Ha Long Bay is one of Vietnam’s most popular tourist attractions. But is this UNESCO World Heritage Site a polluted, over-run and over priced tourist trap – or an unmissable natural wonder? After a few months travelling through Vietnam, we had our reservations about visiting Ha Long Bay, but we decided to check it out anyway. So…….is Ha Long Bay worth visiting?
Is Halong Bay worth visiting? Despite being a popular tourist destination, Ha Long Bay does live up to the hype and is definitely worth visiting. If you choose the right time of year and the right cruise you can enjoy a peaceful and cheap Ha Long Bay experience.
Ha Long Bay is one of Vietnam’s most renowned travel destinations. However, over the years it has gained a reputation of being swamped with tourists and having expensive boat tours in a polluted bay.
We are happy to report that despite the rumours, our Ha Long Bay experience was incredible. In this article we share all the details on how we made our trip memorable so that you too can have an epic Ha Long Bay adventure!
Still want to experience this incredible natural wonder, but don’t want it to be spoiled by hordes of tourists? Read on as we let you in on all our Ha Long Bay secrets!
- Why Visit Ha Long Bay?
- Pros and Cons of Visiting Ha Long Bay?
- Alternatives to Ha Long Bay?
- How to Visit Ha Long Bay? on a Budget?
- Best Time to Visit Ha Long Bay?
- The Best Ha Long Bay Tour Operators?
Why Visit Ha Long Bay?
Ha Long Bay is featured in many travel blogs, instagram posts and travel guides. It’s promoted as one of Vietnam’s most epic travel destinations and has been listed as a UNESCO World heritage site.
But does Ha Long Bay really live up to the hype? We were are pleased to inform you that it does! The epic natural beauty and cultural essence of Ha Long Bay really did blow us away.
With over 2000 limestone islands that tower out of the emerald coloured waters, this incredible seascape provides remarkable views that make you feel as though you are in a fairy tale. The islands are covered with lush jungle and many are home to fascinating caves, lakes and white sandy beaches.
Not only are the views incredible but the floating villages and fishing culture provide a fascinating insight into the unique way of life that has developed in Ha Long Bay over hundreds of years. This unique mix of natural beauty and rich culture makes Ha Long Bay a must see attraction in Vietnam.
Pros and Cons of Visiting Ha Long Bay
Crowded: By far one of the biggest cons of visiting Ha Long Bay is the crowds.Ha Long Bay is a very popular tourist destination and depending on the time of year you visit it can get very crowded with boats and tourists.
Beaches: The Vietnamese government has restricted access to certain beaches…..and rightly so. The government has taken the right steps to protect some of Ha Long Bay’s most pristine beaches, but unfortunately this means tourists can no longer enjoy them.
Pollution: With the influx of tourists and most tour operators not having much care for the natural environment Ha Long Bay has seen increased pollution levels. The large number of boats means water quality suffers. Although the government has implemented a ban on one use plastic for tour boats, many locals still use plastics – much of which ends up in the ocean!
Costs: Ha Long Bay cruises are notoriously overpriced and can unfortunately be out of reach for most budget travellers. Luckily we have some more tips later in this article to show you how to explore Ha Long Bay on a budget!
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Due to its otherworldly natural beauty Ha Long Bay was officially recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage in 1994.
Natural Beauty: Ha Long Bay truly is a natural gem. Emerald waters glistening among thousands of towering limestone outcrops makes it a stunning natural landscape that all travellers should see once in their life.
Cultural Experience: Not only do you get to experience epic natural scenery, there is also plenty of culture to soak up as you sail past the many quaint floating villages.
Supporting Local Economy: As budge travellers, we are more into self guided independent travel. However taking a guided tour can sometimes be the best way to experience a place, it also helps create jobs for many locals in the area.
Alternatives to Ha Long Bay
Want to ditch the crowds and experience a more relaxed and authentic experience? Luckily, there are two great alternatives to Ha Long bay that we can recommend!
Lan Ha Bay
We are excited to let you in on a little secret that is Lan Ha Bay…the hidden gem that not many people talk about. Situated right next to Ha Long Bay, Lan Ha Bay is the lesser known alternative which is just as stunning as Ha Long Bay, but with less tourists.
The incredible scenery and a more relaxed vibe makes Lan Ha Bay perfect for those who want enjoy a more authentic travel experience. Lan Ha was also less polluted than the more popular parts of Ha Long Bay.
Lan Ha Bay is also home to Cai Beo fishing village, a very large and ancient village that is steeped in culture and history. In fact, all the fishing villages in Lan Ha Bay are undisturbed, making them more authentic.
We took a day tour of Lan Ha Bay and it was truly magical. We stayed on Cat Ba Island so finding a boat tour to Lan Ha Bay was easy and cheap! We will write more about Cat Ba Island later on in this article.
During our boat adventure of Lan Ha Bay we explored fishing villages, cruised through the beautiful bay, went kayaking and explored the remote Viet Hai land village by bike. The cruise was hosted on a tidy, safe boat and also included a delicious BBQ lunch.
We booked through Cat Ba Package Tour company and we can’t recommend them enough. The service and food was delicious and the price was so much cheaper than booking a Ha Long Bay tour from Hanoi city.
Overall we loved our Lan Ha Bay experience and it was a great alternative to Ha Long Bay without having to sacrifice on scenery.
Bai Tu Long Bay
If you want to get even further off the beaten path, then head to the unexplored Bai Tu Long Bay. Situated just north of Ha Long Bay, some say it’s even more beautiful than its more popular sister due to its quiet charm.
With epic limestone outcrops and sparkling emerald water Bai Tu Long Bay is an untouched and under-developed version of Ha Long Bay, yet to be discovered by mass tourism.
Many travellers say Bai Tu Long Bay exceeds their expectations and its beauty and authenticity makes it a great alternative to Ha Long Bay.
If you decide to visit Bai Tu Long Bay you won’t miss out on great attractions and activities such as kayaking, fishing villages, caves and white sandy beaches. There are a few tours that operate in Bai Tu Long Bay, but a highly recommended operator is Swan Cruises.
How to Visit Ha Long Bay on a Budget?
We are long term budget travellers so we are always on the lookout for ways to explore without breaking the bank. When looking into Ha Long Bay tours we noticed they all seemed super expensive and way outside of our price range. We did a bunch of research and stumbled across two main tips for Visiting Ha Long Bay on a budget.
- Go to Cat Ba Island
We ended up heading to Cat Ba Island, which is a great travel destination on its own. It’s a great place to book cheap Ha Long Bay and Ha Lan Bay tours. Cat Ba Island is a large island situated in the Ha Long Bay region where you will find cheap hotels, traditional food, great hikes, impressive caves and unique island life.
However, the best thing about Cat Ba Island is the fact that Ha Long Bay boat tours can be found much cheaper on the island! You find much cheaper prices here than you would if you booked online or through any tour operator in Hanoi City. Ha Long Bay tours can be found on Cat Ba Island for as little as $25USD! (more details on this below)
- Local Ferry
A great way to see the lesser known Bai Tu Long Bay on a super tight budget is to take the local ferry from mainland to Quan Lan Island. This local ferry will cost you less than $5USD each way and will take you through all the stunning scenery that the tour operators visit, at a fraction of the costs.
The best thing is you can spend a few days exploring Quan Lan, a beautiful and off the beaten path Vietnamese island! For more info on how to catch this local ferry you can check out this awesome article which outlines all the details.
Best Time to Visit Ha Long Bay?
Deciding on the best time to visit Ha Long Bay depends on your travel style. Do you want to see Ha Long bay in the sunshine during peak season? Or, would you rather a more mystical and quite Ha Long Bay?
The information below outlines the four main seasons for Ha Long Bay so you can choose what time of year suits your travel style best!
Ha Long Bay in Spring
- Months: February – April
- Temperature Range: 20-30°C
- Humidity: 60-70%
- Weather: Weather in Ha Long Bay during the spring months is generally very pleasant. The temperatures are mild and the skies are generally nice and clear. However, spring can be a little unpredictable and the odd rain shower or wind storm are possible.
- Tourist Numbers: MEDIUM – Spring is a great middle ground of good weather and less tourists. Although spring is not a quiet time of year to visit, it will still be less busy than the peak season.
Ha Long Bay in Summer:
- Months: May- August
- Temperature Range: 25-40°C
- Humidity: 70-80%
- Weather: Summer brings hot and humid weather with a higher chance of rainfall. The month of July is considered the stormiest month of the year and boat tours can sometimes be cancelled due to weather issues. The summer months of May and August will give the best chance of a rain free day.
- Tourist Numbers: LOW – The best thing about visiting Ha Long Bay in summer are the low tourist numbers. So book in summer if you want to enjoy a calm and peaceful Ha Long Bay experience.
Halong Bay in Fall
- Months: September – October
- Temperature Range: 20-35°C
- Humidity: 60-70%
- Weather: Fall is considered the most stunning time to visit Ha Long Bay weather wise. The scorching temperatures of summer are easing to a more mild climate and the rains ease off. The warm weather and sunny clear days makes this time of year perfect for exploring Ha Long Bay!
- Tourist Numbers: HIGH Tourist numbers peak during these months and Ha Long Bay will be crowded with tourists. The peak season also means that tour and accommodation prices will also be high!
Halong Bay in Winter
- Months: November – January
- Temperature Range: 15-25°C
- Humidity: 60-70%
- Weather: Winter brings cooler temperatures and although you can still find a sunny day in Winter, generally the days are more misty and cloudy. We visited Halong Bay in December and the weather was cool but not too cold and the mist did block a lot of views of the Bay on most days. Luckily the day we chose to do a tour we had sunshine!
- Tourist Numbers: MEDIUM Although the weather is not ideal for visiting Ha Long Bay due to cloud mist, it is still quite a busy time of year for tours, as many people take their holidays over the Christmas breaks. We didn’t noticed huge crowds as discardable in peak season.
Best Ha Long Bay Tour Operators
With so many options it can be hard to find the best Ha Long Bay tour options. We have done all the research for you and found the best tour options for all budget types including budget, midrange and Lux.
Best Ha Long Bay Tour – Budget
1 Day Halong Bay Tour with Full Moon Tours / $25/USD
You won’t find a day tour of Ha Long Bay cheaper than this. This particular package is a very well reviewed day tour of Ha Long Bay that departs from Cat Ba Island.
Guests say their expectations were exceeded and this trip was excellent value for money where they enjoyed a full day exploring Ha Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay.
A delicious lunch is included and a friendly english speaking guide runs the tour. Included in the day trip are the options to visit a fishing village, hiking, swimming, kayaking, and snorkeling.
Best Ha Long Bay Tour – Midrange
Private One Day Ha Long Bay tour with Cat Ba Package Tour / $60/USD
This was the tour we took and we had an incredible time. This company was professional and our tour came with a friendly guide and delicious lunch. We enjoyed visiting authentic fishing villages and we were able to kayak in a beautiful secluded area of the bay.
We felt as though we had the bay to ourselves and that were completely off the beaten path. We hardly noticed any other tourist groups….just how we like it!
However we opted to swap hiking on Monkey Island with a bicycle ride to Viet Hie Village. We would totally recommend this tour to all our family and friends and anyone wanting a budget friendly private day tour of Ha Long Bay.
Best Halong Bay Tour – Lux
Dragon Legend Halong Bay 2-Day Cruise with Indochina Junk / $250/USD
Treat yourself to a luxury cruise with the renowned Indochina Junk. Their tours are tastefully done and take you to the lesser known corners of Ha Long Bay to avoid the crowds. Their tours are well organised and the boat is appointed with luxurious and spacious private cabins and even a hot tub on deck!
We hope this post has helped you see that yes, Ha Long Bay is definitely worth visiting! We hope these tips help with planning an alternative Ha Long Bay experience and help you beat the crowds in this mega popular tourist destination.
If you have any further Ha Long Bay questions, let us know in the comments and we will answer as best we can!
Cheers, Native Travellers
INTREPID & OFF THE BEATEN PATH TRAVEL STORIES, GUIDES, TIPS & HACKS