Timing worked out well too. Our overnight train back from Sapa arrived back at 830am and the mini bus would be leaving for Halong at 1030am. Just enough time to get back to our home base hotel Fortune have a shower and freshen up for the 4 hour leg.
The bus (big mini van) wasn't so bad. Anytime your driving with a local its edge of your seat entertainment and the further out of town we got, the more "exciting" the drive. I mentioned before, there are no road rules here. So even with a mini-bus full of tourist you can drive on the "wrong" side of the road, pass on the shoulder, make a two lane highway three lanes just by driving on the yellow line and staying there and of course, do this all at speeds you would consider appropriate for the 401 (for my Toronto peeps). Scary as hell, but somehow these guys make it all work and its simply entertaining.
Booking a tour did end up being a good move again (for the most part). When we arrived, the junk was ready and we got through the chaos of booking tickets on the docks. We also think that our boat was far nicer than some of the off-the-rack junks you would get if you just bought your ticket there. The only downside this time was that we were stuck on a tour grouped with a big family vacationing for a long weekend from Hong Kong. They were very friendly and the kids were great fun, but for the most part, we felt like we were on their holiday and not our own.
Halong Bay was beautiful and well worth the trip. The junk we stayed on was probably the nicest accommodation we've had so far and the people, as we've seen with Vietnamese people in general, were super friendly, warm and welcoming. We did stop at one attraction. A huge cave (and I mean enormous) on a single island. It was pretty incredible but unfortunately, due to the size of the crowds and popularity of this sight on the tourist circuit, we felt a little like herded cattle.
All in all, Halong Bay was fantastic. I would go back on my next trip to Vietnam and stay more than the one night / two days. I'd still book it all through a tour because for the convenience, it was great.
Back to Hanoi for a few hours before we catch a flight to Hoi An for a few days of quiet and retreat from the hustle of the city and the shuffling around of our first week in Vietnam.
More pictures of Halong Bay here: