Ha Long Bay, Vietnam on a Budget

If you’re visiting Vietnam in the near future you’ve probably read about Ha Long Bay, the UNESCO World Heritage site composed of thousands of limestones karsts jutting out from the green still waters and dubbed by many as one of the most spectacular things to see on your trip to the country, and by some, in the whole of South East Asia.

Ah, I hear you cry, sounds amazing! Yes, it does, but like most beautiful sites these days the price of visiting has rocketed. Driven by tourism and the UNESCO stamp, a ‘cheap’ Ha Long bay tour from Hanoi is likely to cost you in the region of $100 and that includes being piled onto a boat loaded with drunken 21 year-olds looking for their next cheap beer. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve spent a lot of time searching for the cheapest beer in Vietnam (10p is the record) but I found a much more pleasant and cheaper way to enjoy the bay.

From Hanoi we got a bus-boat-bus ticket for $13 to Cat Ba Island. You can get them from any travel agent in Hanoi and if you shop around (I went to Lily’s Travel Agent and was instantly won over after she gave me two bottles of water, some watermelon and charged my phone for me) I’m sure you can find it slightly cheaper. We were picked up from our hostel (late, as always, get used to it) and driven in a comfortable air-conditioned bus to Hai Phong where we boarded a boat (not comfortable, not air-conditioned, packed to the rafters with people and motorbikes) over to the island. Another bus was waiting for us and they drove us across the island to Cat Ba Town.

The island itself is a must-see in my opinion, so not only are you getting a cheaper and better Ha Long experience, but you’re also getting to experience a beautiful part of Vietnam which you might have missed! They have three beautiful beaches close to town, a national park a short scooter ride away with a couple of great hikes and, of course, the bay.

We stayed at Cat Ba Central Hotel for $5 per night for a bed in a dorm. This is not to be confused with Cat Ba Central Hostel which is close by and a party hostel. Ours was family run, quiet, clean, comfortable, cheap and with a great breakfast – perfect. It was just off the main sea-front street and close to some good bars and excellent restaurants (don’t miss Yummy – the food is so cheap and the name says it all!!).

After spending our first day on the scooters touring the island, the beaches and the national park we had stopped for lunch and got chatting to a local guy who said he owned a tour company. He told us about the tour; heading off on a boat in the morning into Lan Ha and Ha Long bays, kayaking, lunch, snorkelling and a stop at monkey island – all for $19 per person!! We were convinced and booked with him there and then in the restaurant for the next day. The company is Cat Ba Vision and there were about 20 people on the boat with us, from all over the world.

The weather wasn’t great in the morning as we chugged along through the calm waters of the bay and when we arrived at the kayaking spot there were loads of other groups disembarking. Uh oh, I thought, here we go – tourist central. But our guide quickly gauged the mood of the group and told us we’d go kayaking later on in the day. After just a few moments we were away from the crowds again and the boat dropped anchor for us to jump off the boat and swim and snorkel while they prepared lunch for us. Some people had brought beers with them (who turned out to be our new friends Elizabeth and Wade from Washington State, USA!) but you could also buy beers on board so people started to get into the mood and get warmed up.

Lunch was an endless feast of rice, noodles, seafood, tofu, salad, pork and fruit and we ate and drank in abundance. After lunch the sun came out and we went back to the kayaking spot only to find…NO-ONE!! We were so pleased with our guide’s earlier decision and piled into the kayaks to set off exploring the bay and the caves.

After an hour and a half or so we finished our kayaking tour and got back onto the boat for a snooze. As the afternoon sun was lowering we made two more stops; one to Monkey Island, where Elizabeth had her beer swiped by a monkey who proceeded to enjoy his can of 333 with much gusto, and to a floating village just to stock up on fresh water for the boat. We chugged home as the sun was setting feeling happy and lucky to have seen this beautiful place crowd-free and without breaking the bank, plus we made some great friends that day too! What more could you want?

Cat Ba Island Costs:

Transport ($13 each way) = $26

Boat Tour including lunch = $19

Scooter rental 1 day = $4

3 nights’ at Cat Ba Central Hotel in a dorm = $15

Total excluding food, drink and scooter gas = $64