Halong Bay, with its 1000s of limestone cliff "islands," is a must for any visitor to Vietnam. Seeing the pictures is one thing, but actually looking up and around you and seeing nothing but sheer rock coming out of the water is quite another. If it's solitude or adventure you're after, it's all here at Halong.
But picking the trip is a nightmare as there are almost as many travel agents in Hanoi as there are islands in Halong. Here's how to make the right choice and have the best time possible.
Don't do a one-day trip, and if you can avoid it, don't do a two-day one either. The three-day, two-night option is best, and gives you a chance to really soak in the atmosphere and scenery that makes Halong so famous.
Align on Budget
Don't kill your budget for Halong, but don't be a cheapskate. You could purchase a three day tour for $55, but know that everything—the boat, the food, the staff—will be mediocre. If that's all you can spend, fine. But a good rule of thumb is to align your Halong Bay trip with your typical budget and round up a bit. For us, that's $33/day/person in May. For our trip, we spent closer to $37/person, although we later realized that other people on our boat had bought the same trip for about $26/day. That got us a good boat, plenty of time on the water, and food that included grilled oysters and clam chowder.
The total cost should include all transfers from Hanoi, all meals, appropriate length of accommodation, and all activities and entry fees. The only thing you should need to pay extra for is drinks.
Pick Your Activities
The one must that your tour should provide is free kayaking. This is, rightfully, almost everyone's favorite activity as it allows you to freely explore the caves and grottos carved out by the water. We kayaked into the "James Bond cave," which was featured in Tomorrow Never Dies, and then spent another hour just exploring the various nooks within the rocks.
If you want a more adventurous trip, opt for a one-night on boat, one-night on island package. That way you can do some trekking and additional kayaking in a different bay.
If you want a more relaxing trip, opt for two nights on the boat. I actually wish we had done that, because all the transfers on the second day take a while and kill the atmosphere a bit.
Our trip, with Monkey Island Cruises, took us to Monkey Island the second day. It was okay, but the water around it was filled with trash and the "superior" bungalows were tiny and lacked any view. The pouring rain didn't help matters.
One benefit of all the transfers is the drive through Cat Ba Island, which is the only populated island in Halong. Lonely Planet calls it "something straight out of Jurassic Park," and in this instance, they're right. Besides for the one town and road, the locals have largely left Cat Ba to the elements, which means it's a mix of jungle, rock, tropical rainstorms, and fog that rivals San Francisco's. In short, it's a hell of a 40-minute drive, and probably the best part of our trip to Monkey Island.
Do Your Research
This is the hardest part when it comes to choosing the Halong Bay trip right for you. Even if you know your budget, how do you know you're not getting put on that $55 boat and paying $100 instead?
The truth is you don't, but the best thing you can do is ask as many questions as possible.
TIP: The most important question to ask the travel agent is, "What is the name of the cruise company?"
If they won't give it to you, walk away. If they share it, get on the internet and do some digging. (FYI, that $55 cruise has less than a 1-star rating on TripAdvisor.) If you like what you see, haggle the price down a bit. If you don't, move on to the next agent.
Unfortunately, there's almost no way to book directly with the tour provider, so you'll have to use a mix of intuition, internet searches, and other travelers to make your choice. The travelers who got the best deal on our boat used Lily's Travel Agency, 18 Ngo Huyen, Hanoi.
More Halong Bay
Ready to jump into more pictures of Halong Bay?
Check out our Halong Bay photo tour.
Have any budget travel tips for Halong Bay? Let us know in the comments!