John’s grandma, Edna Williams, tells a story of a time when John was four years old and attempting to walk up the stairs wearing a pair of swimming fins. Grandma noticed this wasn’t going so well for her grandson and offered to help. John’s response was, “I do it myself.” This has been a recurring phrase on our trip and especially poignant these last few days. Much like trying to walk up the stairs with swimming fins, booking a trip to Halong Bay on your own is quite difficult. Unfortunately, the tour operators in the City of Scams (AKA Hanoi) do a really good job of hiding the truth from travellers. They attempt to tell you that the only way to see Halong Bay is to take a tour which we did not want to do. They tried to explain the tour options to us and we tried to explain to them we wanted to do it ourselves. We couldn’t seem to get them to understand or tell us how to do it ourselves.. We read travel blogs and Trip Advisor trying to figure out how could do it ourselves and found a few helpful tips, but when we crunched the numbers and found out that doing it ourselves would mean bypassing Halong Bay on the way to Cat Ba Island, we decided to compromise. We were able to convince the travel agent to get us on a boat that would take us through Halong Bay, drop us off on Cat Ba Island, and then leave us there on our own for a few days before picking us back up on Friday. This only took 3 1/2 hours to figure out.
The cruise out started with lunch on the boat and then took us from the harbor on a 3 hour cruise of the Bay. This also included a stop at a cave lit up like an ugly Christmas tree. The cave was actually quite amazing, despite the obnoxious lighting. We got back on the boat and enjoyed the rest of the cruise, dangling our feet off the front of the boat as we passed some of the 8,000 limestone islands that populate Halong Bay. As requested, we were dropped at Cat Ba Island, packed like sardines into a bus (with the Vietnamese tour guides hanging out the door), and transported to Cat Ba Town where we made it just in time to see a gorgeous sunset. As we sat down to dinner our tour guide came over and overwhelmed us with options for more touring we could do the following day. I do it myself. We were able to stand our ground and say no and decided to design our own tour for the next day.
Our personalized tour that we did ourselves consisted of hiring a moto, riding up the coastline of the island, hiking in the national park, being chased by dogs when we made a wrong turn (at least we weren’t on a tour!), seeing the planting and harvesting of rice up close, practicing English with some local school girls, enjoying the sunshine at our own pace, and taking loads of photos. We felt really good about our choice to do it ourselves, especially when we were finishing our hike (which included an hour by ourselves on top of a fire tower) in the national park and crossed paths with a tour group of 20 tourists. We also felt good about our decision not to do the tour when we talked to other travellers who booked 3 day tours and ended up with something that looked nothing like what they were promised.
We don’t want to totally dis tours because they can be a really great option and we have even found ourselves sometimes wanting a tour just so we don’t have to figure all the details out ourselves. The key is to go with a reputable company, when possible, and make sure to ask tons of questions, confirming what exactly you will be receiving. And check with travel blogs and Trip Advisor or other traveler reviews to see what’s been good for others. Tour operators will tell you just about anything to book you on their trips (at least here that is true). If you have ever thought about coming to some of the places we have travelled but don’t know if you could do it on your own, it’s definitely possible and the tours go everywhere you would want to go. If you specifically want to go to Halong Bay and do it on your own, we now know how it works (we talked to others on the Island and figured out it is possible), and we’d be happy to share the secret information the Hanoi travel agents won’t divulge.