For most travelers to Vietnam, Halong Bay is almost always at the top of their “Places to See” list. It’s a picturesque bay off the coast of northern Vietnam near Hanoi that is dotted with jagged limestone islands. The 120km long coastline and it’s surrounding islands have been listed as a UNESCO world natural heritage site. So if you are nearby, you should do your best to stop by for a visit.
The typical jumping off point the Halong Bay is Hanoi and most people end up booking tours from there. However there are two ways to see the bay. Normally we wouldn’t recommend booking a package tour but most travelers find that they are cheaper and way more convenient than trying to see the islands on your own.
If you haven’t pre-arranged your tour of Halong Bay in advance, they can be booked everywhere. At the moment you arrive in Hanoi, people of all shapes and sizes will begin to push tours on you. Any of these pre-paid tours will save you the hassle of getting to the bay on your own.
There are far too many tours to mention, and probably a lot of great ones. For backpackers, the New Hanoi Backpackers Hostel offers an extremely popular tour known as the “Booze Cruise” (about $70 USD). This tour of the islands, involves boating, kayaking, swimming, hiking, an over night stay and a whole lot of drinking. So be prepared to be exhausted the next day, as they wake you up at 7am on the last day.
Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to see Halong Bay on your own. Well, mostly on your own…as you do still need to hire a boat and driver. To accomplish this, you can take either a bus or a taxi to Halong Bay from Hanoi. From this point it is up to you to negotiate a price, duration and itinerary for the day with a boat driver (or ticket office). Any small boat you hire directly from the driver will provide a very different experience than the packaged tours, although this is not an easy task. Technically all boats in the bay are supposed to be licensed. Whether this actually occurs in practice, is up for debate. From what we are told, it works out to be cheaper…but not by a lot.
One thing to keep in mind about Halong Bay is that it is NOT a beach town. They bay itself is simply a marina that acts as a jumping off point to viewing the surrounding islands.