Whilst on holiday in Penang, my dad turned to me and asked what it would take to go to Vietnam for a couple of days. My sister and I looked at each other and said we would work it out. In the end, with about a day’s worth of planning, we turned out a great 3 day holiday to Ha Long Bay and Hanoi.

Here’s our recommendations (and negotiation tips):

1. Visas

I can recommend eVietnam Visa. You will probably need a visa to go to Vietnam (I entered on an Australian visa). They need a 48 hour lead time to prepare your visa, but they can rush it in 24 hours. As this is not a guaranteed SLA, I would leave at least 5 days before you leave to do this. They will prepare the visa letter to present at the airport, plus the form that you will need to fill out. They also have a free visa assistance service once you get to the Airport — remember to bring enough US dollars to cover the stamp fee once you arrive. The fees if you do it via airport pickup are cheaper than if you go via the embassy, and given how reliable it was, I would do this again.

2. Hotels

I recommend staying at the Ha Long DC Hotel. They can organise transfers from the airport / Hanoi, as well as organise a tour of the Ha Long Bay area for you.

  • Hotel: The family suite we stayed in was large, clean, and very well maintained. There’s free internet on all floors. Staff are very genuinely courteous and helpful. English levels vary, so speak slowly and clearly.
  • Transfers: Call the hotel and organise a transfer from Hanoi. It will cost about 100 USD one way and take about 3 hours, which makes sense if you are a family. Note that the drivers and the tourist rest stops have an agreement. Once you arrive there, he will sit away from you. Then, you should at the very minimum buy something to eat — because the restaurant owner will share the profit with the driver by giving him food.
  • Eating near Ha Long DC Hotel: There’s a hawker food court just behind the hotel that serves great food. It opens early and closes late (around 11pm).
  • Taxis: There’s one brand of taxis that are recommended — the Mailinh group, they have green signs. Generally, their drivers have good meters, and if they don’t, take down the driver details and follow up. I had one of their drivers with a dodgy meter, and I negotiated the meter fare with him on my phone.

3. Ha Long Bay Boat Tour

  • Boat Tour: Organised by the hotel (see above). There will be a private charter available, in 4, 6, and 8 hours (they want you to take the 6 hour one generally). The fee was about 25 USD per hour, plus lunch.
  • Getting to the Boat Tour: The taxi to the boat will be in cohorts with the boat’s salesperson, and will normally take you a long way around to the bay: the fee should be around 130000 dong.
  • Boat Tour Lunch: Once at the docks, you will meet the boat’s sales person for lunch. He will start with about 15-20 USD per head for lunch (which will also need cover the lunch for the boat crew). If you are a small party, you will not be able to move too much on this, and given that you risk annoying the crew (with bad lunch) and also the sales guy before you have left, I would recommend a lighter bargaining strategy here. 50 USD for 4 was what we arrived at.  The sales guy will turn up with a couple of bags of fresh fish and food, and show you to the boat. The captain should then check the food, verify things with the sales guy, and then get underway.
  • Additional Boat Tour charges: You will need to buy tickets to a couple of the islands and keep about 20 USD per person for a row boat ride through the caves (not really negotiable). There will be a lady trying to sell some wares on the boat, you don’t need to buy from her. I would recommend that you buy some drinks however, as this pay will go directly to the crew.
  • Overnight Boat Tours: There are a couple of overnight cruises available — but after some research I didn’t end up doing them because all these boats moor in the same location. Think loud chinese karoake and toilet refuge overboard all through the night.

4. Ha Long Bay and Other Attractions

  • Bai Chay Tourist Night Markets: Yes, they are even called tourist markets and are organised by a mob who make sure that each stall has the same goods and more or less the same price. Avoid.
  • Ha Long Markets: Around Cho Ha Long in the mornings you will see a bustling market selling fresh live fish and vegetables. The sellers will arrive by boat and disembark all their goods via gang planks into the market. Incredible stuff.

5. Staying in Hanoi

We stayed at the Hanoi Elegance Ruby. This is rated a 2 star, but is not at all a 2 star hotel. The family suite is really a much better room than the others and is worth upgrading to. Internet, TV, great shower, and even a loan laptop will be in the room when you arrive. Very nice welcome and helpful staff will welcome you with a drink and then take you through the touristic sights and restaurants. They can organise the airport transfer for you, if required.

6. What to see / eat in Hanoi:

This is what I managed to squeeze into my 24 hours or so in Hanoi.

  • Ho Chi Minh Mausauleum, One Pillar Pagoda, Temple of Literature, etc.: There are plenty of guides that cover this attraction, so I won’t go into too much detail here.
  • Silk Shops: These will be around Hang Gai. Go early, and make sure you are the first customer — this should give you a very strong bargaining advantage (asian superstition dictates you must make the first sell, no matter what).
  • Xoi Yen: A restaurant that is famous for its sticky rice. Upper level overlooks a very busy street intersection.
  • Cha Ca Thang Long: Easy to order here — there’s only one dish. They do grilled fish with vegetables and noodles, assembled on a hot plate on the table.
  • Pho Ga Dac Biet: From memory, this is on the corner of Bat Dan and Hang Dieu. It’s a good place for breakfast.

7. Airlines

We travelled with Singapore Airlines and Silk Air (their budget subsidiary). Note that they codeshare, so double check, triple check your gates in Changi Airport!