It took me weeks to choose the right Halong Bay cruise. I had Tripadvisor reviews, forums, and blogs coming out of my ears all with different opinions on the ‘best Halong Bay Cruise’. It was a stressful process, so I hope I can shed some light on what to consider when you come to book. Here’s how I chose the best Halong Bay overnight cruise for me and why I’m so glad with the decision I made!
After all the searching, it seemed that there was a general consensus Halong Bay is extremely crowded. There are over 600 Halong Bay cruise ships, all following quite similar itineraries. I experienced a crowded boat tour of the Phi Phi Islands last year and really didn’t want a repeat experience; how was I going to find a Halong Bay cruise off the beaten track?
Indochina Junk is at the very top of Tripadvisor when looking for Halong Bay cruises. I’d previously dismissed them from my search as their prices were a bit higher than some of the luxury cruises with hot tubs and private balconies. I looked into Indochina Junk’s itineraries and learnt that they were the first company to be granted a licence to tour Bai Tu Long Bay, which is still a part of the overall UNESCO World Heritage site of Halong Bay. Central Halong is the extremely busy tourist area whilst Bai Tu Long remains off the beaten track but still boasting the same beautiful scenery.
I decided to book a 3 day/2 night Indochina Junk cruise but still had some reservations. The rooms looked quite small from the photos online and I didn’t know whether Bai Tu Long Bay was going to be as incredible as Halong for its views. Also, Dragon Legend was my first choice of boat but was fully booked on the dates I wanted so I had to book the smaller, Dragon Pearl instead. The rooms didn’t look as spacious as the Dragon Legend but it was quite a bit cheaper.
Our departure day came around really quickly and we were soon in the luxury van on our way from Hanoi to Halong. The transfer is included in the price of the cruise and is actually way more luxurious than it needs to be but makes for a comfortable journey!
We stopped off at Yen Duc village for a water puppet show and lunch halfway through our journey. A lot of Halong cruise companies stop off at this village so I had seen a lot of reviews on Tripadvisor slating the show as touristy and a waste of time. I personally found the show really sweet and don’t know what everyone’s problem was! It only lasted around half an hour after which we were served a huge lunch.
Check-in was a smooth process and we were soon onboard our boat, the Dragon’s Pearl II. I was immediately relieved at how nice our room was, it was a lot more spacious than it looked online and had a good sized bathroom with a walk-in shower. There can be a maximum of 20 guests onboard the Dragon’s Pearl boats, we had 18 in our group, meaning customer service is very personal and you can explore the boat without it being crowded.
The boat has three floors all with balconies wrapped around the outside. On the bottom floor is the kitchen, main door to enter and exit the boat, and the bottom level cabins. Middle floor contains three more guest cabins, the indoor bar and dining area and the outside dining deck. The top floor is the sundeck complete with umbrellas, sun loungers, and 360 views.
We started cruising straight away and our tour guide Chung explained our packed itinerary for the next 3 days. As soon as we embarked and starting making our way through the bay, I realised just how beautiful this part of the world was. I had expected to see a limestone rock maybe once every few miles, but we were looking at dozens all around us for the entire journey.
First up on our onboard itinerary was a brief cooking class in which we all helped the chef to make some spring rolls. I wouldn’t really call it a cooking class, it was more of a quick demonstration on how to make spring rolls and have a go at rolling a couple yourself. I was impressed by how accommodating the crew were to the various dietary needs on board including my own, vegan; separate tofu spring rolls that weren’t sealed with egg white like the others were prepared for me.
We then had a short kayaking trip around the bay before dinner was served on the outside deck. Again I was served a huge variety of dishes whilst everyone enjoyed a mainly seafood based dinner – fried tofu in garlic sauce, vegetable skewers, papaya salad.. the list goes on. I was always extremely full after every meal!
The water in the bay is incredibly still, the boat barely even felt as though it was moving for the whole three days. We therefore had a comfortable night’s sleep in our air-conditioned room, ready for our second day.
Breakfast was traditional Vietnamese Pho (I had a vegetable alternative) followed by toast with jam, or egg and sausage for everyone else.
Chung told us we needed the energy for our kayaking trip and he wasn’t wrong! We kayaked around Bai Tu for roughly an hour and a half which was a great way to explore the bay. We were able to go inside and underneath some of the caves, one of which was called the Dragon’s cave; once we were inside the cave it was pitch black and I could hear a loud, deep grumbling sound that honestly did sound like a dragon. Chung explained the flow of the water in the cave was responsible for the sound that I heard, but I prefer to think there may well be a dragon around..
Our kayaking took us to a remote private beach where we disembarked ready for a BBQ lunch. We had a couple of hours here to swim in the sea and sun-bathe, the water was amazing.
After our barbecue it was back to the boat for a few hours of cruising. Just before sunset we stopped at the Thien Canh Son Cave. Chung explained there are thousands of caves in Halong Bay, but only five can be visited. The government has forbidden entry into the majority of the caves in an effort to conserve them, which is great to hear. The view from the top of the steps, at the entrance to the cave, was incredible.
With quite a small group on board, we came to know our guests quite well through our dinners together. On our final evening, Chung introduced us to the crew on board who had all been working so hard behind the scenes. Some of the chefs had made some amazingly intricate models out of food which they were proud to present to us all. The crew made our trip so special and went above and beyond all hours of the day to be accommodating.
Apart from at night where the boats have to anchor in designated parking stops, we barely saw any other boats for the whole trip. Even in the evening, there were only two or so boats several hundred metres away in the pitch black. Nothing like the reports of hundreds of boats docked together in Halong Bay!
On our last day on the Dragon Pearl junk we stopped off at the Vong Vieng Fishing Village. Local people took us around the floating village on boats so we could see the houses up close. Most of the houses are brightly coloured and have pets on board, we saw quite a few dogs chilling on the edge of the wooden rafts.
The fishing village tour concluded at an oyster farm where we were shown how the oysters were cultivated for jewellery. It was quite interesting, though the vegan in me didn’t agree with it! A couple of hours cruising and one final meal later, we were back in Halong harbour ready to disembark the Dragon Pearl junk.
A Halong Bay overnight cruise is probably the most expensive thing you will buy during your time in Vietnam, it was by a mile for us, but it is so worth it. I can’t imagine coming to Vietnam without seeing this beautiful natural wonder.
Indochina Junk is committed to responsible and sustainable travel. This factored into my overall decision as it’s very important to me. By educating local fisherman about the damaging consequences of waste in the bay and completing clean up projects, Indochina Junk hopes to decrease the rubbish and plastic in the waters. We didn’t see much pollution ourselves thankfully, just the odd plastic bottle here and there.
I’m extremely glad I chose Indochina Junk for this special part of our trip; I’ve already recommended them as the best Halong Bay cruise to the family and friends I know are considering Vietnam for a holiday.
I was so close to booking a luxury boat in Halong Bay over the Dragon Pearl junk because some of the rooms elsewhere looked so luxurious and it was roughly the same price. In retrospect, that would have been ridiculous. The bay is so beautiful that any time spent in your cabin feels like a huge waste of time. You can stay in luxury 5* rooms anywhere, but that’s not what you should come to Halong Bay for. Indochina Junk Dragon Pearl is still a lovely boat, it by no means feels like you’re roughing it! If you do still want to opt for luxury, book well in advance to reserve room on the Dragon Legend – it even has a pool!
The 3 day/2 night duration is also the perfect amount of time for a Halong Bay cruise in my opinion. Of course, I haven’t stayed on a shorter cruise so I’m not sure how it compares, but I think it would be disheartening to start your return to the harbour only a few hours after waking up onboard.
You can watch the full experience of our Dragon Pearl cruise on Youtube. I would love to hear from you if you’re considering visiting Halong Bay (you should) or if you’ve been on a cruise yourself!
Full Disclosure: This post contains my honest opinions and recommendations, like all of my posts! When I had made my decision and came to book with Indochina Junk, I requested and received a small discount on our cruise in exchange for blogging about our experience in an unbiased way.
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