Located in the Gulf of Tonkin, Halong Bay’s nearly 1,700 islands and islets is deservedly one of Vietnam’s top tourist destinations. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, “Halong” means “Descending Dragon” in Vietnamese, so-named for the way its jungle-clad limestone islands resemble the undulating body of a dragon when viewed from above.
Best yet, the islands are largely uninhabited and unaffected by human presence, keeping the incredibly scenic seascapes extraordinarily pristine.
In an effort to minimize the effects of overtourism, the Vietnamese government has severely limited the routes which ships can take through Halong Bay and nearby Lan Ha Bay. This means that your choice of ship among the 300 or so plays a huge factor in how much you’ll enjoy your Halong Bay cruise.
Here are our 5 top picks of Halong Bay overnight cruises:
Best Vintage Cruise: Emeraude Classic Cruises
It’s hard to stand out amongst hundreds of boats, but the vintage Emeraude manages to do just that. Personally selected by celebrity foodie Anthony Bourdain for his 2016 Vietnam episode of “Parts Unknown”, the Emeraude has a fascinating backstory.
Originally a turn-of-the-century French paddle steamer which was ahead of its time featuring electric operating lights, a system of ventilation and refrigeration, and even darkrooms for photography, the modern-day Emeraude was recreated from a vintage postcard found in a Parisian flea market.
The new Emeraude features wooden decks, vintage décor inspired by Indochine times, and a wraparound promenade to go with its extremely rare steel hull (the vast majority of Halong Bay cruise ships are wooden), making it not only stylish, but one of the safest ships in Halong Bay.
“All the modern conveniences, all the charms of the past. It fits perfectly with my over-romantic delusions and in general it does not suck,” said Bourdain of the Emeraude with his usual dry wit. Summing up his plans for the day, the much-loved chef said: “A drink or two on the top deck. Check. Now for the rest of the day, try to do as little as possible.”
However, most guests aboard the 4-star, mid-range Emeraude will have the opposite problem – choosing from the packed itinerary which includes welcome cocktails on the top deck, some of the best meals on the bay, excursions to caves and floating pearl farms, swimming, kayaking, and hiking, an after-dinner movie, squid fishing, and more.
Best Service: L’Azalée Deluxe Cruise
Another make-or-break factor to your Halong Bay cruise is the service you receive on board. With tightly-packed itineraries and relatively close quarters, service on board will have more of an impact than on a traditional land-based holiday. From efficient dining room staff to guides who can make Halong’s unique scenery and history come alive, you’ll likely want to choose a cruise known for its above-and-beyond customer service.
The L’Azalée Deluxe Cruise perennially receives high scores for the quality of its customer service. With only 12 cabins, this mid-range ship is all about socializing with fellow passengers and crew.
Enjoy meals together in the cozy dining room with floor-to-ceiling windows which also hosts cooking demonstrations where everyone can have a go at making Vietnamese snacks and learning how to carve vegetable garnishes. The cruise director, Dat, is also mentioned by name in lots of TripAdvisor reviews for being the perfect host (and his Jackie Chan-like humor).
For the ultimate in personalized service, L’Azalée Cruises also operates the only single-cabin cruiser in Halong Bay with five staff (including a personal chef and your own butler / guide) to look after just two passengers. Expect a highly customized experience aboard the L’Azalée Premium Private Cruise where passengers have a say in everything from the menu to the itinerary.
Best Budget Cruise: Rosa Cruise
You won’t find overnight Halong Bay cruises for dirt cheap (at least if minimum safety standards are a concern) as cruise fares typically include a government-imposed USD 25 tourist fee to visit the attractions.
However, good budget boats are to be had, including the 3-star Rosa Cruise. The 12-cabin wooden Rosa vessel has all the basic amenities (hot water showers, rooms with fan and a/c, en-suite bathrooms).
Food quality may not be on par with the more expensive cruises and you’ll have to share balcony space, but the Rosa is a good overall choice if you’re looking to stretch your travel budget while seeing most, if not all, of the same attractions as higher-priced cruises.
Best Luxury Cruise: President Cruises
At 86 metres long, the five-deck President Cruises ship is the largest overnight vessel on Halong Bay. What makes it one of the most luxurious sailings are the size of its rooms (entry-level rooms start at 30 sqm, almost double the size of cabins on the Rosa) as well as its gourmet dining with a la carte menus designed by celebrity chef John Burton-Race.
Expect first-class amenities and facilities on this 46-room floating luxury hotel, including two sundecks, an outdoor Jacuzzi, and live music nightly.
Most Unique Cruise Route: Orchid Cruises
One way to break free from the crowds is choosing a cruise ship that goes to nearby Lan Ha Bay instead of the more popular Halong Bay. While further away from Halong City and with fewer islands (about 300 or so), many view Lan Ha Bay as just as pretty as Halong Bay with the added bonus of being less touristed.
Lan Ha Bay is also home to Cat Ba Island, the largest island in the Halong area. Cat Ba is large enough to have its own little town with hotels, night clubs, and restaurants, but the rest of the island is relatively untouched, with floating villages, quiet beaches, and a UNESCO-recognized national park to explore.
Orchid Cruises operates an itinerary through Lan Ha, taking the Cat Ba Island – Thoi Quyt – Coc Ngoi Islet – Gia Luan (part of Cat Ba National Park) route, with shore excursions to Cat Ba Island to visit caves and go swimming.
Whether visiting Halong Bay or Lan Ha Bay, choose the right ship and itinerary to maximize your enjoyment of this UNESCO-listed area in Northern Vietnam, a truly magical destination with ever-changing seascapes, uninhabited islands, and beautiful natural attractions.