How To Tour Ha Long Bay For Really Cheap ( Seriously Cheap! )
For those of you that don’t know about Ha Long Bay, scroll down the page a little bit, check out our pictures or do a google search and then return to this spot. Okay, now that we got that out of the way, you can clearly see why I told Teryn that we had to go there. For the most part, Vietnam was my idea for a change. Thailand, Malaysia, and New Zealand were all her ideas, but Vietnam is a country that I pushed for us to visit. Turns out Vietnam is amazing, and we fell instantly in love with the environment, people, and culture. I’m still not hip on the driving part, but meh, it’s South East Asia where there are no rules.
Now that you’ve seen some Google images and you’re thinking about booking a flight to Vietnam, I have some advice that you’ll definitely want to hear about.
First off, what if I told you that I could save you $440 on a once in a lifetime experience? You’d probably tell me, “Dan, you’re fucking crazy, and you sound like an internet scam artist.” Well, little Timmy and little Susie, I’m here to tell you that I can explain everything, so just sit back and keep reading.
Vietnam tourism is expanding, and their biggest seller is the tours to Ha Long Bay. The most reputable companies you’ll find on the internet are tours that range anywhere from $200 to $1,400. Yeah, you heard right and that’s American dollars! When you go to Vietnam, you would think that it would be on the cheap cheap, but yeah, they figured out how much they can charge and bam the prices are now sky high. I guess if you’re a baller then those prices are fine, but for those of us that ball on a budget, I have a little hack for you.
The little-known secret of how we made this possible is this little island called Cat Ba. It’s actually the biggest island off Vietnam, but it’s kind of small. Either way, size doesn’t matter in this story. The point is how cheap and easy it is to do a 3-day Ha Long Bay tour!
Yup, you read that correctly, Teryn and I did a 3-day Ha Long Bay tour for the price of 2 cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon beers. For those that don’t know PBR, It’s the same price of 30 hamburgers from the McDonald’s dollar menu.
Teryn gave me the task of figuring it all out, which she never lets me do, so I made sure not to fuck it up. I knew we couldn’t afford the $470 price tag for a tour, so I did some homework and found out that if we got to Cat Ba, we could hire a “junk boat” and do a 3 day tour of the bay for quarter of the price.
At this time, we were in Hanoi, Vietnam. After our brief stay in Hanoi we hailed a cab to take us to the bus station. Our day would consist of a bus-boat-bus combo.
Now, I’ll admit that while this is the most budget-friendly option, it isn’t necessarily the easiest. If you have more funds, you can get a hotel pickup to go to a private van to a private boat charter. This place was the public bus station and the biggest boat transfer to Cat Ba.
- Bus Station: Yen Nghia – 30 minute taxi ride from the Old Quarter
- Bus Company: Hoang Long – Buy your ticket inside the building at the bus station
- Departure times: 5:20 AM; 7:20 AM; 11:20 AM; 1:20 PM
- Duration: 4 hours
- Cost: $12 USD per person
Once we arrived on the main street of Cat Ba, we walked over to our hostel, Mr. Zoom’s. Now most backpackers recommend this spot and for $9 a night it’s tempting. Do yourself a favor and just don’t. There are other options, and you should explore them. It was hot (as is usually the case in South East Asia) and they wanted to charge extra for some AC, and then we discovered the place was crawling with the biggest cockroaches we have ever seen! Seriously, bigger than a newborn baby. Not to mention every time we walked through the entrance the guy at the little table would ask us if we needed a room, even when we were already checked in. This happened 4 times, but I guess all Americans look the same.
Cat Ba is okay, but it lacks something. There are 3 or 4 amazing beaches for swimming and there’s a little strip with shops and bars, but it just felt like there was something missing. The pier had this very misplaced big white drive-in movie screen that never had anything on it other than weird advertisements. It’s right in the middle of the view of the ocean, so it really does the place a disservice.
I did, however, get to experience my new love: the Vietnamese Coffee Egg Coffee at “Like Coffee”. Oh my fuck! It is so damn good! (My mouth is watering as I’m writing this.) The egg is more like a marshmallow topping to your very strong Vietnamese espresso drink. It will be the best thing to ever hit your lips in the morning.
- The Recipe: Brew a small cup of Vietnamese espresso.
- Crack an egg and discard the whites.
- Put the yolk and some sweetened condensed milk in a small, deep bowl. Whisk vigorously until you end up with a frothy, fluffy mixture. Add a tablespoon of the brewed coffee and whisk it in as well.
- In a clear coffee cup (we’re going for aesthetics here), pour in your brewed coffee, then add the fluffy egg mixture on top.
- Presto. Egg coffee.
*NOTE* The entire island is cash only. There is an ATM in the middle of the strip next to the bay. Trust me, you won’t have any problems finding it.
On the 2nd day on Cat Ba, we knew we had to leave Mr. Zoom’s, and luckily we found the Quynh Trang Hotel, which was maybe like $5 more than Mr. Zoom’s and was a huge upgrade, mostly because there were no stinkin’ cock-a-roaches. We were beyond happy to find a pretty cheap place with AC and a nice shower, and up till this point, I still wasn’t sure how we would be able to do the Ha Long Bay tour. Everywhere online basically told me to get to Cat Ba first and hire a boat from there. Turned out that the Quynh Trang Hotel had pictures of a boat with prices for 2 and 3 day tours.
I asked the man at the counter, “What’s the tour cost?” He replied, “$75 for 3 days.”
“ Yeah, that’s my boat, I give the best price!”
I couldn’t believe that it was only going to cost $75 for the two of us–total–to charter a boat in Ha Long Bay for 3 days! This was by far better than the $470 3 day tour prices or even the $125 prices. (This part of Ha Long Bay from Cat Ba is lesser known and less populated and thus better prices, but all of the same land features as the entire bay.)
Needless to say, we said, “Hell yes! Sign us up for tomorrow!” We packed up our belongings, and once again loaded ourselves into a van. Once we arrived at the pier we were loaded onto what is referred to as a “junk boat”.
The pictures and my attempt at a video, of course, does this place little justice.
The crew consisted of 2 Vietnamese guys; the standard issue boat crew of captain and first mate. The boat had 2 rooms, not including the rooms that the crew slept in. Our room had 2 beds, one bed for Teryn and I and the other bed for a very nice young German couple. The other room consisted of 3 very fun and hilarious Chilean women. We were probably the most diverse boat on Ha Long Bay for those three days. At one point during the tour we sat and told each other how to say “hello” and “cheers” in each other’s languages. It really was a blast and an amazing time that we will never forget. We didn’t expect too much from this budget junk boat tour of Ha Long Bay, but believe me when I tell you that the service these two guys that ran the operation provided really surprised us. Not only did they feed all 8 of us, but the dishes consisted of freshly caught fish and truly delicious food that even Ms. Teryn, the “Queen of Foodies” raved about.
The pictures and my attempt at a video, of course, does this place little justice, but I hope that I have inspired you to check this place out for yourself. The three days were amazing and packed full of activities, like when we stopped to kayak and swim, not to mention the final stop at Monkey Island: that’s right, it’s an island densely populated with–you guessed it–monkeys.
Three days in Ha Long Bay is the perfect amount of time, as you never know what the weather will do. But trust me, if you want to save a couple hundred bucks, get to Cat Ba first and then search for tours of the bay from there or book your stay at Quynh Trang Hotel . You’ll save money and still get a great experience that I presume is quite similar to the pricier tours.
BONUS CAT BA EXPERIENCE: WOODSTOCK BEACH CAMP.
We decided to stay another 3 or 4 days on Cat Ba to just chill before heading back to the main land, and Teryn found a deal at what looked like this amazing beach house hostel. See the picture she found here.
At first glance, this place seemed like it might have some cool activities to offer, and indeed it did. We grabbed a taxi and in the middle of the night and the driver took us down this gravel road that seemed to take a lifetime to go down. Further in our route barely even resembled a road, it was more like the unexplored terrain of Mars. We trusted that the driver knew where he was going and then, there it was: the beach camp, with hippies as far as the eyes could see. Teryn will say that I’m exaggerating a little bit, but trust me when I say we arrived at what I believe was a bonafide hippie commune. (Honestly, though, I should have known it was a hippie commune.) We brushed it off as a “whatever, this could be fun” situation. It was Halloween after all. If you look in that pretty picture you’ll see how there could be doors to rooms on the upper level. Well, we had one of those rooms, but in front of every room was a hammock with someone sleeping in them along with all of their belongings. I’m not knocking it this way of life, I just wasn’t expecting to be living on a hippie commune for several days. Teryn, of course, found a fresh puppy, so she was ecstatic about that and we just worked around everyone. I continued research on our flights for our island hopping adventure that we were about to embark on in Thailand.
We both eventually enjoyed ourselves at our little hippie retreat, because their bar area had decorated for and threw a Halloween themed party. For me, the best part of this place was that they had bioluminescent plankton in the water! Normally Teryn and I wouldn’t be caught dead in the ocean at night because that is when fish feed and who knows what’s in the ocean around Vietnam? But going for a dip amongst these little glowing critters made it worth it. A few of the other backpackers convinced us to join them and see this marvel for ourselves. Sure enough, as we waded out a few feet from the shore the water slowly started glowing this magnificent blue around us. It would only glow when we moved in the water and was just insane how cool it was. Imagine just swimming in a sea of blackness and having the water glow around you!
If you like meeting new and interesting people, love to party and want to experience a chance to swim with the bioluminescent plankton then you should check out Woodstock Beach Camp.
What is your favorite trip you’ve done on the ocean?
Have you ever booked a place to stay and arrived to find it completely different than what you thought it be?
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Blog Disclaimer- None of the above mentioned hotels or hostels to include The Quynh Trang Hotel sponsor us to recommend them nor did their tour company. All opinions and views are our own. Just keeping it real with ya. Thanks for reading!
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Global Giraffe is a travel blog that is focused on keeping it real. This isn't a fluffy rainbow magical travel blog, here you'll find real life situations, tips and advice for the every day person that wants to know more about places they've never been to. Global Giraffe is led by Dan and Teryn. After leaving Denver, Colorado, they decided to try to take on the world, one odd job at a time. They are currently residing in Phuket, Thailand. For more updates follow Global Giraffe on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.