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Halong Bay, Vietnam: A first-timer’s guide

By Faye Bradley 25 August 2020 | Last Updated 21 July 2023

Header image courtesy of Ammie Ngo (via Unsplash)

Scattered with jagged limestone mountains, Halong Bay is a popular attraction amongst tourists—some say it’s even the main highlight of Vietnam’s many treasures. The UNESCO World Heritage site reigns in visitors from all around the world, for those looking to see its natural beauty.

Planning your trip in advance is crucial, especially if you wish to embark on the overnight cruise. We’ve compiled a three-day itinerary to Halong Bay to arrange your trip perfectly and fuss-free. Note: This is just a guideline—every traveller has their own preferences and may choose to alter the itinerary accordingly.

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Getting there

If you’re travelling from Ho Chi Minh, the quickest way to get to Halong Bay is by plane. It’s a two-hour trip from Tan Son Nhat Airport to Van Don Airport, and flights leave daily with local airlines covering the route, including Vietnam Airlines, Vietjet Air, and Bamboo Airways. Taking a bus takes much longer, but if you’ve got time to spare for the views, it will still steal a whopping 40 hours from your holiday.

Things to do

The best thing to do on your trip to Halong Bay is to start it at Hanoi, a three-and-a-half-hour bus ride away. Start by exploring the oldest Buddhist pagoda in Hanoi, the Tran Quoc, followed by the One Pillar Pagoda.

Walk around the Hoan Kiem Lake after devouring a meal at a local Vietnamese restaurant, and stop by the Temple of Literature, the oldest university in the country. Watch a traditional puppet show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre and visit the narrow Hanoi Train Street to finish off the day. Stay the night at one of the city hotels and wake up early for a bus back to Halong Bay. 

There are plenty of things to do once you reach Halong Bay. Hike the steep path leading to Hang Sung Sot Cave on Bon Hon Island, where two cave chambers soar over 30 metres high—a wondrous sight. If you’re into diving, the waters here are magically pristine and offer the opportunity to admire the marine wildlife.

Rent a bicycle and ride across Cat Ba Island, the region’s most popular and biggest island, for a restful idyllic countryside vibe. Animal lovers flock to Monkey Island, a place which is exactly as its name suggests. It’s also a great spot for kayaking and beach-tanning. Whether you’re looking to hike, swim, tan, shop, eat, or kayak, Halong Bay is an exquisite destination which provides a range of things to do for the adventurous soul.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the guide 👇

By Rose Munday 22 January 2020

Choosing your cruise

The Vietnamese government has imposed new regulations on tourists exploring the area, including designated routes through the bay and restricted swimming at beaches, so it’s important to plan ahead and research which cruise suits you best for the overnight stay.

Spoil yourself with a luxury cruise if you’ve got cash to splash. There are a few five-star options which boast sumptuous amenities and accommodation. Prices vary and although there are much cheaper options, splurging on a premium cruise brings better meals, spas, and gyms, and can sometimes even be all-inclusive. Budget travellers are also well-catered too, but these can be riskier in terms of living conditions. Check reviews online and look at photos before booking anything to ensure you don’t end up stuck at sea.

Another option would be to try a day trip to just dip your toes in. These are cheap and convenient but can easily be overcrowded with fellow tourists. Don’t forget to ask about kayaking facilities—it’s usually an add-on price, but it’s well worth it. Some of our personal recommendations include Cat Ba Ventures, Hai Au Aviation, and Handspan Adventure Travel.

When to go

There are many activities to do and places to discover on a trip to Halong Bay, a destination inspired by the legend of it being the dragon’s home. The best time to go is in November, when it’s not too hot and when the seas are at its calmest. If you choose not to do the overnight cruise, there remain a plethora of adventures otherwise (although it’s definitely recommended to at least try the day-tour cruise).

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Faye Bradley


Faye Bradley is a freelance writer based in Hong Kong, covering topics in travel, wellness, F&B, and the arts. As the editor and business development executive for Cha Siu Papers Times and Compare Retreats, Faye has experience in writing predominantly about luxury travel and well-being. With a keen eye for finding hidden gems, exploring new destinations, and tasting best-of-the-best cuisines, she continues to pursue her love for writing about travel and visiting remote lands. You can find her by the pool with a good book and a mojito in hand.