Why Halong Bay?
Well, what hasn’t been already said about Halong Bay (Ha Long Bay or “descending dragon bay”)? It is many people’s single favorite place in Vietnam. Not without a reason. The scenery of thousands of little limestone karst islets is absolutely gorgeous, enchanting and unique. Few people know, how to see Halong Bay cheap way, though.
Halong Bay is visited by many tourists throughout the year. I would risk saying that every organised tour features a cruise on the bay (sometimes an overnight one). Nevertheless, many of those cruises are actually quite pricey – the ones on famous boats (with big colorful sails) are around $100. And this is probably way more than an average traveler (who values their independence too!) is willing to spend.
But it is possible to do Halong Bay cheap way! I am also confident that “the cheap way” is also a more authentic experience than the one provided by the organised cruises. I spent three days (and three nights) in the area and below is my itinerary. I included some tips on how to avoid overpaying. If you are planning a trip to Halong Bay (cheap way or not), feel free to get inspired 🙂
Day 1: Getting to Cat Ba Island
I traveled to Halong Bay from Hanoi, where I stayed for two days prior. Many travel agencies in Hanoi offer all-inclusive cruises in Halong Bay. Pick up, transfer, accommodation and food can all be covered by the price of between $70-$120. My friend and I decided to explore Halong Bay on our own and, for that, we decided to head to Cat Ba Island.
We did book a transfer to the island from one of the hotels/agencies in Hanoi for around $14 (the transfer is described below). A note of caution: DO NOT trust agencies with Tripadvisor logos etc. They massively overcharge for the Cat Ba Island transfer (and anything else for that reason). Just walk around and ask a few others to get an idea, what the real market rate can be (don’t forget to bargain).
The main reasons why you might want to consider Cat Ba Island (instead of Halong or the packaged cruise trip):
- Cat Ba Island is a good base to explore the Ha Long Bay region as well as Lan Ha Bay. You don’t have to book an overnight cruise, but, instead, book day trips to the bays and neighboring islands. Gives you more flexibility.
- If you get a packaged tour and the weather doesn’t work out fine – you risk the cruise being cancelled. If you are on your own on an island, you can just wait until the weather improves (the next day, later in the afternoon) and you don’t risk going back home so fast.
- You can also explore Cat Ba itself, which can easily take even two days. There is a gorgeous National Park on the Island as well as many caves interesting enough to see.
- We found out it is more efficient for us to get a hostel on the island than pay for an overnight boat. We wanted to be more independent and explore local nightlife on the island, not necessarily with other Western tourists at all times.
- We were also curious about the local food and didn’t want to risk having to eat typical continental meals on board of the boat. The seafood on Cat Ba Island is fresh, delicious and dirt cheap.
Anyway, to get to Cat Ba Island, we boarded a morning bus from Hanoi to Hai Phong (it took roughly 2 hours). The bus dropped us off at the harbor, where we boarded a ferry to Cat Ba Island. The ticket also included a bus transfer from the harbor in Cat Ba Island to Cat Ba city, where most of the hostels and restaurants are located.
We got off the bus and searched around for the hostel Mr. ZOOM we booked online the night before (for an amazing price of $5 a night for a twin/double room). For dinner, we splurged on some magnificent grilled oysters (80k VND so around $4).
Day 2: A boat tour in Halong Bay
We did a little bit of a research and found out that most of the day tours from Cat Ba Island are similar (the only difference is the amount of kayaking). We paid $16 for our day tour, which included pickup, the tour of the bays and islands, drop off and lunch.
The first stop of the tour was Monkey Island. As the name indicates, you can see wild monkeys hanging out there. Be careful – the monkeys are quite mean and can bite. Be sure to get your shots before going to Vietnam, just a reminder! The stop also included climbing the peak of the highest hill on the island for a great panorama view. A very important thing to note: wear smart footwear. Otherwise, you might risk a sprained ankle or worse. The climb up is quite difficult and tiring (I had to ask my friend to lift me up a couple of times and I have a pretty strong upper body).
The next stage of our tour were La Hau Bay and Ha Long Bay. We had the opportunity to go kayaking in both of those places. I think it was one of the most memorable experiences in that area. It allowed me to directly interact with nature – one can paddle away from the boat and find their own little sweet spot between the islets.
We also visited a floating fish farm. People actually live in those little buildings.
Our lunch on board included fish, rice, peanuts, eggs and some spring rolls. Don’t be surprised there are no forks (yup, some people complained). We were also served some complementary coffee in the morning.
Upon returning to the island, we decided to have some clams for dinner (90k VKD/ kg). Seafood on the island is really good and cheap. Make use of that fact!
For the last day of my adventure in Cat Ba, continue on to the next post!