There isn’t much ‘there there’ in Ha Long City — most people pass through it quickly after booking a Ha Long Bay tour that begins and ends in Hanoi. Probably the wise move. Those that stay usually only linger a day or so.
The provincial capital of Quang Ninh province, Ha Long City is actually comprised of two towns, Bai Chayand Hon Gai which are connected by bridge The former is the tourist townpart of Ha Long City, while the latter is more of a local scene. Bai Chay is packed with cookie-cutter hotels and hosts the pier from which the Ha Long Bay tour boats leave — chances are, if you’re overnighting in Ha Long City, you’ll find yourself in Bai Chay.
While we definitely can’t recommend either Bai Chay nor Hon Gai as a travel destination, there is a small, so-so beach on the bay, and an effort is underway to build an amusement park along the water that might make family travel more attractive in the future. Also, the biggest hotel in Vietnam is going to be built on the bay, with construction commencing in 2007.
At present, there are some luxury hotels with decent swimming pools and high-altitude rooms that have fantastic views over the bay. Otherwise, Ha Long Bay is known for its mini-hotels — scads of them, all clustered together in and around Vuon Dao Street (which means “Peach Garden).
These hotels fill up with Vietnamese in the summer, who come mostly in transit to the new beach resort on Tuan Chau Island — occupancy in Ha Long can reach 100% during festivals and holidays, so if you’re travelling across festivals, be sure to check ahead before showing up to find a room. The rest of the year, the mini-hotels are more or less empty, or closed. Some get by letting their downstairs lobby double as a shop, selling everything from French wine to cell phones. Others make it through the winter renting out rooms by the hour for private massages.
Unless you’re staying at one of the hotels further from the centre, you’ll be staying on Hotel Alley, which is about 2km west of the tour boat pier along Ha Long Road, which follows the bay. The Post Office is at the base of Vuon Dao Street, where it meets Ha Long Road — overseas calls are available here at 10,000 VND per minute for all countries (hours, 07:00 09:00, open every day).
There’s an ATM there but it only works if you have a Chinese bank account, so head down to the Vietcombank about a kilometre east (Bank Hours: 08:30 to 06:30 Mon-Fri, ATM available 24/7). There’s also a currency exchange place right on the main pier, but they offer really unattractive rates — if the bank is closed, head to one of the larger hotels and try your luck there.
Internet is pretty widely available, but the place next to the post office overcharges — we recommend Peace Hotel (39 Vuon Dao Rd) — if it looks like the terminals in the lobby are full, don’t worry — there are plenty more in the back room. It’s also one of the few mini-hotels that accepts major credit cards.
There’s a police station about 2km from town that’s so small and in such a weird location — wedged next to the Hai Yen Hotel — you’ll definitely have to hire a driver to find it.
Bai Chai Hospital is about 5km west of the pier, and there’s another hospital inHon Gai.
There are regular departures from Hanoi’s Gia Lam bus terminal, from 05:15 to 18:30, every 15 minutes, daily. The ride takes about 3 hours and costs 40,000 VND. Buses terminate at the Mien Tay bus station in Bai Chay which is walking distance to the pier. Of course, every morning at about 07:00 in Hanoi, there is a mass exodus of buses and mini-vans trundling tourists to Ha Long Bay tours that will pick up at your hotel and take you directly to the pier right on time for the boats, so ask around at your hotel and see if you can hitch a ride — usually costs about US$5 per person.
Halong bay Cruise
Boats to Cat Ba Island
The only way to get to Cat Ba from Ha Long is by boat, and the only boats available are the tour boats. If you’ve arrived in Ha Long City on your own, you can still book a tour of Ha Long Bay with a scheduled overnight on Cat Ba — booking services are widely available at hotels, mini-hotels, and at the pier — be sure to book at least a day in advance to avoid a lot of last-minute confusion. Operators should, and sometimes do, offer a bit of a discount relative to prices out of Hanoi since you’ll be taking care of your own transport between Ha Long and Hanoi. Be sure to bring that up when negotiating a price.
If you just want to get to Cat Ba on your own, the tour boats embark at about 12:00, so arrive at the pier at about 10:00 and it’s a cinch to catch a ride on one of them (costs about 55,000 VND, negotiable, plus the pier fee, 30,000 VND, not negotiable). It takes about six hours, not because of the distance, but because the tour boats take their time and cruise the bay first — well-worth the time and money if you’ve never done it before.
More: Halong bay cruises
If you’re arriving on your own by hitching a ride on a tour boat, be sure it doesn’t stop at the Phu Long pier in Cat Ba, which is about 30km from town. Your boat ticket probably doesn’t include a ride into town, and there isn’t any guarantee one of the vans will have space for you. Alternatively, make sure you discuss how you’re getting from the Phu Long pier to town with the tour guide who’s selling you the ticket — he may cut you a deal on a seat on the van…or not. 30 km is a long haul on the back of a motorcycle taxi with a full pack, provided you can even find a motorcycle taxi once you get there. Boats arriving at the pier on Cat Ba Harbour are the most convenient — it’s a short walk from there to nearly all the accommodation. The Ben Beo pier is about 2km away, and it’s easy as pie to catch a motor-taxi from there into town (should be about 10,000 dong, but good luck convincing the driver of that!)