Halong Bay aerial view

Is Halong Bay Overrated? Is It Worth Visiting?

Halong Bay is a mystical, magical, incredibly scenic place that is world famous. It was rated as one of the new 7 natural wonders of the world so it should be an amazing place where you discover constant wonders at every turn.

Or so it seemed.

Halong Bay is a visually stunning place and there’s no debate about it. Thousands of towering limestone cliffs and beautiful coves are what’s on the menu and there’s no shortage of jaw dropping views. I went on a 3 day 2 night Halong Bay cruise while on my multi week Vietnam trip. However, everything else that goes along with the experience makes the experience less than amazing.

This blog post will go into detail on why exactly I think Halong Bay is overrated and whether it really is worth it to visit?

Halong Bay is very beautiful however

For starters, Ha Long Bay is an incredibly stunning location and definitely one of the natural wonders of the world. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, known for its scenic beauty and unique geology. The bay consists of thousands of limestone karsts and islets, which rise sharply from the water and create a dramatic and awe-inspiring landscape.

The limestone karsts in Ha Long Bay were formed over millions of years by a combination of geological processes, including erosion and tectonic activity. The result is a spectacular maze of towering cliffs, caves, and arches, all surrounded by crystal-clear waters.

The karsts vary in size and shape, with some rising to more than 100 meters in height. They are covered in lush vegetation, including tropical forests and mangrove swamps, and provide a home to a wide variety of plant and animal species, many of which are endemic to the region.

How Halong Bay cruising works

If you’re early in your Halong Bay planning, this section will go into detail about everything you need to know.

Booking a Halong Bay Cruise

The only way to see Halong Bay is by booking a boat cruise that sails through the park. There are hundreds of different boats that sail through Halong Bay and it can be a daunting task to figure out which boat to go with.

halong bay vietnam cruise
halong bay vietnam cruise
halong bay vietnam cruise

The first question you need to answer is how long you want to cruise for? You can choose anything between a day trip from Hanoi to multiple nights on the boat. Some of the cruise boats are big enough just to make a day trip while other boats are proper cruise boats that can fit 100 people and are equipped to sit out at sea for weeks at a time.

halong bay vietnam cruise

After reading plenty of blog posts, I decided I wanted the full experience and to not rush it by booking a 3 day 2 night cruise throughout Halong Bay. Again, there are multiple boats that make this trip so you just need to read the reviews and see what you like.

halong bay vietnam cruise

These multi-night cruises all follow very similar itineraries by visiting various viewpoints, kayaking through the cliffs, visiting remote villages in the park, and cave tours. Food is served entirely on the boat which is a buffet style offering of different local dishes. This whole trip kind of reminded me of my Nile cruise in Egypt where we also stopped along the way to visit different temples.

halong bay vietnam cruise

So in summary, here are your options for cruising Halong Bay:

  • Day trip: Pickup from Hanoi early in the morning and sail on a boat for the majority of the day before returning to Hanoi. Short and sweet.
  • 2 days/1 night: Main highlights of the bay will be met along with sleeping on a cruise boat.
  • 3 days/2 nights: This is the option I went with as it allowed me to spend more time in the park. On the itinerary is kayaking, visiting virgin caves, biking through remote villages, and time on a beach.

Cruising Halong Bay with the MGloria boat by Dora Cruises

I ended up booking 2 nights on the Mgloria boat. It’s one of the newer boats that belong the fleet of other Halong Bay cruises from Dora. The price was reasonable at around $250 per night for 2 people and the pictures looked very nice. The rooms were spacious and comfortable offering views of the bay.

halong bay vietnam cruise

You could easily spend much more money if you wanted to as I saw plenty of incredible looking boats like the Elite Seas, Scarlet Pearl, or Steller of the Seas. Additionally, you could spend much less to stay on older and more economical boats.

halong bay vietnam cruise

Why I disliked Halong Bay

So without further ado, it’s time to talk about why I think Halong Bay is a bit overrated and not the place I thought it would be. These are entirely my opinion and based on my experience. I know there are many people out there that absolutely love Halong Bay and treasure their experience. It just was not mine.

Trash is everywhere in Halong Bay

Halong Bay, one of Vietnam’s most popular tourist destinations, has a significant trash problem that has been building up for many years. The problem has been exacerbated by the increasing number of visitors to the area, which has resulted in an accumulation of plastic waste and other debris in the water and on the beaches.

One of the major causes of the trash problem is the lack of proper waste management systems in the region. Many local communities and businesses do not have access to adequate waste collection and disposal services, which has led to the improper disposal of trash in the water and on the land. Additionally, the large number of tourists who visit Halong Bay each year generates a significant amount of waste that is not always properly managed.

The Vietnamese government has taken some steps to address the issue, including implementing a ban on single-use plastics in the region. However, enforcement of these regulations can be challenging, and more needs to be done to prevent plastic waste from entering the waterways.

Several organizations and businesses have also taken action to address the trash problem in Halong Bay. For example, some cruise operators have implemented recycling programs and organized beach clean-up events. Additionally, local NGOs have been working to raise awareness about the importance of proper waste management and the impact of trash on the environment.

While efforts are being made to address the trash problem in Halong Bay, it remains a significant challenge. Travelers can help by being responsible tourists and following sustainable travel practices, such as bringing reusable water bottles and bags, avoiding single-use plastics, and properly disposing of trash.

Everything is a production and too commercialized

Everything in Halong Bay just felt like a bit of a production, and not a good one. Everything here is catered to tourists and the schedule just feels so forced and uninspired. For example, they said we would visit remote villages on one of the islands. We did visit the village, and it was remote, but it was far from anything special. It was just purely a tourist village with hardly anything to see.

halong bay vietnam cruise

In addition, the “caves” we explored were an assembly line of row boats servicing every other cruise boat in the park. The said cave was hardly even a cave, but more just a few pieces of rock. Vietnam has insane caves so to have this as your highlight is somewhat pathetic.

I understand that many tourists probably just want to relax and not do much but overall, it wasn’t my favorite part of the trip.

Overcrowding is a problem in Halong Bay

Halong Bay is probably Vietnam’s biggest draw and most visited tourist site. It spans 1500 square kilometers so you’d think there would be plenty of space to venture and roam through the mountains of the bay. Sadly, this is just not true.

There are 800 boats that regularly cruise through Halong Bay including 600 overnight cruise ships (big boats) and 200 day boats. 2019 saw almost 4m tourists visiting the bay including a large contingent of domestic tourists. The problem is that most of these boats leave from the same port and follow the same path through the park. This causes boats to be crammed next to each other reducing the natural spectacle before you.

When my boat was docked, there would be at least 30 other boats within view. It simply baffled me that within such a massive park, they couldn’t just spread out a bit more?

How to have a better experience at Halong Bay

Don’t worry, Halong Bay is still very much worth visiting but here are the things I would take into consideration (that I wish I knew before visiting) for your trip.

Go on a day trip instead of overnight trips

Ultimately, I think the 3 day 2 night cruise I did was too long. I thought I was getting something other than what I received and therefore, I think reducing the amount of time you spend in Halong Bay is the pro move.

If I could do it over again, I would elect for the day trip from Hanoi and focus my time on the far north of Vietnam instead. A full day gives you plenty of time to take pictures and see the landscapes of Halong Bay. To be honest, the landscapes from area to area are more or less the same so you are not going to miss out from a multi day cruise.

If you really want to stay on a boat, I would then just elect for a 2 day 1 night cruise. The second night is absolutely unnecessary in my opinion.

Visit Bai Tu Long Bay instead

Halong Bay is a huge national park and it’s only fitting that there are many areas to explore with plenty of alternatives to the typical itinerary. Bai Tu Long Bay is one of those alternatives.

Bai Tu Long Bay is located on the far east side of Halong Bay and is nearest to the South China Sea. This area sees far fewer boats and actually provides more stunning scenery in my opinion. I actually read about this area as an alternative to Halong Bay but ultimatey didn’t book it. It was only after talking to other friends that elected for a cruise in Bai Tu Long Bay that I saw the more beautiful and picturesque photos!

Bai Tu Long bay is generally a bit cheaper than Halong Bay given how much less touristy it is. Cruises will still function in the same way in both places but you can expect less boats, cleaner waters, and more picturesque scenery!

Visit at the right time of year

Halong Bay is one of those places where weather makes a huge difference. Depending on the time of year, you might get an incredible experience or a lackluster one depending on the weather.

Halong Bay sunrise beautiful view

The best times of year to visit Halong Bay in my opinion are May-June, and September to November. These are generally the dry seasons with more sunshine and less probability of storms. December to Feb is stormy season as well as June to September. March-May is a good time of year for temperature but is often overshadowed by air pollution coming from Laos and Cambodia as they practice slash and burn.

I visited during April and while the weather was good on paper, I couldn’t see much at all because of the smoke.

Halong Bay is still a beautiful place to visit

With that said, I still think it’s worth a visit to Halong Bay if you’re already in Vietnam. It is simply not the amazing place I thought it would be because of these points I’ve made. This is also no fault of the cruise boat itself. While I know some others that have had terrible experiences with their Halong Bay cruise, the staff on my boat were very attentive and friendly. Simply, they couldn’t save a trip that just wasn’t that impressive.

halong bay vietnam cruise

Halong Bay is quickly turning into a Koh Phi Phi Leh in Thailand or a Boracay in Philippines. COVID-19 was actually beneficial for the area as it allowed the nature to heal. Nevertheless, I highly doubt Vietnam will limit the tourists any time soon as this is a big part of the local economy.

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