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HALONG BAY Day Tour for Only $25

It would have been lovely if I were to make possible Hanoi-Halong-Sapa in this particular solo-backpacking trip on my birthday, but 5 days was too short. Sa Hanoi palang andami nang pwedeng i-explore for a first-timer. It was already a bonus that I was able to go as far as Halong City to see Halong Bay with my eyes and meet my friend there, Duc.

I left Hanoi at 6pm. Good thing I was able to catch the last bus to that passes through Halong City. I was in a hurry because I had a walking tour with Joy of HanoiKids that afternoon. Joy made sure I got some Vietnamese rolls with me to serve as my snack for the 2-hour or so ride.

How to get to Halong City/ Halong Bay
There are two bus stations with routes to Halong City but Luong Yen Bus Station is bigger and has more trips to the province where Halong City is located. That's where I took off. The motorbike driver I hired hostel in the Old Quarters was quick to navigate the crazy flood of motorbikes around Hanoi and we were in the bus terminal a few minutes before my bus departed.

Paid 200,000 dong for the trip, 1-way. It was a luxury bus, or so they call it, thus a bit more expensive with an ordinary air conditioned bus which I took back to Hanoi a few days later at half the price. Well, at least there was wifi. It really helped me navigate my location which proved very helpful peace of mind as the bus only passes trough the city en route to another city in Quang Ninh Province (where Halong is part of) near China border.
I had to talk to the bus driver assistant to drop me at the highway intersection that leads to downtown Halong City. From there I took a motorbike for 100,000 dong to my hostel. It was already past 10:00 pm when I checked in. The road network to Quan Ninh Province is very good. We entered lots of expressways. The reason it took longer is because provincial buses usually don't follow a straight route as they enter many small towns and back to highways which makes the route quite complicated. Very different story on my way back though.

Chợ Đền Hà Long, bay, Tỉnh lộ 7, 
Ha Long, Hà Trung, Thanh Hoa, Vietnam

I stayed at Halong Party Hostel. True to its name, the hostel becomes so alive at night especially because of their free beer. It was quiet when i arrived because it was Friday night but was so lively the next night with the colorful lobby full of Caucasians. I originally booked a $30 private room but since the other section where the more expensive rooms are located was already closed when I arrived, they allowed me to stay at a dormitory room for only $5. I intentionally planned to stay only 1 night in Halong but I extended 1 night more due to the savings in my accommodation.
Dormitory room of 2 bunk beds max 4 pax feels private especially because there were only two of us on my first night and I was alone on the 2nd night. Private toilet with hot and cold shower very handy especially for the cold January weather. The bed was soft and linens and towels new. Plus, with strong in-room and lobby wifi and free toast for breakfast, what more can you ask for. It is also located in an area where my food (street food) establishment are available, forex exchange and atm's too.

Although with forex, the hostel exchanges dollars so it was no hassle looking farther afield.Best of all, as any accommodation in Halong City, the hostel offers tours to Halong Bay and I availed of the day tour for only $25! So cool right? Includes shuttle transfer to the port which is around 20 minutes away. It doesn't come with lunch but you can really be fine without one for a 5-hour tour.
Mass Tourism
Halong City is well set for mass tourism. They have a new port which could dock hundreds of tour boats and accommodate thousands of tourists in a day. It is massive. This is what you mean by investing in tourism. I cannot imagine how busy it could get here during summer or peak season.
The $25 Day Tour of Halong Bay
I met my friend Duc who is a local of the city I got to know over Facebook and I invited him to go with me on the tour. My treat as Duc is only a 1st grade university student taking up hospitality. I was surprised that Duc has never tried a tour around Halong Bay since his family just moved to the city 3 years prior. I was so delighted it was me who he had his 1st tour of Halong Bay! We bought some cup noodles, snacks and drinks at a store near my hostel and off we go.

It was particularly gloomy that day as a bad weather depression was approaching but it didn't stop us from having fun. Good thing we were able to leave the port at around 10:00am because we learned that the authorities cancelled all afternoon and next day tours due to the unfavorable weather forecast.
Despite the chill, we were mostly out in the front section of the boat enjoying the view. I have always wanted to see Halong Bay ever since I've been to El Nido because the cliff islands in El Nido are the same tectonic rocks one can find in Halong. I find El Nido way more beautiful than Halong Bay thanks to the super clear water and amazing underwater experience but Halong Bay will blow you away in terms of its size and number of Islands.

Imagine the rocky island cliffs of El Nido a thoudand times more. It's just sad the sea in Halong is murky because the area is a busy shipping and logistics route. Still, you will still to admire the place and feel wow with the overlapping towering islands especially visible from the mainland when I was on my way back to Hanoi.
The biggest attraction are the boat tours. Big boats of varying sizes and prices depending on comfort. These boats dont only serve as transportation for sightseeing but as party venues especially on an overnight tour which I would love to try next time I come back.
The foggy/ gloomy weather was a boon in a way because of fewer tourists and shorter queues at stops. Our first stop was on a man-made dock near some islands where one can kayak around some of the islands. This is when you get up close with the rocks formations and admire them. Because of the proximity, it makes for a postcard perfect photo too.
I was happy enough to see and take photos of Duc going on a kayak with some of our seatmates at the tour, a group of young, well traveled Europeans. I was a bit apprehensive of getting on one as the water was really cold I couldn't imagine making a mistake and falling into the murky water. Excuses excuses. But as I said I was so ok at the wooden platform enjoying the view and the festive atmosphere.
Sung Sot Cave
Our next stop was Sung Sot Cave. Since this is a show cave, they cemented certain sections of it especially the floor to facilitate the flow of people. Expect concrete steps so no need to worry about soiled shoes. They also lighted it in technicolor to highlight the stalagmite and stalactite formations. It is so beautiful and the rock formations so intricate. The downside though is that they had to kill the cave just to freeze it as it is. I couldn't even see a drop of water inside except for the artificial fountain they put up inside to add a little drama. Sad. Still, a marvel to look at and indeed photogenic.
After this, we were off to the port. A pretty simple tour for $25. Actually, we noticed in the ticket that the tour only costs around $10. That means the rest goes to the shuttle company and hostel. So if you can figure out how to get yourself to the port and get your own ticked you can save a lot more. Although I reckon it will be close to the same amount if you are to hire a motorbike rider to take you there, wait for you for a few hours and take you back to your accommodation.

As I said, the port is so massive and complicated and people hardly speak English. Other than what I mentioned earlier, I would like to try another way next time. Many whites go to the largest island in Halong Bay -- Cat Ba -- stay overnight and take a tour from there. That would be nice too.

After the tour. Duc's mom called to ask if I want to spend dinner with them. Her sister who lives separate from the family was home for a visit so they prepared food. I found myself at the back ride of Duc's motorbike towards the other side of Halong City past the iconic bridge. I was warmly welcomed by his family -- mom, dad, sister, brother-in-law and nephew -- and the simple dinner I expected was grand. They prepared potluck and bunch of other stuff. They were so cheerful as a family and very friendly to me......
Duc's mom even requested that I stay with them overnight so Duc and I were on the motorbike again few minutes after the meal to go back to my hostel and get my stuff. But Duc made sure to give me a little tour around before doing so. We visited two shopping malls including the posh mall he does part-time job at. We ate at Loteria in one mall and window-shopped in another. All these happened on a freezing night and it was drizzling. I couldn't help but shiver and miss the warm weather in the Philippines. I admire Duc for being so active studying in university during the day and doing part-time job at night. In this kind of weather, I might just tuck myself in bed all day and wouldn't want to go out.

In Duc's words, "sanayan lang yan". Well, I translated that in Filipino.

Oh, the plan to stay with Duc's family didn't happen. When we arrived at my hostel, Duc received a message from his classmates that they were to go to school early the next day to donate blood. I decided to just stay at the hostel instead and Duc went back the next morning after his school activity to take me to the bus station. 

But before saying goodbye, I told Duc to drop by a Pho house for my last breakfast with him in Halong City. A heavenly bowl of Pho for a cold day.

My stay at Halong City was simple and the tour of Halong Bay was also simple but made extra special because of my friend Duc. Best of all, because I didn't just make a friend in Halong, I also made a new family!


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