A spectacular bunch of limestone hills, dotted by magnificent caves and lakes, Ha Long Bay is a set of more than 1600 islands in the South China Sea, 100 km east of Hanoi. The biggest island Cat Ba is home to a national park. Such an amazing place is visited by thousands of thousands of people, so we had to decide how to avoid the crowds to get the best out of it.
I always prefer spending time in nature by myself. To do that, I either walk, bike or take a private tour. In Ha Long Bay that is virtually impossible since we are talking about a bunch of islands. I would suggest hiring a private boat, but it is ridiculously expensive. Maybe if you go to the pier and hire a quick ride from a local you could have some privacy but that would be a small introduction to a magnificent place. So this time, as an exception, I have to recommend an organized tour from Hanoi.
Practically every hotel in Hanoi collaborates with tour operators. The typical tour includes bus transport to Ha Long city port, and full board on a selected boat. There are three regular options: a two day excursion with one night onboard, a three day excursion with two nights onboard and a three day excursion with one night onboard and one night on Cat Ba Island. I would definitely discard the two day option since you’ll be on a bus for two days, to and from the place, leaving you just one day to see the Bay.
A very important issue is choosing the proper agency and the category of the tour. Depending on the quality of the accommodation and service the boats can have 1 to 5 stars. One star boats are similar to hostels, some of them in really bad shape. Boats with 3 stars are quite decent and in a good shape. 4 and 5 star boats have bigger rooms, less people onboard and better food. Though I took a 4 star one, I recommend a three star boat, it is considerably cheaper, but decent rooms and food.
Why should you pick a three day tour with two nights onboard?
- No long tours are offered for a decent price, it would have to be private.
- The first day of all tours are spent among the masses.
- You get to enjoy the place on the second day, sharing a boat with few people.
- The price difference between 2 and 3 days is reasonable.
The typical three day tour with two nights onboard:
You leave Hanoi in the morning. The journey to Ha Long city takes about 4 hours, including a stop in a bizarre shopping centre. Around midday you get to the boat, rest a bit and then engage in a ridiculous tourist ritual. First you stand in a line to visit the famous Sung Sot cave, where you don’t even have a moment to look around without losing your group. Later there is a kayaking activity with thousands of people around you in a relatively small bay. Finally there is an excursion where locals take you on small boats around a fishing village. On the second day you are transferred to a smaller boat that takes you further, where you can swim, kayak and visit an oyster farm with not many people around. This is where you can finally relax and truly enjoy the natural setting. You go back on the third day.
Most of us don’t get to visit Vietnam that often. Even if we do, getting that far means you have to be more flexible on your budget. I mean, you don’t cross half a planet to be stingy with important places. You can’t travel around Vietnam without visiting Ha Long Bay. It simply doesn’t make any sense. Most tours are quite expensive. The three day tour won’t cost you less than 120 $. But Ha Long Bay is the one place in South East Asia where you should make an additional effort and open up your wallet.
I suggest booking a tour with an agent while in Hanoi.
Otherwise you can find some online agencies on this link: