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Family friendly cruise gave us a highlight of our global family travel memories
Sometimes the best thing you can give as a gift is an experience for the entire family. In our family, for Christmas and for Anthony’s December birthday, we decided that in 2022 we would give ourselves the gift of a Halong Bay cruise. The four of us would overnight on the calm, jade green waters that are home to around 1,600 islands made of rising, verdant karst limestone pillars. And we would cruise in comfort and style.
We want to thank Sena Cruises for sponsoring our visit. However, this article reflects our own personal opinions and experiences.
Why our family wanted to take an overnight cruise on Vietnam’s Halong Bay
If you’re familiar with photos or videos of Vietnam, there’s a good chance you’ve seen images of Halong (or Ha Long) Bay. In the Gulf of Tonkin a couple of hours east of Hanoi, the geological beauty of Halong’s 43,400 ha led it to being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. The islands are mostly uninhabited. The porous limestone of the pillars and hilly islands has led to the development of vast caves. Many pillars have caves you can row a boat through.
To put it simply, we wanted to experience these incredible rock formations and beautiful waters ourselves.
Plus, Halong has a well-developed industry for day, overnight, and multi-night cruises. We were confident we could find a cruise that fit our budget and would be kid friendly.
Halong Bay cruises we considered
This part of Vietnam is a popular destination for visitors from all over the world. There is no shortage of Halong Bay cruises to choose from. Here are some other cruises we considered:
Itineraries, costs, amenities, and what’s included vary heaps from provider to provider. Here are a few things we suggest keeping an eye out for:
- Does the price include a round-trip shuttle from Hanoi to Halong Bay? If not, how much extra is a shuttle?
- Are there discounts for kids?
- What cabin options are there for families? (The cruise we took, for example, had options where we could all share one cabin with multiple beds, or have two conjoining cabins, like hotel suites. We took the two—one for the kids, one for the parents.)
- Cruise providers can typically accommodate specific dietary needs or other considerations. Talk with them in advance so they have time to make arrangements.
- What food and drink does your ticket include? For example, your package might cover meals, but alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages may cost extra. (Our overnight didn’t include drinks, but prices were quite reasonable.)
- No matter the arrangements, cruises are weather-dependent and subject to change. During our sailing, we lucked out. We’d originally tried to set up our cruise for the day before. If we had, bad weather would have prevented us from spending the night on the water.
The cruise company we chose and why they were a good fit for our family
After lots of discussion, comparison, and a few Instagram messages and emails of all the Halong Bay cruises we considered, we chose a 2-day, 1-night (or 2D1N) overnight cruise with Sena Cruises. Here are things about Sena that stood out to us:
- The overnight sailing easily fit our schedule, as we wanted to go soon after arriving in Hanoi
- Our contact, Maria Nguyen of Utopia Vietnam Travel, was always timely in her responses. Her thorough answers showed she clearly cared that we found the right fit for our family. She also arranged our shuttle to and from Halong Bay.
- The itinerary had a few things scheduled, but we still had free time.
- The ship was one of the coolest vessels we saw in the area. The unique covering on the upper deck gave us options for being more out in the option or under cover. Plus, on the middle deck, there was an introvert nook in a small room with lots of bookshelves.
- The price tag was a good fit of activities and amenities for our family budget.
- The Sena Cruise ship we would take would not be confused with a massive cruise ship. With 3 decks and 16 cabins, we loved the small-group experience. We found it easy to get around the boat—even Jodie when she had taken off her prosthetic leg and was using her crutches to get to the back of the ship for swimming.
Why did we choose one night (and what could we have chosen instead)?
You can pick an itinerary for just about any timeline. Some folks go only for a day cruise, then maybe overnight in Halong Bay. Other people come for a week or longer. We considered two nights. Ultimately, two days and one night were the right fit for our timeline and budget in Vietnam.
Is a Halong Bay cruise kid friendly?
Naturally, finding the right fit for cruise and family takes some attention. Cruise experiences vary depending on what the audience is looking for. Being able to message someone with the cruise provider can help you match the right cruise to your family.
Our Sena cruise was laid back, with excellent food, and a variety of activities such as kayaking, swimming, squid fishing and, of course, karaoke. (Though having the karaoke at the same time as the off-the-back-of-the-boat squid fishing was probably not the best matchup for attracting tender, juicy squiddies.)
From what we observed on our Sena cruise, our guide and all the staff were always ready to help us with the kids, or make sure they had what they needed.
Here’s what our Halong Bay cruise itinerary on Sena Cruises looked like
Our Sena Cruise kept an itinerary, but we liked we could go along for what we wanted to, and take a pass on anything that didn’t suit our fancy. That was especially good for the kids. Later on our first day, after we’d gone in a “bamboo boat” to see the Dark and Light Cave, when the kids were ready for some downtime in the room, Jodie and I knew they could have exactly that.
Day 1: Hanoi, Halong Bay, Lan Ha Bay
Getting from Hanoi to Halong Bay: Our bus experience
Typically Halong Bay cruises arrange a shuttle for passengers. We rode in a luxury mid-sized coach with our fellow passengers on Sena Cruises, and some folks who were riding on Sena’s budget cruise, Swan Cruises (which we also considered).
Maria told us our shuttle should arrive between 8 and 8:30 a.m., depending on Hanoi’s infamous traffic. They arrived a couple of minutes after eight. After they helped us load our things into the back of the bus, we were on our way.
The highway from Hanoi to Halong Bay is smooth, modern, and well-made. Heading east from Hanoi, you pass various new developments. It’s a reminder of how quickly Vietnam is changing in terms of new construction and economic mobility. Yet the lush, green countryside remains. You regularly take bridges over broad, slow rivers, during the roughly 3-hour drive from Hanoi to Halong.
Sunday and pearls
Sena also worked with a tour guide who would be the liaison and touchpoint for all of us on the cruise. Using the Western nickname “Sunday,” he filled us in on facts about Hanoi and Halong Bay during part of the drive. (He also had plenty of jokes on hand, such as calling our freebie bottled water “white whisky.”) During our later “water taxi” ride from the harbor to our ship, Sunday clued us in that Halong Bay is actually further broken down into 7 sub-areas, to better help spread out tourism and improve conservation efforts. We technically would be in the sub-section known as Lan Ha Bay.
The ride was smooth and comfortable. Halfway through the drive, we made one stop at a large convenience area with cafes, some snack foods, restrooms (or, as Sunday liked to call them, “happy rooms”), and for this spot, extensive educational exhibits on pearl cultivation and collection. The region is known for its pearls and its pearl jewelry. After looking over the informative exhibits and displays, you can duck into a shop for its array of pearls and luxury pearl wear.
From harbor to ship
Once we arrived at the harbor, around 11:30-ish, there was some waiting time. There’s a large indoor space with chairs, or you can nip out back for seating along the ship-filled harbor. While Jodie and Connor sat inside with our bags, Anthony and Aster sat out back to watch the boats and play I Spy.
Our ship was already out in Lan Ha Bay. After about 20 minutes, it was time to board the tender, or water taxi, that would take us to the ship itself. The small, enclosed boat was like a miniature ferry, and the staff were wonderful at spotting Jodie as she navigated getting on-board and making sure her prosthetic foot had good support.
As we rode, Sunday passed around snacks and told us about the history and culture of the area. All the while, we turned our heads back and forth, getting our first glimpses of the massive rocks formations rising from the water.
Will boat for lunch
By the time we boarded our Sena Cruises ship, around 12:30, our lunchtime alarms were going off—and lunch is exactly what we got as soon as we arrived. Dish after dish arrived at the table during our set-menu, multi-course lunch. The dishes are Vietnamese, but are mild. (Though if you want some heat, like Anthony and our Singaporean next-door table neighbor, a quick ask will have a dish of sliced chiles arriving next to your plate.)
After lunch, we had free time to settle into our cabins, unpack, get to know the ship, and have a little downtime.
Caves and swimming
It’s one thing to see the tall limestone towers of Halong Bay. It’s another to go right through one, on smooth, silent water. A highlight of the afternoon is riding in a small boat with a rower, who takes you through Dark and Bright Cave.
After, some of us changed into swimsuits and took a dunk in the water off the back of the ship. Aster especially loved showing everyone the meaning of gusto, as she cannon balled into the water and gave Anthony a few dunks.
Cooking and cocktails
Dried off and changed from the swim, the kids settled into some downtime in their room. Over Vietnamese coffee, we adults sat at the table on our private balcony, chatting about our travels and admiring the incredible limestone towers as we sailed slowly by.
As evening darkened in the cloudy sky, a cool breeze turned things on the upper deck a little chilly, but not too bad. We rugged up in jackets and came up top for a wee spring roll cooking class with Sunday, accompanied by happy hour.
Soon after, we all returned to the downstairs dining room for a multi-course dinner, followed by free time, or a bit of squid fishing or karaoke. And we will neither confirm nor deny reports of a certain couple belting our Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” and The Eagles’ “Hotel California” to an audience of limestone islands.
Day 2: Lan Ha Bay to Ha Noi
While Jodie and the kids slept, Anthony got up a little before six. The breeze had not stopped, but while it was a little chilly on the upper deck, it was worthwhile to warm up the day with a bit of introductory tai chi.
During a buffet breakfast, we sipped coffee and saw the clouds breaking up. Sunshine came down, brightening the green waters and the limestone. During the open morning, some folks opted to paddle kayaks around the bay where we had anchored. Others—like Jodie and Connor—took a dip in the bay itself.
Over an early buffet lunch, we took in our last sights of Lan Ha Bay, then got packed up. After another ride in the tender back to the harbor, a few hours later we were being dropped off at our hotel in Hanoi, still thinking of the waters and towers of the bay.
What we learned and would consider on another Halong Bay cruise
Our Halong Bay cruise is one of our most precious memories from our world travels. Since we plan to do more travels in Vietnam, here are a few things we might change up for our next Halong cruise:
Build in time at Cat Ba Island
This national park is the bay’s largest island, and it’s been getting more popular with visitors. When coming off one of the Halong Bay cruises, they can also transfer you to Cat Ba. We’d consider doing this next time, so we could explore Cat Ba and have a couple of days in the park.
This luxury cruise was a holiday and birthday family gift to ourselves. One night was the right fit for our schedule and budget. Next time, though, we would spend at least one more night on the water. We would examine longer itineraries as well. We love being on the water, and Halong Bay is full of incredible spots to explore.
Stay in Halong Bay itself
The Halong Bay area is a huge city focused on tourism. We were there in more of a low-season time of year, so there’s not as much going on. Still, in and around the city, it looks like there could be some interesting places to check out. On another trip to the area, we would look into staying a bit in Halong itself.
Where to stay in Halong Bay, Vietnam
Our Hanoi and Halong Bay contact
As we mentioned earlier, we coordinated our trip with Maria Nguyen. Besides her work with Sena Cruises, she owns and operates Utopia Vietnam Travel, and she can work with travelers to “arrange all services in the world,” she says, such as:
- Attractions and activities
Maria wound up being on our cruise, and it was delightful to get to chat face to face with someone who had been so helpful. A couple of days later, while running errands, Anthony even ran into Maria in Hanoi, and got to see her office and her dedicated team of travel assistants.
When we travel, we love making our own arrangements. Still, now and again it’s really helpful to coordinate with someone local and on the ground. Maria was kind, helpful, and excited for us at every turn.
You can get in touch with Maria learn more about her services here:
A cruise among the unique waterscape of Halong Bay will give your family an amazing travel memory
Our trip on a Halong Bay cruise brought into clear focus just how much our family loves being on the water. With its islands and huge towers, Halong Bay is a distinct seascape, full of calm and beauty. We loved being on our cruise—and can’t wait to return to the jade waters of Halong Bay.