DIY Halong Bay
Cat Ba Town (Cat Ba), Vietnam
Do It Yourself: Arranging a tour of Halong Bay.
Push-push-push—that's all any Hanoi hotel or travel agency staff will do to get you to sign up for a tour of Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site located in the Gulf of Tonkin, in NE Vietnam. The bay includes some 1,600 islands and islets, forming a seascape of limestone pillars. Because of their precipitous nature, most of the islands are uninhabited and unaffected by a human presence.
Cat Ba Island hosts the only established population center in Halong Bay, and as a result receives over 150,000 tourists every year—the majority of whom are on packaged tours. The islands are a favorite destination for vacationing Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese tourists. Tours typically usher people from Hanoi, where they opt to spend one or two nights in (or near) the bay. Some place you on boats for the night, whereas other simply arrange for you to stay in their hotel of choice (most likely a run by a relative).
These same hotel and travel agency staffers—and a sizeable portion of tourists—will tell you repeatedly that arranging for a tour is the best route to take. You get on bigger boats, and have more privacy because of it. Others, like myself, are completely repulsed with the idea of taking a packaged-tour, where I have no control over where I sleep, where I eat, and what type of boat I'll ride on, and when I'll ride on it.
Adding to the sales pitch—or in the case of fellow travelers, warnings—is the warning of expensive 'do it yourself' results. Having just done this, I can attest that these statements are total rubbish, and that, as you would expect, the tour costs much more than arranging things at your own leisure.
An example two-person cost breakdown from a pushy staff member at the Lucky Eden Hotel in Hanoi, the same day we arrived in the country:
- Transport to Halong Bay and back: US$20/person
- Tour guide: US$10/day
- Boat: US$5/person/hour
- Accommodation: US$15/night
- Food and drinks: US$15/person/day
Total for two people, assuming a 10-hour boat tour and two nights: US$240
All this is, of course, ridiculous. The notion of a pair of frugal travelers spending US$240 on this type of sightseeing over the course 48 hours is quite laughable. And I told the woman as much. She was so pushy, every time we came downstairs that I finally said: "I've been traveling for two years and never take tours. We will not be taking a tour with you. It's not going to happen."
The reality is something along these lines:
- Transport to Cat Ba Island and back: US$16.50/person
- Tour guide: $0, not necessary
- Boat: US$10/person/day
- Accommodation: US$7/night
- Food and drinks: US$10/person/day
Total for two people, assuming boat tour and two nights: US$107
That's about US$54/person, for two nights. The cheapest tour offered by the folks at Lucky Eden Hotel was US$80/person, for two nights.
Now all this is assuming you want to blow out of the greater Halong Bay area after just two nights—which seems like an awful waste. What's the rush? Accommodations are half the price they are in Hanoi, and you've got access to a beach.
Getting aboard a Halong Bay tour while on Cat Ba Island is a very simple process. Talk to your hotel, and then shop around. Chances are good you'll end up at a tourist information building near the dock, where tickets are sold for US$10/person for an 8:00 a.m. departure and a 5:00 p.m. return, including lunch (but not drinks).
Some fees may apply, should you choose to venture off the boat: 30,000 dong (US$2) per person to enter a large cave (Sung Sot) by foot, and 10,000d if you're interested in looking at the monkeys on Monkey Island. Services like kayaking during stops can be arranged free of charge.
The boat that Tatiana and I were on today was about 17 meters long, quiet, and comfortable. A collection of four couples, including ourselves, was driven around by a pair of respectful teenage boys as we lounged about in plastic chairs or the deck itself.
Tatiana and I were particularly entertained by a middle-aged French couple aboard who were walking to each other about us. Unbeknownst to them, Tatiana speaks French, and told me how they were wondering where we were from. They speculated that we were from Spain, but then the woman said to her husband, "but she's speaking English?" I was making a point to speak to Tatiana, an Afro-Peruvian, in Spanish when we weren't alone (no need for others listen in on our conversation), and I think we both found it rather amusing that they identified her as the reason we might not be from Spain, instead of my American self.
I really can't imagine spending more than a day milling around the Halong Bay islands. Though unique and impressive, I know my attention span for such things, and by one o'clock I was more ready to be back at the hotel.
I'd recommend a tour of the islands to all, but tailor your travels there by not locking yourself into a pre-packaged tour. Spend some time on Cat Ba Island—quite possibly the quietest place in the whole of Vietnam.