There isn't much 'there there' in Ha Long City -- most people pass through it quickly after booking a Ha Long Bay tour that begins and ends in Hanoi. Probably the wise move. Those that stay usually only linger a day or so.
The provincial capital of Quang Ninh province, Ha Long City is actually comprised of two towns, Bai Chay and Hon Gai which are connected by bridge The former is the tourist town part of Ha Long City, while the latter is more of a local scene. Bai Chay is packed with cookie-cutter hotels and hosts the pier from which the Ha Long Bay tour boats leave -- chances are, if you're overnighting in Ha Long City, you'll find yourself in Bai Chay.
While we definitely can't recommend either Bai Chay nor Hon Gai as a travel destination, there is a small, so-so beach on the bay, and an effort is underway to build an amusement park along the water that might make family travel more attractive in the future. Also, the biggest hotel in Vietnam is going to be built on the bay, with construction commencing in 2007.
At present, there are some luxury hotels with decent swimming pools and high-altitude rooms that have fantastic views over the bay. Otherwise, Ha Long Bay is known for its mini-hotels -- scads of them, all clustered together in and around Vuon Dao Street (which means "Peach Garden).
These hotels fill up with Vietnamese in the summer, who come mostly in transit to the new beach resort on Tuan Chau Island -- occupancy in Ha Long can reach 100% during festivals and holidays, so if you're travelling across festivals, be sure to check ahead before showing up to find a room. The rest of the year, the mini-hotels are more or less empty, or closed. Some get by letting their downstairs lobby double as a shop, selling everything from French wine to cell phones. Others make it through the winter renting out rooms by the hour for private massages.
Unless you're staying at one of the hotels further from the centre, you'll be staying on Hotel Alley, which is about 2km west of the tour boat pier along Ha Long Road, which follows the bay. The Post Office is at the base of Vuon Dao Street, where it meets Ha Long Road -- overseas calls are available here at 10,000 VND per minute for all countries (hours, 07:00 09:00, open every day).
There's an ATM there but it only works if you have a Chinese bank account, so head down to the Vietcombank about a kilometre east (Bank Hours: 08:30 to 06:30 Mon-Fri, ATM available 24/7). There's also a currency exchange place right on the main pier, but they offer really unattractive rates -- if the bank is closed, head to one of the larger hotels and try your luck there.
Internet is pretty widely available, but the place next to the post office overcharges -- we recommend Peace Hotel (39 Vuon Dao Rd) -- if it looks like the terminals in the lobby are full, don't worry -- there are plenty more in the back room. It's also one of the few mini-hotels that accepts major credit cards.
There's a police station about 2km from town that's so small and in such a weird location -- wedged next to the Hai Yen Hotel -- you'll definitely have to hire a driver to find it.
Bai Chai Hospital is about 5km west of the pier, and there's another hospital in Hon Gai.
Text and/or map last updated on 21st August, 2009.