How to Visit Cat Ba Island & Halong Bay Without a Tour

Mystical Halong Bay in Vietnam is one of the world’s new 7 natural wonders and high on most people’s Southeast Asia bucket list.

Most tourists visit the spectacular UNESCO world heritage listed site on a rushed Halong Bay cruise tour from Hanoi, but did you know you can avoid the tour boats and tourist crowds and enjoy Halong Bay at your pace and save money while doing it!

In this post I’ll show you how to visit Halong Bay with a tour and avoid the tourists from your base on beautiful Cat Ba island.

How to Visit Halong Bay

Halong Bay is a natural wonder of limestone peaks rising out of the ocean in North Vietnam. Halong Bay is in north Vietnam, just a few hours from Hanoi, the atmospheric capital of Vietnam. The nearest airport to Halong Bay is Hanoi International Airport.

The best way to visit Halong Bay and experience the stunning karst landscape is by boat; cruising through serene emerald waters, as towering limestone karst peaks covered in green foliage rise up around on all sides, becoming fainter in the distance before blending into the blue skies.

halong bay fishing villages
Amazing floating fishing villages in Halong Bay

As you cruise Halong Bay you’ll pass floating fishing villages clustered around the rocks and colourful little floating houses surrounded by nets of fish. You’ll be able to see local women in conical hats hauling fishing nets and going about their daily lives in canoes in the midst of this amazing landscape.

And of course, a highlight is jumping into swim in the cool, gorgeous emerald waters and kayaking around the explore sea caves and see the rock formations up close.

It’s no wonder that Halong Bay is a must see in Vietnam, but do you research first to make sure you do this spectacular sight justice and ensure it is a memorable experience for all the right reasons.

There are countless travel agents and tour operators in Hanoi who will want to sell you a Halong Bay tour. The options range from a day boat trip to multiple day cruises. The most popular option is a 2 day, 1 night cruise where accommodation aboard the boat, meals and kayaking are normally included.

If you are limited for time then this is the quickest and easiest way to see Halong Bay but I’d recommend booking in advance through a trusted online platform like Viator so you can check reviews first as there’s many scams and complaints about rushed itineraries, dodgy boats, overcharging, poor food, noisy karaoke and bad service.

There’s some cheap offers starting at only $50 but you get what you pay for so its often better to pay a bit more to ensure a safe and pleasant experience. This top rated 2 day 1 night Halong Bay luxury cruise with great reviews starts at $170.

How see beautiful Halong Bay without a tour

How to See Halong Bay Without a Tour

If you have more time to spare then it really isn’t difficult to enjoy Halong Bay without a tour and avoid the crowds by staying on beautiful Cat Ba Island!

You can save money, take your time and avoid the rushed, crowded tours from Hanoi and go independently to Cat Ba island, stay there a few days, explore this beautiful island and take a day boat trip around the less touristy parts of Halong Bay.

So here’s how you can visit Cat Ba island and see Halong Bay without a tour.

Visit Cat Ba Island

beaches of cat ba island, halong bay without a tour
Relaxing on the beaches of Cat Ba island with views of beautiful Halong Bay

Cat Ba is one of the best islands in Vietnam to visit and is emerging as an adventure and eco tourism hub. The iconic limestone cliffs of Halong Bay continue on land on Cat Ba island, which is also a designated National Park.

Cat Ba Island is the best place to base yourself for exploring the lesser known and less touristy part of Halong Bay – Lan Ha Bay.

As well as cruising Lan Ha Bay there’s also many other things to do on Cat Ba island itself from relaxing on the beach, exploring by motorbike, trekking through the national park to viewpoints or going rock climbing to exploring old forts and caves.

How to get from Hanoi to Cat Ba Island

Cat Ba island is the perfect place to head for a relaxed vacation while also being able to explore the less touristy parts of Halong Bay at your own pace.

However, traveling from Halong City to Cat Ba can also be fraught with scams so the best way to get to Cat Ba without the hassle is to get a combined bus – boat – bus ticket from Hanoi.

With this package you get picked up Hanoi’s Old Quarter and dropped off in Cat Ba Town. It runs 3 times a day and takes about 4 ½ hours and is by far the easiest way to get there.

Halong Bay Boat Trips from Cat Ba Island

boat trip on halong bay without a tour

I know this post is called ‘How to see Halong Bay without a tour’ but unless your traveling with your own boat or kayak you’ll want to take a boat trip or day tour to really see and experience the emerald waters and limestone pinnacles.

Luckily it’s super easy and affordable to see Halong Bay from Cat Ba island, simply take a boat trip where you’ll cruise around Lan Ha Bay for the day. Lan Ha Bay is the less touristy part of Halong Bay, where the sounds of noisy karaoke tourist boats are replaced with the puter putter of small fishermans boat engines as the only sound that breaks up the serene stillness.

We went on an amazing budget friendly boat trip with Cat Ba Adventures. As well as cruising around Lan Ha Bay and soaking up the stunning scenery we also visited a traditional floating fishing village, stopped at some beautiful beaches for a swim, explored the lagoons and caves on a kayak and enjoyed lunch on the boat. You can book the boat trip we took here.

cat ba island national park trekking views
Views over Cat Ba National Park after a sticky trek to the top

Other Things to do on Cat Ba Island

Most of Cat Ba Island is quite untouched by tourists and the best way to explore the island is by hiring a scooter or motorbike, we paid only $5 a day.

I enjoyed exploring Cat Ba National Park trekking through sticky jungle, keeping an eye out for the golden headed langur, the world’s most endangered primate, and climbing up to a viewpoint to be rewarded with stunning views.

The Hospital Cave used by the Viet Cong is also worth investigating, and the WWII Japanese built Fort Cannon also offers a cafe with gorgeous views overlooking Halong Bay.

There are also some lovely beaches on Cat Ba island like Cat Co 1, 2 and 3 which are within walking distance of Cat Ba town.

cat ba island harbour, halong bay without a tour
Not a bad view over Cat Ba island harbour for only $20 a night

Where to Stay on Cat Ba Island

Cat Ba is a pretty big island but most of the accommodation is based around the harbour front of Cat Ba town and it’s easy to find basic rooms for under $20 but there are now also some new upmarket options for those who want a bit of luxury.

I took a room at Huong Cang Sea View Hotel with a balcony and amazing views over the harbour and Halong Bay and spent time taking in the amazing scenery. It was also the perfect location for being close to the shops and restaurants and easy to jump on a boat tour from the harbour. You can book it here on Booking.com.

For a really unique and authentic experience you can even stay on a floating homestay in Halong Bay! The Lan Ha Floating Homestay offers quite a luxurious floating room in a fishermans village with homecooked, local food and you can book it online at Booking.com here.

For something a bit more upscale check out the Cat Ba Paradise Hotel located on the waterfront of Cat Ba Town where you can enjoy stunning views over Halong Bay from the rooftop swimming pool and sky bar.

If you prefer to stay on the beach then you might want to consider the Flamingo Cat Ba Beach Resort – a 5 star resort with 4 pools located right on the beach yet still within walking distance of Cat Ba Town.

I’d recommend staying 3 nights although you could easily spend a week on Cat Ba island, relaxing on the island’s beaches, soaking up the scenery and exploring Halong Bay independently.

Eating and Drinking on Cat Ba Island

When hunger strikes, you can find all the usual Vietnamese favourites and seafood restaurants around the harbour in Cat Ba town or go on a floating restaurant for something a little different.

Our highlight was enjoying an amazing seafood BBQ buffet for only $10 at Le Pont, a ship themed open air floating restaurant overlooking the harbour that also turns into a nightclub later on.

For drinks on a budget check out the cheap Bai Hoi joints that are set up along the promenade at night.

 

So now you know how to get to Cat Ba island, where to stay and what to do, why not avoid the crowds and dodgy tours, save some money, spend longer soaking in the spectacular scenery and have an amazing experience, it’s easy to enjoy Halong Bay without a tour!

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How see beautiful Halong Bay without a tour

 

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10 comments

Del March 24, 2015 at 5:22 am

Hi ! May I ask for or accomdation on Cat Bat Island? It sounds awesome.

Reply
Anna Phipps March 29, 2015 at 11:55 am

Hi, I really enjoyed my time on Cat Ba Island but I can’t remember where we stayed now. We usually just turn up, check a few places out and take our pick. There is a lot of nice budget accommodation around the Cat Ba harbour area they all seemed pretty similar. Ours was green but I’m sorry I don’t remember the name!

Reply
Erick December 17, 2015 at 5:17 pm

Hi! How about wifi over there?is it easy to find coffee shops or even accomodations with internet? Any help i would appreciate it.

Reply
Anna December 18, 2015 at 8:49 am

I don’t think there were any coffee shops on cat ba island and the budget hotels did not have wifi either – it’s not a super touristy or built up place but wifi was good in Hanoi

Reply
Lauren August 14, 2016 at 1:06 pm

Thanks so much for this! I’m going to Vietnam next year so will definitely have to see Halong Bay this way 🙂

Reply
Anna August 16, 2016 at 12:24 pm

Hey Lauren! Glad the post helped! Hope you have a great time in Vietnam! 🙂

Reply
Samuel Mozilo October 8, 2016 at 6:58 am

Visit to Cat Ba is really unbelievable experience. Your photos are extraordinarily better than average!) I like your photo! May i know you use which camera and point of convergence?

Reply
Cyrielle July 27, 2018 at 9:22 am

Thanks so much for your info about Cat ba, I visted to cat ba in may 2018, so easy to book bus tranfers from hanoi to cat ba and return to cat ba to hanoi 23$ for roundtrip

Reply
douglas haguesmith March 30, 2020 at 4:36 am

Hi Anna, great info on Cat Ba, My first trip was in 1976, Darwin Oz to Bali then o’land to UK.
It took 13 months, I was 25yo (now 69) and still going at it…Just completed Krabi thailand and Malacca (spelt 4 different ways, just to be different). the Islands off Ao Nang, krabi are very similar to that of Halong, but expensive now…Malacca, is like Venice in Asia, a real treat.
I was lucky to have freely roamed thru Persia (Teheran) and surrounds in 1977, and found locals to be extremely friendly and generous, recently re-affirmed by Johanna Lumly, God bless her, wilst trekking the Spice trail…I found the same with the Muslims in Malaysia, especially the the Muslim markets in Malacca, a treat. Thku for info on Halong, my last trip to Nam was 3 years ago, Vung tau to Hue, next trip north when travel resumes..cheers Doug…Duk in Thai or Dook

Reply
Anna May 13, 2020 at 5:17 pm

Thanks Doug! 🙂 Wow sounds like you must have some amazing travel stories. I wish I could have travelled in those times. I wish I could have done the Hippie Trail overland to Goa!

Reply

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