DIY Guide to Halong Bay: Dodge the Crowds & Get More Bang For Your Dong!

Kids and floating village, Halong Bay

If you’re planning a trip to Vietnam, chances are that the UNESCO World Heritage site of Halong Bay is on your itinerary… and so it should be!

Made up of around 2000 limestone islands, Halong Bay is just a stone’s throw away from Hanoi. A few clicks on your favourite search engine will suffice to understand that booking a tour at one of the thousands of travel agencies in the Vietnamese capital is how most people go about visiting the bay.

And bam, just like that, we’ve hit the nerve of this article!

Let us explain…

Floating village, Halong Bay.
A floating village in Halong Bay. How could you miss views like this?

Limitations of 2-Day/1-Night Halong Bay Tours…

While you will be overwhelmed by the number of possibilities and tours available in Hanoi, keep in mind the following points if you decide to take the most popular 2-day, 1-night trip to see the bay:

  • Day 1 – The entire morning will be eaten up by the transfer from Hanoi to Halong city where you’ll board your boat at 1:30 pm.
  • Day 2 – You’ll disembark just after lunch. So your two-day adventure really becomes a rushed 24-hour expedition on the boat!
  • The price: The price you pay will include the cost of the transfers, so this will inflate the cost of the actual tour.
  • The crowds – Another few thousand people have booked a similar, if not identical, tour as you did, for the same dates, so the bay will look like a cross between Disneyland and your local shopping mall on December 23rd!
  • Did I mention the crowds? A far cry from the chilled out, magical experience you hoped for, you and your fellow travelers will literally be pumped through the listed activities: you’ll wait for a kayak to become available, you’ll be in a queue of hundreds of people to visit caves, your time will be counted to the minute at each stop to make space for incoming boats, and the list goes on…

As a result, there’s a high chance that you’ll get back feeling exhausted, disappointed and even perhaps cheated a little as the 2 days/1 night trips generally start at around USD $90 for a very basic “2 star” boat – which will look nothing like the one you’ve been shown in the brochures, by the way!

If you’re squeezed for time, the 2-day package tour might be your best option…

…BUT, on the other hand… If your schedule allows, then you’re in luck, as we have the perfect alternative for you!

A boat trundling off on a tour of Halong Bay...
A boat trundling off on a tour of Halong Bay…

An Alternative!

Rather than feeling like a helpless member of the herd, this option will give you that sweet feeling of freedom and adventure you’re expecting from your big trip, whilst spending less and getting more! Keep reading if you think that it sounds too good to be true… Instead of booking your Halong Bay trip in Hanoi, shop around a little for a return transfer to Cat Ba Island.

It took us four agencies and a whole 30 minutes (including Bia Hoi breaks in between) to get our return transfers from $28 USD down to $14 USD at Daiichi Travel in Hanoi. Punctual, friendly and safe are the three words that spring to mind, thinking back on those transfers. And yes, that includes pick up from your accommodation in Hanoi and drop off at your accommodation on Cat Ba Island – if you already have one booked.

Luscious Green Mountains in the Mist atCat Ba National Park
The scenery of Cat Ba Island, Lan Ha Bay, Vietnam.

Book your accommodation either in Cat Ba Town or anywhere else that might tickle your fancy on the island. We got a double room with private bathroom, for $4 USD – total – including breakfast, in Cat Ba Town.

You’ll leave Hanoi at around 8 am and arrive on Cat Ba around noon.

This will give you plenty of time to hire a scooter for around $3 USD to explore the sights around town (Hospital Cave and Canon Fort to name a few) and of course… book your boat trip!

We shopped around like mad-men, but there was no budging on the vendors’ side. $60 per person is what we paid, booked directly at our guesthouse, for 2 days and 1 night on a boat, to visit the bays.

I say “bay(s)” because Cat Ba Town is in fact located in Lan Ha Bay, which you’ll inevitably go through, before continuing to Halong Bay and coming back via Dao Dau Bay on Day 2.

Impressive karst scenery of Halong Bay, UNESCO World Heritage Site!
Impressive karst scenery of Halong Bay, UNESCO World Heritage Site!

The landscapes are all the same so fear not: you will not miss out on the stunning limestone scenery you’re here to see! If anything, this is where you’ll understand what’s in it for you in terms of bonuses…

Bonuses of starting your tour in Cat Ba…

  • Bonus 1 – Your total spends are less than what you’d have spent in Hanoi AND you’ve discovered Cat Ba Island! And you’re SO glad you did!
  • Bonus 2 – You’ve paid much less for the boat trip!
  • Bonus 3 – As you’re already in the heart of Halong Bay, your 8 am pick up means that you’ll be sailing away by 9 am (not 1.30 pm).
  • Bonus 4 (The Gold Star Bonus!)  Your boat crew will take you to places which are either not visited by most of the 2-day/1-night trips organized in Hanoi, or at times when the crowds from Hanoi aren’t there. It’s kinda like renting out your own UNESCO World Heritage Site for the day!
  • Bonus 5 – Your 5 pm return means that your boat will dock at 5 pm at the pier on Cat Ba Island, which is located a mere 5 minutes drive from your hotel. So all in all, you paid for a 2-day trip, and that’s what you got!
  • Bonus 6 – There will be much fewer people on your boat (10 max. against 20+ from Hanoi, and we’re being very conservative here) as fewer people will start their journey from Cat Ba. If you’re extra lucky you may even get your own cabin as opposed to sharing it, but this is completely down to seasonality, and how many people are booked in for the overnight.
  • Bonus 7 – You can see more of Cat Ba Island the following day if you choose the latest departure to go back to Hanoi. That way, you have most of the day to explore the beautiful National Park that makes up over 50% of the island, the interesting Hospital Cave or just chill at one of the beaches on the island…
The uncrowded beaches of Cat Ba Island.
The uncrowded beaches of Cat Ba Island.

…before jumping back, head first, into the organized chaos of Hanoi!

This being said, from Cat Ba Town, you can arrange transfers to many places in Vietnam, so you will not have to go back through Hanoi if you do not want to, unless perhaps for a quick bus change, depending on your next destination.

Disclaimer: We took this trip in early January, so prices may differ if you choose this alternative in peak season.

Franck Lunardello

Franck worked in Business Aviation and his partner Sebastien was a Registered Nurse before the couple embarked upon their adventure of a lifetime around Southeast Asia. With travel as their number one passion, it quickly became evident that returning to their home country of France in 2018 was not an option!

Find him on: YouTube | Instagram

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