Setting out to do an independent tour of Ha Long Bay without hiring one of the tour agencies in Hanoi? Sure, it can be done. And yes, theoretically it's cheaper, but that's assuming Murphy's Law doesn't show up to screw over your plans.
As with many budget options, the reality may be far more expensive: as an independent traveler, you're more at risk of being eaten alive by one of the con artists that are sadly too common in the Vietnam travel industry.
You might think you're getting a good deal at the Bai Chay wharf, and then you find that your "deluxe tourist boat" is a floating death tub.
So allow us to present this information with not a few caveats. Your guide still recommends you buy a package tour to enjoy the sights of Ha Long Bay. You should exercise all caution when fixing a deal with one of the touts at the wharf. Good luck.
Bus From Hanoi to Ha Long Bay
You can catch a ride to Ha Long Bay, either from one of the tourist open buses booked by tour agencies around Hoan Kiem Lake (these cost ~$8 each way) or by riding at a Hanoi bus station to Bai Chay.
You can leave from one of two bus stations: Luong Yen Station (21°0'39.69"N, 105°51'49.76"E) or Gia Lam Station (21°2'53.76"N, 105°52'42.54"E). Luong Yen is the closest bus station to the city center. Gia Lam lies across from the Red River, and cannot be reached by cyclo from the city center - ride a taxi instead.
If you're taking a bus, do not purchase tickets from agents or middlemen - go directly to the station's ticket booth for your ticket. Tickets to Bai Chay cost about $2.50, or VND 50,000 each way.
The bus will pass by Bai Chay Tourist Wharf (20°56'50.83"N, 107°1'45.16"E) where these tourist boats dock.
Buying a Ticket
At the ticket office (to the right of the entrance), review the ticket table and pay up for the tour you wish to take. Expect to pay about VND 70,000 for a four-hour excursion ticket including a detour at a cave in the bay, although prices will vary depending on the demand.
The ticketing structure is designed to work with group bookings; while individuals can buy tickets at the office, they may be grouped with other parties until they can fill up a tour boat. Individuals or small groups in a hurry can negotiate to hire a whole boat at the ticket office, or with a boat captain. David at Malaysia-Asia.my successfully negotiated to hire a boat for his group of friends for VND 500,000.
Tickets for the day cruise include at least one of these stopovers:
- Dau Go Island - Thien Cung Grotto and/or Dau Go Cave
- Sung Sot Cave
The total ticket price will depend on the following factors:
- Type of boat: Boats are rated from standard (0-star) to three-star. Standard boats can accommodate less than 35 people. Starred boats accommodate anywhere from 36 to 50 passengers.
- The length of trip: You (or your group) can choose an itinerary that lasts from between four to ten hours.
Ha Long Bay is part of the "Banana Pancake Trail" blazed by long-term travelers in Asia; find out more about the Banana Pancake Trail.
The Return Trip to Hanoi
To ride from Ha Long to Hanoi, go to the Bai Chay Bus Station (20°58'20.7656"N, 107°0'49.5313"E) to secure your ride back to the capital.
You don't have to leave immediately. If you want to spend the night in Ha Long, you can check into a hotel in Ha Long Bay to have more time exploring the city before catching a ride back to Hanoi.