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The Cheaper Way to See Halong Bay Without a Cruise

I spent hours researching every Halong Bay Cruise there was and finally came to this conclusion: it’s way too expensive! I have found a way to do Halong Bay WITHOUT an expensive cruise (basically the cheap way to do Halong Bay) and it’s perfect for those of us who love to save money AND see incredible places! So here’s my alternative to Halong Bay Cruises Itinerary!

First off, let’s start with a few reasons why you should reconsider your decision to go on a Halong Bay Cruise:

It’s too expensive and the quality doesn’t match the price

You’re in Vietnam and the cost of living here is CHEAP. So why don’t the Halong cruises match that? I’m not sure! I read so many reviews and the overall feeling was that people weren’t getting what they paid for unless they really overpaid.

Boats on Halong Bay

What usually happens with us is that the more we pay for something, the higher our expectations are. I think that happens to everyone, even subconsciously. The “best” Halong Bay cruises were WAY out of our price range at anywhere from $200 to almost $400 per night!

Aren’t we on vacation so that we can have fun and enjoy ourselves? And when does that happen the most? When we are trying to save money!

Like I said in the post where I explained that budget travel is more fun, the adventures always seem to happen when you decide to save money and go a different route than everyone else.

Too many options!

I spent DAYS going through a million different cruises and wasted time going through reviews because that’s what you’re supposed to do, go on a Halong Bay cruise overnight!

But even after spending all that time on narrowing down which cruise to go on, we still weren’t convinced that any of them would be worth it. This made me laugh a little in the end because the cruises are done in something called a “Junk boat.” We decided to skip out on the Halong Bay junk cruise.

bad reviews

We are really used to seeing one or two bad reviews and still deciding to do something. Nothing is perfect and it usually ends up fine. However, we were starting to get nervous especially because this was going to cost us more than usual.

If you do want a nicer experience for a bit cheaper, it looked like the best cruises were going to Lan Ha bay instead of Ha Long. The Halong Bay cruise prices change a bit when you skip the main bay, but maybe that would be worth it.

They don’t provide drinks (not even water!)

You start to get the feeling that they are trying to nickel and dime you here. I am someone who drinks a TON of water, and feeling like I would be spending a ton of money every day on tiny bottles of water would not be fun.

Plus, you already shelled out anywhere from $80-300 per person, and they still refuse to provide water? Hmmm…

You can have a better experience for cheaper

Yes, it’s possible! Whenever I see everyone saying there’s only one good way to do something, I take that as a challenge.

For example, did you know you could hike up the Eiffel Tower in Paris instead of taking an expensive elevator? And you don’t have to book months in advance for it?

Limestone islands in Halong Bay
Why book a cruise when you can get views like this for cheaper?! Keep reading!

There’s always another way that’s more fun, cheaper, and off the beaten path. Here’s a step-by-step of what you should do instead of booking that crazy expensive cruise.

what to do instead of a halong bay cruise

Hike Poem Mountain

First, make sure that your first stop on your Halong Bay trip before heading to the sea is to Poem Mountain! It is the BEST viewpoint I have ever been to, but it’s complicated and a bit sketchy.

Go read the step-by-step guide to get to the top here and check out our Halong Bay City hotel recommendation as well (super budget-friendly!)

Girl sitting on a rock looking at Halong Bay

Take the ferry to Cat Ba Island

How to get to Cat Ba Island from Halong Bay is actually really easy! From Halong Bay City you are going to cross a bridge onto the Island Tuan Chau and take the ferry from there.

Getting to Cat Ba Island only costs 80,000 dong per person and another 20,000 to bring the motorbike, which was only 180,000 dong total or about $7.70 USD.

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I recommend that you bring a motorbike with you or have transportation arranged on the other side before hopping on this ferry. When we got to the other side there was only ONE taxi and that probably costs a ton of money since they’ve got you stuck there.

Girl on ferry in Halong Bay

Another thing is that it is about an hour’s drive from where they drop you off to Cat Ba Town. Without any transportation, you’re out of luck!

However, the drive is absolutely GORGEOUS and I always enjoy the views even more from the back of a motorbike.

If you took a bus from Hanoi, you would have to look into renting a motorbike in Halong Bay.

The best part is that if you have a motorbike with you is that it only costs 20,000 dong to take it on the ferry with you! That’s less than a dollar.

Ferry Prices from Halong Bay City to Cat Ba Island

This is the timetable for the ferry. For reference, you are currently on Tuan Chau Island and you’re heading to Gia Luan (Cat Ba). You might want to double-check the times with your hostel/hotel before heading out to catch the ferry!

Ferry Timetable for Halong Bay to Cat Ba

The views from the ferry

If you are really short on time and want to go the cheapest route possible, I think that just taking the ferry to Cat Ba and then heading straight back would be worth it! Especially if you are looking to do a one day boat tour of Halong Bay without spending a ton of money.

Girl on ferry through Halong Bay

The Vietnamese ladies pictured below rowed SUPER far and it looked like they were heading for Tuan Chau!

3 Vietnamese women rowing a small boat in Halong Bay
Limestone Karsts in Halong Bay

We even got to see some floating fishing villages before getting to the dock! The perfect Halong Bay tour!

Floating Fishing Village in Halong Bay

Be prepared to see patches of water bottles, waste, and trash as you go through the bay. Another reminder that we need to do better! Don’t throw your trash in the ocean!

Trash and waste in the ocean

Here’s the dock at Cat Ba. As you can see, there’s not much there. Make sure you have transportation.

Cat Ba Ferry Dock

Motorbike across Cat Ba

This is an experience in itself as you can tell from these views!! It was like Hawaii but nobody around! Of course, if you’re not on a motorbike it won’t quite be the same but it’s the same drive.

It takes 40 minutes to an hour to get to Cat Ba town from here.

Cat Ba roads
Hills on Cat Ba
Cat Ba Road

Stay on Cat Ba Island

Jake booked the cheapest Homestay that he could find, which happened to be on Booking.com. We usually check Booking and Airbnb, but sometimes Airbnb hasn’t made it to a place yet!

Green homestay (used to be Little Beach Homestay) was absolutely PERFECT! It was clean, air-conditioned, private and we had a balcony out front.

Plus, they actually gave us a blanket and not just a sheet (which is pretty common in Southeast Asia). I really struggle to sleep with only a sheet so that’s a huge plus every time.

We could even see the ocean from there. It was the most adorable tiny house.

Homestay in Cat Ba

We ordered dinner and shakes directly from the Homestay since we were about 15-20 minutes away from the main town. (Although my friends told me that there aren’t many good food options in town). Then the family would bring the food to our balcony so we could eat in front of the view.

Chocolate Milk Shake and a view of Cat Ba
Can you spot the limestone in the distance?

So if you’re wondering where to stay on Cat Ba Island, check out this out-of-the-way homestay.

Book a Halong Bay day trip from your hotel/hostel/homestay

The prices for these are WAY more reasonable than anything you were seeing online. We booked directly through our homestay since it was the cheapest price we had seen so far. Only $18 per person for a 7-hour Halong Bay boat trip with lunch included!

Halong Bay has a few places that people consider “must-see” but we weren’t as worried about going to all of those. I’d rather go to places just as beautiful and with way fewer people. The only thing I really wanted to see was the floating fishing village and since that was on the itinerary, I was happy!

If you have certain places that you for sure want to see, make sure you check with your tour before booking. If you’re more open to any itinerary, keep reading and I’ll go over all the stops on this tour and you can decide for yourself.

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Cat Ba and Halong Bay day tour itinerary

We got a $2 discount on top of that as well because we rode our motorbike to the boat instead of getting picked up at our homestay.

Another good option is to book with Cat Ba Ventures. They are one of the best Halong Bay tours on Cat Ba! Their tours are $26 per person and the reviews are really good.

However, we just went with the cheapest option from our homestay and we weren’t disappointed.

Explore Cat Ba

After booking your tour and checking in to your homestay, you might have a little extra time on your hands. (Yay for free time on vacations!)

You could spend this time going into Cat Ba town for those beaches or hiking Cannon Fort (which is another viewpoint of Halong Bay).

We didn’t actually do either of those and didn’t feel like we missed out on much since we got to see two other awesome viewpoints (Poem Mountain and Monkey Island, which I’ll talk about later!)

Since we got up so early to do the Poem Mountain, we took a little nap at our homestay before going out to the beach that our host recommended to us.

Sometimes you have more fun when you go somewhere that’s not listed on Google. We ended up at an abandoned resort and local beach without a tourist in sight!

Cat Ba Beach
Cat Ba Beach

We walked to the gazebo (is that what that’s called?) and just sat there for a while. It was awesome to be able to have incredible 360 views of the bay without paying a penny!

Man looking at the view of Cat Ba beach
Girl sitting on gazebo fence in front of Cat Ba View

Then we kept walking down the road to find 50 goats that were living in this amazing resort, but no humans.

Cat Ba beach and an abandoned resort

Here’s the pinned location on Google Maps if you’d like to go to the abandoned resort:

I suggest you park as soon as you see the first beach and then walk around the resort. Who knows, maybe it’ll be back in business soon.

A quick side note about swimming

Jake and I have been to a lot of beaches in Vietnam and I have never felt 100% good about swimming there. The water from the South all the way up to Halong Bay is very brown with lots of trash.

Overall, it’s pretty dirty. We did go swimming but mostly because we were so sweaty and couldn’t avoid it anymore.

Trash on the Cat Ba beach
Not all beaches in Vietnam look like this, but it’s not uncommon. This was at the abandoned resort.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t swim or that these places aren’t worth visiting, but I think it’s important for your trip that you know what to expect. When your expectations are a little more realistic I think you’ll have a better time.

I would not recommend coming to Vietnam for their beaches, but it is still worth seeing! Go to the Philippines, Thailand, or Indonesia for clear beautiful water and nice beaches.

Anyways, now back to your trip to Cat Ba!

Wake up and go on your Halong Bay boat tour!

Your homestay will usually have your transportation ready for you, but if you decided to save a few bucks and motorbike there then make sure you get the right location from your Homestay.

For us, we drove to the port at Ba Beo and made sure to park up the road a bit so we wouldn’t have to pay for parking (cheapskates over here! lol).

You should have been given tickets from your Homestay. If you get to the port on your own, just start showing them to the officials that are directing other tourists and they should point you in the right direction. We got these fancy lanyards to show which tour we were in (but you have to return them at the end!)

Cat Ba and Halong Ba Day Tour Lanyard

The boat tour stops

The Floating Fishing Village

Floating Fishing Village in Halong Bay

Halong Bay & Lan Ha Bay

I really couldn’t tell you which bay we were in at which time, but it all looked beautiful to us and there weren’t a ton of boats in the way.

Girl pointing at a Halong Bay Cruise boat
Just that one lol Look a boat!
Man looking at Halong Bay

Swimming

No other boats around! We got to swim here for about 45 minutes before other boats came. You could even jump off the boat into the water!

Ha Long Bay beach

Kayaking in Halong Bay around caves

Halong Bay Caves were so cool to kayak through. We had about an hour and 15 minutes to go through two separate caves before making our way back to the boat.

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Kayak in Halong Bay
A couple kayaking in Halong Bay
A woman kayaking through a cave

Monkey Island

No, I didn’t take any pictures of the monkeys. But yes, there are monkeys on this island. Once you have seen monkeys in Asia, you realize that these are not cute animals. They are pretty scary and love to steal your stuff.

Be careful and make sure not to touch them! A little girl on our tour kept petting one and it almost bit her.

Monkey Island Beach

The Halong Bay beaches right before a few tour boats arrived were completely empty.

Monkey Island beach

Hike to the top of Monkey Island

Keep walking to the end of the beach until you see graffiti. You start going straight into the jungle it seems, but there is a path! It is actually a really quick and easy hike.

It’s steep like Poem Mountain, but short so it only took about 20-25 minutes to get up and down (not including time to take pictures).

Girl hiking to Monkey Island Viewpoint

I did not expect to love Monkey Island as much as I did, but these views speak for themselves! And I didn’t see a single monkey on the hike up, which I was really happy about.

If you’re coming just for the monkeys, stay on the beach where they can steal your food and terrorize the tourists!

Monkey Island

getting back to Halong Bay

After your tour, you can decide to stay another night on Cat Ba or take the ferry back to Halong Bay or Hai Phong.

Since the boat tour ends at about 4:30 pm, you probably already missed the last Halong Bay ferry. However, depending on your next stop you could take a different ferry that goes to Hai Phong instead.

I would only recommend taking the other ferry if you are on a motorbike. You also get to see another side of the island on the way there!

Cat Ba road at sunset

The ferry goes from Cái Viềng to Gót. In order to get to the ferry stop, you just keep driving on the road by the sea until the road ends. Easy enough, but here’s the location on the map:

It costs us 65,000 dong with our motorbike and it only takes about 20 minutes to get across. Then you drive across that island and cross a bridge and then you are on the mainland again.

As far as timetables go, this is Asia and it changes constantly. We made it on the 5 pm ferry on a Saturday (the hours might change on the weekend).

Let your homestay know that you would like to go on that ferry and see if they can help you figure out when the last ferry crosses.

WE didn’t miss out and neither will you!

We got to see all the same spots and even some spots just for us for WAY cheaper than taking a cruise. I’d definitely say that with the ferries and the boat trip, we got to be on the best cruises in Halong Bay!

Halong bay Accommodation:

1 night in Halong Bay City: $13

Cat Ba accommodation

1 night on Cat Ba: $14

Excursions:

Hiking Poem Mountain: $8.60

2 Day Tours Halong Bay & Lan Ha Bay Price: $36

Motorbike:

Rental (we rent monthly in Hanoi so this is just the daily cost x 3): $2.87

Gas (filled up 3 times) : $10

Food:

We only paid for 3 meals for the whole trip since there were so many meals included in what we did!

3 Meals: $13

Snacks (drinks, ice cream, etc.): $9

Grand Total: $106.47 for the whole trip!!

Honestly, we would have spent more than that probably on one person on the boat, considering that they don’t provide water and sometimes excursions aren’t included either! Instead of a Vietnam cruise, try this way instead for your trip to Halong Bay, Vietnam!

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Found this post helpful? Don’t forget to pin this for your Vietnam trip! (:

Girl pointing at Halong Bay cruise
Girl on Boat looking at Halong Bay
Girl pointing at Halong Bay cruise

Lisa Wood

Sunday 30th of June 2019

wow - incredible how you were able to do so much for such little money! Our style of traveling - doing it on the cheap! Loved seeing your photos and your tips on how you shouldn't do a Halong Bay cruise, and instead stay in the accommodation that you booked through booking.com, rent motorbikes, pay for the food from your little Green Homestead and yeah monkeys don't interest me either :)

admin

Sunday 30th of June 2019

I had no idea it would be so cheap! And we had private rooms the whole time so it wasn’t bad at all! I’m glad you liked it, I really hope it helps you on your trip 😄 And yeah, monkeys are terrifying! 😬 glad I’m not alone on that one 😂