Ha Long Bay on a budget and away from the crowds

Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay

About 5 hours from Hanoi in northeast Vietnam lies Ha Long Bay; a UNESCO world heritage site with 1,600 limestone islands sprouting from emerald coloured sea.

Anyone taking a trip to northern Vietnam will most likely pay a visit here as it’s one of country’s most well known attractions.

The problem with it being such a popular tourist attraction is that there are a huge amount of tour agencies competing with each other, a lot of them offering expensive, poor quality trips.

With arranged boat tours from Hanoi having a reputation for cramming 30+ people on poorly maintained boats and providing a crowded and rushed experience, it was hard to know which agency to go with.

I’m a fan of doing things independently wherever possible but it was proving tricky to find a way.

Then I heard about Cat Ba Island.

Cat Ba island view
~ The view from Cat Ba Island

Hanoi to Cat Ba Island

Adam and I were actually coming down from Sapa. Having spent 3 days in Hanoi beforehand and on a race against time to get down to Ho Chi Minh City for work, we decided to skip a night in Hanoi again and headed straight to Cat Ba Island.

Our overnight bus from Sapa conveniently dropped us at Hanoi’s Luong Yen bus station in the early hours of the morning. This is where the Hoang Long bus company’s office and departure point is. You can pick up an inexpensive (around 250,000 VND) bus-boat-bus combo ticket to Cat Ba town.

Boat to Cat Ba
~ On the boat to Cat Ba

We waited a couple of hours for the office to open and departed around 7:30am. I was in ultimate zombie mode a this point but from what I can remember the journey was pretty comfortable, the worst part being waiting around at Hai Phong for a while to change to a connecting bus. Better than those Vietnamese ‘sleeper buses’ designed for no one taller than 5’4”!

Cat Ba Island

First impressions of Cat Ba town weren’t too inspiring but if you venture away from the town you can discover quiet beaches, jungles, hills and look out points that I hear offer stunning views. There’s also a National Park and a few island tour agencies organising hikes there. I can’t comment on these as we were purely using Cat Ba as a base to see Ha Long Bay!

Cat Ba pierCat Ba sunset
~ Cat Ba pier

Lan Ha Bay to Ha Long Bay boat trip

We did some research and took a full day trip to Ha Long bay with one of the reputable tour agents on the island, Cat Ba Ventures.

Jade on the Ha Long boat

The trip cost us $29 each and included an English speaking guide, huge lunch, kayaking equipment and guide,  snorkelling gear and drinking water. One of the best parts – there was only 14 of us on this massive boat!

Halong Bay boat flagsHa Long Bay boat

There are also overnight trips available where you sleep on the boat, but due to budget and time scale, we settled for one day and it was perfect.

We started with a cruise through Lan Ha Bay, past floating fishing villages, then hundreds of beautiful limestone towers and islands topped with jungle. We then continued to Ha Long Bay where the boat anchored at an un-crowded spot.

Floating fishing villageHa Long Bay

We went kayaking through caves to hidden lagoons and only encountered about 3 other boat loads of tourists. Cat Ba Ventures pride themselves on taking you to the ‘less touristy’ area of Ha Long Bay and it was nice to find they stick to their word.

Ha Long Bay kayakHa Long bay kayaking
~ Kayaking through caves to hidden lagoons

At lunch the chef on board cooked up an amazing seafood and vegetarian feast. Once our bellies were full the boat carried on to a private stretch of beach at one of the islands. We had a huge area of the bay to ourselves where we could jump off the boat, swim to the island and do some snorkelling.

Ha Long BayHa Long Bay private beach
~ Our private beach!

Jumping off the boat was a terrifying experience, and that’s coming from a strong swimmer having few issues with the sea… until you can clearly see a few massive jelly fish blobbing about!

Ha Long Bay jelly fish
~ I soon learnt that to avoid panic and possible drowning, it’s best just to swim back to the boat without the goggles

We then headed back through the breathtaking scenery to Cat Ba Island around sunset. The whole experience was very peaceful and we were very glad to have chosen this way of seeing Ha Long Bay.

Ha Long Bay boat

4 Responses

  1. gilly porter June 4, 2015 / 9:11 pm

    Oh I am so tempted to give it all up and travel the world!! Fantastic post Jade and the photos are gorgeous

    • Jade June 5, 2015 / 7:56 am

      What’s stopping you Gilly?! 😉

  2. Patricia Goijens May 26, 2016 / 8:42 am

    Hi Jade,

    Thanks for this post, I discovered it via pinterest and it’s very useful. My boyfriend and I are visiting Vietnam in July and still doubting about including Ha Long Bay to our itinerary because we don’t like crowds, so cat ba seems like an option, although the timing still isn’t great. Question: Do you still remember how long the trip from Hanoi to Cat Ba takes more or less? Thank you!

    • Jade May 26, 2016 / 2:10 pm

      Hi Patricia, thank you for reading, I’m glad you visited. It’s more or less 5 hours depending on bus/boat connections running smoothly. If you don’t like crowds and still want to see the beauty of Ha Long Bay I would definitely recommend doing it this way instead of booking a tour direct from Hanoi. Hope you enjoy Vietnam!

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