
Inside the Tran Quoc Pagoda
Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum: we were not able to go inside as Ho Chi Minh was not even there! He was in Moscow at the time.
Perfume Pagoda and Temple of Literature
Both the Chinese and French influences were prevalent throughout the city. China is the regional hegemony and shares a border with Vietnam. It has controlled the Vietnamese land many times throughout history. This is apparent in the architecture, language, and religion in Vietnam. When visiting the Perfume Pagoda and the Temple of Literature, I felt like I was back in Beijing. The architecture is exactly the same as the Chinese Buddhist temples and the Confucian temple of learning. The concept of having a non-religious temple complex build for higher learning and education was also very Chinese.
Inside the Temple of Literature you can see the Chinese influences and food offerings made by locals
The French influence was prevalent less in the tourist attractions and more in the buildings around the city. It was characterized by the bright mustard-colored paint and European designs. Most of the buildings are now Vietnamese government buildings, though there was one church that was clearly French-colonial too.
Hoa Lo Prison
The other French architecture remaining in the city was the Hoa Lo Prison. Built by French colonists in the late 1800s, the prison was originally used to house Vietnamese dissidents. When the Vietnamese threw out their colonists and were fighting Western powers during the Vietnam War, they used Hoa Lo Prison to house Prisoners of War (including John McCain). The experience visiting the prison was sobering but also fascinating and something I recommend to everyone who visits Hanoi.
Thang Long Imperial Citadel
The Imperial Citadel also provides a sobering experience to Western visitors. Restored to its current state in the late 21st century, you can see influences from both Chinese and French architecture in the Citadel. The grounds are beautiful to explore and almost no area is barred to tourists. The complex has been used for government and military functions for centuries. This seems normal until you realize that includes Vietnamese military functions during the Vietnam War. Tourists can visit the room where generals planned attacks on Western forces and the bunker rooms where they hid when under attack. It is another can’t-miss attraction when you are in Hanoi.
Down the stairs leading to the basement bunker
The nightlife in Hanoi is casual and unique in culture, like many other things in the city. If you prefer lounging in high-end clubs, Saigon will be more your speed in Vietnam. If you want to hang out with the locals and wander the streets from bar-to-bar in a vibrant, outdoor city at midnight, be sure to do so in Hanoi.
We were the only non-locals in this bar at the time! They all deterred us from ordering the street food they kept bringing in, probably for the best.
Vietnamese Culture in Hanoi
In Hanoi you can’t help but experience the culture firsthand, even as a tourist. There didn’t seem to be any way for my friend and me to insulate ourselves in a Western-culture bubble while in Hanoi, not that we wanted to!
One of the most important parts of any culture is the food! We enjoyed meals at fancy-but-cheap restaurants and local hot spots with open air seating and plastic stools. Our favorite dishes were the spring rolls (both fried and fresh), beef pho, and Vietnamese barbeque.
Dumplings and hot & sour soup at Fu Rong Hua
Fresh Spring Rolls
Beef Pho Soup, local fish, and local Vietnamese wine from the Dalat region
Barbeque on the street at Bo Nuong Xuan Xuan
Papaya shrimp salad, fresh and fried spring rolls, and soup at Ngon Villa
Eating Bun Cha at the same restaurant President Obama visited with Anthony Bourdain, Bún Chả Hương Liên!
The “Obama Special” Bun Cha meal
Because of the purchasing power parity in our favor, my friend and I knew that we wanted to get massages while in Vietnam. We had one at our hotel for $20 which was amazing. The next day we found a spa on a side road in the Old Quarter that we liked even more, the Midori Spa Hanoi. The services here were great and the massage was only $15. Best of all, the spa was also part of a social justice project. All the masseuses were blind! In Vietnam, where most jobs are service-related, sight-impaired citizens have trouble finding meaningful work. The Midori Spa hires blind people, trains them in massage therapy, and has them work like any other masseuse would. We loved being able to help such a great project and also relax while on vacation.
Most people I encounter who visit Vietnam talk about the amazing bespoke clothing they have made for themselves. Unfortunately, my friend and I did not dedicate much time to shopping and therefore ran out of time to have self-designed clothes made. However, I purchased an original dress from a tailor tailor in the Old Quarter a couple of hours before we left for the airport. She even customized to my body by bringing in the waist and raising the hem. The shop had a number of dresses pre-made by the seamstress, and she also offered bespoke services, so if you are looking for specialty clothing I would search for bespoke tailors in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
There were cultural differences in Hanoi that seemed odd to my friend and me, as there would be in any setting different from where you live. We arrived in Hanoi for the National Day weekend celebrations. During this time we saw an unusual Vietnamese custom tied to both the culture and religion: the burning of money as an offering to ancestors. We saw many piles of stuff burning in the middle of sidewalks and roads on the first day, so we thought everyone was burning their trash. We later learned that those were all offerings to ancestors. This seemed odd but acceptable until we saw one woman burning multiple $100 USD bills at the Perfume Pagoda. Perhaps she was wealthy, but she looked no richer than anyone else we had seen on the streets of Vietnam. It seemed completely irrational to us that someone would burn that much money as an offering, especially when we had not seen that much anywhere else in the city.
Another difference that I had expected but my friend had not was the “paparazzi” experience. There are very few white people who visit Vietnam, so seeing us was a rare experience for local people. I never felt unsafe because of my ethnicity or hair, but it did result in many people taking pictures of us or with us! The first time it happened, two women who did not speak English were holding their camera out to my friend at a tourist attraction, so she thought they wanted us to take a picture of them, but after some gesturing we learned that her companion wanted a photo with us. This happened a few more times throughout the trip, an experience we had fun participating in. However, there were also a number of people who randomly took photos of us as we passed them on the street and sat in restaurants. They were less than subtle about it, an unusual experience that made us understand better how celebrities must feel trying to live their everyday lives.
Overall, our visit to Hanoi was incredible in unexpected ways, and I would highly recommend it to anyone considering Southeast Asia! I know there are some negative reviews about Vietnam in a few travel blogs, but as long as you are ready to accept the cultural differences and recognize when something is part of their culture versus locals trying to take advantage of tourists, you will have an enjoyable trip.
*Note that this is an affiliate link, meaning that if you make a booking using this link I get some bonus at no additional cost to you. Still, I will only link to and recommend places I actually enjoy and want to recommend! Thank you!
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