Heading to Cat Ba island and doing amazing Ha Long bay on a backpacker budget! (Plus spending a night in the hospital!)

After spending 7 long weeks in Vietnam on motorbikes we both loved at hated this country! We had had the best and the worst of times here, some amazing adventures and some hard and gruelling days. Before leaving there was time for just one last exploration. We were in two minds whether to bother with Ha long bay Vietnam, we had heard mixed reviews from amazing, epic and not to miss to underwhelming, over priced and touristy. We also didn’t really want to spend too much more money or time in Vietnam than we had too! So after looking around we figured a great way to do the bay on a budget and without a pricy tour was to go via Cat Ba Island! In the end it turned out to be one of the most amazing things we did in Vietnam…although I did end up in the hospital!

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So, you want to go to Ha long bay Vietnam but don’t want to pay a fortune

Hanging around Hanoi the chances are you will at some point be temped by the numerous signs advertising Ha Long bay and Sapa! The truth is that both are amazing and unmissable places in Vietnam, we travelled the entire county and although they might not be as isolated and raw as some places we visited they are still worth the time and money. Saying that however they are also both totally doable on your own and without a tour, in fact doing them this way will not only save you money but also allow you much more freedom to explore at your own pace. Often disappointment in a location comes from feeling over charged and under provided, most of those who felt Ha Long bay fell short were those that paid through the roof for an all singing all dancing multi day tour only to get stuck on a substandard boat for days on end!

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Ha Long bay might seem like an expensive excursion but we found a great way to do it on the cheap and also to get even more out of it that you expected!

Firstly, take the bus, boat, bus from Hanoi to Cat Ba island. This can set you back anything from as little as $10 to around $20 depending on where you book. Shop around!

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Heading to Cat Ba island for views and chills!

Cat Ba island is many things, a food lovers heaven it is not, however if you are after some amazing views, unforgettable landscapes, an almost never ending list of adventures, secluded beaches and a cheap gateway to the bay then you have found the perfect location.

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Many tours stop over on Cat Ba, often in one of the cheap hotels on the front strip, private room along here can cost as little as £5 a night, much less than you will be paying on that tour! But the advantage you have staying here is that you can take your time and for that price staying here a few extra nights to take it all in is no sweat.

Cat Ba is the biggest island in the bay, the central section is a protected national park covered in thick jungle and offers some amazing trekking right into the highest part at its centre. Trekking tours can be organised from pretty much every shop or hotel in town and all charge a flat rate. However you can also get a map out and head off on your own with relative ease if you are a seasoned hiker!

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If long hikes in the beaten sun aren’t your thing but you still want the views then the short walk or scooter ride up to the cannon fort provides all that plus added history. From this vantage point you can see why the Viet Cong decided to set up their anti aircraft guns from here. But if I were them I think I would be too distracted by that amazing view to do any work!

If just the thought of a hike doesn’t do it for you then Cat Ba still delivers, this island is home to some of Vietnam’s most amazing beaches. You can head to some of the more well known ones for a quick dip or explore the further reaches of its coasts to discover some isolated areas for a relaxing break from the chaos of Hanoi!

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Taking a cheap day tour from Cat Ba, Saving a fortune and having the best time!

Now for what we’ve all been waiting for, for only $16 you can take a day long trip out into Ha Long bay from Cat Ba, a fraction of the price that you will pay in Hanoi and with all the same amazing features. We will be honest, for $16 we expected a pretty dire tour but went for it anyway as we just wanted to see the bay! In the end what we actually got was a wonderful tour of this amazing region that well surpassed our expectations!

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Touring the bay

As Cat Ba sits right at the opening of this world famous bay we were right into the thick of things from the off. No setting off from a dreary industrial harbour but instead a lively and local affair set in the amazing karst surroundings. After a short while our little boat felt dwarfed by the sheer scale of the thousands of pinnacles we were passing, the size of it also meant we could easily get up close to many of them, seeing the strange shapes and formations up close as well as the epic panorama that lay out before us. We were also a small group too and there was plenty of room to lay out on the top deck and take it all in or head downstairs and sit back and relax in the more sheltered area.

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Visiting Monkey Island in Ha long bay Vietnam

One of the main stopping off point for post tours and trip we were expecting a crowded and underwhelming location. Named due to the residents of the island you really don’t need to look far to see the cheeky monkey in person. Some of them do have a bit of a fearsome reputation and seeing a sunbather having her towel stolen by one of them confirmed that they most definitely run this island!

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The beaches here might be enough for most visitors to want to “accidentally” miss their boat and instead spend the day relaxing here. However for those who want more of a challenging visit you can channel your inner monkey and scramble to the top of the island. A route that many might find hard if you have no climbing experience it is worth the effort and steep drops. From up here you can take in both the stunning island, beaches and azure waters but also the wider panoramic of the bay.

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Kayaking through amazing caves

For me this was the highlight of the day and what I had really wanted to do in Ha Long bay. Its one thing to be confined to a boat in the bay but its another to make your own way through this mysterious and other worldly area. To be able to get up close to the rock formations, paddle through tiny caves and inlets and really take it all in from the most perfect perspective.

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Again, with a cheap tour you never quite know what you are going to get. But we were provided with great quality double kayaks and taken to a wonderful quiet area of the bay. Here there were only two other boats in dock and so the experience remained serine and magical. You also get plenty of time here having around 1.5 hours to explore every corner of this paradise location.

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Having a local lunch

Again, for $16 you don’t expect an amazing spread of food to be put on, but I actually forgot to take a photo I was enjoying it so much! We got so many options, especially for veggies, including tofu dishes and of course the customary never ending rice! The drinks on board were also reasonable priced to which makes a huge change. All of the food was freshly cooked and prepared on the boat and was local Vietnamese style, tucking in to my first proper meal in day over looking one of the most stunning locations in the world was a lunch to remember!

Discovering tiny beaches amongst the peaks in Ha long bay Vietnam

Another of the most amazing things about Ha Long bay is the little beaches nestled amongst the huge rock formations, peaks and mountains. Where the water has worn away at the limestone tiny beaches only accessible by boat have been created, and fortunately there are so many of them hidden in the bay that you are guaranteed to have at least a few to yourself! These tiny pieces of paradise look like they are straight out of treasure island, a forgotten world stumbled upon by intrepid explorers!! Ok, that might be pushing it a little but I promise you once you get here you will feel like you are a million miles away from civilisation!

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Seeing life in the bay

One of the things I hadn’t realised before heading to Ha Long bay was how much “real life” occurs here still! It is sold as a bay full of invasive junk boats full of partying tourists. However dotted throughout the area are small floating fish farms, tiny villages that just bob up and down on the water where people live the most obscure lives. Dogs patrol the ever expanding floating networks, skilfully leaping from one thin piece of wood to another without skipping a beat, it really is an interesting look into a completely alien way of life. Ha long bay Vietnam is much more than just a tourist spot, but where people live and work!

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All for $16!

Ending up in hospital on Cat Ba!!!

Ok, so it wasn’t all amazing adventures and epic scenery in Ha Long bay and Cat Ba, though some might say I had a life experience of a different sort. Food poisoning seems to be a rite of passage for any hardened traveller but I thought my stomach had hardened to the germs over the last 8 months! Apparently not! The most irritating but ironic thing about it all is that we eat at street food stalls almost every night in Asia, heading to local markets and tiny outlets to eat at places that look like they’ve never been cleaned! Did we get ill of them…no!

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I actually look dead…It’s how I felt!!

So arriving in Cat Ba a little road worn from the bus, boat, bus trip we decided to just eat at our hotel and get an early night, chill out and work on the blog, maybe watch a film and plan out what would be an epic few days on this island. A few hours later I began to feel a little ill, nothing too bad just not quite right, roll on another few hours and the flood gates had opened…quite literally! I was doubled over in pain and couldn’t even keep water down, I’ve honestly never felt this ill in my life, even after the infamous “Pimms” incident last summer! :-p

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I’ve looked and felt better it has to be said!

A few hours went by and I was getting worse and worse. Shorty decided it was time to head to the hospital! There I spent the night in what could only be described as grim surroundings. I’ve never seen a hospital like it, its was unclean, cold and over crowded… and it cost us $30! However I did come out of the other end feeling marginally better and having also experienced the kindness of the Vietnamese people. A Grandmother was in there with her Grandaughter, who seemed to be exhibiting many of the same symptoms as me. She laid her coat over me as I shivered and offered me a protein drink and water to keep my strength up. One thing I did learn that day was that contrary to the popular belief, food poisoning doesn’t always take 24hours to show, depending on the type it can take as little as 4 hours, well aren’t I glad I can confirm this from a first hand perspective!

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Ah yes, fun times and life experiences on Cat Ba!

How to do Ha long bay Vietnam on the cheap:

Ha long bay Vietnam from Hanoi is expensive!! You will most likely be looking at a multi day trip (You can’t go there and back really in one day from the city) which will be at the cheapest around $80 each!!!! For the cheapest you also probably know the standard of boat, room and bus you will end up on too as well as being rushed around!

A much better alternative is to take the Bus/boat/bus option from Hanoi to Cat Ba island. This takes around 4 hours and will cost between $10-$20 depending on where you buy it. Most hostels can arrange this for you, we used Lily Travels.

On Cat Ba accommodation is cheap, around $7 a night for a private hotel room!

From here you can take your time, visiting the national park on the island, the cannon tower, go swimming on the beach, rent a bike and explore the caves etc.

Then you can take a Ha Long bay tour from here. Day trips that include kayaking, lunch, pick up and drop off, swimming and a good tour of the bay can be booked from any accommodation or on the front from $16

You can also book multi day trips from here, trekking tours and other adventures for a fraction of the price of back in Hanoi!

Have you ever visited the amazing Ha Long Bay?

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Heading to Cat Ba island and doing amazing Ha Long bay on a backpacker budget! (Plus spending a night in the hospital!) VIETNAM

Nicola Hilditch-Short

Nic is one half of the Roaming Renegades, a passionate traveller, climber, adventurer, photographer and artist who has a B.A in Fine Art and M.A in Design & Art Direction.
  • Barb

    Sorry that you had to end up in the hospital, but this can happen in Vietnam.

  • Wanderlust Wayfarer

    Wow! Thanks so much for sharing your unique perspectives and for showing how to make Ha Long a more affordable destination.

    • Thanks! Yes we were unsure how we would be able to manage it but there is always a way!

  • Hope you’re feeling better Nic! I had wicked food poisoning 2 months ago in Myanmar. On a freaking bus ride around winding mountains, then in the house when we arrived. Intense stuff. You just never know; we’ve been circling the globe for 6 years and I have a strong tolerance from eating foods in the tropics but if they hit ya with vile tap water in a place like Burma saying it is bottled instead – you are doomed. Thanks for the share and fabulous images.

    Ryan

    • Thanks Ryan, yeah all good now! Heard a lot of people getting sick in Myanmar but thankfully we were ok there. I know what you mean, I thought I had hardened to the food and germs but these things just come along and knock you out!