Halong Bay has over 1600 limestone islands and islets, which rise dramatically out of emerald waters and are topped by lush tropical foliage. It’s just a few hours outside Hanoi, Vietnam. Many people visit via cruise ship, but we took public transportation and found our own hotel on Cat Ba, the largest island in the bay. Not only was this a lot cheaper, but it gave us much more flexibility. In this post, I included info about Halong Bay in general, how to get there easily and cheaply, and our adventures and recommendations for what to do while you’re there.
Halong Bay is a UNESCO world heritage site, due to the beautiful scenery and biological diversity. There’s over 1,000 sites in the world with this designation of natural or cultural significance. In addition to beautiful beaches and great kayaking spots, the bay is known for rock climbing and hiking. Some of the islands have been slowly eroded by the sea and now have arches and caves.
In addition to the towns on Cat Ba island, there are people who live all over the bay, many in floating villages of fishermen. Many of the boats looked incredibly un-seaworthy, but we could tell they were permanent because some had dogs and others had satellite dishes.
Cat Ba Island is a very popular place for the Vietnamese to visit, especially during summer weekends. I’ve heard all the hotels fill then and prices are sometimes double or triple. When we visited in September, it seemed pretty quiet and we had no trouble finding a hotel.
- It’s much cheaper, without sacrificing the experience (We spent about $250 all in for a four day trip compared with at least $300 for a two day cruise)
- Transportation to the island is streamlined and relatively quick
- It’s easy to find your own adventures like renting scooters and kayaks
- Finally, you can stay as long as you like exploring the island and spend time as you like. Admittedly, I have control issues and this is a huge plus for me.
To get to the island, get a combined bus and ferry trip from the main bus station in Hanoi to the main ferry terminal on Halong Bay. (Wikitravel has more info.)
To make the magic happen, look for a company called Hoang Long with red buses. We walked in to the station and told the nice woman that we wanted to get to Cat Ba Island and she sent us right to the bus. The trip costs 210,000 VND each, or about $9 and took us five and a half hours. It was not particularly comfortable. The bus was packed and the AC couldn’t keep up. We only stopped once at a place for a restroom. Most people on the bus were locals or backpackers and there was a strong language barrier, but we made it.
While the “to” trip was a little painful, we took an organized “tour” home from the island to get a bit more sightseeing. While slightly more scenic on the bay, it was just a longer, sweatier journey with more sitting around between stops. It did include lunch, but for the price, and the speed at which we reached the island, I would take the cheap bus-ferry combo every time.
In the map above, you take a bus from Hanoi (A) to Hai Phong (B) that takes about 3.5 hours. Then you ferry for an hour to the north-eastern pier at Cat Ba Island (C) and take a second bus for forty five minutes or so across the island to Cat Ba Town (D). The whole thing took us 5.5 hours, and we left at Hanoi at 11:15 on a Saturday morning. Traffic might make it worse but the company will make sure you get all the way there.
As usual, here’s a map with some of the places we hit up in the area. For some reason, I really struggled to find places on Google Maps, so some places are added in by hand. This seems to be happening because TripAdvisor and I all remember places by their English names but Google used mostly Vietnamese. I used two fun new map icons. The scooter is for where we rode around and the little guy in the boat is for where we paddled.
We had two great adventure days during our stay. My favorite was the day we rented two scooters and cruised all over the island. Once I figured out how to work the thing and we got out of the crowded downtown area, it was a fantastic way to get around. We hit up:
For our second adventure, we scootered over to Ben Beo harbor to rent a kayak and venture out into the bay. The owner of our hotel, Victor, gave us very specific directions to a rental place and ideas for places to paddle.
Despite being relatively smart people, we ventured out into the maze of islands without a map, compass, snacks or water. I broke all my rules for how to be a happy hiker, most of which apply perfectly to kayaking [link]. In our defense, we expected to guide ourselves around, then paddle back before dark. What could go wrong?
Everything started so well. We paddled through a few floating fishing towns, and got a close look at rickety floating houses with fishing boats moored outside. Despite the flimsy look, we could tell they were there for the long haul as many had dogs and kitchens.
We made it to the beach at Monkey Island, had a beer and bought some good voyaging food: a six pack of a packaged sugary marshmallow treats called Choco Pies. The monkeys didn’t get a single one of our snacks, but one did sneak behind and snatch some Oreos from another tourist’s hand. If you aren’t in need of food or beverage, I’d skip this spot as it’s crowded and expensive.
Our next stop was to watch a half dozen wild monkeys jumping through the trees in a very secluded bay we happened to find. Like most areas in Halong Bay, there were very few beaches, and most of rock formations plunge straight into the ocean. It’s stunning scenery but you wouldn’t want to get your kayak too close to the rocks.
As we continued paddling west, we only found coastline where we expected to find a water passage south. And, with no map and no compass, it was tough to figure out where we’d gone wrong. I got more and more nervous about the fact that we were a little lost and it was only two hours until dark.
Adam really helped raise my spirits by saying things like… “Well at least it’s very warm out here. We don’t have to worry about getting cold.”
Things were no longer going very well. We stopped at two of the fishing shacks to ask for Ben Beo harbor. At both places, the nice Vietnamese people stared skeptically and then laughed at us. I am pretty sure they didn’t speak any English, but it’s possible they were just mocking the idiot Americans. (Later I learned we were also butchering the pronunciation. It’s not BEN beyo, it’s closer to been BEEo.)
By this point, given up on finding a way through and headed back to the resort we’d passed quite a while ago. By now, it’s 5:15pm and sunset is just after 6:00pm.
Adam says, “At least we have a full moon”
When we finally made it back to the resort, I left our kayak to find a map or a guide. The nice Vietnamese guy working behind the bar showed me a giant map that showed we’d slipped behind the elbow of the bay and would need to paddle all the way back around. Hooray. I asked him how long it would take, knowing there was only an hour until dark. He said 90 minutes. Great.
As we started seriously paddling back around the way we’d come, Adam pointed out: “We can just sleep in the kayak.”
Luckily for us, my go-go-gadget arms husband and I made it back in 50 minutes, with the sun mostly down and visibility plummeting. I was worried at first that our boat didn’t have any lights, until I noticed many of the Vietnamese fishing boats heading to sea were also dark.
To make matters even more exciting, when we got back to our sweet little scooter, we couldn’t get the headlights to turn on. But sound travels only slightly slower than light, so Adam figured a heavy hand on the horn would be sufficient.
We made it home without incident or divorce. Then we had a beer. All was well with the world.
In conclusion, go to Cat Ba island the cheap way during the off season. You can always schedule organized tours from the island for a more reasonable price. If you head out on a kayak, get a map or at least look at one before you leave. Rent scooters. They are my new favorite toy and everyone should ride them. Hopefully this inspires everyone to get to Cat Ba as soon as they can. Once you start planning your trip, just let me know in the comments if you have any questions or other awesome things we missed!