Every Hanoi tour agent offers Ha Long Bay excursions, which work out easier – and usually cheaper – than doing the same thing yourself. There are a wide variety of trips available, including day-tours, though since the bay is a 6hr round trip from Hanoi these can feel very rushed. Most opt for a two-day, one-night tour, with the night spent at sea – this can be a delightful experience. Others go for a three-day, two-night trip, with the second night spent on wonderful Cat Ba Island.

There’s also the option of getting to Cat Ba by public transport – you’ll miss out on a night at sea and a few caves, but from your hydrofoil seat you’ll see the bay on the way (albeit in fast-forward).

Budget and mid-range tours

Competition among Hanoi tour operators is incredibly fierce, meaning that you can get an overnight trip for next to nothing – sometimes as low as $30. However, at this price range you really could be running the gauntlet, and many travellers encounter difficulties which sour their appreciation of the bay: vessels can be dirty, have poor facilities or be horribly overcrowded – it’s always best to ask operators if they have a maximum group size (sixteen is the usual upper limit), though such promises are often broken. Some junks are also simply unsafe, though regulations have been tightened up since a boat went down in early 2011, killing eleven tourists and their local guide. Do also note that if your trip is cancelled – due to bad weather, for example – you are entitled to a full refund under Vietnamese law.

Compounding the confusion is the fact that very few operators have their own vessels – travellers tend to be shunted onto whichever junk has room. As such, you may find yourself sharing a vessel with people who have paid far more or less for the same thing. In short, it’s almost impossible to give concrete recommendations for budget tour operators, but there are some good mid-range choices:

Ethnic Travel t 04 3926 1951, w ethnictravel.com.vn. This outfit pride themselves on low-impact tours, and have a superb reputation. Some of their tours head to lesser-visited Bai Tu Long Bay; a three-day trip also including Ha Long Bay goes from $178 per person.
Hanoi Backpackers This hostel has been running hugely popular budget tours for years – these typically involve a bit of kayaking and swimming, and a lot of alcohol. From $80 per person.
Kangaroo Café t 04 3828 9931, w kangaroocafe.com. This Aussie-owned outfit refuses to cut corners, and deserves its great reputation. In addition, the on-board meals are nothing short of superb. Two-day from $89 per person, three-day from $129.

Luxury tours

The sky’s the limit on Ha Long Bay. The following are all reputable operators offering distinctive tours.
Buffalo Tours t 04 3828 0702, w buffalotours.com. Impeccable tours on one of the best junks around – the Jewel of the Bay. The seafood is as delectable as you’ll get on the bay, the wine list none too shabby and kayaking is included in the cost of the trip. Starts at $159 per person.
Emeraude t 04 3934 0888, w emeraude-cruises.com. A replica of a nineteenth-century paddle-steamer, the five-star Emeraude is one of the most luxurious vessels on the bay. Facilities include a restaurant, two bars, beauty salon and massage rooms and spacious sundecks where you can indulge in sunrise tai chi classes. From $169 per person.
Handspan t 04 3926 0581, w handspan.com. Reliable operator with excellent vessels and a range of tours; perhaps of most interest is the trip around the less-visited Bai Tu Long Bay ($165 per person), which eschews the usual caves for excursions to fish farms and local schools.
Life Resorts t 033 625 3000, w life-resorts.com. Fancy your own luxury vessel? On these tours it’s just you and the crew – popular with honeymooners, for obvious reasons. From $600 for a night on board, much cheaper for day-trips.
Paradise Cruises t 033 381 9999, w paradisecruises.vn. Sumptuously decorated cabins hint at high luxury – this is the only operator that expects guests to dress for dinner. Tai Chi sessions come as part of the package. From $190 per person.

Diy tours from Ha Long City

Most foreign tourists visit the bay on tours starting in Hanoi, but it’s just about possible to do the same thing independently – however, it must be said that these are still tours, and not likely to save you much money when all’s added up. First of all you have to get to Ha Long City, then head to the Bai Chay tourist wharf, 2km west of town along Ha Long Avenue. From one booth here it’s possible to take one of several day-trips, costing $5–10 per person and taking either 4, 6 or 8hr. However, these boats can get rather crowded and are not really recommended; if you go down this route, you’ll also need to buy an entry ticket for the bay (30,000đ), as well as tickets to the caves (10,000–20,000đ).

If you’re travelling in a group or want greater independence, you can always charter your own boat. Prices start at $50, excluding cave entry, for a 25-seater for 4hr. Meals on board cost extra, but can be excellent. Drinks tend to be pricey – it’s best to take your own.

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