Ha Long Bay Cheapskate Travel Hacks
If Ha Long Bay isn’t on your bucket list you may seriously want to add it. Indeed, it is magical and beautiful and awe inspiring but you don’t need to fork out loads of cash to enjoy it. My trip was a success because of two important things. Firstly you need to approach your trip with the right attitude. I’ll get into that in a bit. Secondly don’t go out and book the first boat tour out there. Here are my top tips to help you get the most of your Ha Long Bay adventure without breaking the bank.
1) Get Yourself to Cat Ba Island:
You should be able to book a complete trip from Hanoi to Cat Ba for no more that $15. Tickets are sold at any hotel, hostel or travel agent. A bus will pick you up at your hotel bring you to the coast where you will get on a slightly dodgy “speed boat” (it's only about a 10 minute ride) and then onto another bus that will drop you off at your accommodation in Cat Ba Town. Easy-peasy.
2) Pick the Right Accommodation:
Accommodation is also very cheap here. We paid $9/night for a private room with 1 double and 1 queen sized bed. The room was very large and very clean with both an AC and fan, good WiFi, a fridge and private bathroom. For 2 people this works out to $4.50 each and for 3 it is only $3 a night. This is much cheaper than the hostels on the Island. Some people like the hostel vibe because it is easier to make friends but the staff at Quynh Trang enjoy inviting guests to hang out in the lobby at night. They create such a great atmosphere. On our last night they threw a free “party” for a group of us who had bonded with the staff. This included a fabulous two hour session of eating Vietnamese hot pot, the food just kept coming and coming. (I’m not getting paid to promote them. It is seriously the best place we have stayed in Vietnam.)
3) Explore the Island:
It is not all about being out on the water. Cat Ba is incredible in its own right. You can rent scooters for just a few dollars a day (cheaper than anywhere else I’ve seen in Vietnam). We opted for bicycles and were literally freaking out at how beautiful the Island was. We passed through picturesque villages with pomelo and starfruit trees. I mean how often do you get to see a starfruit tree? The landscape is very Jurassic Park-ish. There are a couple places you can hike to and learn about the history of the war with America from the Vietnamese perspective. The beauty of the National Park is mindblowing. There are also several secluded beaches around the Island that you can have all to yourself. If you are into climbing Cat Ba is your place. Cat Ba town is very chill and a great place to go for an evening stroll after a day of adventuring.
4) Cheap Eats:
You can enjoy a fairly low-cost meal along the main promenade by the sea. We opted to explore the back roads and get a heaping plate of food for about $1. My favorite was a place called Yummy. It is super tasty, reasonably clean, dirt cheap and has a great atmosphere. If you simply get off the main strip prices drop. The same goes for groceries. Check out the fruit market instead of the fruits in front of each shop. Water and snacks are much cheaper at CT Mart but remember that it is an island so prices will always be a little bit higher than the mainland.
5) The Boat Trip:
This is the big one and where the right attitude will get you far. The good thing about Cat Ba is that you don’t need to worry about the big luxury boats that cost hundreds of dollars. Most hotels and travel agents are offering the same two things. You can do a day trip for about $16 or an overnight for $65. You are going to be promised a bunch of stuff; kayaking, snorkeling, secluded beaches, temples, hiking… Some of it may happen and most of it may not. Be flexible. Just know that you are going to see some amazing sights, most likely go kayaking, get a nice big lunch and probably go swimming. The rest is a gamble. You are on a boat in one of the world’s most beautiful places. It’s all good. Some people were getting stressed that we were not following the promised itinerary and that some places were skipped. Go with an open-minded attitude and you will have fun.
Also try figure out how many people will be on your boat. Our hotel actually owned the boat so they had better control over this. We only had about 15 people on our tour. We could go upstairs, downstairs, take a nap on the mattresses or hang out at the tables. We saw many other boats at the various stopping points that had about 50 people sardined in. One boat was so full they had no seats left and people were perched on the railings. Not fun if you have to do that for hours on end.
Now is the question, day trip or overnight? It really depends on your preferences. Just remember that, as beautiful as it is, the scenery is fairly similar throughout the tour. Many people realize, after booking, that 8 hours of limestone islands is sufficient for them. They don’t really need two days. We were the only ones on our boat that opted for the day trip, everyone else paid for the overnight. For us the decision had to do with our limited budget. It turned out to be a good one for us. The folks on our boat had been promised private cabins and all kinds of stuff. The pictures they had been shown looked nothing like what they ended up with. People were pissed off. In fact a couple guys, who were bored out of their minds, paid for the overnight tour but travelled back to shore with us. I will say that they give you the option to sleep under the stars on the upper deck. I think that would be cool. We actually ended up with an 11 hour tour instead of the 8 we paid for. The second day the others did some more kayaking and they were all happy when they got back to the hotel. So the overnight trip is not a waste of money but if you are on a budget just know that much of what you do the second day you will have experienced on the first, so you aren’t missing out on too much.
The boat tour was definitely one of the best experiences of our travels. One of the highlights was seeing the most critically endangered species of primates in the world while kayaking. They are called the Cat Ba Langur. It is estimated that there are only 68 individuals remaining on the whole planet. This is so heart-breaking but it was such an honor to see them. Learn more here. Our guide told us that it is very rare to spot them. They came right down the cliffs to the water to check us out. We were only a few meters away. We also kayaked through bat caves that opened up to stunning secluded lagoons. Before lunch we dove off the boat for a swim in deep waters. We visited floating villages and watched a glorious sunset over the bay from the upper deck of the boat. Where else can you do all of this for $16. The lunch alone was worth that. There were both seafood and vegan options and more food than any of us could eat. So my final advice is to decide how long you want to be out on the water and just roll with it. Ignore everything that is promised to you and just have a good time.