Ha Long Bay for backpackers

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First published 28th October, 2006

Two night/three day budget tour
Cost: US$40
Operator: Open Tour and Travel

Crammed into a jam-packed minivan, our tour commenced with us circling the block a few times to avoid getting ticked by the cops for illegally stopping to pick up some of our passengers, but then we were away and our guide introduced himself. In his quite decent English, he explained that the 160km journey to Ha Long City would take three hours -- apparently the slow going was due to the police -- not to worry, if there were no cops around, we were assured, our driver would attempt to speed whenever possible.

The trip included a 15-minute stop at a crafts centre set up for victims of Agent Orange and at 11:00 we reached Ha Long City. Once there our guide promptly got into a 15-minute argument with another guide, and we were eventually put into another minivan and driven to the pier at Bai Chay.

The pier was crammed with boats and after standing around for 30 minutes, our guide returned with tickets and we clamoured over three other boats to reach our (obviously badly parked) boat. As our group was generally agile the cross-boat-obstacle-course was no trouble, though there was trouble to come.

Upon booking we were promised a tour of no more than sixteen passengers, and were surprised to find 11 more people piling on to the boat with us -- making for a total of 27 people. They were day-trippers, and those travelling to Cat Ba Island. When asked, we were advised that "they don't count" as a part of our group because they aren't on our three-day tour. Twenty-seven people on a small boat made for a tight fit.

Our boat, like many of the budget junks, had a large top-deck which featured hard, wooden sun-loungers that should have had cushions but didn't. An epidemic problem on budget tours, we later learned. For an hour, we sat and waited to depart, and once underway, lunch appeared. A decidedly mediocre but edible meal.

We visited one of the floating fishing villages, which was definitely a sight to see and some passengers bought seafood from the villagers -- the staff on the boat cooked it up for them at no extra cost.

Even in poor weather Ha Long Bay can be stunning

We stopped off at the Dragon Cave where we walked in file with one hundred other tourists, viewing the stalagmites, the stalactites, and paused to contemplate which was which. The cave was artificially decorated with coloured lights, man-made pools and fountains, and two red lights were fixed to where the 'eyes' should be in the rock formation that is said to look like a Dragon. Lovely.

Next was an unappealing beach for swimming and kayaking -- there was only one kayak and it was never put in the water. Later we found out it had a leak. No worries -- the weather was lousy, and no one wanted to kayak anyway.

Our first night was meant to be onboard, but the boat had somehow become "overbooked" and so we were shuffled into a hotel on Cat Ba Island. The two-star hotel was anything but remarkable and we got an equally mediocre dinner and breakfast. In the morning, we trekked through Cat Ba National Park -- a challenging climb through beautiful mangrove forests, though lacking in any exceptional wildlife -- we did spot goats though.

Thrown off schedule by being re-routed to the island, it wasn't until late afternoon that we reboarded for our night at sea, and while we were supposed to stop off to swim, that somehow got lost in the shuffle. Dinner was much the same as the night before.

Snacks from floating vendors offer a respite from poor tour food on Ha Long Bay

We cruised around for a while before eventually stopping at one of the three designated spots where tour boats are permitted to anchor. The night on the boat was memorable mostly for sitting on the top deck engaging in long, ranging conversations with other passengers over beers. It was a wonderfully relaxing evening, and the bay is a mysteriously beautiful place to be as the sun sets -- despite the sound of karaoke drifting across the bay from some of the other boats.

When we retired, the cabins were clean, if somewhat dilapidated. While one passenger found himself chocking on exhaust fumes in his cabin and had to spend the night on the top deck, we were all kept up by the deafening noise from the cheap Chinese generator.

Typical Cat Ba scenery

In the morning, four-pieces of bread and a greasy omelette sustained us through the slow tour back to Ha Long City for the packed minivan back to Hanoi.

Next: Ha Long Bay for flashpackers

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  • Boat trip in Ha Long Bay. Unforgetable !!!

    Once in the north of Vietnam, we had to decide whether going to Sapa or to Halong Bay because our one month tourist visa was running out soon. Two factors determined our choice: on one hand, the bad weather conditions in the northwest region of Vietnam, on the other hand, a tropical storm which had flooded and incomunicated the northern region of Sapa, leaving hundreds of deads and homeless people behind. We could only go then for a boat trip in Halong Bay. As it is usual on our trip, we asked for advice in many different travel agencies and checked the internet to make our move independently with all the info available. This is how we found Cat Ba Ventures (www.catbaventures.com), a tour operator based in Cat Ba, the biggest island of Halong Bay, who offers tailor made boat trips for independent travellers.

    We booked a 3 days/2 nights trip and paid 90 USD each. We arranged more or less the plan for everyday: sail in the morning to a nice spot, go on the kayak for a while to hidden lagoons and caves and have a swim, then eat and do the same in the afternoon in another spot. Overall we wanted to avoid tourist places and crowds. We wanted to go further away than the normal tours go. We wanted to be alone most of the time and sleep in a different secluded place every night. We wanted many things and almost all of them were accomplished. You can contact Mr Tung, the operator, through his website or under info@catbaventures.com.

    Halong Bay is spectacular and the weather conditions were great (sunny, cloudy and few big storms during the nights, which gave a feeling of adventure to the whole experience), as well as the arrangements of the organizer. Basically we had a wooden and bamboo sail boat for four people –we were travelling with two other spanish guys together- entirely at our service. We could decide where to go and where not to go, if we wanted to stay longer or not. We could stop the boat and take the kayaks or just jump off the boat for a refreshing swim in the middle of nowhere –with some restrictions, of course. The crew, Tim and Hum -at least this is how their names sounded to us- were great although we had kind of communication problems sometimes, when we had the feeling they had not understood what we were asking for. They cooked so well and so much that we are missing their food a lot now – we have to say that we ate the same lunch and dinner during the 3 days with slightly variations, but still great food!

    If we sumarize the trip, it was awesom! If we had to make a review about the arrangements of Cat Ba Ventures, we would say they did it very well! Some companies in Halong Bay or Hamoi are not very reliable and most of the time don’t provide what was promised. They is a big issue going on in Hanoi of copycat companies that just take the name of a reputed one to steal their clients. Those companies don’t offer the same quality tours and you will end up paying a service that you won’t get. This is what we heard or read while we were searching. Just some tips if you are planning to do a similar tour: fix the route and what you are interested in seeing –it is enough to have an approximate idea, you can change plans once in the boat-. Insist on it once onboard. Ask for a map to be able to locate yourself at anytime –we didn’t do it and missed it- and corroborate you are doing what you were promised to. Ask in advance any question you may have and above all, enjoy the experience!!!

    Hector and Julia from Spain.

    Posted by juliahector on 16th November, 2008

  • Thanks Juliahector!
    We went to Cat Ba by ourself.
    In Cat Ba we met up with Mr Tung our tour operator...he was very friendly, explained our journey and led us aboard our junk ship with our crew - Hung (our trusty captain) and Cam (chef and deckhand). Before we knew it we were cruising between islands and boats of all shapes and sizes.

    In all we had two nights and three days at sea - we did a lot of kayking (too much for Bill's liking!), eating fresh seafood, visiting floating fishing villages and a little bit of fishing. Most of our off-boat excursions were to navigate through caves / rock tunnels to what we've been calling lagoons - secluded pieces of sea that have been opened up where the sea has carved a "tunnels" in the surrounding rock. Very peaceful - occasionally interrupted by Bill ramming our kayak! All the many islands we passed were very similar - steep walled and lush, plants growing even on the steepest angles. Sadly, we never saw a monkey - but swear we heard them :)
    We saw a few fishing villages - tiny homes on rafts. The seas have been so overfished that today those that are caught are only a few inches in length. These are then held in nets and grown to an edible size over the next couple of years. Linh - our most successful fisherman - donated several to one such village. (She really wanted to eat them though.)

    We also hiked through an incredible land / dry cave. It was pretty well set up - decorated with lights to guide the way. Hard to describe how big it was - 10 m+ high and took at least 20 minutes to navigate. Very impressive.

    The rest of the trip was spent drinking beer, lounging, swimming, and eating a wide variety of jewels from the sea: fresh fish (who bit the poor villager in its last moments), squid with almost every meal, clams, snout nose clams (very unique treat they told us), crab (that bit Jen back even after death!), lots of veggies and bitter melon and lots of fresh fruit. We learned that Vietnam is a culture of dipping - lots of sauces.Cucumber and carrots are meant to be dipped in fish sauce (or, as an afternoon snack, with salt and chili). We said yes to everything they offered so we're pretty certain we had an authentic menu - fortunately they never caught the one remaining rat onboard....phiu, dodged that bullet.

    Although we landed a couple days ago, Rob and Jen are still rocking...must have been a really good time!
    For your next trip to Cat Ba - visit: catbaventures.com! Maybe check that site a few times as it is often pirated / copied by other not-so-trust-worthy operators. Talk to Mr Tung - he's the real thing (and speaks excellent english). Although, if you're travelling with Linh - she speaks excellent Vietnamese.


    Posted by robsizeland on 13th January, 2009

  • Booked Blue Paradise Cruises through one of the Travel Agents in Hanoi.Although the boat we haad booked and paid for had a Blue Paradise logo on,it was definately not the one in the brochure that agents will show you.If this happens to you,I recommend that you complain to the tour guide (who accompanies you on the bus trip to and from Halong Bay) and ask him to meet with the "owner".We did,and received a partial 30% refund.
    The boat we were on was very sub standard,and the accomodation nothing like that in the glossy brochure.From 3 diferent people in the company,I received 3 different "reasons" for the change in boat....the last one being that the original boat had sunk !
    Needless to say I came away with the feeling that this company is being blantantly dishonest and overcharging for a sub standard boat,and unless we had complained,we would not have received any apology or refund.
    Avoid this cruise company.
    The bay itself is attractive,but there is no attempt to keep it from overcrowding with junks and from the pollution......mainly from the junk operators.See it quick before it becomes a cesspool.

    Posted by Make sure you get the boat you paid for.Avoid Blue Paradise Cruises on 5th December, 2009

  • We did a 3-night tour of Halong Bay and had an amazing time. We booked through Dong A hotel (in Hanoi) and paid $47 USD per person. If you want to book a 2 night tour, it should cost around $40-42. We paid $5 extra for the 3rd night and it didn't include food on the last day. This price included transport to/from Halong Bay. I would recommend 2 nights, as our last night on Cat Ba island was a little unnecessary but good for time to chill out.

    This tour included 1 night on the boat and 2 nights on Cat Ba island. The first night on the boat was the best part. The staff was friendly and the food was surprisingly good. We are vegetarians, and the food exceeded our expectations. Everyone else on the boat actually had wished they had ordered vegetarian, as our food was much better than the non-vegs. They got whole fish for every meal. We got tofu and veggies. You have to tell them ahead of time if you want to eat vegetarian.
    I know that a number of other hotels book the same tour but I'm not sure which ones. Here is the information that I have on the card:

    Sinh Cafe Travel
    Mr.Huy 0904151448
    50 Ma May Str.
    Email: info@bigbentour.com
    Website: www.bigbentour.com

    Note: There are a million Sinh Cafes in Hanoi. Be sure you get the right one.

    **Make sure you bring your passport, warm clothes, and water. It gets very cold at night. I was still cold in pants and a sweatshirt. Drinks are very overpriced on the boat and water is not included in the tour price. I would recommend bringing a few big bottles of water with you.

    The logistics getting back to Hanoi were a bit annoying. They cruised very slowly through the bay on the last day which was fine, but once we got back to the harbour we had to wait a little over an hour for our bus to come. Then, we got on the bus and they drove 5 minutes to drop us off at a place to eat lunch. We ended up getting back to Hanoi in rush hour traffic at 5pm. We didn't get back to our hotel until 6pm. Beware if you are booking a night train or bus for the same day you return from Halong Bay. You will not be back until 5 or 6pm earliest. This was a problem for many people.

    Posted by mifox2 on 24th March, 2010

  • Short and to the point, I was scammed by a tour agent in Hanoi for a three day/two night Halong Bay trip.
    The tour agent had several options and levels, of which I opted to pay the highest price for the "deluxe" version, which was to include a nicer boat and single room in the hotel.
    The day on the boat was acceptable. I was disappointed to find that other guests on board had selected the basic option and paid less than half what I had, but it was nice. The problem arose on day two of three, when I was told that I had to share a room with another guest at the hotel because they had over-booked. Just as a personal preference I do not like sharing hotel rooms with strangers. I spoke with the hotel manager and then called the tour agent to see if they could arrange another hotel or find another solution. Both insisted I had no options but could pay an additional $50 for a single room.
    Basically I ended my stay on Cat Ba Island by paying to go by bus back to Hanoi.
    The tour agent won't return calls, has locked his shop when I come to enquire about a refund. You don't necessarily get what you pay for and shouls avoid the agency and hotel below:

    21 Ngo Huyen Str
    Hanoi, Vietnam

    Sunflower One Hotel
    Cat Ba Island

    Posted by Corthay on 27th June, 2010

  • correct me if i am wrong but to me ha long bay looks the same as 'james bond island' (Khao Tapu) near phuket. also floating fishing villages, lookalike scenery, cramped beaches, kayaking.

    Any travellers who have been to both and care to elaborate?

    Posted by thailandman on 16th September, 2010

  • I went to Ha Long Bay at the beginning of 2010, and did a two night/three day tour with the Hanoi Backpackers (NOT Hanoi youth hostel). If you're looking for an incredibly fun experience and to bond with a small group of young backpackers, this is definitely where it's at. It was a little pricey at $120 for the tour, but included all meals and activities. One night was spent on the boat and another on a deserted island beach. The rooms on the boat were lovely and clean and the accommodation on the beach was to die for in terms of setting. Both days were incredible and the nights were a huge party. Drinks were available to purchase but I definitely recommend taking a couple of bottles of whisky and hiding them in your room as drinks get expensive on deserted islands. This was one of the best things I did whilst in South East Asia and I cant recommend it enough. Be a little cautious though, as we caught one of the bar men going through our things. Just take a small bag, not too much cash and leave the rest of your things at the hostel.

    Posted by seeetheworld on 2nd December, 2010

  • 12+ Dead Backpacker Junk Sinks

    Let me explain it: Numbers claim to unknown (This is bullshit - the captain takes everyones passports before boarding - no ifs)

    Crew jumped ship without waking sleeping passengers - Captain did NOT go down with the ship. BAD BAD lost for words.

    Two Australians were reportedly among at least 12 people who died after a tourist boat sunk in Vietnam's scenic Ha Long Bay, with several more people missing.

    Reports on the number of people dead and missing are mixed, with a local Vietnamese website saying 12 people had been found dead, including two Australians.

    VN Express said the dead Australians were "Vietkieu", which translates to Vietnamese Australians.

    Reuters reported 12 people had died, 15 were rescued and another 15 were still missing.

    But water soon started filling the boat and nine tourists and the crew jumped off, Van Thin said.

    He said those left behind, which may include people who had been sleeping in their cabins, went down with the boat as it sank.

    Only in Vietnam. I wonder if they will find sabotage on top of breaking every sea law there is.

    Posted by ethernet on 17th February, 2011

  • This article almost exactly describes our experience. We just got back today, and had booked with Ha Long Party Cruises. Avoid them. We were supposed to pay $89 for what was promised to be a luxury cruise, but ended up being on a pretty dilapidated boat with terrible food. Some people on the same boat had paid $140. Since we haven't actually paid yet, we'll see what happens, but we'll try and get a full refund - it was so bad. If you want to see nice scenery crammed with tourists and rubbish, go to Ha Long bay. But I'd rather spend my time elsewhere. And mind the scam companies (i.e., Ha Long Party Cruises).

    Posted by Richard on 17th March, 2012

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