If you’ve seen pictures of Vietnam and considered making a trip, the gorgeous Ha Long Bay must have turned up in your research. It was definitely on our list, but it became a little bit of a challenge. Relentlessly searching for an overnight option to visit Halong Bay, we couldn’t seem to find a ‘safe’ option that was less than $200-300+ a person for one night. By safe I mean a boat that didn’t offer reviews of rats, bugs, limited supplies and generally foul words to describe the experiences. Then, spending more than $500 on a backpacker’s budget for only one night of accommodation would be the equivalent of about at least a week of fun in most of Southeast Asia, so what were we supposed to do?
Well, it turns out that we could sort of find a way around spending the night on one of those fancy boats and instead spend the night on shore with the option to take an inexpensive day tour into the bay. Yes, it’s obviously not the luxurious options you’ve seen in photos, but the experience is close enough. Also, we were not visiting during peak season, i.e. warm season, so the cool air helped to steer us far away from a cold night on the water. Here’s how we did it…
Setting off from Hanoi, we had booked a Bus-Boat-Bus ticket through a company called Hoang Long. Just go straight to the office near the old quarter of Hanoi and book the ticket. It’s very simple. They will tell you where and when to meet the driver in the morning. For us, we met our driver at 6am at the same office we bought our tickets from and hopped in a van for a quick ride to the bus station. Keep in mind, everything is included in the initial ticket price, so there shouldn’t be any surprises. From there, we eventually caught the bus to the docks in Hai Phong. The speed boat eventually arrived and took us to Cat Ba Island where the final bus was waiting for us. Although the logistics may seem complicated, it felt seamless each step of the way.
Cat Ba itself is a relatively large island compared to the thousands surrounding it, but it is very undeveloped. Most of the island is a national preserve and it has only recently broken into the tourism market for people like us. In the past, it was primarily a fishing village and fish farms and fishing boats still surround the island. However, there is a growing area on the southeastern corner of the island inviting tourism. A new pier was being built at the time we were visiting and new guesthouses seemed to be popping up quickly to fill the demand.
Our last leg of the Bus-Boat-Bus journey brought us to that corner of the island where Kevin, Sarah, Whitney and I had selected a couple rooftop bungalows at the Le Pont Club at the far end of the strip of accommodations to spend the next few nights.
As I said, we weren’t visiting in peak season and instead found ourselves caught up in the rainy season typical in Northern Vietnam in January. This certainly made staying on shore a bit more satisfying than trapped on a boat in pouring rain. Ok, so here’s how the Ha Long Bay tours work from Cat Ba Island where most of the tourist offices offer generally the same tour. It’s a full day on the boat, traveling in between the gorgeous landscape of the limestone islands. Each boat will make a couple stops along the way to walk along the docks of one of the fish farms, swim in a protected area with a tiny beach in Lan Ha Bay, have a few moments to leap from the top deck of the boat while lunch is cooking and nail all those GoPro shots, and finally look out over the beautiful Ha Long Bay. There are options to stop at Monkey Island or another beach, but we suggest you make sure to book the one that includes the kayaking experience as that was our favorite part.
With this in mind and the impending weather forecast we booked our tour for the following day. Then having most of the rest of the afternoon still ahead, we did the only other thing to do which was hike to the top of the towering mountain overlooking the town to take in the incredible views in all directions. Little did we know, this would be the best weather we would see in our 3 days in Cat Ba.
The following morning we met our boat crew for a tour of the famed Ha Long Bay. We too walked along the shaky planks in a local fish farm and leaped off the top deck during a break in the rain before lunch.
By far though, the kayaking through the small sea caves and in between some of the islands was the best part. Whitney and I climbed into a 2 person kayak and paddled off with the group. Luckily the rain held out for this part of the day. Getting caught in some of the currents in the darkened tunnels added to the excitement of the moment.
Overall, it was a great experience for the price and with the terrible weather, I don’t think I would have wanted to splurge for those luxurious trips. It was all that we expected, except the clouds and rain limiting most of the distant views.
As it was Whitney’s birthday that night, we made sure to go to the best restaurant in the area Green Mango Restaurant. Looking back I probably should have booked one of the luxurious tours since it was the love of my life’s birthday! But I’ll admit, I failed on making this any sort of celebration for her. Thankfully she’s now forgiven me, I just need to make sure next year is extra special! Anyway, Green Mango Restaurant had significant western influence and truly catered to us. I even managed to sneak a “Happy Birthday” dessert order in to at least give her that. It was a nice finish to the day.
The second day on the island was another story though; the rain never seemed to let up. We spent nearly the entire day at our bungalow resort hiding from the rain, but at least we were comfortable and relaxing. We only ventured into town for a late dinner at a packed hole in the wall restaurant. I’d tell you the name if I knew it, but as with the rest of Vietnam just look for the one that’s packed with locals and you’ve found it.
Leaving the island was just as easy as getting there. We booked the same reverse ticket and made essentially the same ride back to Hanoi. Aside from some strange dealings when we got ushered onto another bus in Hai Phong, nearly losing Whitney in the transition, it was seamless.
In the end, we certainly saved a lot of money on this option. We will have to return one day to experience a luxurious overnight on the bay, but as a backpacker this was the way to go.
Cost for a roundtrip ticket to Cat Ba Island…$20
Cost for a full day boat tour to Halong Bay from Cat Ba Island…$29
Cost for a “more pricey” 3-night accommodations in Cat Ba Island…$84
Warm night on shore during the rainy season…Priceless
Now, it’s time to head south! We’ll see you in the warm waters off the coast of Malaysia on our next adventure!