With its stunning natural landscapes and rich heritage, Ha Long Bay is one of Vietnam’s most unforgettable travel destinations and really should be on every traveler’s bucket list when planning their Vietnam trip. The bay found its first fame in the 1992 French drama film Indochine. The film was set in French colonial Indochina during the 1930s to 1950s, shot mainly in Halong Bay. In 1993, at the 65th Academy Awards, Indochine won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. One year after, Halong Bay was listed as a World Heritage Site in 1994, giving the bay another tourism boost.
These days, only some itineraries to Vietnam overlook Halong Bay. Most travelers rank it as a must-visit destination. But while being the most famous, Ha Long Bay is actually one of three stunning bays which sit in the Gulf of Tonkin, the others being Lan Ha Bay, and Bai Tu Long Bay. Collectively these bays offer some of the most breathtaking scenery in Vietnam, with their towering limestone cliffs, sun-drenched islands, crystal-clear waters, spectacular caves, and peaceful fishing villages.
To help make sure you make the most of this incredible experience when visiting this part of the country, we’ve created this ultimate guide that covers not just Ha Long Bay but all the bays in the region. From exploring the many caves to cruising on traditional junk boats, we will include everything you need to know. Whether you're an adventure seeker, a culture enthusiast, or simply looking for a relaxing escape, the Gulf of Tonkin’s unique bays has something to offer everyone.
March to May and September to November are considered the best times of year to visit Ha Long Bay and the surrounding bays in the Gulf of Tonkin. During these months, the weather is mild and comfortable, with temperatures ranging from 20-28°C. There is also a better chance of the skies being clearer, ensuring amazing views of stunning natural landscapes, which makes all the difference at sunrise and sunset!
As mentioned, Ha Long Bay, Lan Ha Bay, and Bai Tu Long Bay all offer incredible experiences with their stunning natural landscapes. However, they are slightly different, and to help you find the best bay for you, here is a quick comparison:
- Ha Long Bay: Being the most well-known bay among the three, Ha Long Bay boasts over 1,600 limestone karst islands and islets, which form a spectacular seascape that attracts millions of tourists every year. When visiting Ha Long, travelers can embark on stunning voyages, experience the bay up close by going kayaking or hiking, or enjoy a sunset view from one of the many viewpoints of the bay. It is also a great choice for those who love history and culture as Ha Long Bay is steeped in myths and legends, with many stories about dragons and emperors. The bay can sometimes be crowded, but it has more amenities and infrastructure than the other bays, making it a great option for those who want a mix of adventure and comfort. Typically cruises depart from Tuan Chau Harbor and also less often Bai Chay Harbor.
- Lan Ha Bay: Located southeast of Cat Ba Island, Lan Ha Bay is a hidden gem that is becoming increasingly popular among travelers. The bay features fewer tourist boats and crowds, making it a more peaceful and intimate experience. The scenery is just as stunning as Ha Long Bay, with hundreds of limestone islands, crystal-clear waters, and beautiful beaches. Visitors can explore hidden caves, go rock climbing, or relax on secluded beaches. Not to mention the many small fishing villages, providing travelers with an opportunity to experience the local culture and the region’s way of life. Lan Ha Bay is perfect for those who want a more off-the-beaten-path experience. For this bay, cruises typically start from Tuan Chau Harbor.
- Bai Tu Long Bay: Being not quite as grand in scale as the other bays, with its smaller caves, limestone peaks, and villages, Bai Tu Long Bay attracts fewer tourists and is less commercialized. Therefore, Bai Tu Long Bay is an excellent option for those seeking tranquility and immersion in nature. Visitors can take a traditional junk boat tour, go fishing with locals, or visit fishing villages to learn about their way of life. Bai Tu Long Bay is perfect for travelers who want to disconnect from the world and enjoy the natural beauty of Vietnam. Cruises that have Bai Tu Long itineraries typically start from Hon Gai Harbor.
So, you have decided when to travel and picked the best bay for you, but what is the best way to explore and experience the stunning and unique landscapes of Ha Long, Lan Ha, and Bai Tu Long Bays? Here are two awesome options:
- From the Air: For a truly unforgettable experience, taking to the skies on a helicopter tour over the bays is an excellent choice. Such tours provide a bird’s eye view, showcasing incredibly the magical limestone cliffs, crystal-clear waters, and picturesque fishing villages. It is the perfect way to appreciate the grandeur of these bays from a different perspective and see how truly vast they are. Additionally, a helicopter tour also allows visitors to access remote and hard-to-reach areas that are not accessible by boat or land.
- Cruising in style: A classic way to explore the bays is to take a traditional junk boat cruise. These boats are designed with Vietnamese traditional elements and offer a comfortable and luxurious experience. The boat cruises through the emerald waters of the bays, providing spectacular views of the towering limestone cliffs, and the many hidden caves. Some cruise boats also offer a range of activities, including kayaking, swimming, and hiking, allowing you to explore the bays up close. For those looking for a more relaxed experience, some cruises boast on-deck spa facilities and offer delicious traditional Vietnamese cuisine. All in all, there are many cruise options to choose from suiting every traveler’s budget and style.
While it is possible to capture the magic of bays in a day tour, for some it may not be enough to fully appreciate the natural beauty and cultural significance of the heritage site. Below we have broken down the top cruise options in Ha Long Bay available to help find the best for your vacation.
- A day tour: of the bays is the quickest and most budget-friendly way and typically includes a few hours of cruising, visiting a floating village, and stopping off at one of the more touristy caves. While Day tours provide a wonderful glimpse of the beautiful landscapes and cultural attractions and are ideal for those who have only a few hours to spare, it might feel a bit rushed, and tours may not include some of the hidden gems and secluded areas to fully immerse yourself in the experience.
- A one-night cruise: allows for more in-depth exploration with more cruises, village visits, and cave adventures. Additionally, you will have the time to get up close to the area, taking part in such activities as kayaking, swimming, or hiking. The best reason to take up a one-night cruise however is to be able to witness the beauty of the bay during sunset and sunrise and experience the peacefulness of the night-time waters.
- A two-night cruise: is the best option for those who want to fully immerse themselves in the beauty and culture of the region. Not only will you have a chance to enjoy all the amazing experiences we have mentioned, but you have the chance to go further, and get away from the crowds, ensuring you experience the tranquility of the bay. Additionally, on a two-night cruise, depending on what cruise package you opt for you may even have a chance to visit not one but two bays. All in all, a two-night cruise allows for a more leisurely and immersive experience, making it the ideal option for those with more time and a bigger budget
- A three-night cruise: is the ultimate experience for those seeking to indulge in the wonders of one or even multiple bays in the Gulf of Tonkin. With an additional night, you'll have even more time to explore the natural wonders, try more activities, and discover the area's cultural sites. A three-night cruise also allows for fantastic opportunities for relaxation and rejuvenation, making it the perfect choice if you really want to indulge and spoil yourself.
As there is something very special about being out on the water, surrounded by truly breathtaking scenery, cruises are by far the most popular choice when exploring the bays of the Gulf of Tonkin. Picking the right cruise provider though can make all the difference. Our advice is If you're looking for a cruise that won't sink your expectations, choose a luxury option, and take on your voyage of wonder in style.
Here are 5 main reasons why:
- Sensational Cuisine: A luxury cruise typically includes gourmet meals prepared by highly skilled chefs. Guests can indulge in delicious Vietnamese cuisine, with fresh seafood caught right from the bay. It is an unforgettable way to sample the best culinary options that can be found in the country.
- Stunning accommodation: Such luxury cruises allow you to enjoy the bays in incredible comfort with 5-star cabin experiences offering plush bedding, ensuite bathrooms, and even private balconies. Every detail is designed to ensure guests rest and rejuvenate in a haven of peace and tranquility while onboard.
- Well-crafted itineraries: Guests are taken to the most beautiful and remote corners of Ha Long Bay and surrounding bays thanks to the carefully crafted itineraries that can be found on luxury cruises. Guests have the chance to go beyond the touristy spots, experiencing something truly special.
- Once-in-a-lifetime activities: In the stunning landscape, guests can have the chance to experience activities like never before. Experiencing Tai Chi during the morning light and kayaking in remote spots indulging in massage treatment and enjoying cooking demonstrations at sunset, are truly memorable in the region’s unique location.
- Full Spa Experiences: Luxury cruises go beyond just massage services, instead offering onboard spas with expert therapists, luxurious treatments, and spa facilities such as a sauna, steam room, and Jacuzzi. These facilities provide a perfect way to relax and unwind after a day of exploring.