How to Get a Cheap Halong Bay Cruise (and Still Have a Good Time!)

On a recent trip to Hanoi, I was wandering around for an entire day looking for a cheap Halong Bay cruise which didn’t break my tiny traveller’s budget, and still gave me a great experience.

Anyone who has visited Halong Bay will tell you the same thing. It’s beautiful, but it’s very touristy and extremely overpriced for what you get.

I wanted to find a way to get the Halong Bay experience on a budget, and without the hoards of tourists and for a reasonable price. I managed to find it, and I’m going to tell you how.

Mission: Find a 3 day, 2 night Halong Bay trip for less than $70, without having a crap time.

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Hanoi’s old town is filled to the brim with tour agencies all offering trips to see the famous Halong Bay, but it’s impossible to know what you’re buying, whether you’re getting a good deal, and in all honesty the prices are inflated to make room for the big fat commissions the Hanoi agencies receive per booking.

For my 3 day, 2 night Halong Bay cruise I was quoted anything from $65 for a seriously budget boat with Tripadvisor reviews to make your skin crawl (cockroaches, food poisoning, rude staff and more), to $300 for a 5 star option. I was also quoted $100 in one agency for a tour which I found in another agency for $65… Exactly the same tour, but I was getting ripped off in the first shop.

The mid-range price for a halfway decent cruise was around $160, which for me as a backpacker was hard to swallow.

Booking.com

Beware the scams and rip offs

It’s near on impossible to assess the reliability of your tour agency, as Hanoi agencies have a sneaky way of naming their shops after the more successful stores in the city.

For example, do a google search for the respected ‘Sinh Cafe’ agency and you will find dozens of other agencies with the same name. So many in fact that the original Sinh Cafe changed their name to Sinh Tourist to try to quell confusion. If you ask me, they’ve just made things more confusing!  If you do a search for ‘Sinh Tourist’, ‘Sinh Cafe Tourist’ or simply ‘Sinh’, you’ll see what I mean.

You can find out how to avoid the scams and find the real Sinh Cafe on this Lonely Planet forum, or you can take my advice which will take you on a Halong Bay experience without paying the hefty agency commissions.

I’m going to give you two options. The first will give you a taste of Halong Bay for a budget of around $50, but in my opinion it’s not the best option, and I’ll tell you why below.

The second, which is my preferred option, will cost you a few bucks extra but I believe it’s worth it for the quality you get. You can choose the one you believe to be right for you.

All prices are based on 2 people travelling together, but if you’re a solo traveller you’ll still be able to get a great deal.

Halong Bay

Option 1: Halong Bay experience for $54pp.

The secret to a cheap Halong Bay experience is to avoid Bai Chay, otherwise known as ‘Halong Bay City’, where the majority of tourist boats depart from, and instead heading for the largest island in the bay, Cat Ba Island instead. There, you can pick up tours at a fraction of the price and avoid the tourist crush at Bai Chay.

Once there, spend two nights based in Cat Ba Town and take a day trip to Halong Bay, or the surrounding bays from there.

Let’s go have an adventure!! #Halongbay #Vietnam #kayak 

A photo posted by Hayley Griffiths (@lovepuffin) on

How to get to Cat Ba Island from Hanoi

The most convenient way to get to Cat Ba Island is to get the Hoang Long bus from the Old Quarter in Hanoi. Although not the most comfortable bus I’ve been on (some chairs were broken), it will take you by bus to the port, speedboat across the water and connect you to another bus on the island to take you to Cat Ba Town for 240,000 Dong (about $12) each way.

  • Buses depart from the Old Town – previously from Luong Yen Bus station but this is now closed for refurbishment (Oct 2016) schedule was at 05h20; 07h20; 11h20; 13h20 – you’ll need to use a travel agency to book this (details below) for the time being before the bus station reopens.
  • Buy both your outbound and your return ticket at the same time. Once on Cat Ba Island, agencies will delight in charging you up to 400,000 Dong for the return leg of your journey.
  • If you don’t want to risk the bus being full, you can buy your tickets at any travel agency in town for approximately 280,000 Dong ($14) each way. I bought mine through Dao’s Travel Agency on Ma Mae Street, which is run by an American guy and his Vietnamese wife. No complaints here, apart from some weird information about the bus being able to get on the ferry and continue the journey from the other side. This isn’t the case as you get on a small speed boat across the bay.

Transportation cost: $24 per person

On your arrival in Cat Ba Town, book yourself 2 nights at any of the budget hotels in the area. Depending on the season, you can get a great private room with air conditioning for $15 a night.

The hotel I stayed in was a wonderful little find, and it’s so secret it’s not even on Tripadvisor! Run by a nice Vietnamese family, the Tuong Vy hotel had large rooms, great air con and it was only $15 a night – highly recommended. You won’t find the Tuong Vy on a map, so if you’d like to stay here, here are the directions:

From the sea front, if standing on the pier facing the town, turn right and then take the next left. Continue up the hill past the nightclub on your right, and after approximately 5 minutes you’ll find the Tuong Vy on your right, above a convenience store.

Accommodation cost: $15 per person

If you’d rather book your accommodation before you arrive, then there are plenty of places to choose from on booking.com and most of the hotels offer free cancellation so you can remain flexible with your plans.

Booking.com

Now that you’re in Cat Ba, you’ll want to book yourself a boat tour to go and see the bay. Not many people know that you can get the same Halong Bay experience (beautiful karst rocks, clear turquoise waters) by visiting the neighbouring bay: Lan Ha.

Lan Ha Bay is quieter than Halong Bay, as all of the tourist boats booked out of Hanoi travel the same routes at the same times of the day, so you’re jostling for space all day long. Lan Ha is just as beautiful but quieter and more serene.

Halong bay mountains

Any of the agencies in Cat Ba Town can offer you a one day cruise of Lan Ha Bay including lunch for the tiny sum of $15. Check with your agency to make sure that the cost of kayaking is included in this tour, and take enough water with you for the full day, as drinks on board will be chargeable.

Note that not all tours will include an English speaking guide, so check this too. Get everything in writing from your agency including a list of what is and isn’t included.

Cruise cost: $15 per person.

Total price for 3 days and 2 nights: $54.

Option 2: Halong Bay experience for $68

This option has the same transportation and accommodation costs and information as above, but gives you an upgraded boat tour which takes you to both Lan Ha Bay and Halong Bay, and is with a reputable local company which employs only English speaking guides, Cat Ba Ventures.

I believe this company offers you a better experience than going with some of the entry level tours in the area, as it includes cave kayaking, the lunch is good quality and the drinks on board are reasonably priced (20,000 Dong or $1 for a beer or coke).

Halong bay kayaking caves

You can get a full day tour of the two bay areas, sunbathe on the deck, swim and kayak in the sea and only see a handful of other boats all day. The cost for this tour is $29 and you can book it directly in the Cat Ba Ventures office, which can be found on the sea front in Cat Ba Town, in the centre of the bay.

I did this tour myself and can highly recommend it. Check out their latest Tripadvisor reviews here.

Transportation cost: $24 per person

Accommodation cost: $15 per person

Cruise cost: $29 per person

Total price for 3 days and 2 nights: $68.

Of course both of these options above only include lunch on one day of your trip, and so you’ll need to fund meals for the remaining time. I haven’t costed this in as everyone has their own tastes and budgets, but you can eat pretty well on Cat Ba Island for about $8 a day.

BUT the great thing about doing your trip this way is that you have the choice of what and where to eat. You’re not tied down to the food options given to you on your organised tour.

Halong Bay Sunset

Exploring further afield

If you have more time, I’d recommend spending an extra day in Cat Ba town and exploring the island by motorbike. You can hire scooters from just a few dollars for a day and the island’s topography looks like it’s straight out of Jurassic Park, so it’s well worth just driving around and soaking it all in.

Cat Ba town itself is an interesting sight too… I visited in high tourist season when the Vietnamese school holidays had just begun and it was a buzzing place, with plenty of local seafood to try, and locals having a try at karaoke on the main strip. Definitely worth a chuckle.

It’s a town dedicated solely to tourism so don’t expect a quaint place with any great character. It’s more of a functional place, but still fun to see and spend a few days drinking cheap beer and watching the world go by!

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Hayley is the author behind A Life of More, a travel and lifestyle blog with the goal of helping you to live a happier and more fulfilled life, whether you're currently travelling or happily settled.

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Comments 49

  1. Wayne Seto

    Thanks for this post. I was hoping to visit Vietnam later this year. Helpful tips; I’ll be sure to reference back when I decide to go. Thanks again and happy travels!

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  3. Dani

    Hey! I just followed your instructions to get to Cat Ba today. Thank you!

    Just wanted to add that the Hoang Long office at Luong Yen bus station doesn’t open until 6:30, so the only way to take the 5:20 bus is by buying the tickets in advance (they have a sign saying that you should not buy tickets from the driver).

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  5. Adam Maire

    Hey Hayley,

    I saw your post on TBS a while back and checked out your site. Then, this week while we were traveling through Vietnam and headed up to Cat Ba, I noticed the girl on the bus in front of us was on your site!! She was reading this post to see what to do while in Cat Ba!! Good work on helping people enjoy their travels even more!!

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    Hayley Griffiths

    This makes me insanely happy! Thanks Adam for letting me know. I know this post gets a lot of traffic but it really brings it to life when I hear that people are sitting on buses and planning their travels using my site. AWESOME. Life goal achieved 🙂

    Happy travels onward, dude!

  7. Daisy

    What a wonderful post. A big advantage of these options is staying on Cat Ba instead of the boat overnight. The food and accommodations on the island are much better. Another tip is, that even if you are booking a boat trip out for two days (which includes overnight on the boat) you can request staying on Cat Ba instead and it’s only about a $3.00 upgrade. We enjoyed a delightful New Years on CatBa with a free outdoor traveling musical play, a fun bar, great food and excellent room while our boat friends had little water to share for showers, crummy food, cramped quarters and no party.

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  9. Max

    Very useful tips!Thanks a lot for sharing the information ☺!I intend to go to the bay around mid January and I was wondering if it was worth spending 3 days there (rainy forecast).What would you do?Until then, enjoy your adventures and thanks again for giving the useful tips ?.

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    Hayley Griffiths

    Hey Max. There’s a fair bit to do on Cat Ba but mainly it’s outdoor activities. Boat trips, hiring a motorbike to go around the island etc. If it’s forecast to be rainy to be honest I would only spend a couple of nights and move on, otherwise you might be a bit bored! 🙂

  11. Justin

    Hey, I wanna ask about Cat Ba Venture. Do you need a minimum number of people to go on the tour or you can just book individually ? I’m so glad I came across your blog, cause I’ve been having a hard time looking for a tour on a budget and this is exactly what I need !

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    Hayley Griffiths

    Hey Justin – answered on twitter but will do so here too in case it helps anyone else. I don’t know if they have minimum numbers (I assume so), but everyone books individually. Thanks for your comment!

  13. Hamilton

    I just stumbled on this site after a pinterest search. Just one question when you get to Cat Ba, do the tour company offer the accommodation for the two nights or do you stay in a hotel/hostel on the town and travel to the bays in the day time?

    thanks
    Hamilton
    (London)

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  15. Anne Köhle

    I’m in ha long right now and was wondering if speedboats/ferries also go from there to Cat Ba.

    Thank you for your post it really us a lot!

  16. Ivan

    Hi, do you maybe know when do the tours in the mornign start? We cannot get to Cat Ba before 10am and want to do a day tour, so we don’t want to get there only to realise we cannot book anymore tours.
    Tnx

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  18. Ana

    Hello!

    I was looking forward to the jumping off the boat part that were available on the cruises, any idea if it were offered if we followed this option?

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    Hayley Griffiths

    Hi Ana. The beauty of doing it yourself is you can choose your cruise to fit around what you want. Have a look at cruises available from Cat Ba and I’m sure you’ll find something to suit.

  21. Caoimhe Duignan

    Hi Halyley,

    Thank you so much for this blog post! I’m currently in Phong Nha (highly recommended!) and am planning a trip to Cat Ba island as per your instructions!

    Do you or any of your lovely readers have any updated travel tips for getting from hanoi to Cat Ba and also any recommended boat tours/ hostels once there!

  22. Ben

    Hey – we followed your advice today and none of it went to plan.
    Firstly the bus station doesn’t exist anymore. From the looks of things it has just closed so this may be why it hasn’t been mentioned here. We walked quite far with our bags just to find it closed and abandoned.
    Secondly we tried to find your recommended travel agency. No luck.
    Instead we did stumble across the owner of a few tours who gave us a great deal for two people to tour ha long bay with plenty to do (kayaking, cooking classes and more) on the boat and around ha long bay and cat ba island. Total price of $70 dollars which included everything.
    Thankfully we were in good spirits despite our 4 mile hike around Hanoi (a great way to see the city though) and are looking forward to our tour!

    Thank you for the advice but unfortunately this time it didn’t work out 🙁

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    Hayley Griffiths

    Hey Ben, thanks for feeding this back, and sorry it didn’t go to plan. It seems that Hanoi is undergoing a revamp of their bus services – I managed to find this article which explains it a bit more: http://e.vnexpress.net/news/news/hanoi-closes-major-coach-station-as-it-looks-to-revamp-transport-system-3443070.html

    For now it seems, the buses are still departing but from other stations. For anyone looking to get the bus I’d recommend using a trusted agency in Hanoi to get the bus tickets. Dao’s should still be open – their Facebook page is pretty up to date. https://www.facebook.com/Daos-Travel-Agency-518197261570158/?fref=ts

    Really sorry the advice didn’t work out and hope you enjoy your tour. Do you have the name of the agent which you bought that from? It might help others out. Also will get the article updated asap of course. 🙂

  24. Christopher Guna

    Hi Hayley,
    Thank you for your efforts to present the best details of Halong Bay trip. The information you provided are systematic, clear and specific. We are planning to do this in Sept.third week. The bus ticket i have to get from the agency or the bus stations are functioning now? any idea. One more question – The ticket from Hanoi to Cat Bay is for both bus and speed boat? and when we buy the return ticket do we need to mention the exact date?
    Thank you so much again for such a useful information. i will read your other blogs and certainly will suggest to other travel friends.
    Chris

  25. Alex

    Hello Hayley!
    Can you post a google maps link of the home stay where you are on cat ba please.
    Thank you

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  28. Lance castle

    Hi Hayley
    A great article,this is exactly what i am looking for,i am travelling from Hoi An,and was trying to avoid the dreaded bus from hanoi so i am flying hoi an-Haiphong..then 45 min speed boat,direct to Cat Ba town.will have 3 days of which i will get a scooter for 2,and then do a boat trip.i really love fishing villages,so will have a good look around on the scooter.Finishing my 3 week trip in Hanoi,i will back track to Haiphong,then get the train to Hanoi,thus eradicating the bus completly.Ty for some grt advice,and sharing your tried and tested expieriences…Lance…will be their mid march 2017

  29. stephanie

    OMG my friend and I booked a Halong Bay cruise with a travelagency in Hanoi and it was aweful! Halong Bay itself is breathtaking, but the rats kept us up at night.
    x

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  31. Orahnia

    What a great post! It has definitely helped me a lot with planning my trip to Vietnam in 2 months. How did you find Tuong Vy hotel if it’s not online? I have been searching online to see if I could find any photos.

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    Hayley Griffiths

    I just found it whilst I was walking around – sometimes the best ways to find the places that don’t have the budget to market themselves online, and you find some really authentic family places like that too 🙂 Enjoy, and I’m glad you found it helpful!

  33. Mike Clegg

    Hi Hayley how are you? 🙂

    I am currently planning a trip to Vietnam so may need to pick your brains more on this soon.

    My plan so far is to start at Hoi-An then head north and go to Sapa, Hanoi and Ha Long Bay. I’ve only got 9-10 days though I think so very tight timelines.

    I’ll do some research and then may ask for your tips. 🙂

  34. Chris Mac

    Hi Hayley,
    Loving the vlogs.
    Can I ask, on the boat trip around Halong Bay (the better one at $24), what time did it start?

    Peace
    Chris

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  36. Richard

    Hi Hayley,
    This is a great article and one that i have taken inspiration from as i plan our trip in a couple of weeks. Thank you! At the moment i have planned 3 nights (2.5 days) on Cat Ba and i am trying to decide whether to do a day trip with Cat Ba Ventures or whether we should go for the 2D/1N option. Wondering whether spending day exploring Cat Ba island itself along with a day trip of the bay will be better than a two day, one night trip into Lan Ha/Ha Long Bay. Do you have any thoughts?

  37. Chris

    Just got to Ha Long City and was sure there is a way to do this without a tour! Thanks for youur article, gave me a good overview 🙂 I will take the ferry to Cat Ba, just wondering if its 50,000 as written on wikitravel or 80,000 as I got the information from my hostel here. Ill find out toomorrow )

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    Hayley Griffiths

    Hi Richard. It’s totally up to you, but Cat Ba is a cool island with some dramatic scenery so if it were up to me I’d do the day trip and hire a moped for a day to explore the island. Have an amazing time!

  40. Serena

    Hi,
    I’m travelling to Vietnam in august and I was looking for a cheap cruise. I’ve sent an email to Ca Ba Ventures but the prices are around 200 dollars each person! Do you know any other agencies? Thank you

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  42. Arnav @theETLRblog

    Love this. As someone who is planning a trip to Vietnam in the coming months, this post is a huge saviour.
    This post does solve some initial queries and apprehensions which I had initially but now I can think a bit clearly and work things out.

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