When I arrived in Vietnam, halfway through my RTW trip, I had very little knowledge of the country and few plans. I knew which cities I’d be stopping in for the next few weeks and that was about it. There are perks to traveling this way. The fewer expectations you have, the less likely you are to be disappointed. There’s a greater sense of discovery to not knowing exactly what you’ll find. But on the other hand, you risk missing out on some big stuff by not knowing enough about your options. Case in point: I didn’t know about Halong Bay until I was already on my way to Hanoi. As one of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Vietnam, this natural attraction seemed like a must-do while in the country, but most itineraries recommended setting aside at least two or three days for an overnight junk boat cruise. Is it even possible to see Halong Bay in one day? While I definitely see why so many recommend a longer stay, the answer is yes – you can fit this bucket list attraction into a single day trip.
Where to Book
If you’ve done any research on day trips in Vietnam, you’ve probably come across the name Sinh Tourist. The Sinh Cafe started working with travelers in the mid-90s and developed such a stellar reputation that dozens and dozens of copycats have popped up since. The original cafe’s name change to the Sinh Tourist wound up not helping matters as the copycats latched onto that too. Today in Hanoi, you can’t turn your head without seeing yet another tour operator using some variation of the Sinh Tourist name. With a little help from an old post on the Lonely Planet travel forums, I think I actually managed to track down the original! According to the Sinh Tourist’s official website, there are two locations in Hanoi: one at 64 Tran Nhat Duat St and one at 52 Luong Ngoc Quyen St. Both locations have the brand’s official blue and white color scheme. You can book your tour online and receive an e-ticket, but you will still have to go in person to one of the offices the day before your trip to verify your credit card and passport with your e-ticket. A one day trip to Halong Bay is a little over $30, or you can spend a bit more to add on kayaking. (If you know anything about my experience kayaking in Croatia, you’ll understand why I passed this time.)
What to Expect
Hope you’re a morning person! You’ll need to be ready for departure at 7:45 am. You can meet the bus at the Sinh Tourist office, or arrange a pickup in the Old Quarter. From there, you’ll start the four-hour drive to Ha Long. The guide will share some history of the country and of the bay, including how it got its name. They will also confirm with each guest which tour you booked, so if you’ve changed your mind about kayaking or hopping in a bamboo boat, now’s your chance to switch. You’ll arrive at the marina around noon – be prepared for some waiting around time while the guide sorts out everyone’s tickets. Once you’ve set sail, an included lunch will be served family style. I was actually really impressed by the amount and quality of food. Digging your chopsticks into a whole fish is a special foodie joy. (Read my full post on Vietnamese food to see what other treats you should look out for.)
If you purchased the kayaking add-on, you’ll have about half an hour to enjoy that. If you opt to stay on the big boat, you’ll be docked in place, but this is a good time to head up to the top deck for photos. The whole group will then move on to one of the larger cave complexes in the bay before cruising back to the marina. In total, you’ll have about four hours on Halong Bay. I’m sure this is one of the biggest reasons most people don’t advise visiting Halong Bay in one day – you’ll spend twice as much of your day driving as you will on the bay itself. But if you have a tight limit on your time or budget, this is how to get around it.
Frankly, I think any amount of time in such a beautiful place is worth it. Click through the slideshow for more photos.
So if you’re not spending the night in Halong Bay, what are you doing? See recommendations for top things to do in Hanoi.