Photo: This is Hanoi.

Booking a Ha Long Bay cruise

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With more than 400 boats to choose from, selecting a Ha Long Bay tour is tricky enough to start with. Throw in the third party travel agents and hotel tour desks – who can quote whatever they want for a cruise – and it’s a minefield. Here are some tips to get the best for your buck.

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First decide how much you want to spend. Although you can pick up a Ha Long Bay cruise for almost any budget, boats can be broadly grouped into budget (under US$60), three-star ($60-$110), four-star ($110-160) and five-star plus ($160+), with prices based on a two-day, one-night cruise with an overnight stay on the boat.

Plan in advance to get the best from your trip.

Plan in advance to get the best from your trip.

Three-day tours jump the price up by around 40 percent, so balance your budget with how long you want to spend in the Bay. Agents will probably try to talk you up to a higher level — particularly if you go in looking for something cheap — but don’t believe everything they tell you and don’t believe the photos in the brochure, especially for the cheaper options.

It was harder than we expected to get a cheap tour. Some agents were happy to provide details of the budget tours when requested, but others started with a pricier option and only offered the cheaper version when pushed. Or they simply didn’t have cheap boats on their books — we only found three operators under US$50. Our trusted travel agent has a budget boat she can put people on if that’s all they are interested in, but she always makes its shortcomings — in comfort, service and safety — clear.

Shop around.

Shop around.

The flashpacker tours weren’t vying for attention either. Du Gong Sails was the dominant one offered in the US$60-100 price range, with others including Papaya, Elizabeth Sails and the Halong Party Cruise. Once you get above US$100 the options open up.

You have a few options for booking a tour. Book online in advance direct with the operator; book online with Agoda; book with your hotel in advance or on arrival in Hanoi; book with a local travel agent on arrival; or book with a travel agent in your home country – especially suitable if you’re booking a package tour.

A reward awaits.

A reward awaits.

Which way to book is best? It’s hard to say, though it depends what you’re after. If you’re looking for a cheap deal then you’re probably best off visiting some agents when you get to Hanoi. The cheapest deals we found on line were US$80+, but you can pick up overnight tours for as little as US$45 from an agent in Old Quarter. White Sails, for example, is US$75 online at the time of writing, but around US$50 from an agent.

If price isn’t an issue and you want a decent boat, then doing online research from home and booking online direct with an operator, via a local agent or with a site like Agoda, is an easier option. Make sure you compare prices across the booking options. It’s not always cheapest to book direct with the operator as agents get good deals.

Even if you want to keep your schedule loose and prefer to book with an agent when you arrive, it’s worth doing some research in advance so you have a shortlist and an idea of prices. Then, on arrival, shop around a bit.

We visited a heap of agents in Old Quarter and prices for the same boat differed by up to US$30 for an overnight cruise. For example, Sinh Cafe Tourist at 52-53b Luong Ngoc Quyen and Friendly Travel on Ma May charged US$85 for Du Gong Sails — a decent flashpacker option — whereas we got it for $75. Likewise, Vietnam Impressive wanted US$115 for the four-star Galaxy but a couple of doors down they were charging US$140. Note that prices can change even on a daily basis depending on how busy the boat is.

In summary, do your research and shop around. Don’t take everything at face value. And read our reviews (links are earlier in this piece)!

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What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Hanoi.
 Check prices, availability & reviews on Agoda or Booking
 Read up on where to eat on Hanoi.
 Check out our listings of things to do in and around Hanoi.
 Read up on how to get to Hanoi, or book your transport online with Baolau.
 Do you have travel insurance yet? If not, find out why you need it.
 Planning on riding a scooter in Hanoi? Please read this.
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Where to next?

Where are you planning on heading to after Hanoi? Here are some spots commonly visited from here, or click here to see a full destination list for Vietnam.

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