Wondering what to do in Halong Bay? Here’s a little guide not only for the bay but Halong City and Cát Bà island as well!
Oh Ha Long Bay… Ever since the movie Indochine showed off its stunning landscape to an international audience, it’s become one of Vietnam’s most famously photographed places. There’s something about the dark teal waters full of karst formations and dotted with junk boats that instantly induces wanderlust. It’s no surprise that in 2012, it was named one of the New Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
Located in northern Vietnam in Quảng Ninh province, its name is supposed to mean “descending dragon.” This is because all around the bay are upwards of 2,000 of limestone karst sprinkled along the water, making it look like the back of a dragon from the shore.
According to legend, the Jade Emperor sent a family of dragons to help the Vietnamese protect themselves against invaders. The dragons spit out jewels and jade, which became the islands and mountains that in turned blocked incoming ships. Once the war was finished, the family decided to stay in the bay. Ha Long is for the mother dragon while Bai Tu Long is for her children. (No word on the father, I guess?)
Various people have inhabited the area for thousands of years dating as far back as the Soi Nhu culture between 16,000 – 5,000 BC, but it was the appearance in Indochine (and more recently, King Kong: Skull Island), that’s shot to the top of travelers’ bucket lists and made it one of the most famous places in Asia.
I’ve now been to Halong twice, and I’d say it’s still every bit as beautiful as you’d hope. I will admit its beauty has suffered from overtourism and a lack of environmental protection. For example, the bay from the city’s side was once lined with mangrove trees and it is now sidewalks. My least favorite hotel chain, Vinpearl, also constructed an absolute monstrosity of a hotel that intrudes on the landscape views of the bay.
But I still think it’s absolutely worth dedicating a few days of your itinerary to! I actually want to visit for a third time as my friend, Elena, who’s lived in Halong for quite a few years now, introduced me to even more places nearby Halong City that I want to visit!
With that said, here’s a complete, comprehensive guide on what to do in Halong Bay based on my trips and Elena’s advice. You can also find my general travel tips for Halong at the bottom.
What to Do in Halong Bay (in General)
Do a cruise around the bay
Of course, the best way to see any sort of body of water is by boat! Halong Bay is no exception, and one of the most popular ways to see it is via a cruise. I think most people typically sign up for a multi-day cruise and most of these cruises start with a shuttle pick up in Hanoi. They cover quite a bit of a ground in 1-3 days and often have swimming/kayaking and stops at different attractions. From what I’ve heard, these cruises can often be hit or miss and you definitely get what you pay for if you try to go the cheaper route. And there are definitely some that are straight party boats.
Since I get sea sick pretty easily, I’ve never been interested in the multi-day cruises. Imagine paying for a nice 3-day cruise and getting a debilitating headache within 3 hours on the water! Instead, I recommend opting for a day cruise that either leaves from Cát Bà island it or from Halong City. More on those options below!
One thing I will say is to be careful of who you book with if you choose to do a multi-day cruise. There was a big issue with cheaper cruise ships dumping untreated waste into the bay! Ask your cruise how they handle waste management so you know your money is going to one that cares about the environment.
What to do in Halong City
Now if you want to change things up a bit instead of only doing a multi-day cruise, spend a few days in Halong City! Funny enough it only became a city in 1993 when Hòn Gai merged with Bãi Cháy. It’s quite a long city, spread out along the coast, so it’s not remotely walkable and getting a taxi might be a hassle depending on where you are. Actually, when I get a chance to go back, I’m just going to rent a motorbike since the roads are wide and pretty empty, and then I’d have my own transportation.
To understand Halong City, I split it up into three parts: Tuần Châu island, Bãi Cháy, and Hồng Gai/Hồng Hải. To give you an idea of how spread out things are, getting from Tuần Châu to Hồng Hải took us over an hour on a holiday weekend between the distance and finding a driver!
Anyhow, I’ve put in parentheses where each activity is so you can group them together when planning your trip.
Do a day cruise from Halong City (Tuần Châu)
Chances are anything to do with the bay will take off in Tuần Châu Marina, so I’m starting in this area! Day cruises are nice as they’ll start around 8:00 or 9:00 AM and end around dinner time. This one will take you through various limestone islets and fishing villages to Sung Sot Cave and Ti Top island. For something a little more luxurious, I think I’d opt for this catamaran cruise which includes kayaking, a deluxe buffet, a stop at Three Peaches Beach, a cooking class, and a little sunset celebration.
Get the best views from a seaplane or helicopter (Tuần Châu)
Another way to see the bay – from the air! In the same marina, you can take either a seaplane ride or a helicopter ride. I was with a group on my second trip, and we all did the seaplane ride. Definitely one of the best views and reminded a lot of when I did my helicopter ride in Cape Town, SA. Our flight was around 15 minutes and our guide let us know what exactly we were seeing.
Drinks at Paradise Suites (Tuần Châu)
After you finish with the sea plane, you can walk over to Paradise Suites to get drinks for happy hour. The road is quite cute (wish they’d disallow cars going down it to make it even nicer) with lanterns strewn about it. The drinks are nice too.
I would highly recommend calling ahead and asking if there’s any event going on that the Paradise Suites staff as to go to. Apparently the service is normally quite good, but when we went most of the main staff was gone to a huge party on one of the islands and the remaining staff… was, too put it bluntly, just not prepared enough.
For example, I ordered a drink and 20 minutes later still didn’t have my drink. In fact, my friend who they’d forgotten to get an order from had managed to get her order in and receive it, and I still didn’t have mine. So I finally asked them; they told me one minute, and then they came back to tell me… they were out of that drink. I’m 100% sure I’d still be sitting there waiting for my drink if I didn’t ask.
Another time, my friend was asking about the sauces that came with the food (like ketchup, etc) in fluent Vietnamese, and our server looked like we were asking her about Ho Chi Minh’s entire biography. OH and when we asked them to call us a taxi to get to Hồng Hải, they told us no problem just wait 10 minutes. Twenty minutes go by and we finally go ask where our taxi is for the woman to say, one minute and then tell us “Sorry all the taxis refuse to come here.” What?!
Like I said, just call ahead and ask or be prepared to have the patience of a saint and to ask after you order regularly.
Spot the King Kong Statue (Tuần Châu)
One random spot I just have to add is this King Kong statue! I don’t think it’s a park or anything, just a random creation to commemorate the movie’s filming in Halong. Even if you don’t intend to visit, you’ll 100% see it coming in and out of Tuần Châu.
Visit Halong Sunworld (Bãi Cháy)
If you like amusement parks or are intrigued by the Sunworld properties all around Vietnam, then you’ll want to check out Halong’s version. From what I’ve heard it’s basically the same exact thing you’ll find in Phú Quốc, but I haven’t been to either. We actually stayed kind of in Halong Sunworld as it has a lot of villages that hotels populate.
Try some seafood (Bãi Cháy)
One of the things to eat here is seafood, of course. This is everywhere, but the place I went to was near my hotel in Bãi Cháy, so I put it in this section! My hotel recommended I walk over to Nhà hàng Phương Nam Hạ Long, which is about 5 minutes away on foot. I may have over ordered a bit but everything was so delicious, I regret nothing!
By the time I went to eat it was dark out. However, you should try going at sunset so you can enjoy the views over the bay. And beware when you order shrimp — they’re huge!
Visit Quảng Ninh Museum (Hồng Gai)
Elena recommended I check the fairly new Quảng Ninh Museum to learn more about the province’s history. I love a good museum, so I went over after lunch and spent the afternoon reading my way through the various exhibits. It covers pretty much everything you’d want to know about the province from its coal history to its culture and geology. Be careful of the timing — they close 12-1PM for lunch!
The museum is also included on this half-day city tour, which includes quite a few other spots I haven’t been to yet.
Eat once (or twice) at the most delicious vegetarian place (Hồng Hải)
When I first met up with Elena, we grabbed lunch at Nhà Hàng Hồi Chay. Guys, hands down one of the most delicious places places to eat – vegetarian or not! The staff is really nice and attentive, and I loved the food so much I recommended we eat here after the airplane ride and happy hour. I forget the name of the triangle dish above right, but it’s one of those dishes I still think about sometimes, so definitely order it when you go!
Grab dessert and a coffee at Cafe Miam Miam (Hồng Gai & Bãi Cháy)
Cafe Miam Miam is one of the few cute cafes in Halong City that offers really good desserts and drinks! Elena told me that a lot of cafes in Vietnam often use cheaper ingredients in their baked goods (kinda reminds me of the not-so-great desserts at a lot of Korean cafes) but this is one that makes their stuff with the proper ingredients. I can’t remember the cake but there was a specific cake I got twice! I also really loved their egg coffee (pictured above). They have two locations, and the one in Bãi Cháy is close to where I stayed and also offers a pizza menu. The location in Hồng Gai has more dessert options, though!
Hike Poem Mountain? (Hồng Gai)
Before I went to Halong, Alyshia sent me photos from some place called Poem Mountain (or Núi Bài Thơ) that was supposed to have some of the best views of the bay. It’s not an official hike, so you basically enter through this grumpy lady’s house and pay her a small “tip” for the inconvenience. We were all gung ho but when Elena asked around, everyone said it was officially shut down by the government early 2020. And not just shut-down-winky-face, but they’d been cracking down on it and the lady. I also couldn’t find much in reviews or blogs or on Instagram that was newer than 2019 which supported to her local findings.
Anyway, I don’t know what’s up, but I figured I’d done a day cruise and a seaplane ride, so the view couldn’t be worth the potentially dangerous hike and getting in trouble with the government! If you do wind up going, let me know in the comments. The photos do look pretty incredible.
What to Do Nearby Halong City
Visit Yen Tu Mountain
About an hour away from Halong City is Yên Tử Mountain (Núi Yên Tử). This mountain played an important part in Vietnamese Buddhism, especially during the Tran Dynasty (1225-1400). The way it goes is that that the Emperor Trần Nhân Tông ceded the throne to his son so he could become a Buddhist Monk. He went to Yen Tu in 1299 where he established a monastery and founded Trúc Lâm, the only Vietnamese Zen Buddhist sect. You can either take cable cars or hike 6km/4miles to the monastery.
You can easily book a day tour to Yên Tử for some hiking, but I really want to stay at the Legacy Yen Tu MGallery hotel. It’s one of Bill Bensley’s designs and sits at the bottom of the peak. Just look at the photos, everything looks incredible! I was planning on going before I had to leave, so now it’s on the list for my third visit! Book a stay on Agoda or Booking
Check out the hot springs in Yoko Onsen
About a 20-30 minute drive from our hotel is Yoko Onsen, a Japanese-style hot springs resort. You can actually stay here if you’d like, but I’d do that more as a weekend escape rather than to base yourself since it’s pretty far from everything else in Halong. On the day side, you can use the private hot spring pools, the mix-gendered outdoor public pools, and eat at their buffet lunch. This is what we did, getting there at opening and leaving after lunch.
You can also book additional spa treatments, which I would strong advise against. I mean in general I know hotel/resort massages aren’t that great and usually overpriced, but this was definitely the worst experience I’ve had in Vietnam. My one friend and I were put in the same room, which is fine, but our two masseuses proceeded to chat and gossip about us the entire 90 minutes. Even if my friend didn’t speak Vietnamese fluently, we’d have known because at one point one of them snapped my paper underwear and giggled! I mean don’t get me wrong, I’m not surprised about the gossiping, but like c’mon. Wait until we leave. At least my massage was still decent, my friend’s was terrible and the masseuse straight up finished a good 10 minutes early.
The worst is when we tried to bring this up with the spa manager and the general manager, and they brushed off our complaints pulling the “I don’t understand?” card. I swear I don’t ever do this, but we decided to pull out the “I guess we’ll let potential visitors know on TripAdvisor” card, and all of a sudden their tune changed! Why do I need to threaten light internet shaming for you to offer decent customer service?!
I’m kinda bummed out because if we’d never booked our massages, I would’ve left loving this place and recommending it to everyone. Everyone and everything but the spa and the general manager were beyond lovely, and you could tell the hotel training was Japanese. The hot springs are perfect for relaxing — I preferred the separated gender baths were you were nude over the mixed outdoor baths where you were in swimsuits — and the food was delicious. I don’t know what happened with the spa section, but if you go I do not recommend buying any of those packages.
Explore Bình Liêu
Bình Liêu is a protected area in Quảng Ninh about 100km from Halong Bay, so you need to really prepare ahead of time if you want to visit. It requires both a permit and a local guide. I haven’t had a chance to look into the logistics of visiting but Elena told me about it, and now it’s on my list! Apparently it gets quite cold in the winter months to the point that you might just see snow. There’s not that much information in English out there, but she wrote a lot about it on her Instagram in this post.
What to do on Cát Bà Island
One of the other places to visit in Halong Bay is Cát Bà Island. It’s usually a stop on multi-day cruises. Both times I visited I stayed here for a few days. The first time was because I erroneously thought it would be like the Thai islands I visited the year before. Instead it was gray, rainy, and cold for most of our stay. The second time I went back to stay because I was determined to hike Cát Bà National Park. Here’s what to do:
Do a day cruise from Cát Bà
This is what I did when I stayed in Cát Bà and is just another option to help you figure out your itinerary. This tour includes Lan Han Bay, a floating village, kayaking through some caves, and a visit to Monkey Island.
Take the ferry to Cát Bà from Halong
For sure one thing you should do is take the ferry from Tuần ChâuMarina over to Cát Bà Island. It’s SUCH a pretty ferry ride through the karst islands. It only goes certain times of day, so check with your hotel for the schedule. You should be fine booking at the marina ahead of time, but if it’s a big holiday, you might have a huge crowd.
Motorbike around the island
One way to really get to know Cát Bà is to motorbike around! We didn’t do this on my first visit because neither of us knew how to even ride a motorbike. But I think part of why I liked Cát Bà so much more this round is that, with a bike, I was able to get out of the main town, which to be honest is still kind of depressing to look at even with sunny weather.
Hike to Ngự Lâm in Cát Bà National Park
The WHOLE reason I wanted to stay on Cát Bà again after having such a boring time the first is because I was determined to hike Cát Bà National Park and see the views for myself. There are two options I found for hiking, one is more doable on your own and the other you need a guide for and takes all day. I obviously did the former, hiking to Ngự Lâm peak.
You have to motorbike to the entrance first and then walk into the park a bit after buying a ticket. The entrance to the trail is next to/within a little eating area so you might miss it at first glance.
If you don’t feel comfortable motorbiking or prefer something more guided, you can always book this trekking tour.
Visit Cannon Fort lookout
Another good spot to look out over the bay is the Cannon Fort Lookout. Now, I hiked it the first time I went but it’s actually mostly paved roads so you can motorbike all the way up and then the little trail is relatively flat and very easy. I forgot my SD card the first time, so I actually popped back over after motorbiking! If you’re confused where to go, you want to take the road this spot is on. Once you’re there you’ll see signs and be able to follow it around to check out the different spots that are part of Cannon Fort. Luckily, the road was literally right behind the hotel I was staying in!
Halong Bay Travel Tips
Where to Stay in Halong Bay
I would recommend staying in Halong City and dedicating maybe 1-2 nights in Cát Bà max. Cát Bà itself isn’t super interesting, and the only reason you’d go is for the hiking or to do a day cruise from.
In Halong City, you do want to choose which area you stay in wisely. If you want to do a lot of Quảng Ninh sightseeing, stay in the downtown area. Deja Vu Hotel is supposed to be really nice and is owned by a friend of a friend!
We stayed in the Sunworld area which is a good middle ground between Tuần Châu and the downtown area. I really liked Green Suites and the staff was especially lovely (shout out to Ms. Vy & Ms. Nghia)!
One spot I do NOT recommend at all is the Vinpearl. I have a personal vendetta against Vinpearls in general as I feel they look like they’re plopped down in the most prominent position, look ugly, and ruin the view. This one looks nice in photos, but it does the same thing. It’s a ginormous hotel plunked down in the bay and is a total eyesore. A couple on our trip stayed there and absolutely hated it. They said the interior was incredibly gaudy and the service was awful. As in, at the buffet dinner, kids were dipping their hands in the food, eating, and dipping them back in and the staff just stood around doing nothing. Even when they complained, they just shrugged. Gross, man!
The hotel options are pretty limited on Cát Bà and not particularly interesting. We originally tried staying at the MGallery Hotel de Oriente but weren’t impressed with the customer service trying to book and ultimately we were worried about being able to get back and forth to the city. I took a chance and stayed at Đại Thủy Hotel. It was nice enough for the price though it does look a little nicer in photos. The owner’s brother who manages the hotel is really lovely and super helpful though. He’ll be able to check for anything you need and help you plan your stay once you arrive. On Google Maps it says it’s permanently closed, but it’s still showing it’s open on Booking, etc. I’d just contact them on Facebook before you do anything.
Weather and When to Visit
Halong does experience seasons! When we went in February, it was actually pretty cold and gray. May was much more beautiful with nice weather, cooler than southern Vietnam.
I strongly do not recommend visiting on any major holiday like a long weekend or Tết. While the weather was great in May, it was almost impossible trying to get around!
How to Get to Halong from HCMC
Since we came from HCMC, I’ll go into that below. If you’re coming from Hanoi, I wrote a specific guide here.
Because we were coming from the south, we flew into Hai Phong and got taxis to Halong. It’s a bit pricey compared to other airport transfers (500k vs 200k in Hanoi) but not awful. If you have a larger group, it may actually be better to book a private car or van like this one.
How to Get Around Halong
Do not rely on Grab or getting taxis. I’d hire a driver while you’re there or rent your own motorbike to get around. Of all the places I’ve been in Vietnam, Halong would be the easiest to get around driving myself. The roads are really wide, and it’s pretty quiet in non-holiday times!
And that’s all I’ve got on what to do in Halong Bay! If you have any questions, ask below.
for more vietnam travel
I’ve been able to explore a lot of this country, so here are all my other guides:
- 50 Vietnam Travel Tips
- How to Plan a Trip to Vietnam
- 22 Photos to Inspire You to Visit Vietnam
- How to Plan the Ultimate Leaving Vietnam Trip
- The Best Things to Do in Hanoi
- Hanoi to Halong Bay: How to Get There
- A Day Cruise Along Halong Bay
- Mu Cang Chai Travel Tips
- A Secluded Sapa Itinerary
- Hiking & Herbal Baths with the Red Dzao in Sapa
- Historical Things to Do in Hue: Ultimate Guide
- Hue in One Day: A Speedy Itinerary
- Azerai La Residence Hue Review: A Luxury Stay
- A Semi-Relaxing Phong Nha Travel Itinerary
- Quirkiest Things to Do in Dalat
- How to Visit Yok Don National Park
- Top Things to Do in Hoi An
- How to Spend 3 Days in Hoi An
- Hoi An Tailors: Tips for What to Get Made
- The Vietage: A Luxury Train in Vietnam
- Anantara Quy Nhon Villas: A Luxury Review
- Things to Do in Ho Chi Minh City: A Bucket List
- A Guide to 15B Hem Le Than Thon: Little Japan Saigon
- Where to Go in District 5 & Cho Lon of Saigon
- Best Things to Do in District 1, HCMC
- What to Do in Mui Ne and Phan Thiet
- Anantara Mui Ne: Best Resort for a Girls’ Getaway
- Mekong Delta Day Trip: What to Expect
- A Guide to Vinh Long in the Mekong
- Con Dao: An Island Travel Guide
- Azerai Can Tho: A Luxury Stay in the Mekong
- Odys Boutique Hotel Review: A Chic Mid-Range Stay in HCMC
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