How To Visit Ha Long Bay On A Budget

cat ba island cannon fort

Ha Long Bay, is undoubtedly THE most popular destination to visit in Vietnam due to its spectacular emerald waters and limestone cliffs that form its 1600 islands. The most well-known way of experiencing these islands is by a booking 2-day cruise. We spoke to several tour agencies (on every corner of Hanoi), and the prices can range up to $500 USD depending on the type of experience you want.

A mid-range 3 star cruise was going to cost us $149 USD per person. That was already more than half of our monthly accommodation budget. There are also booze cruises that are super cheap for backpackers, but I’ve heard horror stories about the living conditions being quite dirty onboard.

What’s The Other Option?

After I did some research, we opted to stay on the lesser known, but just as beautiful Island called Cat Ba. There are beautiful viewpoints of Ha Long on this island and beautiful beaches. Our hotel organized a day tour of Ha Long Bay that only cost $20 USD/per person. This will give you get the best of both worlds. Stay on Cat Ba if you’re on a budget, but want to experience the beauty of Ha Long Bay. After speaking to several travellers we met on the boat tour who were on day 2 of their cruise, we were happy that we opted to stay on Cat Ba. They all said that the itinerary felt rushed. Consequently, they didn’t feel like they were able to truly enjoy all the activities included in the cruise.

If you missed it, check out my guides on Hanoi, Sapa and Ninh Binh!

How To Get to Cat Ba:

Our hotel in Hanoi organized our bus ticket to Cat Ba, which included hotel pickup in the Old Quarter. The company we went with is called DaiiChi Travel which I strongly recommend. To get to Cat Ba, it’s a 3-hour ride (one 15-minute stop included) from Hanoi, a 20 minute ferry ride to Cat Ba Island, then an additional 40-minute bus ride to Cat Ba town. I was under the impression that we’d have to make 3 separate trips to reach our destination, but we were wrong!

Our bus not only picked us up from our Hanoi hotel, but it physically drove onto the ferry. It then drove us into town and dropped us off in front of our hotel. We basically made this entire trip without getting off the bus once. There’s an English-speaking conductor on board who gives clear instructions and even provides each passenger with a bottle of water and a snack. A one-way ticket costs $12 USD.

Where We Stayed:

We stayed at Cat Ba Family Hotel run by a lovely man named Tom and his wife. Breakfast is included. They also provide laundry service and ticket booking. Furthermore, they’re also able to organize a motorbike rental for you as well. Make sure to stay near Cat Ba Pier as this is where all the restaurants and cafes are located. We stayed three nights to utilize two full days on the island.

How To Get Around Cat Ba:

Rent a motorbike! Our hotel organized one for us for $3 USD/day. This is a really small island so getting around Cat Ba is very easy with little to no traffic (unlike our previous neighbour Hanoi!)

What to Do in Cat Ba:

DAY ONE: Visit Cat Ba National Park

Entrance Fee: 40,000 VND
Parking: 10,000 VND

img_5885

There are several hiking routes that range from 1 to several hours. We visited late afternoon closer to sunset so we hiked the shortest route up to Ngu Lam Peak (1000m). It’s a LOT of stairs going up, but the view up top is absolutely amazing. It took us close to 40 minutes to reach the top, and only about 15 minutes to hike down. Be sure to start hiking back down before it gets dark. We found that the trail on the right (trail down) was much faster then the left trail (trail up).

cat ba national park


To get to the start of the trail, you have to walk on a paved path for about 5-10 minutes.

cat ba national park
cat ba national park

The trail  up looks something like this. 
cat ba national park
cat ba national park
cat ba national park
Incredible views at the top!
cat ba island
cat ba island

DAY TWO: Full-Day Boat Tour of Ha Long Bay

Cost: $20 USD

Schedule:

Hotel Pickup @ 7:15 am
Breakfast on the boat
Cruise through the beautiful islands of Ha Long Bay
Cruise past the fishing villages where over 180 families live
Kayak through several caves
Swimming
Lunch
Visit Monkey Island
Back to Cat Ba Island @ 3:30 pm 

Here’s some photos of what to expect!

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Cruise through the beautiful islands of Ha Long Bay

ha long bay

ha long bay
ha long bay

Cruise past the fishing villages where over 180 families live

ha long bay fishing village
ha long bay fishing village
ha long bay fishing village
ha long bay fishing village

Kayak through several caves

ha long bay kayaking

Visit Monkey Island

You will encounter dozens of monkeys on this island. As cute as they are, be VERY cautious as the monkeys here are known to be aggressive if they feel threatened. Our tour guide was quite frank and told us that at least 1-2 tourists get bitten PER day. We actually saw a lady get bit in the leg while we were there and she was only standing near them. She was wearing denim when she was bit and when she lifted up her jeans, you could actually see a really deep bite mark from where we standing several feet away. So be really careful when taking photos or approaching the monkeys. Be sure to hike up to the viewpoint – the hike itself is actually more like climbing giant boulders.

monkey island ha long bay
monkey island ha long bay
monkey island ha long bay

Back to Cat Ba Island @ 3:30 pm

Visit Cannon Fort For Sunset

Entrance Fee: 40,000 VND
Parking: 10,000 VND

Visit the best spot on Cat Ba Island for sunset. The colours change dramatically as the sun goes down. We saw people hiking to the top, but we just took our motorbike to the viewpoint (only takes about 5-10 minutes from the bottom). There’s also a mini cafe up top where you can grab a beer during sunset.

cat ba island
ha long bay
ha long bay

Other Things To Do

There are lots of beaches in and around Cat Ba to visit. Unfortunately, we had really cloudy and rainy weather so we couldn’t do this, but it looked so beautiful anyways! There are also caves that you can visit near Cat Ba National Park.

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