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Getting There & Away

Ha Long Bay (also "Halong Bay") is in northern Vietnam, 170 km (105 mi) east of Hanoi. The bay is famous for its scenic karst formations.

Understand:

"Ha Long" is literally translated as "Bay of Descending Dragons." Prior to the 19th century, this name was not recorded in any document or archive. When mentioning the present-day Quang Ninh Sea or Ha Long Bay, old historical books often referred to them by the names of An Bang, Luc Thuy or Van Don. Not until the late 19th century did the name of Ha Long Bay appear on a French Marine Map. The Hai Phong News, a French newspaper of the time, had an article, Dragon appears on Ha Long Bay, reporting the following story: In 1898 a sub-lieutenant named Lagredin, captaining the Avalanse reported seeing a huge sea snake on Ha Long Bay. This was also witnessed by many of the crews. Thus emerged the European image of the Asian dragon. Whether this appearance of a strange animal looking like a dragon resulted the name of Ha Long Bay is not known.

Get in:

Most people come to Halong Bay on a tour. This is covered in the Do section.

By car:

The best, most expensive, way to get to Halong Bay is to rent a car from Hanoi. It costs approximately US$100 return. From Hanoi airport the fare is about US$85 for a car.

    From Hanoi: 170 km (105 mi) or 3 hrs 30 minutes drive.
    From Hai Phong: 75 km (46 mi) or 1 hr 30 minutes drive.

By bus:

There is a tourist open bus service offered by travel agencies around the Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi. US$8 net/person/way.

Some hotels & cruise operators also offer the transfer service for passengers even not staying in their hotels.

Public buses leave from Long Bien or Gia Lam Station (other side of Red River, 2km from Hoan Kiem Lake) or from Luong Yen station to Bai Chay (Halong City) every 30 minutes from 6AM to 6PM and cost 50,000 dong/person each way.

By bus from Nanning:

From Nanning International Tourist Distribution Center, No. 10 Youai Nanlu (on the corner of Zhonghua Lu) you can take a bus going to Ha Long. It costs 170 yuan, takes about 8 hours and the departure time is 7:30 every day.

Get around:

There are various motorbike / taxi options around the island once in Cat Ba City. The problem is that if arriving at other parts of the island, getting a ride to Cat Ba City (where the hotels are) can be very expensive! (150,000 dong per person on a motorbike.) It's not very clear why it's so expensive, but it seems like there is a monopoly on transportation, and once you negotiate with one person, others will refrain from offering you reasonable rates, thus you are stuck with whomever you're talking with. To say the least this is not a comfortable experience. It's recommended that you book your travels in advance, and make sure that you end up in Cat Ba City.

See:

Rent a junk to visit the bay for either several hours or overnight on the bay.

Ha Long Bay is a beautiful area with 1969 limestone islands jutting imposingly upon the skyline. Unfortunately the place is a tourist trap and the unique panorama is spoilt by a tremendous amount of "junks" which are in fact slimly disguised tourist boats that bear no resemblance to the authentic Chinese sailing vessels of the same name.

Visitors to Ha Long Bay must purchase a ticket (30,000 dong) from the Ha Long Bay management department, which gives the option of following one of two routes:

    Thien Cung Grotto, Dau Go Cave, and other sites (excluding Sung Sot Cave).
    Sung Sot Cave and other sites (excluding Thien Cung Grotto and Dau Go Cave).

Su Tu Bien Islet - On the canoe route to Thiên Cung - Ðầu Gỗ Grottoes, one should visit Hòn Sư Tử Biển or Sea Lion Islet, which is 10 minutes away from the Bãi Cháy Tourist Wharf. Amidst the vast seawaters of Hạ Long, you recognize a high rock jutting from the sea, resembling a lion stretching.

Do:

In 2011, Halong Bay was named by NewSevenWonders as one of the world's seven natural wonders

The vast majority of tourists visit Ha Long Bay on a pre-purchased tour from Hanoi. Prices are extremely variable depending on the quality of the boat, crew, food and additional activities. The cheaper the tour, the more basic the amenities. Virtually all hostels and hotels in Hanoi offer tours to Ha Long Bay. You can usually judge the level of professionalism of the tour based on that of the hotel itself. As most hotels do not run their own tours, but serve as a proxy for tour companies, it will usually be cheaper to go to an actual tourist company location and deal with them directly.

As a rough guide, a two night three day tour for around US$100 should get you at a minimum:

+ One night aboard a deluxe imperial junk (better than the cheapest options) with decent sized amounts of food and enough lounges on the deck for everyone.
+ One night at a 3 star hotel on Cat Ba island, again with more than enough food.
+ A decent English speaking guide.
+ Lots of activities: cave visits, kayaking, swimming, island stopovers (to climb Titov mountain, bike ride amongst rice paddies and see monkeys).

Some operators charge for the kayaking or the boat to see the caves so check if they are included for free when buying tickets. Tours are usually non-refundable due to weather conditions.

A few tour companies include a helicopter trip as part of their package, with departures from Gia Lam Airport in Hanoi.

Kayaking is great fun - find a secluded bay and soak in the amazing surroundings. The water is lovely and refreshing when the sun is out, but extremely salty.

For about $50 you will get good backpacker standard of activities and accommodation. However the amount of food you are served may not be enough and snacks are highly advised. You can buy beer on board but at an inflated price, typically $2 or 40,000 dong for a large bottle of Tiger and if you bring your own beer or buy it off a floating "shop", you will be charged to open it on the boat, typically 10,000 dong per bottle. If you are discreet though you might get away with drinking your own beer. Large bottles of water and drink cans typically cost 30,000 dong on board. Bottles of water are also subject to a 10,000 dong bring on board charge. So keep and drink your own soft drinks in your room and you will avoid this charge (which you can refuse to pay if you weren't told about before boarding). Some operators give you a drink with your meal and then ask you to pay after you drink it. Check first.

Beware of upper rooms at the rear end of a boat. They might be directly above the generator, so the noise might keep you awake at night and you may even get a slight smell of diesel. It seems that things often don't go exactly to plan on the cheaper tours. You might wish to get the mobile phone number of the agent you book with and ask if its OK to phone them if certain things don't go to plan. Mobile reception is surprisingly good in Ha Long Bay.

Often the guides will take your receipt to check your schedule and then don't return it so you don't have a record of where you need to be when.

For $20-$35/person you will get a one-day tour from Hanoi with English speaking guide, price varies depending on choice of lunch, activity, and tour operator; normal itinerary would be to stop at fisherman village for lunch & activity, and a visit to a cave; beware that pick-up may be from your hotel but they may return you at Old Quarter area by the lake, so please check on this prior to booking

    Quan Lan Beach - This beach lies at Quan Lan Island in Bái Tử Long Bay, between Minh Châu and Quan Lan communes of Van Don District, 55 km away from Ha Long City. Its pristine beauty features unspoiled environment. The deep blue beach has strong waves and white sand, which spans over several kilometers. Tens of meters away from the beach stand the very green wild pines, which further add to its original charm.

    Bai Chay Beach - Bai Chay is a large, beautiful, artificial beach, closed to the coast of Hạ Long Bay. The 100-meter-wide-sandy beach spans over 500 m. Early in the morning or in late afternoon, thousands of people liven up the atmosphere here. The asphalt road winds its way through the white sandy beach and luxuriant casuarinas.

Buy:

In the evening, small boats with snacks, drinks, and knick-knacks are usually working the areas where the passenger junks moor. Feel free to negotiate, bearing in mind that they have a captive market. There are also many shops selling similar goods on the hill behind the beach.

Eat:

There are many restaurants in Halong City (Bai Chay Town), opposite to the Bai Chay Beach, which offer mostly Vietnamese rice dishes and seafood. Local specialities include su fish, found only around Halong Bay, shrimp and mussels.

    Emeraude Café, tel. 033 849 266, on the Bai Chay coast near the post office. The only restaurant in the area that serves Western food.
    Co Ngu Restaurant, tel. (+84 33) 3511 363, Premium Villas, Halong road, Bai Chay, Halong city, Quang Ninh. A wide selection of Western cuisine and Asian delicacies is served at this premier local seafood restaurant.

Drink:

Drinks can be found for the cheap price at the local drinks shops or restaurant around the city (cold drinks can also be bought from the boat on the cruise trip) while on the bay.

Sleep:

There are several new hotels on Cat Ba Island, most catering to overnight boat trip packages.

You can also sleep aboard a junk as part of an overnight cruise. The price will include dinner and breakfast aboard the boat, along with the extras described above.

There are countless travel agencies who sell these cruises in Hanoi and other cities in the region, and every hotel will be thrilled to book one for you as well. Since most agencies contract with third-party companies to handle the actual cruise, experiences can vary — the seas of Ha Long Bay are plied by smooth, classy junks and old, loud rattletraps. You might run across someone who had a great time on a US$10 cruise with one agency, and upon booking the same, spend a whole night choking on carbon exhaust fumes. The sad fact (for budget travelers) is: the more you pay, the better your odds will be. You should be safe with cruises in the US$35 range, but really nice ones can run as high as US$200 per person.

Get out:

Mong Cai border City - there is a hydrofoil service from Bai Chay to the border city with China. However your Visa for China MUST have been sourced from Hanoi if you wish to use this crossing, also if it is your first time visiting China you must have sourced your visa in your home country.

- Cat Ba Island - rent or book a seat on a junk to Cat Ba Island.

- Haiphong City - buses leave from Bai Chay Station to Hai Phong City.

- Tuan Chau Island - a tourist resort

Visit the old stone houses in the mining town of Cam Pha.

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