How to choose the perfect Halong Bay Cruise

The sheer number of tour operators in Hanoi's Old Quarter will shock you. Literally every hotel has a tour desk. Just about every other shop seems to be selling tours. Since we're on a budget, we did quite a bit of shopping around. Needless to say, we were quickly overwhelmed with the options.

Here's a breakdown of what we learned shopping for a Halong Bay Cruises. If we had to do it all over again, we would make our way to Cat Ba city and book a private tour from there.

Length of stay

While single day cruises are available, they are not recommended. The travel time from Hanoi alone is 8 hours round trip. Spare yourself the rushing around and stay overnight. Stick with a one or two night trip. Two night trips usually means one night on the boat and one on Cat Ba island.

Start with your itinerary

Do you want to sail the bay? Go Caving? Kayaking? Swim? Fish? Play on the beach? Decide what activities you'd like to do before shopping for boats.

Pick a boat

Pay attention to the name of the boat. We counted at least 50 boats in the harbor. Boats fall into one of three classes: budget, mid-range, and luxury.


  • Bhaya Classic Cruise
  • Paradise Luxury Cruises
  • Indochina Sails
  • Victory Star Cruise
  • Jasmine Cruise
  • Violet Cruise
  • Ginger Cruise
  • Au Co Cruise


  • Aclass Opera Cruise
  • Glory Cruise
  • Paloma Cruise
  • Red Dragon Cruise
  • Dragon Pearl Cruise
  • Luxury Imperial Cruise
  • Emotion Cruise
  • An Nam Junk
  • Calypso Cruise
  • Halong Syrena Cruise



  • Poseidon Sails
  • Dragon Cruise
  • Marguerite Cruise
  • Aclass Cruise
  • Elizabeth Cruise
  • Phoenix Cruiser
  • Oriental Sails
  • Imperial Cruise
  • Alova Gold Sails

We chose a budget boat and booked the Imperial Junk for $337 for 5 of us (2 Adults and 3 kids ages 5, 4 and 11 months) for 3d/2n.  We were pleasantly surprised to be upgraded to the Luxury Imperial cruise.  My thinking is no one else was crazy enough to book the cheap boat or the cheap boat doesn't exist.

Understand the cruise type

There seems to be 3 categories of cruises
  1. Conveyor belt. This was what we ended up on.
  2. Set cruise that actually goes out for 3 days and 2 nights and you stay on the boat the entire time 
  3. The private boat experience

The conveyor belt cruise is designed maximize the number of visitors  The boat does the same circle daily, harbor to night anchor spot and back to harbor the next day then repeat.  Booking 2d/1n or 3d/2n the boat does the same.  The only difference is you are shuffled to a smaller boat and taken to Cat Ba for the second night and the brought back on the same smaller boat to meet with the same cruise to go back to the harbor the third day.  The cycle repeats.

If you are looking for a private boat head to Cat Ba island on your own.  Spend a few nights there, it is a beautiful place.  Search out the boat operators, they are easy to find, and negotiate a good deal which includes all your food, kayaking or whatever entertainment you want.  The private boats will be able to take you where there are no crowds.  We spotted private boats on our third day there when we were further out in the bay on our own private tour.  Don't expect 5 star but most of the boats seemed perfectly fine.

Of course, the number one rule for going on a Halong Bay cruise is to set your expectations very, very low.  We did and we were pleasantly surprised and had an amazing time!

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