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 how to visit Halong Bay on a budget, doing a Cat Ba Island tour and avoiding the organized party cruises (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 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. To visit Halong Bay, you have the option of doing a party cruise from Hanoi. But, if you want to save money, I highly recommend you to do a Cat Ba Island tour instead.
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 and Bai Tu Long Bay. The prices are for any budget (from $40 to over $800). 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 the best Halong Bay Cruise and pay an arm and a leg for it? I wanted to visit Halong Bay but I 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 to 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 a budget doing a Cat Ba island tour.
Halong Bay on a Budget: How to Get 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 doing a Cat Ba island tour instead. For that, you can buy a ticket from Hanoi to Cat Ba island for 220,000 dongs (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 island, 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 in Cat Ba Island
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 in a private double room with Halong Bay views from $6 a night. If you prefer to book in advance, I highly recommend Agoda (you will find the best deals on this site!). I have compiled a list of cheap accommodation in Cat Ba to help you plan your stay:
Phuong Mai Family Hostel: this is the place where I stayed in Cat Ba. It is run by a lovely Vietnamese family who also has a hair salon on the ground floor. The hostel has clean rooms and a rooftop with Halong Bay views. I highly recommend this place!
Ali Babas Hostel: My friend stayed at this hostel and said it was great. They also have double rooms for 7$ 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 in Cat Ba Island
When I arrived at 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 dongs (about 1 €). Even if you’re not a vegetarian, I think you will like this place, great, cheap and healthy Vietnamese food!
One day Cat Ba Island Tour
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 Island that organize day tours to Halong Bay for $20 including lunch. I booked my tour at Pineapple hostel and have no complaints: it was just fine! They picked me up at 8 am at my hostel and brought me to Cat Ba port where we boarded a boat and started visiting Halong Bay for about two hours. Then we had one hour of tandem kayaking in a quiet, beautiful part of the bay.
After kayaking, we had a nice lunch on the boat. There were fish and some vegetarian options (tofu, spring rolls, salad and rice). Everything was yummy!
After lunch, we went to an area of the bay where you could swim … Unfortunately, although the place was gorgeous, it was very cold and I did not dare jump in the water. An important thing to keep in mind when visiting Halong Bay is the weather is usually chilly and unpleasant. After two months of traveling Southeast Asia, always wearing shorts and flip-flops, I did not expect the cold weather! For your own sake, always bring a jacket.
The last stop of the tour was Monkey Island, a beautiful place with a mystical energy where you can find amazing views and see monkeys.
To sum up, the tour was well organized and I enjoyed all the activities and the magnificent views of Halong Bay.
Total Budget for 3 Days/2 Nights in Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay
In total, these were all my expenses for 3 days and 2 nights in Cat Ba island and Halong Bay:
- Ticket Hanoi-Cat Ba: 10$
- 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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Great tips! I went there at the end of one year traveling around Southeast Asia and I was kind of tired of planning so I decided to take an organized tour from Hanoi. Worst mistake ever! I never take organize tour so it was difficult for me to have to adapt to other people speed. The tour wasn’t that well organized and it was kind of rushed, plus I spend double of what you did! Never again!
Halong Bay is gorgeous though, it looks unreal.
Thanks for your comment, Carlotta! I am sorry that you had to do the tour and it was not good… But good to know you liked Halong Bay, for me it was impressive too! One year traveling Southeast Asia sounds like a dream! I only traveled for 3,5 months but I am already crazy wanting to come back as soon as possible. Cheers!
Thanks for your post! I’m thinking about doing Ha Long Bay but have felt really confused about how to pay little but still have a great time!
I was wondering where you bought your bus ticket? Or from who?
Megan @ theadventurouseducator.com
Hello, Im going to make this trip day afer tomorrow step by step as You did, your post is excactly what I was looking for:) thank You! I albo would like to ask where to buy a ticket from Hanoi to Cat bay,
Hello Fukaeri, I am so glad this post is helpful, thanks and enjoy Halong Bay! I bought my ticket in the hostel I was staying in Hanoi (Hanoi Rendezvous Hostel). Most hostels can arrange your bust tickets. Cheers 🙂
Thanks a lot for super fast answer!:)
you are most welcome 🙂 have a great trip!
Hello Megan, sorry for the late reply. I bought my bus ticket in the hostel I was staying in Hanoi (Hanoi Rendezvous Hostel). I think most hostels can arrange your tickets (although you might have to pay them a small comission). Enjoy Halong Bay! 🙂
Thanks for your post. Nicely written!!
I’m still in doubt whether to do a tour or like the way you did it. My hostel Hanoi Brother Inn has great tours ( no party ) but are quite expensive around 125 dollars for 2 nights. They have 205 reviews on tripadvisor and all positive, so must be really good. Would love to spend a night on a boat. Never done a tour before. Your article almost convinced me to do it by myself ? I’ll have to think about. Thank you for your tips!
Hello Fo, thanks a lot for your nice words! That is really a personal decision but I think on your own is always better, more freedom to choose from. But the tour in your hostel also looks alright, so whatever you decide I am sure you will have a great time. All the best and enjoy Vietnam!
Thank you so much for this! I’m going there in a week and this is how I want to go and see Halong Bay! XX
Halong Bay is wonderful. I did not wanted to go on a party cruise, so I ended up booking a two days one night tour. Sadly I chose a local agency that was cheap and it ended up being a terrible night on a old boat (with rats!).
I would recommand paying a little more 🙂
Hi! ? Great post! Going to take your advice and go on my own with my friend!
One question though… to get to Cat ba as you said with 10$. Where did you do this from?
Because I did find the bus alone was 10$ and then have to take another bus and ferry which are not included in the price. Where can I find the one you took?
Thanks in advance!!!?
Hello Hanna, I am glad you are going to follow my advice 🙂 I bought my ticket in the hostel I stayed. However, that was three years ago, the price might have increased a bit. Hope you enjoy Halong Bay!
Yes we have arrived and it was still 10$?! Lucky for us. We are planning to book a tour for halong bay but I was wondering why you didn’t book from the hotel you stayed at?
Hi Ana! Thank you first of all for such a useful guide, I am so glad I found it cause I definitely did not want to go on a party cruise to Halong Bay.
Just curious, do you remember the name of the tour company you booked for the day? I am researching some options at the moment as was wondering which one you might have gone with.
Hello Carlota, thanks a lot for your comment and your kind words 🙂 I am so glad this is helpful! I do not remember the name of the company, but I booked it through the Pineapple hostel and I had no complaints, it was a very nice tour (with no party-cruise fans there… hehe). Have a wonderful time in Vietnam 🙂
Hi Ana, I’m Reatrey from Cambodia. I think this will work for me and won’t change a lot in 2019. I love all the way u guide so detailing to clam my nerve. I was worried and nervous for the past 2 days about how could I get there since I’m a small budget person and as rumor, to afford to visit, supposed to spend lot of money. I’m still a college student and have saved some money for trip from part time job at restaurants. I really like traveling. Vietnam is not in my travel list at all due to I’m scared of their cheating , scamming and impolite, insecurity.etc. I appreciate u a lot that u could afford to travel as solo. My trip will start at 21st from Hochiminh city. I will re update the changing situation if I have chance to make sure other small budget traveler could afford too.
Hi Reatrey, thank you so much for your kind words 🙂 I am sure, this info hasn’t changed a lot and you can still visit Halong Bay on a budget. I really like that you are traveling despite the economic difficulties you are facing, that is the real traveler spirit and I am sure you will enjoy your trip to Vietnam. I also enjoyed your country so much! Only visited Siem Reap but would love to come back and explore more of Cambodia. All the best in your travels 🙂