Halong Bay boatsThe big question for many going to this highly publicized area is whether it’s possible to bypass a group tour and see Halong on your own. Well, not really. Some people do take public buses to Halong City and arrange boat tours, but they end up on the same boats as the Hanoi tours anyway. I don’t recommend it. Another option – and a good one – is taking public transport to Cat Ba Island, the largest of Halong Bay islands – and based yourself in Cat Ba town and spend a couple days hiking in the jungle, sitting on the beach, and hiring a private boat and kayak to explore Halong Bay and the quieter Lan Ha bay just south.

But! If you only have a couple days, a tour from Hanoi is the way to go. If you’re going cheaply around Vietnam, see if you can’t save a little money to upgrade for a mid-range or high-end tour. I went on Kangaroo Café’s mid-range boat and thoroughly enjoyed it; the staff were a little jaded, but they still passed by packed beaches to get us to isolated swimming areas. Rooms were clean and comfy (with all-night air conditioning), and food was plentiful and good. Some travelers on cheapie tours complain of constantly switching boats, intermingling with other groups and dealing with loud generators (or no air-con) at night.

For more on different trips and tours, TRAVEL FISH has an excellent section on this.

Hanoi Travel Agencies

EXOTISSIMO (tel 04-935-1400;; open 8.30am-6.40pm Mon-Fri, 8.30am-noon Sat) No giant-bus tours, Exotissimo gets many European travelers – only uses best hotels, best boats, best guides.

BUFFALO TOURS (tel 04-828-0702;; 94 Ma May St) Another high-end choice.

HANDSPAN (tel 04-926-0581;; 80 Ma May St; open 7.30am-9pm) Excellent reputation, though some say you can pay a little less for the same – still, it’s 100% you’ll enjoy your trip.

KANGAROO TOURS (tel 04-828-9931;; 18 Bao Khanh St) Run by an Australian ex-pat, well-run tours focus on small groups and reliable mid-range comfort.

WIDE EYED TOURS/CULI CAFÉ (tel 04-926-2241;; 40 Luong Ngoc Quyen St) Foreign-run agent with reliable info.

APT (tel 04-926-2294;; 37 Dao Duy Tu St) Multi-lingual guides and eyes for foreign groups, APT is regarded as a ‘budget-plus’ agent by some.

SINH CAFÉ (tel 04-926-1568;; 52 Luong Ngoc Quyen St) The real Sinh Café.

VEGA TRAVEL (tel 04-926-2092; 24A Hang Bac St) Sells transport and budget tours (without claiming to be ‘Sinh Café’).

Types of Tours

Here’s a run-down of tours (agency contact information follow):

The most popular Halong Bay trip follows similar itineraries, leaving Hanoi in the morning, stopping for lunch in Halong City and riding into the bay. Boats often stop at a (usually crowded) beach or a look into ‘Amazing Cave,’ then sleep in a cove, before returning for lunch in Halong City and the bus back to Hanoi. Problems vary – some promise air-conditioning and don’t get it, some boats lack much common space (sunning decks), others’ generators click off at night, others’ generators are too loud to sleep!

EXOTISSIMO: on French-colonial–style Emeraude, $190 per person (in double room)
HANDSPAN: Emeraude tours for $175 per person, or bigger ‘Pearl Cruise’ Chinese junk for $97 per person
KANGAROO: 16-cabin boats with private bath and all-night air con, $65 per person
APT: $33 with no air con, $54 with air-con
SINH CAFÉ: $29 per person (no air-con)


HANDSPAN: $148 with second night at Cat Ba hotel, $212 on boat both nights
KANGAROO: $97 on boat both nights
APT: from $46 (no AC), $80 (with AC)
SINH CAFÉ: $49 per person (second night on Cat Ba)