When people heard I was going to Vietnam, I got the same advice over and over, “You HAVE to go to Ha Long Bay! It is amazing!” I did a Google image search and immediately put it on our itinerary but the details were fuzzy.
1) Don’t book before you go. You will get the best price in a face-to-face interaction with a local ‘travel agent’ and book a trip from Hanoi for 3 days/2 nights in HaLong Bay. The first night on the boat and the second on Cat Ba(hotel) or Monkey Island(bungalow). It should cost around $160 US and include all food & transfers. Get ready to bargain!
2) Buy a package tour to Sapa at the same time. The rice terraces of Sapa are another place not to be missed and we loved our homestay experience. We booked both at the same time and had a bit more wiggle room with our final price.
3) We heard from other backpackers that whether you pay a bit more for a nicer boat or you go for the backpacker party boat, you will most likely get put on whatever boat has space available. We paid $150 for a 3 day trip with a stop-over in Monkey Bay!
4) Food is included, but you pay for your own drinks, so pack your bag full of liquor or you’ll be buying overpriced, warm beer like this!
5) Pack LIGHT! If you can leave a bag locked at your hotel, do that. Firstly, the dock is 4-hrs from Hanoi and you will be in a totally full bus… with seats that fold down in the aisle.
And secondly… you will transfer on and off boats no less than twice a day with ALL YOUR LUGGAGE and it’s slightly dangerous.*Bonus tip: If you are interested in doing MORE than the 2 day/3 night experience you can look into staying on Cat Ba Island for a few extra nights. The ships come and go with different groups of people, staying different amounts of time, in different places. So, just ask your ‘travel agent’ to catch a boat back a few days later and linger on the lovely island and explore the Nat’l Park. Whatever you decide, try to put aside your expectations and hope for some good company. We hit the jackpot with a trio of Spaniards. That story comes next!