Tips for Halong Cruise Trips
"Halong" means "Bay of Descending Dragons". This unique UNESCO World Heritage Site is a popular place for tourists and it is good to know that large parts of Halong Bay are officially protected from development. The islands vary greatly in size and shape as well as structure.
The Best Time to Visit Halong
How to book a Halong Bay tour
Shuttle bus from Hanoi to Halong
The huge array of slow 'junk' tour boats for package tourists from Hanoi depart from here for Cat Ba Island. As most people taking these boats are on pre-booked tours, the piers are not set up for independent travel; you will be approached by hawkers wanting to make a quick buck by selling you tickets for a premium: avoid these guys. What you want to do is get yourself a ticket from the row of counters inside of a building near the waterfront. Tickets are 80,000 VND for 'route 1' which is the standard way to get over the Cat Ba. Wait around there with the locals (the group easy to identify as "not lost looking western tourists") until something happens. For individual tourists not on a tour package from Hanoi, "licensed" agents will approach you upon arrival at Bai Chay Wharf to sell cruise packages to you. Starting prices (for a non-Vietnamese Asian) are 500,000 VND for a 4 hr cruise (for which you will receive an 80,000 VND cruise ticket) and 800,000 VND for a 6 hr one.
If you want to avoid the hassle of buying tickets yourself and not looking like a lost sheep not knowing which cruise to take, do your best to bargain. You could approach the ticket counter directly if you have a Vietnamese-speaking guide along, and the rates will be much lower (remember, it's an 80,000 VND ticket), but be prepared to pay higher than the value stated on your ticket due to other surcharges such as mandatory insurance. The tourist boats just stop at an island with two poorly preserved caves, and passengers are hit up for overpriced beers and kayaking ("the water cave") along the way; the whole ordeal takes four or five hours and is really best avoided unless you've never seen a cave before or want to hang out with clueless gap-year tourists. You can talk with the guide, who takes a tourist group on the pier, buying cruise or transfer to Cat Ba with him directly. If they have empty rooms on the boat, they will happy to take you. 2 day 1 night all inclusive cruise is less than 40 USD. An old report claims "There is another government-run ferry leaving the tourist wharf at 12:00 daily costing 100,000 VND per person and takes 5 hours.
Bungalows in Cat Ba island
A medium quality, 3 day / 2 night cruise including one night on a boat (they may say it is air-conditioned but the air-conditioning is not likely to work) and one night on Cat Ba island in a 2 star hotel including bus transfers to and from Hanoi, all other transfers, admission to a cave, kayaking, admission to Cat Ba national park and all meals (which are OK in quality but nothing special) should cost around 145 USD when booked from a reputable travel agent in Hanoi (or you could try book through your hotel in Hanoi). There are options for cheaper than 100 USD but most appear to be shady/outright scams. Do not book organised tours from Halong Bay as they will overcharge you as there is not much competition. When catching a taxi to Bay Chai Wharf at Halong Bay many of the taxi drivers will try drop you off at an entrance away from the main terminal where they have friends waiting to try sell you overpriced tours or transfers (be wary if the taxi driver makes a call on his mobile as soon as you are in the taxi). Touts may be wearing identification around their necks to make themselves look official but they are not to be trusted - you are likely to end up on a cheap tour with nothing included (e.g.. no admissions, no transfers on Cat Ba) despite the touts insisting that everything is included. The touts at Halong Bay pier will say anything to get your money and should be avoided if you don't want to be scammed. Pre-booking through a travel agent in Hanoi will be safer and cheaper.