Getting there and away
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.
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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.
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!)
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