When I first took a boat trip on Halong Bay back in the late 1990s, that area of Vietnam wasn’t all that popular. I think I had only known about it because of the 1992 movie Indochine, starring the lovely Catherine Deneuve. The area had only become a UNESCO World Heritage site a few years before, in 1994.
It was next to impossible to get there on your own then unless you wanted to cram in with the locals on a bus that was going to make a hundred stops on the way. Friends we were traveling with that wanted to arrange their own boat trip independently ended up renting a car and driver to get them there and back and then asked around at the docks of the port town to find a captain.
The two of us didn’t have the energy for all that, so we chose the most common way to do anything in Vietnam at that time: we booked a Halong Bay tour from Hanoi. As was also typical at the time, the place where we booked it was a combination travel agency, guesthouse, coffee shop, and t-shirt store. Hey, entrepreneurs back then were a rare species, so the ones who were ready to rock went all in.
It’s a different story now, of course, with some six million people heading here annually. To put that in perspective, it’s more visitors than the entire country of Laos receives. This is a sizable area of some 1,600 islands and islets though, a dramatic landscape that goes on and on, with limestone pillars sticking out of the water. Some of the larger ones are inhabited by people (such as Cat Ba Island), but most of them are just populated by sea birds.
Now it’s dead easy to book any kind of tour your want, or you can be an independent traveler and get there on your own. You can even go straight from the Hanoi airport, though that would be a shame unless you’re coming back to the capital city later.
Hanoi to Halong Bay by Bus
When looking at how to get to Halong Bay on your own, you’ll soon discover that a direct bus is going to be the best option.
Technically there is a train that makes it to the eastern edge of Bai Chai, the ugly entry city to the region. You probably don’t want to take it though: there are hard seats only, it takes at least seven hours (for 150 kms!), and it leaves at the rough time of 4:45 a.m.. It departs from Yen Vien Station in Hanoi, northeast of the city center.
There are nice direct buses from multiple points in northern Vietnam, however, beyond just Hanoi. For instance, you can get to the bay from Sapa, Da Nang, and Hue. To give you an idea of prices, the bus from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay is $6 one way, from Sapa it’s $18, and from Hue it’s $27. These trips are point-to-point and the 144km one from Hanoi takes three and a half hours.
It’s best to arrange this with an experienced company like Bookaway.com. They have a 24/7 support team in place working with local suppliers and they have a flexible cancellation policy.
Transportation by Private Vehicle
If there’s a small group of you traveling together, or you’re a couple who’s willing to splurge, you can book private transportation online starting at around a hundred bucks one way in a nice SUV or a 10-person minivan. With this option you don’t have to schlep your luggage as much since it’ll pick up and drop off exactly where you want. See more details here.
Ha Long Bay Tour Options
Looking at the local ads last time I was in Vietnam a few years ago, the answer to the question of how much a tour of the bay would cost could be answered by “How much have you got?” I saw tours that were less than $15 per person including transportation from Hanoi, but others that were more than $500 per person, per night, on a luxury cruise ship.
In general, the cheaper the trip, the more bare-bones it is going to be. On the one I took in my backpacker days, transportation was in a fully loaded minivan with fold-down seats in the aisle, a night of basic accommodation in the port of Bai Chai, and a night in a basic guesthouse on Cat Ba Island. In between we got what we came for, a boat trip around the bay to see islands, caves and rock pillars. On Cat Ba we took a guided hike to the highest point. It was no frills, but I remember the price being right and there were a few meals included. It definitely wasn’t a budget breaker.
You can find similar tours these days and it’s even more competitive now, so shop around. You can book it all in Hanoi or just take a bus to the port city and shop around there. One advantage of doing the latter is you can at least ask to see the ship you’ll be on and see how well it’s going to fit the crowd. The photo below is what ours looked like.
If you’re a flashpacker or a vacationer with a little more money to spend, a few bucks more for an upgrade might be worth the premium. This is especially true if you can go on a longer trip that ventures out beyond Cat Ba Island to Lan Ha Bay. You will probably encounter a lot fewer other boats on the water there, especially in high season.
There’s a small entrance fee to the national park for anyone who visits, plus a charge to enter some of the caves and villages. Ask what’s included and what’s not before booking so you’re prepared.
After you visit this UNESCO World Heritage site, spend some time getting to know Hanoi as well. It’s worth hanging around for a few days to see the etymology museum, to check out a waxy Ho Chi Minh at his shrine, and explore the old historic section.
Have you been to Halong Bay recently? How was your experience?