We have investigated the nucleation and growth of gallium nitride (GaN) films on silicon and sapphire substrates using halide vapor phase epitaxy (HVPE). GaN growth was carried out on bare Si and sapphire surfaces, as well as on MOVPE-grown GaN buffer layers. HVPE growth on MOVPE GaN/AlN buffer layers results in lower defect densities as determined by x-ray than growth directly on sapphire. HVPE GaN films grown directly on sapphire exhibit strong near-edge photoluminescence, a pronounced lack of deep level-based luminescence, and x-ray FWHM values of 16 arcsec by an x-ray θ-2θ scan. The crystallinity of GaN films on sapphire is dominated by the presence of rotational misorientation domains, as measured by xray ω-scan diffractometry, which tend to decrease with increasing thickness or with the use of a homoepitaxial MOVPE buffer layer. The effect of increasing film thickness on the defect density of the epilayer was studied. In contrast, the HVPE growth of nitride films directly on silicon is complicated by mechanisms involving the formation of silicon nitrides and oxides at the initial growth front.