How to visit Cat Ba Island and cruise Halong Bay without a Tour

Cat Ba Island – How to cruise Halong Bay without a tour

Mystical, UNESCO listed Halong Bay is one of the world’s new 7 natural wonders and high on the bucket list of most visitors to Vietnam. Most visitors see Halong Bay from a rushed tour from Hanoi but with a little more effort you can avoid the tour boats and enjoy Halong Bay without a tour at your pace and save money doing it!

The best way to experience the stunning karst landscape of Halong Bay 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.

boat trip on halong bay without a tour
Cruising by boat is the best way to see Halong Bay but pick your tour very carefully

 Passing floating fishing villages clustered around the rocks and colourful little floating houses surrounded by nets of fish, watching women in conical hats hauling fishing nets and going about their daily lives in canoes in the midst of this amazing landscape and jumping into swim in the cool, gorgeous emerald waters.

halong bay fishing villages
Amazing floating fishing villages in Halong Bay

So no wonder Halong Bay is a must do in Vietnam but how to make sure you do this spectacular sight justice and ensure it is a memorable experience for all the right reasons

How to see Halong Bay without a tour

Halong is in the north of Vietnam just a few hours from the atmospheric capital of Hanoi. There are countless travel agents and tour operators who will want to sell you a Halong Bay tour in Hanoi but just as many tour horror stories about dirty, dodgy, rat infested boats, rushed itineraries, overcharging, scams, poor food, noisy karaoke and bad service.

How see beautiful Halong Bay without a tour

So see Halong Bay without a tour, save money, take your time and avoid the rushed, crowded tours from Hanoi – go independently to Cat Ba island. 

Cat Ba Island

staying on cat ba island is great to way to see halong bay without a tour
Cat Ba Island is a great place to base yourself if you don’t want to take a tour to Halong Bay. Photo Credit

Cat Ba Island is emerging as an adventure and eco tourism hub and the best place to base yourself for exploring Halong Bay and lesser known Lan Ha Bay and there’s also plenty to entertain you on beautiful Cat Ba island itself, however, traveling from Halong City to Cat Ba can also be fraught with scams and hassle so the best way to get to Cat Ba without the hassle is to get a combined bus – boat – bus ticket with a company called Hoang Long from Hanoi’s Luong Yen bus station 4 times a day which takes about 4 ½ hours.

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

It really isn’t difficult to enjoy Halong Bay without a tour and to also save some money by staying on beautiful Cat Ba Island and there is plenty to do – relax on the beach, explore by motorbike, trek through national park to viewpoints, explore old forts and caves, go rock climbing.

Of course you can also take a boat trip for only about $20 a day (easy to arrange at the many hotels along Cat Ba Harbour) around the limestone pinnacles of Lan Ha Bay the less touristed part of Halong Bay where the sounds of noisy karaoke tourist boats are replaced with the puter putter of small fishermans boat engines as they only sound that breaks up the serene stillness.

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 rooms for under $10. I took a room on the 6th floor with a balcony and amazing views over the harbour and Halong Bay for only $6 a night and spent time taking in the amazing scenery. You can just turn up and look around or you can check out and book accommodation on Cat Ba Island before you arrive.

cat ba island harbour, halong bay without a tour
Not a bad view over Cat Ba island harbour for only $6 a night

The iconic limestone cliffs continue on land on Cat Ba island. Motorbike hire for the day was only $5.  Most of Cat Ba Island is quite untouched by tourists, the Hospital Cave used by the Viet Cong is worth investigating and the WWII Japanese built Fort Cannon also offers a cafe with gorgeous views overlooking Halong Bay. I explored the national park trekking through sticky jungle, keeping an eye out for the world’s most endangered primate the golden headed langur, climbing up to be rewarded with stunning views.

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

For eating, 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 and cheap Bai Hoi joints are set up along the promenade at night.

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

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 so avoid the crowds and dodgy tours, save some money, spend longer soaking in the spectacular scenery and have an amazing experience.

Still not convinced or want more information? Here’s another D.I.Y tour of Halong Bay or if you still want to take a tour – here’s Rough Guide’s information on organized tours of Halong Bay or check out this post – Guide to Halong Bay: How to choose the best cruise.

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How see beautiful Halong Bay without a tour


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Del March 24, 2015 at 5:22 am

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

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!

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.

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

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 🙂

Anna August 16, 2016 at 12:24 pm

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

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?

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

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

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!


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