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Ha Long Bay Itinerary: 3 Days in Halong Bay, Vietnam

Wondering how many days to spend in Halong Bay? I’ve done a 2 day & a 3 day cruise, so see which one I recommend for your Ha Long Bay itinerary!

3 days in halong bay

I’m sure you’ve all seen photos and can judge for yourself, but Ha Long Bay is one of those bucket list destinations you just have to visit. With thousands of emerald islands dotted all around a bright blue bay, it is arguably one of the most beautiful places in the world. It’s even got the awards to back it up. In 2011 it was inducted as one of the new 7 Natural Wonders of the World, so you know, it’s very popular. As in, really really popular.

Somehow, I have been lucky enough to visit Ha Long Bay in Vietnam three times. Once in 2009 (before it was a natural wonder don’t you know!), once in 2012, and most recently in 2023.

view at ti top island
Ha Long Bay is such a beautiful place to visit

I’m by no means an expert on the area at all, but in my eyes it has changed so much over that period of time.

Before, you used to be able to jump on a Ha Long Bay cruise and spend a couple of lazy days exploring the little islands. It was magical and I completely fell in love with the place.

Today, there are hundreds of boats in Ha Long Bay all doing exactly the same thing. Get off here, take this photo. During peak season, up to 500 boats can be in the bay each day which is just crazy. Mass tourism gets thrown around quite a lot these days, but it could certainly apply here.

So what’s the point, right? Just skip it and move on. WRONG!

You can still have an authentic experience in Ha Long Bay with hardly any other tourists around. And it is still as beautiful and magical as it once was. Hopefully I can show you how in this blog post.   

Is Halong Bay worth visiting?

3 day halong bay cruise
Just look at this beautiful view at sunset

I think the answer to this question is how you do it. By far the majority of tourists visiting Ha Long Bay do it on a day trip. Some of these tours even start from Hanoi well over two hours away.

You get picked up at 08:30, arrive at the port at 11:00, and then set sail for Ha Long Bay. You’re not really among the islands till about 11:30. And because it’s only a day trip, you don’t go very far into the bay. That means you’re sharing the experience with hundreds of other tourists all at the same time. Then you leave back for Hanoi around 17:30. It’s hardly a day, is it?

ti top island vietnam
Ti Top Island is one of the places you’ll visit on most tours

Don’t get me wrong, I still think the 1-day cruise can be beautiful. You go to places like Ti Top Island which has such an incredible view of Halong Bay. Also, millions of people do this tour every year, and they love it.

However, if you’re looking to get off the tourist conveyor belt and you’d like a more authentic experience in Vietnam, then I’d really recommend a longer cruise. Then you really get to see the majesty of Halong Bay.

2 or 3 day Halong Bay cruise?

halong bay 3 day cruise
Wondering how long in Halong Bay? Let’s get into it

So, this is what you really want to know, isn’t it? Should you go on a 2 or 3 day Halong Bay cruise?

Well, I’ve done both, and the 3 days in Halong Bay was up there with the best thing we did on our most recent trip to Vietnam.

The 2-day cruise is good, don’t get me wrong, but the 3-day cruise is so much better.

One of the real benefits of doing the 3 day, 2 night cruise is you go so much deeper into Halong Bay. Because of that, you leave all the other boats behind you.

On the second day of our 3 day cruise, we genuinely had some islands completely to ourselves. Not another soul around. What was I saying about mass tourism?

halong bay itinerary
We sailed around islands like this with no other boats around

On some islands, we’d hike up to a viewpoint and be the only ones there, quietly taking in the stunning views and having time to take photos. Compare that to the busy lines frog-marching to the top of Ti Top Island when you have to wait your turn for a photo. It’s night and day.

It’s hard to put into words, but it makes you appreciate the area so much more when you get to have it all to yourself. It really made me fall in love with Halong Bay all over again.

If you’ve got the time and money, I’d really recommend 3 days in Halong Bay. It still is one of the most beautiful places in the world – you just need to see it without all the other tourists.


My 3-day Halong Bay itinerary

emeraude cruse ship

As I’d done the 2-day cruise a couple of times before, I knew exactly what I was looking for with our 3-day cruise. That’s why I went with Emeraude, a beautiful old-fashioned paddlesteamer dating back to 1910s. These guys have some of the best Halong Bay cruise reviews around, and this is the ship that Anthony Bourdain (one of my travel icons) sailed on in his Parts Unknown series.

The boat harks back to a forgotten time, with vintage décor and burnished teak in all the cabins. It’s like a time capsule, and you can’t help but feel like you’re an old explorer sailing to new lands.

Like me say this now, but I had the best time on the Emeraude. The cabin was gorgeous, the food was incredible, and the staff were so attentive. Plus, they pack your days full of things to do so you’re never bored. And if you are, then you can just pause and take in the breath-taking scenery.

Right, let’s get into it then!

If you’re planning a trip to Vietnam, then don’t forget to read my Vietnam packing list to make sure you’ve got everything before you go!

Day 1:

emeraude classic
I just loved being on board an old fashioned paddlesteamer

12:00-12:30: We checked in at the Emeraude reception in Tuan Chau Marina. Here we were welcomed by the whole team, and then briefed on the 3-day cruise in Halong Bay. The team also took our luggage to our room which was a nice touch.

12:30: We boarded the ship, checked into our beautiful cabin, and then enjoyed a welcome drink on the top deck.

12:45: We set sail and took in the views as we left the marina. Lunch was also served soon after we left which was a delicious buffet.

14:00: We visited Ti Top Island. There was time to climb to the panoramic viewpoint at the top, as well as take a swim or relax on the beach.

ha long bay itinerary
These are the stunning panoramic views at the top of Ti Top Island

15:30: Once on board the Emeraude, we enjoyed some crepes on the top deck as an afternoon snack.

16:30: The ship sailed over to the famous Pearl Village. Here we learned about how pearls are cultivated and why Halong Bay is famous for them. There was also an option to go kayaking here too (at an extra cost).

17:30: HAPPY HOUR! We enjoyed a few 2-4-1 cocktails on the top deck chatting to a few other guests. The chef also hosted a little cooking demonstration showing us how to make Vietnamese spring rolls.

19:00: A large buffet dinner of Asian and Western dishes was served in the main restaurant. After dinner, people gathered in the bar area for more drinks, enjoyed a movie screening in the restaurant or tried their hand at squid fishing.

Day 2:

is halong bay worth it
These are the views that greet you daily

07:00: Sunrise yoga or coffee and cakes. This was such a great way to start the day with the limestone islands all around.

07:30: Breakfast was served in the main restaurant.

08:30: Transfer to a different boat for the 3 day Halong Bay cruise passengers. This is a much smaller and more secluded boat called the Emeraude Premium. It was so amazing having our own private boat for the day and made the experience even more special.

10:00: The first place we visited was Luon Cave. Here we got to row through a cave into a tear-shaped lake. It was a bit like a James Bond villains secret lair.

11:00: We then sailed over to Trong Cave. This was a giant cave that cut right through the middle of an island so you could see through both sides. The views of the other islands from inside the cave were unbelievable.

12:00: After that, we kayaked over to Bo Hong Island, an island with a secret beach.

visiting halong bay
I couldn’t believe the views at Trong Cave

13:00: After such an incredible morning exploring Halong Bay, it was time for lunch on the boat. This was a private 4-course lunch with the islands all around.

14:30: We then sailed over to Me Cung Cave, a cave where you can see prehistoric imprints. There is also an amazing viewpoint of the lake.

15:30: Sailed back to the main boat, the Emeraude Classic, to join up with the other passengers.

16:00: Once on board the Emeraude, we enjoyed some crepes on the top deck as an afternoon snack.

17:30: HAPPY HOUR! We enjoyed a few 2-4-1 cocktails on the top deck chatting to a few other guests. The chef also hosted a little cooking demonstration showing us how to make Vietnamese spring rolls.

19:00: A large buffet dinner of Asian and Western dishes was served in the main restaurant. After dinner, people gathered in the bar area for more drinks, enjoyed a movie screening in the restaurant or tried their hand at squid fishing.

Day 3:

2 or 3 day cruise halong bay
We visited Sung Sot Cave early in the morning

06:30: Sunrise yoga or coffee and cakes. This was such a great way to start the day with the limestone islands all around.

07:30: We visited Sung Sot Cave, one of the largest cave complexes in Halong Bay. One of the Emeraude team led a guided tour, giving us key information about the cave.

09:00: Back on board the ship, we enjoyed a buffet brunch in the restaurant, as the ship sailed back towards the marina.

11:00: Back at Tuan Chau Marina, it was time to disembark and wave goodbye to the Emeraude Classic!

Highlights of Ha Long Bay

To be honest with you, I could quite easily talk about every single thing that we did on our 3 days in Halong Bay, but it would be the biggest blog post ever and I want you to experience it for yourself. It’s safe to say that I enjoyed practically everything we did on our cruise, but here are a few highlights.

Sailing through the islands

how many days to spend in halong bay
Sailing around Ha Long Bay is an activity in itself

Even though this was my third time visiting Halong Bay, nothing quite prepares you for seeing islands up close. They tower over you, and each one is completely unique. It really does live up to being one of the most beautiful places in the world. When you’re somewhere like this, you almost don’t need any of the activities – just sailing through the islands is an activity in itself.

Ti Top Island

ha long bay 3 days
You can’t deny this is a stunning view

I know I’ve already said it’s one of the most popular places that people visit in Halong Bay, but it is for a reason. The panoramic views at the top of the island are unparalleled. This is one of the top viewpoints in Halong Bay.

Luon Cave

luon cave vietnam
It was great visiting somewhere like Luon Cave

We got here early in the morning and had the place completely to ourselves. To get to this cave, we had to be rowed through a low-hanging cave entrance. This then opens up to the rising rock and cliffs all around as we paddled through the middle of the lake. As I said, it almost felt like a James Bond villains lair.

Trong Cave

how many days in halong bay
I felt like a proper explorer at Trong Cave

This was a giant cave that cut right through the middle of an island so you could see through both sides. The views of the other islands from inside the cave were unbelievable. I think it was one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen. Apparently they held a concert in here once – what a place for it!

Bo Hong Island

how to visit halong bay
Imagine having this beach all to yourself without the tourists

Bo Hong Island is without a doubt my favourite place in Halong Bay. To get here, we jumped in some kayaks and paddled for 15 minutes following the rocky outline of the island. We then beached our kayaks and walked through a very impressive cave to the other side of the island. As if this wasn’t enough, there is a secret beach here with the most beautiful views. It is like the ever-popular Maya Bay in Thailand (the one where they filmed The Beach) but without the hordes of tourists. It is such a special spot.

Private lunch on the Emeraude Premium

emeraude premium
Lunch for two? Yes please!

After we visited Bo Hong Island, we had a private lunch on board the Emeraude Premium. This was a 4-course extravaganza which was just delicious. With the incredible views of all the little islands dotted around, they could’ve served a bread roll and it would’ve been a memorable experience.  

All the food on the Emeraude Classic

emeraude cruise food
All the food on board the boat was yummy

I was actually really impressed with all the food on board the Emeraude Classic. I always get worried that buffets aren’t actually that good, but the food was great here with lots of different options. For me, some of the Vietnamese dishes were cracking.  

Afternoon crepes

crepes on board the emeraude
Crepes are good, but they’re even better in Halong Bay!

I really liked the ceremony of the afternoon crepes on the top deck. It was the perfect opportunity to stop each day and just relax for 30 minutes. Also, it really did feel like something passengers would’ve done a century ago as they explore the area too.

Stargazing at night

sunset in halong bay
I didn’t have any photos of the stars, so here’s on of sunset

Even at night Halong Bay can be stunningly beautiful. As we live in London, we rarely get to see the stars like this, but they were glistening like diamonds in the sky at night. Each evening we would have a drink on the top deck and sit under the stars talking about the highlights of everything we’d seen that day.

My review of the 3 day, 2 night Halong Bay cruise

halong bay with kids
My advice is to spend 3 days in Halong Bay

One of my biggest fears about returning to Halong Bay again was that I’d just visit all the same places again. Naively, I kinda thought I’d done Halong Bay. Oh how wrong I was.

I am so happy we did the 3 day, 2 night cruise (you can see our Halong Bay cruise itinerary here). That second day was one of the best days I’ve ever had travelling, and it will live with me a long time. Not only did we get to see so many incredible places in one day, but we did so without all the other tourists. I’m not lying but we really did have most places like Luon Cave and Bo Hong Island all to ourselves. I just didn’t think that would be possible anymore.

what to do in halong bay
I really hope you enjoy Ha Long Bay as much as we did

Our cruise, the Emeraude, was brilliant too, I couldn’t fault them. They really looked after us from the moment we walked onto the boat. All the food was delicious, the program they offer with all their activities and excursions is great, and of course who doesn’t enjoy Happy Hour at sunset.

If you’re on the fence and you’re unsure what cruise to do, I’d really recommend spending 3 days in Halong Bay. Only then can you really get to experience one of the most beautiful places in the world.


If you’re planning your Ha Long Bay itinerary and have any questions at all, then just let me know in the comments below and I’ll get back to you.

Also, as you can see from some of my photos, we visited Halong Bay with our little boy. If you’re interested in visiting Halong Bay as a family, then make sure you read Chloe’s blog post!

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Ha Long Bay Itinerary: 3 Days in Halong Bay, Vietnam

About the Author

  • Macca Sherifi

    Macca Sherifi is the founder of the multiple award-winning blogs An Adventurous World and the Great British Bucket List. Every month he inspires over 200,000 avid readers to travel the world.