If you’re like us, then you probably started researching boat cruises as soon as you decided to visit Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. There are dozens of them, and our heads were quickly spinning. Let us help you break through the clutter and explain how visiting Cat Ba Island is the best way to tour Ha Long Bay on a budget.
Options for Seeing Ha Long Bay
Let us start by covering the three options there are for visiting Ha Long Bay. While not all of them are budget friendly, it’s good to know your options before proceeding:
Go on a Day Cruise
Best for: People on a tight time frame, don’t mind sharing the space with a large crowd and are on a tight budget.
The cost for a day cruise will be your cheapest option if leaving from the mainland. We regularly saw quoted prices between $25-$150 USD per person. However, once you calculate in transit to/from the bay, you won’t get to spend much time on the water. We’ve also read multiple reviews stating how there’s hordes of other boats and tourists to contend with.
Take a Multi-day Cruise Lasting 2-5 Days
Best for: People who want to spend more time on the water, have everything prearranged for them and aren’t worried about cost.
Multi-day cruises go further out into the karsts, helping get away from the mass of day cruisers. However, being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, cruise operators are required to take a set route around the islands, meaning you’ll still be with all the other multi-day ships. They seem to do a better job though of spacing out so you don’t feel crowded.
On a multi-day cruise you’ll have everything included: meals, lodging and planned activities/excursions. All these extras come with a higher price tag though (anywhere from $150-$500 USD per person depending on the size of boat and length of cruise).
Stay on Cat Ba Island
Best for: People who want to see the karsts and other activities over multiple days, while staying on a lower budget.
The final option (and our recommendation) is to skip the regular cruises and instead stay on Cat Ba Island. Cat Ba is the largest island inside the bay, so you’ll have great views and access to the karsts, for a fraction of the price. Additionally, the excursions that the multi-day cruises participate in happen on Cat Ba Island, so you’ll have those activities easily at your fingertips.
Budget for staying on Cat Ba Island can be as low or high as you’d like. For reference, our 4-day trip cost a total of $245 USD for two people, including lodging, food, transport and multiple activities.
Getting to Cat Ba Island
Assuming you’ve decided to proceed with option 3 and stay on Cat Ba Island, the next thing you’ll need to figure out is how to get there.
Travel from Hanoi
If you’re traveling from Hanoi, then the cheapest and fastest option will be to books tickets with a private bus company. They offer direct service to Cat Ba Town, which is the main area to stay, eat, etc. on the island. Transit usually takes about 4 hours and involves a bus trip to the bay, speedboat ride across the water, and then another bus into town.
There are multiple companies that offer this service, but we used Cat Ba Express and really enjoyed them. They were professional, spoke good English and provided a small water bottle and snack once on board. Cost was $12-$14 USD per person, depending on which direction you’re traveling.
Travel from Ha Long City
If you plan to visit Ha Long City before heading to Cat Ba, then you can take the public ferry to the island which departs from Bến Phà Tuần Châu. This is a slow ferry that takes approximately 1 hour to make the journey. Costs will vary depending on how you’re traveling (walk on vs with a bike or car). We saw other people have been quoted 100,000 VND ($4.32 USD) for a bike and driver, or 80,000 VND ($3.45 USD) for just a foot passenger.
The ferry departs only a few times each day. Although a bit outdated, this website was the best place we found with information for ferry times.
Once across the water and on Cat Ba Island, there’s a public bus – dubbed the “green bus” (even though it’s not green) – that you can catch to Cat Ba Town. The bus fare is 60,000 VND ($2.58 USD) per trip, no matter how far you’re traveling. The bus only comes a few times a day, so either plan to wait if it’s not there when you arrive or negotiate a taxi/motorbike ride across the island.
Although we can’t speak to the effectiveness of this route, we did use the green bus during our stay on the island. It was always on time, if not a bit early. Each time we found the bus got crowded fast, with the driver squeezing as many people on as possible. As such, be prepared to hold everything you bring (including luggage) in your lap. It’s essentially a minivan so there’s no designated luggage hold in the vehicle.
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Travel from Hai Phong City
There are two ferry ports from Hai Phong City that’ll get you to Cat Ba Island. First is the Ben Binh ferry station, which offers both fast hydrofoils/speedboats or slow ferries. The hydrofoils will take you approximately 45 minutes to get to the island and appear to go straight to Cat Ba Town, whereas the slow ferry is around 2 hours and will drop you off on the north of the island where you’ll then have to arrange transport down to Cat Ba Town.
The cost will depend on how you’re traveling, but for a walk on passenger it’s approximately 180,000 VND ($8 USD) for the hydrofoil and 130,000 VND ($5 USD) for the slow ferry. You can find out more about the costs and time schedule at this website.
The second ferry terminal is Dinh Vu, located about 20km away from the city itself. To get there you can catch a bus from Ben Binh harbor to the Dinh Vu pier. From there catch a ferry (the ride is about 25 minutes long) to the north of Cat Ba Island, where you’ll then need to arrange separate transit into Cat Ba Town. You can find out more about the costs and time schedule at this website.
Budget Tip: Ferry times are limited no matter which route you take. Unless you book direct transit from Hanoi, it will be difficult to get to Cat Ba in one day. You’ll likely have to spend a night in either Ha Long City or Hai Phong City. Once we added the cost for the transit to the bay, an overnight hotel stay, and then the ferry costs, it ended up being more expensive than just taking the direct trip with a company from Hanoi. If you plan to see Ha Long City/Hai Phong City, or have your own vehicle, then piecing together the transit to Cat Ba is more fiscally feasible.
Things to do on Cat Ba Island
Once in Cat Ba Town, you’ll have an entire island to explore. There’s really something for everyone, so it’s just a matter of choosing your own adventure. Here’s a list of our top activities.
Hike to Canon Fort
Just a hill climb away from Cat Ba Town sits Canon Fort, which played an integral part during WWII, along with the French and American wars. As you wander the site there are plaques helping explain what you’re seeing, so make sure to take the time to read them. Otherwise you may be a bit lost.
Canon Fort also provides amazing views over the bay and surrounding karsts. Don’t hesitate to take break on some of the benches and just marvel at the bird’s eye view surrounding you.
ProTip: Visit the fort right before sundown. You’ll have one of the best sunset spots on the whole island. Just make sure to go well in advance to tour the fort as everything closes down shortly after dark. We made the mistake of watching the sunset first and then exploring the fort, and almost got locked inside for the night. Oops.
Lounge at the Beach
There are three popular beaches on the island, aptly named Beach 1, Beach 2 and Beach 3. Beach 1 is the closest to Cat Ba Town, with the other two within walking distance. If you’re not up for the walk though, then you can hire an electric cart to take you there. They drive a loop between all three destinations, so it’s an easy hop-on/hop-off service. Just flag one down and go! Cost is 10,000 VND per person per trip ($0.43 USD).
Don’t forget to use these tips to protect yourself from sunburn!
Day Cruise Around Ha Long Bay
While wandering town, make sure to check out the different day tours that are on offer. All the companies have shops along the waterfront, so this is the place to book a cruise of Ha Long and Lan Ha Bays if you’re interested. There are plenty of operators to choose from, each with slightly different routes, so walk into a few and get the specific on where they go and what’s included before booking. It’s possible to book as little as the day before.
We went with Cat Ba Vision for our day cruise, at a cost of $25 USD per person. Can you believe that price difference from the multi-day tours we were originally considering?!
We chose them because their route skips the popular Monkey Island hike and beelines it directly into the karsts. This allows you to go further out than other cruises and gives more privacy throughout the day, so you hardly ever see another cruise ship.
The cost also includes an English-speaking tour guide, full lunch (we were stuffed), kayaking, a visit to a local fishing village and the option to swim in the bay (which Laura did of course, because YOLO). Needless to say, it was a wonderful experience and one we’d recommend.
Wander Cat Ba Town
Although the biggest town on the island, it’s still decently small and easy to explore in a couple of hours. Wander the waterfront, check out the covered market and perhaps grab a drink to pass the afternoon.
Explore Cat Ba National Park and Caves
Another popular activity on the island is visiting Cat Ba National Park. Offering four different hiking routes, we opted for the day hike to the Ngu Lam Peak. It takes approximately 2 hours round trip, and the peak provides a wonderful view of the surrounding forest.
If you take the same hike, make sure to hold onto your ticket as it also includes entry to the Trung Tran Cave. After your hike, just head back out the main gates and walk down the road, towards Cat Ba Town. You’ll then find the entrance soon on your right.
Tips for Visiting Cat Ba National Park
- There are tours you can book for visiting the reserve, but it’s not necessary. The trail was very clear and well market. Instead save the money and transit there on your own.
- If you’re renting a scooter, then you can just drive it to the national park. There are multiple options to park once you arrive, either at the National Park itself, or across the street at one of the restaurants. Just be warned. If you park for “free” at a restaurant, they’ll expect you to buy something either before or after your hike to compensate.
- We opted not to rent scooters while on the island, and instead caught the local bus from Cat Ba Town. It leaves at 8:00 AM, 10:00 AM and 12:00 PM each day, and costs is 30,000 VND per person per trip ($1.30 USD). People had difficultly telling us where the pickup started, so check out our pin on the map below:
- Many reports online say the bus is called the green bus. While this may have been true in the past, it no longer seems to be green, so the only way to identify it is by the tag “local bus” across the front and sides.
- Besides the initial pickup spot, there aren’t any designated bus stops across the town. Instead we just saw locals flagging down the bus as it drove by. You’ll want to do the same if catching it back from the national park, otherwise there’s no guarantee they’ll stop for you if you’re just standing on the side of the road. Return trip times from the national park are 1:00pm and 4:30pm.
Visit the Hospital Caves
Very close to the nature reserve and Trung Tran Cave is the hospital caves. During the war these caverns were used as a hospital during the war. With displays showing the setting during this time period, it’s a unique look into history and war times.
Hike Monkey Island
If you missed Monkey Island during your day cruise of the bay, then you can go separately for a day-hike. For this you’ll either need to book a tour to visit or hire a boat to take you across the water. There’s no scheduled transportation to/from that destination.
Where to Stay on Cat Ba Island
If you’re a solo traveler, then try your hand at Cat Ba Central Hostel. They’re located on the main drag and right in the heart of the town. With dorm rooms starting at $6 USD a night, it’s a great budget-friendly option.
We booked our stay with Cat Ba Family Hotel, but ended up getting switched to Cat Ba Island Hotel at the time of check in. Both are apparently run by the same family, so although they assured us everything was “same same”, the pictures of what we were promised were not what we received. However, for the low price of $11 USD per night, it sufficed. Personally we wouldn’t recommend booking with them because of their sketchy business practices, but if you’re looking for a budget accommodation then it’ll get the job done.
If you have more money to spend, then there are plenty of options on Hotels.com around the $30 USD per night price point. We’d recommend something like Cat Ba Valentine Hotel, which was recently opened and has great reviews.
If you want to still obtain the luxury experience of a cruise, then consider staying at Monkey Island Resort. It’s not technically on Cat Ba island, but just a short boat ride away. Rooms can be booked around $50 USD a night.
ProTip: If you’re a light sleeper, consider choosing a hotel on one of the side streets in town. At night the bars and night clubs like to play loud music and being off the main drag will help reduce the noise.
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