Ha Long Bay is one of those places that you can’t miss if you’re in the vicinity. It’s a World Heritage Site and a huge tourist attraction, bringing in thousands of foreigners each year.
With all the talk around Ha Long Bay, I hoped it would live up to the hype. In Old Quarter in Hanoi, there are hundreds of travel agencies and billboards advertising one, two and three day trips to the bay. There’s so much information to be had, and thousands of reviews of each different tour that it’s difficult to decipher the truth among the bullshit, and hard to know whether you’ll end up getting shafted by a dodgy agent once you get there and find out that you don’t get what you’ve paid for in terms of accommodation, food or transport options. So, I decided to do everything on my own; all for a grand total of around $60NZD, for 2 nights and 2 days.
Rather than going straight to Ha Long bay and taking a boat out in the bay with thousands of others, I took a bus from the Luong Yen bus station in Hanoi directly to Cat Ba island, which you’ll see on the map below. The one-way ticket cost 210,000 Dong and included a boat from the mainland to Cat Ba, and another bus from the pier to the main town (thanks again to my mate Oliver for the heads up on the bus tickets, innit). To the east of Cat Ba is Ha Long bay itself.
The ferry to Cat Ba.
When I arrived in Cat Ba the first thing I did was sort out accommodation. I think it’s cheaper in February as it’s not peak season; either way, a room was $5USD per night. Below is a photo of Cat Ba island. It wasn’t busy at all which was great. The place has a nice atmosphere to it.
The place we booked was called House Backpackers. I’d definitely recommend it; the owners were really helpful, and organised a scooter for the day (60,000 Dong) as well as booking the boat trip for the next day. It was around midday on day one, and we used the scooter to travel around the island, check out some sights and get to the nature park walk, which I’d definitely recommend! The hike took around an hour and the view was incredible. We also checked out the Hospital Caves, which used to be home to an infirmary in the American / Vietnam war.
As mentioned earlier, the owner of House Backpackers organised an all inclusive tour for the next day, which is pretty much the only way to see the bay itself. For $15USD, the tour included transfers to and from the hostel, 3 destinations in the bay (2 kayaking spots and also a stop on Monkey Island) as well as a cooked lunch on board the boat.
After we left Cat Ba, it took around 45 minutes and a quick stop to pick up the kayaks before we go to our first port of call.
The white boat on the left in this photo is a typical Ha Long bay cruise boat. Some of them are more expensive than others. The reason for this is they take less people, which is an option some tourists opt for in the peak season to avoid being on a crowded boat.
At our first stop we unloaded on to the kayaks and checked out a lot of little beaches and bays in the area. I’d definitely recommend going in the quiet season; it wouldn’t be the same when there are loads of people about. We lucked out on the weather!
After we all 20 or so of us got back to the boat, it was lunch time. The food was amazing, and included baked fish, fries, vegetables and rice. The food was worth the price of the whole day alone! Following lunch we set sail for Ha Long bay itself, where we did some more kayaking. The views are stunning; Ha Long Bay definitely lives up the hype! There are thousands of islets, with little hidden beaches, caves and bays that are only accessible by kayak.
Following an expedition through a cave into a bay, we headed back to the boat so we could head on to a place called Monkey Island. When we got there, there were a few other boats there with tourists but it was by no means crowded (again, I’d recommend not going in the busy season!). I set off walking up the mountain to the top peak. In any other country you’d probably have to sign a waiver before heading up, as there wasn’t a path at all and there were many opportunities to maim yourself on sharp rocks, or plummet quickly to your death. The trek is worth it, though! On the way up I spied a few mountain goats, perched precariously on the side of a cliff. I don’t know how they manage to stay there.
Obligatory Ha Long Bay pose.
I headed back down to the beach afterwards and chilled with some monkeys, one of which drank my beer.
Following the visit to Monkey Island, we began making our way back to Cat Ba Island, which signalled our last opportunity to take photos of this amazing place. I can’t recommend this experience enough, especially for the cost! It’s easily the best bang for buck experience I’ve ever come across. If you don’t want to kayak, you can just chill on the upper deck of the boat and drink beer, which they sell on the boat for 25,000 Dong. While anchored in a little inlet in the middle of nowhere, we were also approached by a Vietnamese local on a small dingy who was selling bottles of wine. Gotta love Vietnam.
Getting back to Hanoi the next day was easy; the lady at the hostel organised a bus / boat transfer back the same way we came. All in all the 3 day, 2 night trip cost $60NZD, including meals. I doubt I’ll come across such a great value for money experience any time soon.
If you’re thinking of heading to Ha Long Bay, hopefully this serves as a way of cementing your decision! Thanks for reading.