The first time I visited HaLong Bay, I, like most travellers, got picked up early in the morning from my Hanoi hotel, and was driven straight to the pier to board my cruise (...with one tourist trap restroom/souvenir/food pit stop along the way).
*Pro tip: don't buy anything but snacks here (and don't even buy those unless you absolutely have to)... Seriously. All of the souvenirs are sold at ridiculously high prices, and most of them can be found in the markets you'll likely visit at some point during your Vietnam travels*
Anyway, this time around, I decided to spend some time in HaLong Bay prior to our cruise, and I'd highly recommend you do the same. Not only was I well rested the day of our cruise, I was also able to explore and enjoy more of the area. The highlight was hiking Bai Tho Mountain and getting the most incredible view of HaLong Bay. Keep reading to find out how you can do the same!
Getting to HaLong Bay from Hanoi
Since we were going a day early, our transport to HaLong Bay wasn't included or supported by our cruise company, and when our Airbnb's contact fell through at the last minute, we were stuck trying to arrange transportation to HaLong the night before. I was stressed at first, but after a quick google search came across TravelerTick.com, an extremely easy to navigate site with lots of routes and transportation options.
A limousine bus from Hanoi to HaLong bay cost us $19 per person and we were picked up and dropped off at the door of our accommodations (something other bus and shuttle services claimed they weren't able to do).
With only 5 other people on board, we had loads of room and an extremely comfortable ride.
Visit their website for more information about transportation routes and prices.
Hiking Bai Tho Mountain
After checking in to our homestay, we put on some sneakers and headed to hike Bai Tho Mountain. I'd seen loads of pictures of this spot when planning my Vietnam trip and absolutely had to check it out for myself.
To get there head to Hàng Nồi road. Walk down the street (almost to the end) until you see the "Good Store."
This is where it gets interesting...
To get to the mountain trail you have to go through someone's house. The entry way is just to the left of the Good Store.
When we arrived, we were greeted by the woman sitting outside (presumably the owner of the house) who knew exactly what we were there for. She showed us through the house... past a bird cage... a chicken coop... a bunch of dogs... and to a very much locked gate... (surrounded by barbed wire... with a large hole... that we then climbed through to begin our ascent up the mountain trail).
Side note: this trail is technically closed for tourists, and since it's located in her backyard, she is capitalizing on the opportunity - (can't say I blame her). The "Admission cost" is 50,000 VND per person (roughly $2), but its well worth it for the view you get at the top.
The hike will take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour depending on how quickly you go (and how many photos you stop to take along the way).
To be honest, I hadn't anticipated it being quite so strenuous and hadn't packed any water. All I had were a bag of dried mangoes (that I gave to a German girl who had stopped along the way with low blood sugar).
*Pro tip - DON'T BE LIKE US. Bring snacks and water!*
When you get to the top there are quite a few good spots for photos. Snap away (and recharge with your snacks and water).
Though the sunset views are surely incredible, I would recommend going earlier in the day, as making your way down might be a bit tricky after dusk!
Where TO STAY IN HALONG BAY
If you're looking for a cozy place to stay in HaLong Bay, I'd highly recommend the HaLong Ginger Homestay. With several options ranging from a queen sized en suite and dorms to adorable garden cottages, there's something for everyone. You can even book the whole house if you're travelling with a large group!
During our stay, they were renovating the space beyond the two triangle cottages for their cooking school. Though the property is already beautiful, it will look even better once this construction is finished!