While I, personally, did not like Vietnam very much, I have to acknowledge that navigating Halong Bay was one of the most magical moments of my entire trip to Southeast Asia. In this post I will explain you how to visit Halong Bay on a budget, avoiding the organized tours (that are sometimes scams).
Out of all the countries I visited in Southeast Asia, I have to admit, Vietnam was my least favorite. Don’t get me wrong, many people love Vietnam, and it is definitely a country worth visiting. It has a frightening, yet interesting history, impressive scenery and delicious food. However, after spending two fantastic months in the Philippines and Indonesia, I found Vietnam to be a rather hostile country.
But enough of complaints, even though Vietnam may not be my favorite country, I have to admit there was one place it really took my breath away: Halong Bay. This was certainly one of the most impressive views I have laid my eyes on.
Named as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature, Halong Bay is a must see in Vietnam. Near the Chinese border traveling 120 km along the coastline, the bay features a dense collection of almost 2000 limestone monolithic islands that are covered with jungle vegetation. Many of these monolithic islands feature mysterious caves, lakes and secluded beaches.
According to the legend, a dragon that began spitting out jewels and jade created the bay. They turned into islands and islets linking together to form a wall against the invaders and assist the Vietnamese in defending their country. In other words, Mother Nature got crazy here!
Visiting Halong Bay: the “party cruises“
Not surprisingly, this magical and mystical place is Vietnam’s top tourist draw. Therefore, there are many agencies in Hanoi offering tours (from one to three days) to visit Halong Bay. The prices are for any budget (from $40 to over $500). The problem is most of these agencies have a questionable reputation and the quality of the tour is often directly related to the price you’ve paid for it. If you search Halong Bay tours in Google, you will easily find hundreds of horror stories and scams in Halong Bay.
On the other side, even the most reputable agencies offer tours that are definitely not for everybody. Known as “party cruises”, they are aimed at backpackers who want to spend three days drinking in a boat with Halong Bay as a backdrop. I guess party cruises may be a fun idea if you are traveling with friends. But traveling on my own, I was afraid of spending three full days locked on a boat and sharing a small cabin with strangers who were likely to be drunk all night. For these reasons, when I began to organize my trip to Halong Bay, I didn’t know where to start! Choose a cheap tour and risk of being scammed? Choose a quality tour and pay an arm and a leg for it? I wanted to visit Halong Bay, but did not want to do it with a hangover and I had a tight budget.
When I was considering not visiting Halong Bay and simply leaving Vietnam, I met two travelers in Hoi An who explained me how to go to Halong Bay on my own. The trick is spending the night on a super cheap island called Cat Ba, doing a day tour from there and skipping the party cruises. I followed their advice and it was great! Read on to discover how to visit Halong Bay on your own and on a budget from Cat Ba island.
Halong Bay on your own: From Hanoi to Cat Ba Island
In Hanoi, you will find plenty of agencies offering tours to Halong Bay but, as I mentioned, I highly recommend avoiding organized tours and visiting Halong Bay on your own instead. For that you can buy a ticket from Hanoi to Cat Ba island for 220,000 dong (it sounds like a lot but it is only $10!). Unfortunately, the ticket is not direct and you will have to take three buses and one boat to get to Cat Ba, but don’t panic! It’s all organized and included in the price; just follow the instructions. The first bus will take you to the city of Hai Phong, the second bus will drive you to the port, then you will take a ferry to Cat Ba Island and, finally, the last bus will take you to the center of Cat Ba town. The total trip from Hanoi to Cat Ba island will take you about 4 hours.
Where to Sleep
Once you get to Cat Ba town, you will find plenty of accommodation options on the main street, most of them at absolute bargain prices! For example, you can stay at a private double room with Halong Bay views from $6 a night. If you prefer to book in advanced, I highly recommend Agoda (you will find the best deals in this site!). I have compiled a list of cheap accommodation in Cat Ba to help you plan your stay:
Phuong Mai Family Hostel: this is the place where I stayed in Cat Ba. It is run by a lovely Vietnamese family who also has a hair salon in the ground floor. The hostel has clean rooms and a rooftop with Halong Bay views. I highly recommend this place!
Ali Babas Hostel: My friend stayed at this hostel and said it was great. They also have double rooms for 7$ a night.
Cat Ba Hostel: If you are ok sharing your room, this hostel has dorms for less than 3$ a night.
Manh Vuong Hotel: Double rooms and great bay views for less than 9$ a night.
Cat ba Sunrise Resort: If you are not on a budget or want to treat yourself, this hotel is a bit more upper class.
Where to eat
When I arrived to Cat Ba Island, I checked some restaurants and found the food was awful and overpriced. But luckily, at dinnertime I found a gem, a small, vegetarian restaurant called Buddha Belly. It is only a few minutes from Cat Ba’s main street and offers affordable dishes and a set menu for only 30,000 dong (about 1 €). Even if you’re not vegetarian, I think you will like this place, great, cheap and healthy Vietnamese food!
One day tour to Halong Bay
To visit Halong Bay from Cat Ba Island you can either rent a kayak or take part in a one day tour. The good thing about these tours is that while you will spend the day in Halong Bay, they will return you to your hostel at sunset, so you will not spend the night on the boat.
There are many agencies in Cat Ba that organize day tours to Halong Bay for $20 including lunch. I booked my tour at Pineapple hostel and have no complaints: it was just fine! They picked me up at 8am at my hostel and brought me to Cat Ba port where we boarded a boat and started visiting Halong Bay for about two hours. Then we had one hour of tandem kayaking in a quiet, beautiful part of the bay.
After kayaking, we had a nice lunch on the boat. There was fish and some vegetarian options (tofu, spring rolls, salad and rice). Everything was yummy!
After lunch, we went to an area of the bay where you could swim … Unfortunately, although the place was gorgeous, it was very cold and I did not dare jump in the water. An important thing to keep in mind when visiting Halong Bay is the weather is usually chilly and unpleasant. After two months of traveling Southeast Asia, always wearing shorts and flip flops, I did not expect the cold weather! For your own sake, always bring a jacket.
The last stop of the tour was Monkey Island, a beautiful place with a mystical energy where you can find amazing views and see monkeys.
To sum up, the tour was well organized and I enjoyed all the activities and the magnificent views of Halong Bay.
Total budget for 3 days/2 nights in Cat Ba island and Halong Bay
In total, these were all my expenses for 3 days and 2 nights in Cat Ba island and Halong Bay:
- Ticket Hanoi-Cat Ba: 10$
- Accommodation in Phuong Mai Family Hostel for two nights (in a private double room): 12$
- Lunch and dinner in Happy Buddha: 3$
- Breakfast in Pinneaple Hotel: 2$
- One day tour to Halong bay including lunch: 20$
- Last day dinner in Happy Budda: 1,5$
- Return ticket to Hanoi: 10$
Total expenses: 58,50$
You see? Visiting Halong Bay in comfort doesn’t have to be expensive. I highly recommend to go to Cat Ba Island on your own and avoid organized tours from Hanoi, it is way better and cheaper! But either way, do not miss Halong Bay. While I, personally, did not like Vietnam very much, I have to acknowledge that navigating Halong Bay was one of the most magical moments of my entire trip to Southeast Asia.
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