When booking a cheap trip, a Halong Bay tour, or otherwise, there’s always a part of you that wonders why it’s so cheap? Is the company really able to offer a decent standard of accommodation, food and activities at such a low price?
Stingy budget backpackers, like us, are always looking for the cheapest deal in town. While sometimes we can land ourselves with an awesome bargain. Other times, we can end up with a poor-quality experience!
As ambassadors for South East Asia Backpacker during our one-month backpacking trip of Vietnam, my friend Hannah and I were asked to write a review of the cheapest Halong Bay Trip around = The Halong Hideaway Tour, offered by Central Backpackers Hostel in Hanoi.
We were given the below trip for free, on the promise that, we would write an honest and detailed account of our experience on the tour, so that budget backpackers could judge for themselves whether taking the cheapest Halong Bay Tour is one of the best, or worst, things you can do in Vietnam!
How much does the Halong Hideaway Tour cost?
The Halong Hideaway Tour is offered by Central Backpackers Hostel in Hanoi.
While Castaways Island by Vietnam Backpackers Hostels remains THE most popular Halong Bay tour for backpackers ($199 US for a 3-day, 2-night trip), some budget travellers are choosing to save themselves some cash and go with the cheaper option offered by Central.
Their 3-day, 2-night Halong Hideaway Tour costs just $132 US for all accommodation, transport, activities and food included. And their 2-day, 1-night package costs $91 US. This is almost half the price of some of the other Halong Bay Tours! So would the Halong Hideaway Tour tick enough boxes AND end up saving us some cash?
Halong Hideaway Tour – A Review
We began the first day of the tour waking up bright and early at Central Backpackers Downtown Hostel. As we grabbed a quick breakfast at the hostel, the rest of the tour-goers began to arrive from other hostels around Hanoi. As most of them were still wearing that ‘just got out of bed’ look, they were very pleased to be offered a free takeaway breakfast for the bus. After eating, we headed down to the lobby and were told where we could store our large bags for the duration of the tour.
What to take with you on a Halong Bay Tour?
We took a small rucksack and one small carry-on bag with us on the trip. Old habits die hard and we once again took too many clothes with us, which we really didn’t need! This was when a lady from reception insisted that we must have appropriate trekking shoes if we had chosen the two-night Halong Bay Tour option. (We had.)
To any backpackers reading this, I’d say that it’s wise to listen to her advice. We took a pair of Vans and a pair of Nike Air Force. These choices were adequate enough, but don’t take your favourite pair as they will get covered in mud if it’s been raining. It gets really slippy whilst trekking! Light clothes are a good idea as well as a rain jacket, or poncho. Don’t take anything that you are worried about losing or breaking – hell, even leave your phone for a few days and feel the freedom of disconnection!
The Journey to Halong City
So we then jumped onto a couple of buses and begin the first leg of the journey, a two and a half hour stint to the harbour at Halong City. We quickly got chatting to a few solo travellers, one who had only decided to join the tour that morning. The crowd seemed to be in their early twenties for the most part.
As we headed out of Hanoi, our first tour rep introduced himself. Panda was his choice of name, sparing those of us who pronounce Vietnamese names terribly! Panda gave us a breakdown of what the journey would consist of; a quick toilet stop before the harbour, where we then change to a boat taking around 30 minutes. A bus was waiting on the other side of the harbour for us, taking the group further into the Cat Ba National Park.
As we arrived at the final harbour, we hopped onto our junk boat we’d be sailing around on for the next few days. It began its cruise around Halong Bay, a truly stunning network of islands and floating fishing villages.
After a while, our second rep, Jade, made herself known to the group and gave us an interesting insight into the lives of the local people who live in the bay. Concluding her talk with reference to the cool box of drinks behind her, she had everyone’s attention in the sweltering heat!
As everyone began to relax, the music was turned on and we all grabbed ourselves a beer, tallying it against our names to pay at the island later. Lunch was served downstairs on the boat shortly after, a range of Vietnamese pork, chicken, fish and tofu dishes with rice and fruit accompaniments.
The junk boat cruised the bay and then sank the anchor for an hour or so for a swimming stop. If you’re feeling like making a splash, then the 4-metre upper deck jump is for you! For those not so keen on the plunge, you can have a jump off the back of the boat at a more friendly height of around 1-metre. Life jackets were provided for those who wanted to float leisurely in the waters.
Unfortunately, due to a high tourist influx, the waters and some of the beaches of Halong Bay were noticeably polluted with plastic bottles and floating plastic bags, a sight that is ever so common as you travel Vietnam. However, despite the litter, the views of the surrounding karsts are breath-taking, even on an overcast day.
Arriving at Hideaway Island
Once the swimmers had got back on board, we set sail once again and, after a short while, caught our first glimpse of the Hideaway Island! The suspended bungalows were our first sight as we arrived at the pier.
The island is home to a man-made beach and 4 guest bungalows, as well as an indoor bar and outdoor seating area. There is also a volleyball court which we immediately took to, prioritising a very intense game over unpacking and showering.
Our volleyball game lasted longer than anticipated, and before long, it was then time to sit down and choose from the buffet-style dinner selection. Here we experienced a selection of meat and vegetarian Vietnamese dishes, including noodles and spring rolls as well as a couple of home comforts like french fries!
After dinner, we eventually went to check out our bungalow, consisting of 4 bunk beds, so housing 8 in total. Each bed had a private fan, an electrical socket and a locker. The bathrooms were similar to what you’d find in the majority of Vietnamese backpacker hostels, and towels were provided for anyone who hadn’t brought one of their own.
After showers and a change, we headed to the bar. It offered two different happy hours in the evening, each offering a 3rd drink free when you bought two others. Prices were around $1 for a beer and £$2.50 US for a cocktail! Drinking games and rounds of beer pong were initiated by the reps for anyone wanting to join in, an easy way for our group to get chatting with the group who had arrived on the island the day before us.
For those backpackers who just wanted to chill out, the sun loungers along the water were a perfect place for a more relaxing drink. The bar area remained lively up until just after 12 am when the music was turned down, with most islanders headed into their bunks by 1 am.
Day Two in Halong Bay – Cycling & Trekking
Day two began with sore heads for some as we sat down for breakfast before departing on the boat for our day of cycling and trekking. The boat took us to a larger island with a pier lined with hundreds of bicycles.
Here we chose the sturdiest looking bike and cycled further inland, travelling a beautiful road lined by bright waters one side and mountains the other.
We arrived at a small café at the foot of one of the mountain routes, stocked up on water and judged the faces of those on their way down. The trek offered an easy or difficult route, the latter being led by the rep, Panda. We were told that if we chose the easy route he’d point us to another group we could join and follow. Fancying the challenge, we chose the more difficult trek of the two!
After leaving our bikes at the cafe, we began the trek. The path soon got very muddy, a given for the wet season in Vietnam really! Panda had warned us of the difficulty and danger of the longer route, but the consensus was for a more challenging venture and a much more rewarding viewpoint as a result. We stuck at it.
It took the group approximately an hour to reach the top and involved a lot of scrambling over rocks which were very slippy. (Be prepared to get incredibly sweaty if you attempt the hike!) However, varying abilities managed it to the top and were extremely pleased with themselves that they did. The view you find has to be seen in person, pictures really don’t do it justice but you will take plenty nonetheless!
The descent back down was more daunting than the ascent, as you felt afraid of slipping at any moment. We quickly realised it was much easier to go on our bums using our hands to guide us. So, if you don’t mind getting your hands dirty, you’ll make it down fairly quickly.
As we got back to the cafe we were dying for an ice cold soft drink, whilst some backpackers started on the beer already. After a well-earned rest, we hopped back in the saddle and cycled the winding road back to the junk boat.
The same lunch and swimming routine occurred again before heading back to the island. By this time, the new group had arrived so new conversations were struck up with people from all over the world over dinner.
Day Three in Halong Bay – Kayaking
On our final day, we headed out for a spot of kayaking around a few of the nearby islands. This was one of the highlights of the trip for us as the weather was glorious this day, so the waters were looking equally as great.
After we had a paddle for a couple of hours and cruised past some of the traditional floating villages, it was time to head back in for the final lunch on the island.
We then began our trip back to Hanoi via the same means of transport as the outward journey. We arrived back at Central Backpackers Hostel tired but with some great memories and some amazing new friends to continue your travels with.
The Halong Hideaway Tour is definitely the ‘budget option’ for backpackers in Vietnam who want to save some cash! While the boat and the facilities were not as modern as what is offered on other tours, there were still plenty of great points about this trip and all in all, we had a fantastic time, got to see the highlights of Halong Bay and would definitely recommend it to backpackers on a budget.
Like so many other tours in Southeast Asia, whether you have a good time or not, really depends on the group of people you end up with. As this tour attracts budget backpackers like us, we found ourselves with a fun, like-minded bunch of people for the three days and made friends that we are still in touch with months after returning home from backpacking in Vietnam.
Here are our pros and cons for the Halong Hideaway trip…
- Great range of activities offered; e.g. cycling, trekking, kayaking, swimming, boat jumping.
- Food was great with vegetarian options offered.
- Half the price of most of the other tours to Halong Bay.
- Good balance of partying and exploring the natural surroundings, especially, Cat Ba National Park on day two.
- As the tour attracts budget backpackers, e met some great like-minded people on the tour.
- Although this isn’t the direct fault of the tour company, there was litter on the beach at Hideaway Island and the tour guide suggested that we clean it up ourselves! (We assume he was joking.) Oh well, I guess trashpacking is a new trend!
- The accommodation on the island is very basic and the bathrooms could be cleaner.
- The boat is not as modern as some of the other tour company boats.
Take this tour if – You’re tight on cash, Halong Bay is on your bucket list and you’re struggling to figure out how you’ll pay for it. Be prepared for things to be a little ‘rough around the edges’, but with the right attitude you’ll still have a great time and get to explore Halong Bay and Cat Ba National Park for a fraction of the cost!
Don’t take this tour if – You’re a flashpacker and you want better quality facilities and cleanliness. Maybe it’s best to pay the extra and take a tour with Vietnam Backpackers Hostels to Castaway Island or check out the many other options offered by travel agencies in Vietnam.
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