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I am travelling to Vietnam in December and would like to book with a travel agency in the Hanoi area. There are so many to choose from, what are things that I should consider when picking a travel agency (additionally to avoid getting ripped off).

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I edited this to try and make it a bit more objective. The initial version seemed a bit on the hairy side per the faq. –  Rebecca Chernoff Jun 29 '11 at 17:20
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My experience with Vietnam was that it really didn't matter - there are literally hundreds of travel agencies and many of them share the same tour operators. You get picked up at the travel agency you booked at and the bus continues on to 5-10 other places to pick up everyone else. The only thing you really need consider is the price (which shouldn't vary by much anyway).

If you're really concerned about getting ripped off (unlikely), I would wait until you arrive, and just ask some recently returned travelers who they booked with and whether they would recommend them. You may even get a (small) discount if you say you were referred by someone else.

For Ha Long Bay, most tour operators will recommend a 1-2 night tour, with one night on Cat Ba Island and one on a Vietnamese junk (tourist boat). For what it's worth, I thoroughly enjoyed both. Be warned that a junk recently sank during the night killing a few tourists, so be a bit more wary of spending a night on one.

Similarly with Sapa, tour operators will recommend you do some trekking with/to meet the local Hmong tribes, this I would also thoroughly recommend. Don't forget to bring some decent hiking boots (or buy them in Hanoi) as it's always muddy. After the hike you can get your boots cleaned and dried in 20 minutes for about a dollar. I have no idea how they do it.

Tours are very easy to organise from Hanoi but keep in mind if you're going far afield it can take a very long time due to the condition of the roads and the fact that speeds are limited due to motorbikes/pigs/chickens/people sharing them with you. This shouldn't be a concern with what you're interested in, but something to keep in mind if plans change.

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My only advice would be to always book with a local tour agency, and not online. I have seen instances where online tour booking sites like Viator charge $60 for a tour that would cost $10 with a local tour agency. –  Ankur Banerjee Jun 22 '11 at 20:48
    
@Ankur a good point that I neglected to mention. Booking before you get there is the only sure way to get ripped off. Wander the streets of Hanoi and you should have few troubles finding a travel agent. –  jozzas Jun 22 '11 at 22:18
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I agree with Jozzas. It doesn't really matter.

I recently returned from Vietnam. Most hotels that you stay in at Hanoi have tie-ups with some tour operators, especially for tours to Sapa and Ha Long Bay. I did not travel to Sapa, but we had our hotel book us a 1 night-2 day Ha Long Bay tour. We travelled with Cristina Cruises on their Vietnamese junk boats. It was a wonderful experience, and we had a good time. We did not go to Cat Ba Island but were taken to one of the biggest Cave islands in the Bay. But most cruises offer a variety of options that you can pick from.

My recommendation: check with the hotel you are staying with if they have any tie-ups with tour operators, and go with their suggestion. There are many tour operators in Hanoi (if you walk through old market streets you are likely to be confused with all the tour offers). I would not recommend more than a 1 night - 2 day cruise on Ha Long bay, though.

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For Ha Long bay from Hanoi you can just get yourself a bus ticket from the bus station. If you are considering Ha Long Bay also consider Cat Ba Island. I have heard mixed reports of Ha Long Bay tours. I was warned a really cheap tour is generally a really bad tour but I rock climbed with a guy on Cat Ba Island who took a cheap tour and said it was great. I think the quality of the sleeping on the boat was generaly the issue. I travelled by bus to Cat Ba with Hoang Long Bus Company. I think they go to Ha Long city as well. If you buy a Ha Long Bay tour though, it may include transport from Hanoi.

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