With dozens of cruise operators in Halong Bay, how do you choose the best one?! For many visitors, budget is the key ingredient to this recipe. Rosa Boutique Cruise offer backpackers and low budget travelers a cheap alternative to discover Halong Bay. How much money are you willing to spend on your Halong Bay cruise?
There are beautiful (and we mean truly stunning!) luxury Halong Bay cruise options if you’re lucky enough to have a healthy bank balance. However, if you want the perfect opportunity to experience the beauty of the Bay without bankrupting your travel fund, Rosa is your solution.
Halong Bay is Vietnam’s world renowned dreamy bucket list UNESCO destination. Sipping on a cocktail on the top deck of your ‘Junk Boat’ while gliding through turquoise water surrounded by limestone rocks… Sounds perfect! It’s not quite so exotic (we’ll get to that), but Halong Bay remains a ‘must visit’ on your Vietnam itinerary.
This is a complete guide to booking a budget Halong Bay cruise.
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How To Get To Halong Bay
Halong Bay Cruise Booked at a Tour Agency in Hanoi: Transport to/from Halong Bay will most likely be included but be sure to confirm this detail with the agent before booking! Typically your bus will leave Hanoi old quarter around 8am. This is a more convenient option but might not be the best value, so you will need to do some digging.
Halong Bay Cruise Booked Online: Take a bus directly from Hanoi, Sapa or Ninh Binh to Halong Bay. Check times and prices using the 12Go Asia search engine above if you book your cruise online with no transfers included. Another option is to ask your hotel owner to book transport for you. In Sapa, our hotel owner booked our direct overnight sleeper bus to Halong Bay for us, which turned out to be an interesting night!
Flying: The closest airport is Hai Phong. For anyone traveling up from Ho Chi Minh or anywhere else in Southern Vietnam, it could be easier to fly into Hai Phong and jump on a bus/take a taxi to Halong Bay. Arriving from further afield internationally, fly into Hanoi and taxi into town, then book a bus transfer from Hanoi old quarter to Halong Bay.
DIY by Motorbike: For the more adventurous backpackers, why not hire a motorbike and drive over yourselves?! One backpack between the drivers legs and the other on the back of the passenger! Check out the route on the interactive map showing directions between Hanoi and Halong Bay above.
1 or 2 Night Halong Bay Cruise?
The first major decision you have to make is based on how many nights you would like to spend at sea. This guide is aimed at those on a budget so it’s likely you will choose the more popular 1 Night / 2 Day Halong Bay Cruise option. That’s exactly what we did and it was the perfect call based on our budget at the time. You have to remember that even the cheap cruises like Rosa are still around US$180-250 per night. More luxurious cruises can be as much as US$600 per night.
Don’t forgo the 2 Night / 3 Day option without considering the fact that by choosing Rosa as a much cheaper operator, you could see much more of Halong Bay for the same price as a 1 night cruise on a luxury operator. Do you have US$200 spare to get a taster for the area or do you have US$400 for a more thorough exploration?
We cover more on value for money at the end of this article.
How to Choose The Best Cheap Overnight Halong Bay Cruise
Choosing which operator to sail with can be a little overwhelming with so many choices available. But don’t despair! You will find the perfect operator with just a little effort researching within your price bracket.
Go to our favorite hotel search engine booking.com and filter out any options below US$ 400 per night if you are looking for a luxury cruise. Similarly (and for the purpose of this article), if you know you can’t stretch the budget then filter out anything over US$ 250 per night.
Here are a few things you should consider when it comes to choosing which cruise to sail with:
- Do your research! The most important thing to do before booking is read other people’s reviews. Check Tripadvisor once you have a shortlist of cruise options to see how well they are performing. You could also check reviews on booking sites like Agoda / Booking.com and even tour operators like Get Your Guide. These will all help to build a picture!
- Check the route and activity options for the cruise. Research will show you there are a number of daily activities on offer. Although most run a very similar course, there may be one thing in particular that you can’t miss. If so, check to make sure this specific activity is included. There are a few cruises that go to less crowded parts of the Bay but you will surely pay for that privilege!
- How many cabins are on board? Do you want a chilled and more private experience? Or are you more into the idea of partying on your cruise? There are many different types of experiences so plan accordingly.
- Manage your expectations. Remember, if you are looking for a cheap Halong Bay cruise, it will not look like that dreamy junk boat you might have imagined!
How to Book Your Cheap Halong Bay Cruise
You have 2 options when booking your cheap Halong Bay cruise. Both work best if you do your research before hand. Search booking.com, Agoda and Get Your Guide to build an idea about prices for the shortlist of cruises you now have from the previous step!
Book in Hanoi Tour Agency: This option only works if you don’t mind a bit of haggling and you’re extremely flexible. The best way to get a good price is to start in one agency and negotiate against what you have already seen online. Once you have a lower price than the best you can find online, move onto the next agency to see if they will go lower for any of the cruise options you’re interested in. Be prepared in high season for cruises like Rosa to be filled in advance.
Book Online: Perfect for those who don’t want the hassle of negotiating in Hanoi or who don’t require the bus transfer (which does add to the value of booking in a Hanoi travel agency). But the major benefit to booking online in advance is you guarantee your cabin and can relax once you arrive into Vietnam.
Make a list of potential cruises. Go onto the website of each cruise like Rosa and fill out the booking form to request prices. While you wait for a response, head over to the following websites to compare prices:
Example – Our Rosa Cruise Booking
After researching cruises (for hours!), we eventually both agreed on Rosa offering the best value for money in the cheap Halong Bay cruise range. The reviews were great and all of the activities we wanted to do were included. So, we got to work analyzing prices across online platforms. You will be amazed by how much prices fluctuate so be thorough in your own research to save money!
Our situation was slightly different as we were traveling directly from Sapa to Halong Bay, therefore we didn’t require the Hanoi to Halong Bay bus transfer. Also, we planned to head on to Ninh Binh directly from Halong Bay. We knew we could only afford the 1 Night / 2 Day cruise and prices were as follows at the time in October:
It was a great price on Get Your Guide but we didn’t need the transfers. In addition, once we signed into our booking.com account (which has genius level 2) the price was slashed to just US$181. Therefore, our top tip is to shop around and use your resources! Remember that each of the booking platforms will have specials on at different times, so check them all.
Rosa Cruise Halong Bay
Our Rosa Cruise was awesome. Why?
Because we had a fantastic group on board the same night as us. And ultimately that’s what it comes down to when you book a cheap Halong Bay cruise. There will be little difference between operators in this price bracket. Most will do similar activities and you will eat similar food. What makes or breaks your trip is who you share it with.
We were so fortunate to spend our junk boat experience with a fun loving group. We have to take this chance to say hello to Belgian trio Pauline, Manoelle and Aurelie, fellow Brits Jay and Holly, and Pooja! As a group we sang our hearts out until the early hours butchering the best karaoke songs in the playbook and consumed enough booze to re-sink the Titanic.
Rosa was exactly what we expected for the price we paid and the Tripadvisor comments were pretty accurate. The team looking after us were great, the activities were a ‘tourist conveyor belt’ as we knew they would be but still good fun, the rooms were perfect and the food was excellent.
To summarize: We had a great time, saw the same places, did the same things – but paid a fraction of the price. It’s one night, do you really need a luxury cruise at US$600? After a few beers you’ll sleep anywhere!
Note: ‘Rosa Cruise’ is a 3 star cruise and ‘Rosa Boutique Cruise’ is a 4 star cruise. The cost is similar, availability depends on season. We chose boutique.
Typical Activities You Can Expect on a Cheap Halong Bay Cruise
Activities on a Halong Bay cruise are not going to blow you away. But you’re not there for the activities, you’re there for the beautiful and unique scenery. A super expensive cruise might go to another part of the Bay where fewer boats will be sharing the same waters.
But on any cheap / mid budget boat, you’ll be doing the same things. They are a combination of the following:
- Pearl Farm Visit – interesting but rushed, they have so many people being ushered through every day. The guides explaining how they make the pearls are enthusiastic!
- Fishing Village Visit – look around long narrow floating wooden structures with fishing lines dropping down into the bay.
- Kayaking – there are different areas for kayaking, you’ll have 45 minutes to 1 hour and then you’re back on the boat. Some tours kayak around Lion Cave but we didn’t.
- Swimming – one brief period shortly before sunset you can jump in the murky South China Sea. Mark dove in and shot straight back out again once we realized staff members on the boat weren’t taking a break … they were on jellyfish patrol. And a long ass mother load of a jellyfish just missed Mark as he hit the ladder!
- Tai Chi – the captain of the ship will instruct a sunrise tai chi lesson as you watch the sun come up across the Bay.
- Sung Sot ‘amazing’ Cave – Walk around a huge impressive cave with a great lookout point over Halong Bay. Really cool but crazy busy.
- Onboard cooking class – you will learn how to make spring rolls and then eat them all. Some have a defter touch than others!
- Squid Fishing – we unsuccessfully fished for squid once it was dark, but we were also drinking beers so our lack of squid was not a complete disaster!
Best Time to Visit Halong Bay
Halong Bay is a spectacle no matter which time of year you visit. That being said, the best time to visit Halong Bay depends on your budget, how much you like crowds and if rain bothers you! Let’s break it down:
- Mar-May and Sep – Nov are the months you will experience the best climate and weather in Halong Bay. But that means it’s peak season and we all know that means inflated prices and crowded tourist sites.
- Dec – Feb is Winter in Halong Bay when it gets a little chillier and can be misty. You might need a light coat but your wallet will be heavier!
- Jun – Aug is Summer, which brings sunshine, humidity and a lot of rain. Unfavorable conditions mean these months are low season in Halong Bay, which make them the best time to grab yourself a bargain!
Staying in Halong Bay
If you plan to travel independently as we did, you might want to stay a night in Halong Bay before setting out for your cruise. We were wrecked after trekking in Sapa with a Hmong guide and a horrendous sleeper bus journey. Luckily we gave ourselves a night in Halong Bay before our cruise departure the day after. We stayed in a lovely hotel called ‘Moon Bay Hotel’ not far from the Rosa Cruise pier.
It had a huge balcony overlooking the limestone karsts out across the Bay and a gorgeous room. The area was completely dead because most people go to Cat Ba Island or straight onto the cruise. We found a great restaurant close by and chilled on the beach for a few hours.
Alternatives to a Cheap Halong Bay Cruise
As we mentioned earlier, there are plenty of other cheap cruise options to compare Rosa against. But you can also upgrade to mid range or even luxury cruises. Halong Bay is a bucket list destination after all and it would be best spent in luxury. We might have been tempted if we were on holiday as opposed to traveling around the world for a year!
Are you struggling to stretch your budget even to US$200? There is hope for you! Have a look into staying on Cat Ba Island for a few nights in a cheap hostel or budget hotel and ask around for a super cheap day tour of Halong Bay. There will definitely be options for you.
Some of the cruises even offer a second night staying on Cat Ba in a hotel. Plus, if you book in Hanoi at an agency, don’t forget to ask about booking a package deal. If you plan to move onto Ninh Binh after Halong Bay for example, ask about including a bus ticket to Ninh Binh for a reduced price. You’ll be surprised at how much you can book in one sitting!
Tips For Your Visit to Halong Bay
- We don’t mean to sound like a broken record but do your research! It will only benefit your travel budget.
- You don’t have to book in Hanoi or even return to Hanoi afterwards. Make Halong Bay fit into your itinerary so you don’t lose time. You only have a 30 day visa!
- Don’t forget swimwear for swimming with jellyfish and you will need robust footwear for walking through the cave/to a viewpoint.
- Stay on Cat Ba island if you’re running low on cash but still want to see the limestone karsts on a day cruise.
- Do not forget sunscreen! You will be exposed for most of the 2 days, don’t be that bright red tourist who can’t make the second day activities!
And Finally – Is Halong Bay Worth The Money?
In short, yes. But only just!
Although it’s apparent you are just another statistic in the ever rising number of tourists visiting Halong Bay, it is still worth it. We’ll ask this, why do you want to visit Halong Bay? Or, why did you want to visit? The answer is probably because the idea of sailing through stunning limestone karst islands sounds too good to miss.
It was for us too. And that is by far the best part of the whole experience. The couple of hours you get to sit on the top deck and absorb unique surroundings as you sail through a picture perfect scene makes it worth the money.
However, the conveyor belt atmosphere is in overdrive at Halong Bay and if you don’t luck out with awesome people on your boat, it could even be quite a boring experience at times. Unless you pay big bucks for the luxury option and solitude, soaking in a private bathtub as you watch the wonderful landscape pass you by. But that would be by design. Cheap cruises offer no such special treatments.
Other than the physical forms of limestone rocks sporadically bursting out of the sea, there’s not much else to get excited about in our opinion. Personally, we think Ninh Binh province and Phong Nha both offer much better value for money than Halong Bay … and we took the budget cruise. We would have said that with much more passion had we blown US$300-600 on 1 night!
To conclude, we would say it’s definitely worth ticking off the bucket list destination of Halong Bay, but book a cheap cruise, like Rosa, otherwise you might find yourself asking why you parted with so much money for the experience you just had.
Questions or Comments?
Please do not hesitate to ask any questions about a Halong Bay cruise whether it’s cheap or luxury! Plus, feel free to leave any comments about a cruise you’ve been on, if you liked or didn’t like it for whatever reason and if you would recommend it to your friends or family. We’re interested to gauge the general feeling as we find ourselves sat on the fence.
Trivia: In which year was Halong Bay listed a UNESCO world heritage site?
Tourism has been booming here for decades. The area is beautiful and deserves its place on this list but it is over commercialized!
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