Monday, May 09, 2005

Halong Bay Tour Package Selection Guides and Tips

With so many tour operators and travel cafes / agencies operating tours to the vast Halong Bay, confusion tends to arise. It's especially so when the price for the tour packages can range from USD $16 to over USD $100. Here is my observation and guide on how to best enjoy and get the best value out of the Halong Bay trip.

Disclaimer: This article is solely based on my observation and experience on the time of my visit. It may be incorrect or becomes incorrect as time passed.

How's the tour behind the scene works?
To understand how a tour in Vietnam usually works, different between tour operator and travel agent must be understood. Tour operator basically operates the tour, while travel agent, or travel cafe usually just an agent or reseller for the tour operator. In Vietnam sense, Sinh Cafe (original) is a tour operator, and all other hotels, hostels, travel cafes, travel agents that usually also carry the name 'Sinh Cafe' are just the agent or reseller for Sinh Cafe.

Travel agents earn money via commission for each tour package sold. But sometimes you may be charged out ridiculous price if you give travel cafes such an opportunity. Beside, you have no control on the quality of the tour too, as the travel cafes can just promise anything, but cannot deliver as it's not them who operate the tour. Worse is they just have the intention to get your business with all sweet words.

According to Ha, whose husband Culi Cage owned Wide Eyed Tours, even tour operators sometimes also 'sell' their travelers to other operators, if they cannot have enough customers to start a profitable tour. In this case, again, you will have no control of the quality of the tour, and the itinerary might be different too.

Which is the 'Real' Sinh Cafe?
Frankly speaking, I also not sure. If you search for 'Sinh Cafe' in Google, the search results will have plenty of Sinh Cafes.

Of which Sinh Cafe Vietnam is believe to be 'genuine' Sinh Cafe.

I used to email Sinh Cafe - Open Tour or Sinh Cafe Travel - TransVietnam (depends on which website you go to), their response was pretty fast. I believe they're the same company with Sinh Cafe Travel & Tour or Vietnam Open Tour. They did give me a very detailed itinerary of their Halong Bay tour, with description of what will be done on first boat trip and the second boat trip on second day for USD $30, reasonable price if all itinerary is done. Too bad we didn't try it out as it's too late when we reached Hanoi.

Hanoi Tourism Service Company (Torseco Hanoi) is the parent company of Sinh Cafe. But the price on their website is not cheap either.

All contact details can be found on their website respectively.

What is Open Tour?
It's a bus service that run throughout Vietnam everyday, of which you can stop at anywhere as you like that the bus goes through, and stay as long as you want before continuing the trip. In Hanoi, Open Tour is used widely as Sinh Cafe to attract travelers.

I have limited budget, which tour should I take?
I met an Israelite Netidrori who said it's possible to get a tour to Halong Bay for 3 days 2 nights with 1 night on sleeping on boat for USD $16. I believe it's the cheapest price in town. He himself paid USD $28 just for the single room at another travel agency. What happened was he was assigned to sleep with another guy! Only after complaint that he managed to get to cabin to himself. So, that's your expectation if you choose lowest price.

The travel cafe is Eco Tours, located at No 9, Luong Ngoc Quyen Street, Hoan Kiem district. Phone no. is 84-4-9260815 or 9260715. Mobile no. is 09 12 227701. Email is ecologicaltours@fpt.vn.

Is small group matters?
A lot of guide books stressed on 'small group' of the tours in order to enjoy more of the tour. It may be case during peak tourism season. I found the small group and big group on bus journey to Halong Bay is totally useless. The fact is, in small group, you will ride smaller minibus. In big group, most likely you will ride bigger bus. On junk may be it's better to be in small group, the only different is is it really the case.

Any mid-budget tour to Halong Bay?
Try Sinh Cafes that listed above, or travel operators that listed in various guide books. I don't suggest to book via your hotels or travel cafes, as you may pay mid-range price to get the lowest quality tour.

ODC Travel did email me with their itinerary. 2 days 1 night overnight on boat at Lan Ha Bay costs USD $35.

Or you may try Wide Eyed Tours whose we met the owner's wife, who also so coincidentally has a friend that Adeline also known in Singapore. She said they use Hai Ao Junk in Halong Bay, and charge mid-range price. They are located at 40 Luong Ngoc Quyen.

I want the best!
Yes, the various guide books list numerous of them. The most famous must be Handspan Adventure Travel Vietnam. Or you may book directly with the junk operator in Halong Bay itself. This way you may save some commission that earns by travel agency, but you have to figure out the way to go to Halong City yourself.

Is it possible to go straight to Halong Bay and book the boat from there?
Yes, I had been approached by several people to take up their boat when at tourist wharf in Halong City. One people quoted me about VND 60,000. But I am not sure if it's a junk or a boat, how long is the duration or what's the itinerary. I guess if you want to overnight on boat, it's better to take a tour from Hanoi.

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