Halong Bay is one of the most popular and well known sites in Vietnam. It is considered a spectacle of natural beauty and has been awarded Unesco world heritage status due to its dramatic scenery and biological importance. The area consists of over 1600 small islands and inlets, most of which are uninhabited.
As soon as I started planning our trip to Vietnam, Halong Bay was at the top of my list of places I wanted to visit. It is one of those 'Bucket list' places to see in Vietnam. The best way to see Halong Bay is on an overnight cruise, but there are so many options to choose from, it can be overwhelming.
If you’re thinking of booking an overnight cruise to Halong Bay, you might be wondering exactly what that entails. I know I did! Let’s be honest, the cruises are not cheap and if you’re like me, who was on a backpacking budget, you’ll want to know what you are getting for your money.
In this post I’ll be sharing all the details of my overnight cruise in Halong Bay, including my honest review and opinion of the whole experience.
Taking in the stunning scenery sailing around Halong bay
What to expect on an overnight cruise to Halong Bay, Vietnam
How to pick the best Halong bay cruise for you?
There are three main options available for cruising Halong Bay: a day cruise, a 1 night / 2 day cruise and a 2 night / 3 day cruise. Most of the cruises offer a hotel transfer from Hanoi (either included in the price or as an extra cost). The time allowed for the journey from Hanoi to Halong bay is around 2 hours and so if you chose a day trip, you would spend half of your time in the coach, rather than on the boat.
There are many different cruise companies operating in Halong bay, each of them have slightly different itineraries - they may also change their itinerary slightly throughout the year. Therefore, if you want to see a specific attraction in Halong Bay, make sure you read the itinerary before booking.
There are also some budget cruises, so if you are travelling or backpacking on a budget in Vietnam, there are still some great options available for you.
The cruise I selected was a 1 night, 2 day cruise on the Athena cruise ship, which I booked via Azotour. I travelled to Vietnam in May 2022, which was not long after the country re-opened to tourists. This meant that not all of the cruise companies were back up and running yet, so Azotour helped to find me a cruise that fitted my dates and requirements.
(Disclaimer: the Athena cruise itinerary may have changed slightly since I took this cruise, so again, check before booking, but hopefully this post will still give you a good idea of what to expect when cruising in Halong bay).
What is the Athena cruise ship like?
The ship I was on was the Athena. It has 21 bedrooms, most of which are standard bedrooms, but there are also some suites too. All of the rooms have balconies and en-suite bathrooms, as well as a kettle and fridge. The bedrooms are small but very luxurious and the beds were so comfortable! It was definitely a nice change to the firm mattresses we had been used to in our budget hotels! We were lucky enough to be upgraded to a Premium Suite, located at the back of the ship. The suite was only a little bigger than the standard sized rooms, but it didn't matter as we weren't in the room that often. The main advantage of the Premium Suite was that it had a much larger balcony off the back of the boat, perfect for watching the sunset and sunrise.
Most of the rooms are located on the ground floor and the first floor. The ground floor is also where you also get on and off the ship. The dining room is located on the first floor, with floor to ceiling glass windows on three sides and on the third floor you will find the sundeck, with a bar, seating and a small hot tub in the centre (there are also two further suites on this level).
Everything about the cruise ship felt plush, new and well looked after and maintained. The staff were incredibly friendly and professional and the cruise manager kept us updated with the activities and made sure we had everything we needed.
Our Premium Suite and balcony on the Athena cruise ship
What is the itinerary for a 1 night / 2 day Halong bay cruise?
As I mentioned previously, each company has different itineraries, however this was our itinerary on the Athena at the time of cruising.
08.30 Transfer from Hanoi
12.00 Welcome at cruise port
12.30 Transfer to cruise ship via tender boat and check in
13.00 Depart Halong bay harbour and enjoy buffet lunch in the restaurant
14.45 Transfer by tender to Sung Sot Cave (surprising cave)
15.45 Transfer to Titov Island - option to climb to viewpoint and swim
17.15 Return to cruise ship
17.30 Option to take part in Vietnamese cooking demonstration
18.00 Happy hour on sundeck
19.00 Dinner in the restaurant
20.30 After dinner, option to try squid fishing
06.15 Option to take part in Tai Chi on sundeck
06.45 Light breakfast in the restaurant
07.30 Transfer by tender to Luon Cave for kayaking or trip in bamboo boat
09.00 Return to cruise ship
09.30 Check out of rooms and enjoy buffet brunch in restaurant
10.45 Transfer by tender back to Halong bay port
12.00 Board bus back to Hanoi
Below I've shared the full details of my 1 night / 2 day cruise of Halong Bay so you know what to expect before booking your trip:
Day 1 on board the Athena Halong bay cruise
Day 1 on board the Athena cruise was a busy day, jam packed with delicious food and great activities.
Checking in and setting sail
The luxury bus picked us up from our hotel in Hanoi Old Quarter at 8.30am. We stopped to pick some more people up, then we were on our way. The journey from Hanoi to Halong bay cruise port is just under 2.5 hours, but we stopped three times on the way there for a rest break / toilet break! It did feel a bit like the driver was trying to stall a little bit to slow down and stick to the schedule.
Once we were at the cruise port, we were greeted by the cruise manager who checked dietary requirements with us, then we waited for about 30 minutes in the cruise terminal before boarding the tender boat which would take us to the cruise ship.
We left our bags on the tender and made our way to the dining room for a welcome drink - a refreshing watermelon juice - and a safety briefing. After the short welcome, we collected our bags and checked into our rooms.
After checking into our rooms, we set sail to Halong bay and it was time to head back to the dining room to check out the buffet lunch! The lunch was really nice. Options included fried rice, chicken wings, fried sweet potatoes, spring rolls, salad, steamed fish, stir fried vegetables and chicken soup. There was also a selection of fresh fruit and desserts such as sweet coconut rice, profiteroles, and a little coconut cream sponge cake. Tea, coffee and water were also available. If you wanted any other soft or alcoholic drinks you just ordered them with the waiter and charged it back to your room.
The ship stopped and anchored up in Halong bay around 13.45, but we weren’t due to start the first afternoon activity until 14.45, so we weren’t sure what to do with ourselves at first! But we spent the time just relaxing on the sundeck and taking in the view of being surrounded by beautiful limestone island mountains.
Excursion 1: Sung Sot Cave
At 14.45 (they were very punctual throughout our trip!), we boarded the tender boat and went to the first stop which was Sung Sot cave (known as ‘Amazing’ or ‘Surprising’ cave). The cave is one of the biggest attractions in Halong bay. It consists of 3 chambers with the last one being quite large. To be honest, I wasn't expecting much after seeing the Marble Mountains in Da Nang, and the Paradise cave in Phong Nha but it was quite impressive and much bigger than I had anticipated.
There’s 118 stairs to walk up to reach the entrance of the cave and once you’re at the top you’ll be greeted with gorgeous views across the bay. You follow the path around the cave in a big U shape. At times we felt a bit herded through by other people. We like to take our time to really look around and stop to take photos, but it seemed some people just weren’t as interested and marched through. We just let them pass so we could enjoy looking around. The path through the cave is quite smooth and you can easily wear flip flops. It won’t take long to visit the cave and soon we arrived at the tender pick up point, where we were taken to our next stop - Titov Island.
Sung Sot cave
Excursion 2: Titov Island
Titov Island is a small island with a beach and a viewpoint. The walk to the viewpoint is 400m up a set of stairs. It is a steep, but short climb, and there is a handrail to help. Again, wearing flip flops is fine. At the top of the viewpoint you will be rewarded with almost 360 degree views of the bay.
Although the view was impressive, I was a bit disappointed by the number of boats I could see. Not just cruise ships and day trip boats but also huge freight boats and oil tankers. It was a shame really because it kind of ruined the scenery. You could also see the outline of the buildings in the city on the mainland, which was when I realised that we were not actually as far out as I had thought.
The small beach on Titov island was rough sand and the water was murky and not that clean, it was possibly quite polluted from all the boats and oil tankers around the bay. Titov Island is very much there for tourists. There are toilets, showers and several snack bars as well as beach chairs which you can rent. It’s so hard not to make comparisons when you are travelling but I was expecting it to be similar to Nang Yuan Island, off the shores of Koh Tao in Thailand, which although had amenities, felt cleaner, more natural and less commercialised. Despite the boats, the view was really the highlight of this island. I was a bit disappointed with the beach itself if i’m honest.
Back to the ship
After our afternoon visiting Sung Sot Cave and Titov Island, we arrived back on the ship at around 5pm, where we had some free time until dinner. There was an option to take part in a Vietnamese cooking lesson to make fresh spring rolls but we decided to skip that and enjoy relaxing in our room and on our balcony. We surfaced from our room at 6pm, in time for happy hour (of course!). All the drinks were buy one, get one free, except for wine. We were lucky enough to have gorgeous weather during our trip and sitting on the sundeck watching the sunset over Halong bay was just perfect.
Watching the sunset over Halong Bay was a highlight on the trip
The evening meal was a 5 course set menu and was pretty much all seafood! Luckily, at the start of the day, the cruise manager checked with us if there was anything we didn't eat because my husband, Lee, doesn't eat seafood! We didn't think to tell them when we made the booking as normally there's always a couple of options to choose from and there's almost always a chicken or vegetarian dish! Luckily they swapped the seafood elements for beef or chicken for him.
Our dinner menu
Course 1: Seafood soup (chicken soup for Lee)
Course 2: Papaya salad with squid cake (breaded chicken for Lee)
Course 3: Beef noodles
Course 4: Seabass with 2 large shrimps, 2 oysters and rice (Lee had chicken, beef and vegetables with rice)
Course 4: Melon and dragon fruit (unless it's covered in pastry or sat on top of a cheesecake, fruit is not a dessert!)
Course 5: Tea and Coffee (not really a ‘course’)
Apart from the disappointing ‘desert’, the evening meal was nice. The presentation was lovely, as you would expect from a luxury cruise, and it tasted good. However, I think I preferred some of the buffet food we had at lunch!
After dinner there was an option to do squid fishing, which to be honest, I forgot about because we were enjoying ourselves chatting to other people we had met on the ship. Some of the Vietnamese guests did karaoke on the sundeck after dinner too (you’re never far away from a karaoke machine in Vietnam, even on a luxury cruise in the middle of the sea it seems!).
The odd thing on our ship was that half of the guests were foreigners and half were Vietnamese and they pretty much kept us apart the whole time. I suppose on the tender boats it made sense so that the cruise manager could give instructions to them in Vietnamese and to us in English. But for the evening meal, instead of being given individual plates of food like we were, they had everything served to them as big sharing portions. Perhaps it was because they were in big groups, and most of the foreigners were in couples, or maybe it's just because that is how Vietnamese food is often served. I’m not sure, but it felt weird that there was this segregation.
Day 2 on board the Athena Halong bay cruise
Day 2 started with an option to do Tai chi at 6.15am on the sundeck, although I skipped it, deciding to enjoy the comfortable bed for just a bit longer! A buffet breakfast was served at 6.45am and was a selection of cereals, pancakes, pastries, toast and fruit.
Excursion 3 - Kayaking
At 7.30am we got on the tender to Luon cave to do some kayaking (if you didn't want to kayak, there were some bamboo rowing boats you could take instead. You would need to pay for the driver to take you, but I think it was only 30k vnd pp). The cave is actually only 35m long so more of an arch to be honest! You go under the arch and you are in a small circular lagoon in the bay. Although the bay is very pretty with limestone cliffs covered in trees and calm, green-blue water it was quite small and once you'd seen it there wasn't much else to do or see.
We were given 45 minutes for kayaking, which was more than enough given the size of the lagoon we were taken to. Back on the ship, we had 1 hour of free time before check out. It was weird that we had to get up so early for kayaking when we then had an hour of free time before checking out. We sort of felt like we were just hanging out, but it was nice to sit on the balcony as the sun started warming up.
Kayaking in the small but pretty Luon cave
Time to check out
At 9.30am we had to check out of the room leaving our bags outside of our door. We had a buffet brunch, which was a selection of bacon, sausage, fried chicken, bread dumplings, noodles, salad, fried rice and fruit with juice and tea and coffee.
After brunch we relaxed on the sundeck as we sailed back to the port. We had to wait for the tender boat and then once we were in the cruise terminal we waited another 30 mins for the bus.
The bus took about 3 hours and stopped halfway for a rest. It felt like a long day since we got up at 6am and left the boat at 10.45!
My review of the 1 night, 2 day Halong bay cruise with Athena
Staying on the Athena ship did feel like a real treat, particularly for us as we had spent the previous 5 months backpacking on a budget. It was really luxurious and the staff and service was really good.
The food we had was delicious, particularly the buffet lunch and the two breakfasts. The additional drinks we ordered were more expensive than what you might pay in a typical bar on land, but this wasn't a typical bar and I didnt think the drinks were as expensive as I had anticipated.
The excursions were really good. We managed to fit a lot into the 2 days (or 2 half-days if you think about it!) and the itinerary and organisation of everything was really smooth and professional.
It did feel like there was a lot of waiting around, which is a shame because I would rather be on the boat for longer, after all that’s what I’d paid for! It would have been better if we hadn't had so many rest stops on the way to Halong bay, so that we could board sooner and also not have to get up so early on the second day to fit everything in before having to check out.
However, I do understand that they need to do this in order to have back to back bookings. As soon as we checked out of our rooms at 9.30am, housekeeping were straight in turning it around for the next guests to board.
The viewpoint at Sung Sot cave
Was it worth the price we paid?
We paid £270 for our 1 night, 2 day cruise with Athena for two people. The actual cost was £250 but we ended up having to pay a bit more as we didn’t want to pay by bank transfer (we prefer to pay with credit card so that we have added protection). The only way to pay by credit card was via paypal, which meant we were charged a credit card fee and also had to deal with paypal’s rubbish exchange rate!)
If you break down what we got for our £270, we had one night of luxury accommodation, 4 meals for two people, 3 excursions on the ship, transfers to and from Hanoi in a luxury bus, plus the experience of cruising around Halong bay. So although it blew our £60 per day backpacking budget, I think it was actually good value for what we got and the experience we had.
Final thoughts of our Halong bay cruise
Although Halong bay is beautiful, it is nowhere near as beautiful and untouched as Phang Nga Bay in Phuket, or Ang Thong Marine park near Koh Samui, Thailand (in my opinion). To be honest, I think it will be hard to beat the Phang Nga bay tour we did, it is one of my personal favourites from our travels in Asia!
All that being said, I did have a great time on our Halong Bay cruise. It was one of the things I really wanted to do when visiting Vietnam and I’m so glad we did. It was a great experience and I really enjoyed it. We saw some beautiful scenery, enjoyed some delicious food and were spoiled with a bit of luxury and great service - what more could you want from a little trip?!
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