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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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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