Photo: This is Hanoi.

Two or three days in Ha Long Bay?

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When planning your trip to Vietnam, it can be a challenge to fit everything in, and one of the questions you may well ask yourself is how long to spend in Ha Long Bay. While this is a personal choice, here’s our view.

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The options for organised tours from Hanoi — rather than travelling independently — are one, two or three days. On a two-day trip you can either stay on the boat or on Cat Ba Island, while the three-day trips generally offer the choice of either staying on the boat for two nights or one night on the boat and one on Cat Ba Island.

A stay on Cat Ba comes with views.

A stay on Cat Ba comes with views.

Let’s start by saying that we wouldn’t recommend a day trip. It’s a lot of driving — approximately four hours each way in a minibus — for very little time in the Bay. So yes, you can take some pictures and say you’ve been there, but you’re likely to end the day exhausted and not as rewarded as you may have hoped. However, we’re pragmatists — if you really only have one day and don’t mind the potentially cramped minibus scenario, then go for it. But try to avoid the budget tours so you at least get a decent lunch.

Not a windy day.

Not a windy day.

We reckon a two-day, one-night trip is long enough to enjoy the view, partake in a few activities and absorb the atmosphere. But stay on the boat, not on Cat Ba. Cat Ba is a great place to explore and spend a few days but we’d rate a night on the boat as a more fulfilling experience. Bear in mind, however, that you may not get too much time to chill out on deck on a two-day tour as the boat operators seem obsessed with filling every moment with an activity. So if that’s important to you, be careful to check out the itinerary.

You can skip the cave visit if you like.

You can skip the cave visit if you like.

When it comes to the three-day option, some think it’s too long, while others enjoy the more relaxed pace and variety of activities on offer. Another benefit is that you get to cruise deeper into the Bay. Ask your travel agent to show you the route and make sure the boat goes as far as Bai Tu Long Bay or Lan Ha Bay. If you opt for one night on the boat and one night on Cat Ba, your tour will likely include a walk in the national park, which will appeal to some, and may include a bike ride or village tour. Some also offer the option to visit Monkey Island.

You may also have some time to explore Cat Ba Island on your own — if you skip Monkey Island for example — but again, check the itinerary first if this is important to you.

Some operators now offer a stay on a private island for the second night. This may appeal more to you if you want to relax in a hammock or on the beach, or participate in water sports. Operators providing this option include Hanoi Backpackers’ Hostel and Classy Travel.

How much time do you want on deck?

How much time do you want on deck?

Overall, if time and budget are not an issue, we’d recommend two nights, with one spent on Cat Ba Island or a private island — two nights on the boat could be a bit dull. Why two nights? Firstly, it gets you deeper into the Bay, where it’s more beautiful and less crowded — though don’t expect solitude — and secondly, you’ll have the chance to do more activities and explore a bit of Cat Ba Island (as well as eat the amazing seafood); thirdly, it is more relaxing; and finally, it gives you a break from the bus. But if it’s all about the Bay and you have little interest in additional activities, one night should do you just fine.

A final note, if the weather’s wet, we’d change our suggestion to two days, but as it’s so hard to predict the weather in Ha Long you’ll just have to take your chances we’re afraid.

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What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Hanoi.
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 Check out our listings of things to do in and around Hanoi.
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