A trip to Hanoi is quite an experience, with its culture, people, and street food, all being important parts of a backpacker’s life. However, most people will also want a side trip or two when they’re here to get out of the madness of the city – and what better place to escape to than the UNESCO-listed Halong Bay!
When it is time to leave Hanoi for that enchanting place known as Halong Bay, the first thing you will need to do is sort out transportation. Most people take tour-based minibuses to Halong City, although for the less budget-conscious, private taxis are available, and this will probably get you to your destination a little quicker. However, as far as the public buses are concerned, I would give these a miss unless you are used to Vietnamese transport etiquette! So, the mini bus is the best option.
If you are travelling on your own and want to save money, taking the bus from Hanoi to Halong can be a good thrill (emphasis on the word “thrill”!). From Kim Ma bus station on Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, you can take Hoang Long Express which departs every 15 minutes from the station. It will take 4 hours to reach the pier. In October, 2016, the cost is around 60,000VND. After that, there are plenty of cruise operators that you can choose from to hop on. For someone who has no fixed schedule, taking the bus is very convenient.
Of course, the most popular way to go from Hanoi to Halong Bay is to book a tour. Tours from operators are cheap and available every day. They will take care of your transportation, cruise, and accommodation. There should also be an English-speaking guide that will help explain things along the way. Some tours will also have private car option for you if you do not want to join 20 others on a shuttle bus. This will increase the cost, but also comfort. Going on tours is recommended for family, group of friends, and anybody who wants to have a fuss free trip. An average cost for a 2 day tour is about 3,000,000VND. To book a tour, you can scout the Old Quarter in Hanoi – you cannot miss the tours on offer for every budget!
Trains are also an option for the journey from Hanoi to Halong Bay. If you choose this kind of transport, then you will need to get to Hanoi Main Station in Hanoi and take train number HP1 to Haiphong (the nearest ‘real’ train station to Halong Bay). The train departs Hanoi at 06.00hrs, so it is a very early start, but it means you can arrive in Halong hopefully not long after 08.30hrs. If you wanted to make a day trip to Halong Bay from Hanoi, then I would recommend leaving Haiphong for the return journey on the HP2 train, which departs at around 18.40hrs and is scheduled to arrive back in Hanoi before 22.00hrs – so there will be just enough time for you to get back to your accommodation before it gets too late!
Haiphong Station is around 5km from the harbour. As of October, 2016, the fare for the train is around 70,000VND (about £3) each way for an air-conditioned “soft seat”, although there are much older cabins available on the train with “hard seats” for around 60,000VND each way, but this is not recommended for tourists. Tickets for the train should be purchased at the station at least one day in advance to be on the safe side.
So when you’re at Halong Bay, the next thing you’ll need to do is book a cruise, and found out what else there is to do in the area (Halong is not just known for its karst scenery, you know!). Let’s just hope the weather remains good for you, as in some parts of the year, Halong Bay can be shrouded in mist! There are so many cruise operators at Halong Bay, that it is tempting to just take the cheapest option. After all, your photos will look the same regardless of what boat you were on, right?! WRONG! Not all of these cruise ‘junks’ are safe (according to western standards), so make sure you research properly beforehand.