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  • Writer's pictureAround the World in Vegan Eats


Updated: Apr 2, 2023

One thing was for sure when we visited Vietnam: we were desperate to travel to Hạ Long Bay, the stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site in the north-east of Vietnam, around three hours from Hanoi. I had become so excited about the idea of visiting the crystal blue waters with its islands and limestone formations; it was definitely one of the parts of our trip that I most excited about. However, I knew that being vegan might present some problems when it came to this adventure, since amenities are pretty few and far between in Hạ Long Bay; besides a lady in a little rowing boat selling Pringles, once you're in the bay there's nowhere to buy any extra food... In this post, I'll tell you about how we booked our cruise, the options we went for, and how the experience was for a vegan visiting Vietnam.

How did we choose and book our Ha Long Bay cruise, and how much did it cost?

Although the organised (impatient) person in me found this very difficult, we waited until we were in Hanoi to book the Hạ Long Bay cruise. The biggest reason for this was pricing: if you book a cruise online, though you know it's all booked and you don't need to worry about it, the price is going to be inflated. If money is less of a problem and you don't want to spend your valuable time in Hanoi talking to travel agents, by all means get this sorted online ahead of time; because we were travelling for three months on a tight budget, booking the cruise for less money when we were in Hanoi was the right choice for us.

We headed to Hanoi's Old Quarter, where the real tourist hub lies, to check out some of the travel agents. The good news here is that in Vietnamese cities, often similar businesses are situated in very close proximity to their competitors, so it's easy enough to go from agent to agent if you haven't found quite the cruise or price point for you. They all open late into the evening, so you're sure to be able to visit them at a convenient time. We checked the reviews on Google Maps to make sure that the agents that we were using were reputable, and recommend that you do the same.

There are a wide range of Hạ Long Bay cruises on offer, and most of them depart daily. We decided that, because of the three hour long journey each way, we wanted to choose the 3 day/2 night cruise option (though the 2 day/1 night is more popular - but more on that later). We visited a total of three agents before choosing our Hạ Long Bay cruise - we were fairly certain which cruise we wanted after visiting the first agent, but wanted to shop around. Ultimately the third agent felt the most reputable and offered us the best price (and we were ready to get it booked so we could get on with our evening!)

Though the agents kept trying to upsell us a more luxurious cruise (they told Mike it would be more romantic!) but in the end we wanted to keep the trip relatively cheap. If you want a fancier experience though, there should be an option to suit your price range. The biggest question that we had for the travel agents was whether the cruise could cater for a vegan diet: though I sometimes had to explain that this meant no meat, no fish, no eggs, no dairy, they were happy and confident to confirm that all of the tours they offered would be able to cater for my requirements. We chose the three day, two night Fantasea Cruise, which cost us around £150 per person (approx. €169, $181.20 or ₫4,280,796.84). This was slightly pricier than we had expected, even after haggling, but we were visiting shortly after the country reopened, so we understood that Covid had caused price increases everywhere we went.

How was our time on board the cruise?

We were picked up from our hotel by our guide, 'Popeye', and loaded onto the bus with our fellow cruising passengers. You spend a fair amount of time with the other people on the cruise, so it's worth being friendly! We didn't have any trouble with this though, everybody was very friendly (our cruise comprised a mix of fellow Brits, Australians, Europeans, and American guests) - after so long on the road it was great to spend time getting to know this lovely bunch of people. We kept in touch with some of the people we met on the Fantasea boat too, and they gave us some really valuable tips and advice later on in our trip (we're looking at you, Em, Elyce and Zahra!)

Over the course of the first day, we visited some beautiful caves and islands, climbed to the top of one, and then headed over to the boat where we relaxed with a few drinks and watched the sun go down over Hạ Long Bay.

The inside of a cave, gently illuminated with warm light
A cave we visited on our first day in Hạ Long Bay

It's hard to describe just how spectacular the views of Hạ Long Bay are, and from our overnight anchor we had the most spectacular 360-degree view. Our cabin in the boat was basic but comfortable, and we had two good nights' sleep here. The next morning, we got up at 6am for kayaking at daybreak - a beautiful way to get our second day in Hạ Long Bay underway.

Things got a little strange when Mike and I had to hop from one boat to another in the middle of the bay. This was because everyone else on the Fantasea boat was getting the bus back to Hanoi that morning, while we spent a day on another boat before rejoining the Fantasea cruise once it had picked up its new passengers, later that day. After we'd avoided falling into the water and boarded this new boat, we found out how rare the 3 day/2 night option really was. Apart from us there was only one other couple on board for the day (shout out to the wonderful Katy and Tom!): because they were such fantastic people, this made for a truly amazing day, which would actually be one of the highlights of our entire three months of travel.

A couple in a yellow kayak, on the green-blue water of Hạ Long Bay. Beautiful limestone islands are in the background.
Kayaking in Hạ Long Bay: one of the highlights of our three month trip (thanks to Katy for the photo!)

Having only just dried out from the morning kayaking, we were a little reluctant when we found out that our first activity on this boat would be kayaking - but wow, we were so glad that we went along with it anyway. Kayaking through the bay, just the four our us and our guide, was the most incredible experience. It was serene and intimate, it was easy to feel like we were the only people in the world - we were certainly the only people as far as the eye could see. As we kayaked through caves into small island inlets, the sight of nature all around us was breathtaking. Bats flew overhead, and we saw monkeys swinging from trees and rocks on the uninhabited islands that we were lucky enough to gaze upon from our tiny boats on the water. I cannot explain quite how emotional and beautiful these scenes were, and they would not have been the same, or perhaps even possible with a larger group. Suffice to say, we felt extremely lucky.

As well as visiting a handful more sights in the Bay area, we were allowed some time to swim to from the boat to a small beachy cove in a nearby Bay. We were really lucky to have been with Katy and Tom at this point; Mike and I are not strong swimmers, and they promised to not let us drown... our life jackets were a bit on the large side and quite burdensome too, and eventually I just sort of kicked while Katy dragged me along. While this was an unbelievable experience, the amount of garbage in Hạ Long Bay that floated on the surface and had washed up onto the beach of this otherwise untouched island was a little heartbreaking to us. Lots of the pollution in the area is the result of the tourism and fishing industries here, but undoubtedly lots of the trash is from careless disposal from people all over the world too. Part of the tourist tax that you pay when visiting Hạ Long Bay goes towards paying local people to collect and properly dispose of this garbage (it's like a bin lorry, but a boat, and they are collecting and sorting the rubbish by hand). The way that human activity has affected such an astounding area of natural beauty really brought home to us the responsibility we have to our world and lessening our impacts on it as much as possible.

When we waved goodbye to our day boat and headed back to the Fantasea cruise, we had the slightly strange Groundhog-Day-style experience of welcoming a new group of passengers, alongside our Day 2 guide, Peter, before reliving all the same activities as the night before. While this didn't really bother us, we enjoyed meeting and getting to know a new group of people, this would be slightly frustrating if you spent a further night on board! Needless to say, we didn't get up for 6am kayaking again! It's worth noting that the boats do offer squid fishing as an evening activity, but this is by no means enforced. Only one person out of the twenty we met was even interested in trying, and he gave up pretty quickly.

Answer the question we've all been wondering... how was the food for vegetarians and vegans?

The food was actually very good - much better than I had expected! All meals over all three days were served buffet style: the guides all checked with me exactly what I did and didn't eat, and were very thorough in explaining which dishes were suitable. Sometimes sharer plates were served onto the table, which meant that occasionally there was a full fish in front of me - for me this is not really a problem, as long as there are plenty of things I can eat! On our first night on the Fantasea cruise, the guide segregated us: one table for vegetarians and vegans, and another table for everyone else. This obviously made service much easier and avoided the situation where I was looking at a fish, but it had the odd effect that some people were not able to sit with their friends and partners, if their dietary requirements were different. This didn't happen on the day boat or the second night of the cruise, but it was definitely an odd choice with pros and cons!

The food on the day boat was incredible, with lots of noodles, rice and vegetable dishes - as well as plenty of fresh and fried vegetable-based sides (this, incidentally, was where I found out that I really don't like taro!) The fact that the second night's meal was identical to the first might have been a bit of a nightmare if the food had been boring, but as it was there was plenty of variety and flavours to keep me happy (though another night, again, might have been too much of the same!) Breakfast was very basic, with toast and fruit, but lunch on the day boat was a little fancier than on the Fantasea cruise, with some really tasty buns and tofu dishes; it very much made up our slightly underwhelming breakfast!

A handmade summer roll, with vegetables bursting out of the rice paper
My first summer roll: what a disaster!

One of the activities on the boat is learning to make traditional Vietnamese summer rolls; as you can see, at first we were not very good at this! The beauty of repeating this activity the next evening, though, was that we were able to look like pros the second time around! After you have stuffed your rice paper rolls with vegetables (meat and fish are available for those who eat it) you can enjoy them as a starter, with your bowl of dipping sauce. A word of warning though! On the first night, our guide swapped my bowl of sauce for a bowl of soy sauce, as he said the bowls that were placed automatically on the tables contained fish sauce. Our guide on the second day did not seem to think that this was the case, so I simply avoided the sauce on the second night.

Overall, I'd say that for the short time you're in Hạ Long Bay, the food provided on the boats will absolutely be sufficient: there's enough variety for vegetarians and vegans to stay full, with enough variety to not feel like an afterthought either. If you were staying any longer than this, you might get a little bored of the options, but for a one or two night cruise, as long as you clarify your dietary requirements with the guides you should be fine.

So, do we recommend going on a Ha Long Bay Cruise?

Overall, yes, we'd absolutely recommend going on a cruise of Hạ Long Bay. There is an ethereal, natural beauty that is so unique - you will not experience this anywhere else. Though it was a slightly strange experience, we'd recommend staying the two nights if time and budgets permit, for the sake of the incredible time we had on Day 2. You will meet some wonderful new people, see some beautiful sights, and probably come away with some brilliant stories like we did.

It's worth noting that not all the activities are ethical; you may not be comfortable, for example, squid fishing; some of the other tours include a visit to an oyster farm too. It is always possible to opt out of these activities, or choose a cruise that does not include them. While there are pros and cons (the tourist industry has been quite damaging to the bay, though mitigation strategies are now in place), if you want to go on a Hạ Long Bay cruise, you can do so as a vegan. You will be able to eat well enough to keep you full and happy, with the fun of creating your own summer rolls too. If you're considering booking a cruise to Hạ Long Bay while you're in Hanoi, absolutely you should go for it.

Have you visited Hạ Long Bay, or do you plan to visit in the future? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.


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The centre of Vienna with tall, historic buildings all around
Hạ Long Bay is seriously one of the most stunning places I've ever been

Where should I stay around my trip?

Most of the tours include transport from Hanoi, so we'd recommend this as your base before and after your Ha Long Bay cruise. Hanoi has so many places to stay, but if you want to be close to the action we'd recommend staying in the Old Quarter, where you'll find loads of choice regardless of the accommodation type you prefer.

Hanoi Little Town Hotel is situated in the heart of the city, with a beautiful French Colonial style of decoration, and friendly service that gets consistently high reviews from its guests. If you'd prefer the atmosphere and vibe of a hostel, Hanoi Buffalo Hostel offer both privates and dorm rooms - with a pool, free walking tours and the occasional free beer on offer too!

Tours & Experiences

There are so many Hạ Long Bay cruises out there, to include all budgets. Though we recommend visiting for at least one night, if not two, this day tour is extremely highly reviewed, and includes many of the activities we enjoyed.

If you'd prefer an overnight cruise like us, and don't have time to book one when you're in Vietnam, check out the top Viator trips below.

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