Mark JohnstonVISIT HALONG BAY Mark Johnston April 13 Planning, Travel, Vietnam You might have your entire vacation to Vietnam planned out — hotels, transport, tours, etc. — but before you throw that hard-earned money at a tour to Halong Bay take some time to read these thoughts. Don’t feel rushed to book way ahead of time! When you get into Hanoi you’ll find that there are tour offices everywhere. Everywhere! If there’s room for a brochure, a chair and a telephone, then most likely the person sitting across from you is also a travel agent/shopkeeper/butcher/mechanic…and so on. Your hotel staff will also try to sell you on a tour as soon as you arrive, but don’t feel pressured and take the time to shop around. Even if it’s just a brief walk around the block, you’ll most likely find several different tours of varying qualities along with a range of prices. Our first time to Hanoi we made the great mistake of booking our tour to Halong Bay through our hostel — the Vietnam Backpackers Hostel — long before our arrival. I say a great mistake because the tour involved much more alcohol consumption, tie-dye body suits, cross dressing, bellyflops, Soulja Boy and high-speed tubing whiplash than we expected. It also made some of the best memories of our vacation. We realized, after getting a look around Hanoi, that we overpaid quite considerably compared to many other tours. So on our second trip to Vietnam, knowing we wanted to return to the splendor of Halong Bay, we held off on purchasing a tour until we arrived in Hanoi and shopped around two days before we planned to go. There are a few common options for seeing Halong Bay ranging from one- to three-day tours, (and I’m sure, for much more money, far longer and more private tours for folks richer than us). Unless you’re really pressed for time, don’t even bother with the one-day tour from Hanoi. It’s a tiring four-hour bus ride each way, only to spend less time on a boat in the bay. The two day also seems a bit rushed for such an amazing place. That brings us to my preference, the two-night, three-day tour, but make sure you pick the right one. Some tours take you out for a night on a boat before sticking you on another bus for a drive across Cat Ba Island where you spend your second night in Cat Ba town. More bus rides and a busy town didn’t appeal to us, so we specifically asked for a boat-only tour which landed us on an Imperial Classic Cruise. Day one: We sailed out into the bay and took side trips to Sung Sot Cave and for kayaking. That night we spent on our ship in the bay enjoying the good company of fellow tourists onboard. Day two: We toured a pearl farm, parted ways with the two-day tour takers and sailed through more amazing scenery to a private island. There we relaxed on a quiet beach, kayaked at sunset, enjoyed dinner and drinks with new friends before retiring to our own private bungalows on water. The next morning we sailed back to Halong City and caught our bus back to Hanoi. All that with meals — but not drinks — included cost us $119 each. This was far less than our first tour to Halong Bay in 2011 and, as it turns out, far less than many of our fellow tourists paid themselves. That’s the easy benefit of shopping around in Hanoi. But if you’re 19-25, can handle your booze well—or not but don’t mind swapping clothes with a member of the opposite sex and demonstrating your favorite sexual position in front of the whole tour—spend a little extra for the Vietnam Backpackers Hostel tour and thank me later. Our first two-week trip to Vietnam was the genesis of our round-the-world travels!