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Halong Bay, with it’s 1600 limestone islands rising spectacularly from perfectly still water, is undoubtedly one of the most popular spots in Vietnam and accordingly, it can get a bit crowded there. Even in the off season, tour busses unload heaps of travellers into the waiting arms of touts and boat companies, where they are then in turn herded onto boats and shipped around the bay for a few hours. I’m no fan of the masses and being caught in a big crowd of wide eyed sheeple shooting flashes at attractions a mile away. Having heard bad things about the budget trips, I felt like I needed to do this thing some other way.

Head to Cat Ba instead of Halong Bay Town

It was a bit tricky to figure out how to do Halong Bay independently, since all the information I could find was of the usual boat tours, ranging from one to several days, but not much in between. Everything seemed to point towards the fact, that doing things yourself in Halong Bay was pretty difficult or, depending on who you ask, nearly impossible. Apparently, travellers just NEEDED to stick to tours to get something out of it. Then I read about Cat Ba, the biggest and one of the only populated islands in the region, which had a couple hotels on it and decided to base myself there for a few days and just kind of figure things out from there.

Kayaks in Halong Bay

Join a tour, but get dropped off halfway through

When asking about transportation to Cat Ba, the receptionist at my hotel in Hanoi had a pretty good idea: Instead of taking the fast ferry through a boring landscape via Hai Phong, she recommended I join one of the many boat tours straight through the beauty that is Halong Bay and get dropped off in Cat Ba a few hours into it. That way, I’d get to see what the tours were like, without having to join a full one. To get to the boat though, required a 4 hour minibus ride (of course advertised as a VIP bus) on the insane Vietnamese highways, and in true Southeast Asian fashion, had half the passengers sitting in the aisle on little toy chairs in order to squeeze as many people into the vehicle as humanly possible. The tight squeeze, combined with the cheesy Asian music blaring from the speakers, the incessant honking, swerving and hard breaking, made for a pretty interesting, but also fairly unpleasant experience when I started feeling queasy about half an hour in.

Once settled on the boat, I figured out how the tours operated pretty fast. They aren’t too bad if you know what you’re in for and are actually a fairly fun and relaxing experience. Jagged limestone peaks, overgrown with green jungle vegetation rise up out of the water everywhere. Floating villages pass by, women in cone hats paddling little boats and even a dog or two, barking at the passing ships from platforms in the water. The boats take it slow and have restaurants on board, therefore I quite enjoyed my little tour through Halong Bay, sipping on a drink and watching the scenery float by. The trips aren’t very expensive and stop at several attractions, where travellers can opt to participate in the activities offered, or stay behind and just enjoy the incredible landscape. There are options to hike, kayak, explore caves and even to go climbing and swimming. But most activities cost extra, which can add up quickly. Of course, this isn’t advertised anywhere and more often than not, the touts try to swindle tourists into buying “cheap” trips, that then suddenly turn very expensive. Not feeling the need to spend any more money, I opted to stay behind and explore a floating village, while others paid for kayaking.

Women in their boats in Halong Bay, Vietnam

a floating village

Rent a scooter, explore the national park and do tailored boat trips

The rest of the journey to Cat Ba was fairly uneventful. We few independent travellers were dropped off on the north side of the island, where in turn we were collected by another bus and driven into town.

“Oooh, you stay five nights?” I got asked incredulously by the owner of the hotel upon check-in in Cat Ba town. “Very long time!”

His face had already adopted the go-to expression of an Asian who doesn’t get why the heck anyone would do something like that. My research had already told me, that most people only drop by for only one night while on a Halong Bay boat cruise. Later, I asked him what tour options are available departing from Cat Ba and was surprised to find out, that you can actually book your own boat tour, tailored to your needs. If you can get a few people together for it to share the cost, that is, because it would probably be a bit too pricy for people otherwise. This seems to be fairly easy in Cat Ba, where the few people that are staying there for several days, seem to be looking for just that.

scootering around Cat Ba

Cat Ba national park

Cat Ba has the same rugged features as the rest of Halong Bay, with lush limestone peaks rising up everywhere, creating a dramatic landscape just waiting to be explored. There are beautiful trails along the coast and through the national park in the middle of the island. On the only sunny day of my time on Cat Ba, my companions and I rented scooters and drove in a loop around the island, simply exploring places as we found them. We went hiking up a steep trail in the national park, discovering an abandoned tower and of course climbing the swaying and creaking structure despite a rusted sign saying “no entry”. Afterwards, everyone sat on the peak for a few hours, chatting with a the fellow travellers that had made their way up there and gazing out over the green mountains.

While right now, Cat Ba is a paradise where – especially in the off-season – the few independent travellers might be the foreigners on the island, it also seems to be transforming fast. I saw a lot of resorts and hotels being built along the coast, indicating that this gem will probably be another hot spot of the region soon enough.

 

*Buying a bus-boat-bus ticket in Hanoi seems to be the most reliable and cheapest option of getting to Cat Ba. It will get you all the way there and you won’t get ripped off along the way. I paid 18$, which I thought was a pretty good deal for getting one of the tours included as well.

About The Author

Tiffany is a Swiss travel writer, digital nomad, and photographer, who, after a fateful journey through Africa, has decided to get her passport renewed, sell all her junk, and live out of a suitcase in various corners of the world, as well as share the experiences with other travel enthusiasts. This blog is intended to inspire you to pack your bags, leave everything behind for a while, and make you go discover the world. Check her out on .

11 Responses

  1. Charlie

    Getting information out of people about Halong Bay was such a nightmare, there were so many overpriced tours and people trying to rip tourists off. It sounds like you got a great deal in the end, and Cat Ba looks great. We went on a pretty cheap tour for about $18 all inc. but I would much rather have the freedom off of the boat. And the food was awful haha!

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      Haha good thing I didn’t get the food then, they told us only the people paying for the full tour got some and we couldn’t have any. I lived on chips that day 😉 But you’re right, not getting dragged around in a huge group was great and definitely worth the hassle of figuring it all out.

      Reply
  2. Anne @ Pretraveller

    Tiffany, thanks for sharing your experience. I have been doing some homework into a Vietnam trip options and like you was looking to see if a less packaged option existed to enjoy the Halong Bay area. Your article has given me hope that I don’t need to squish our family including 3 children onto a boat for a couple of days…

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      You’re very welcome Anne. Halong Bay is definitely doable independently and I think the children would enjoy Cat Ba and being able to pick the activities they want to. If you want to go kayaking, climbing, hiking, swimming, you can book each activity seperately without having to go on a whole big tour that tries to do it all.

      Reply
  3. NEW! Wrap Up: Best Vietnam Travel Tips - Pretraveller : Pretraveller

    […] It was a bit tricky to figure out how to do Halong Bay independently, since all the information I could find was of the usual boat tours, ranging from one to several days, but not much in between. Everything seemed to point towards the fact, that doing things yourself in Halong Bay was pretty difficult or, depending on who you ask, nearly impossible. Apparently, travellers just NEEDED to stick to tours to get something out of it. Then I read about Cat Ba, the biggest and one of the only populated islands in the region, which had a couple hotels on it and decided to base myself there for a few days and just kind of figure things out from there.  Read more about travelling independently to Halong Bay… […]

    Reply
  4. Celine

    I loved Ha Long Bay when we did it, we went mid May and it was pretty quiet, in fact most of the time we couldn’t see any other boats.

    Cat Ba sounds pretty cool, it actually look a bit like Yanghsuo in China, have you been? Yangshuo looks like Ha Long Bay (it has the same karst peaks all over) but on land with a river running through it….Amazing 🙂

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      Ooh I’m going there in a few weeks, can’t wait! China has been on by bucket list forever, I’m glad I finally get to visit.

      Reply
  5. Leslie

    Hi Tiffany,
    LOVE UR BLOG!!!!! I will be starting a bicycling tour from Hanoi, but I’ll arrive several days earlier to Hanoi, & really want to see Halong Bay. I like your idea of staying on Cat Ba. I have approx. 4 days before the tour begins. Any recommendations on how to divi up the time? Also, I will be alone. Will these places be safe for a female?
    Kind Regards,
    Leslie

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      Thank you so much Leslie! That tour sounds wonderful and Hanoi is one of my favourite cities in the world. It’s a crazy place and has so much energy – make sure to try the best street food ever: Bun Cha! It’s only available for lunch but oh god is it delicious. You could spend weeks in Hanoi, but if you also want to see Halong Bay, one or two days will probably have to suffice. There are short and long tours of Halong Bay available and you should be able to easily find something that suits your needs. If you plan on going straight there and spending the whole four days at the bay, doing it how I did and staying in Cat Ba is totally possible, but if you want to spend some time in Hanoi as well and only have time for maybe a two day tour of Halong Bay, you’re definitely best of just joining one of the overnight boat tours. Also, Vietnam is absolutely save for a female traveller, I never experienced anything worrisome myself and have several friends living there full time as solo girls. As always, use your commons sense and you will be more than fine.

      Reply

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