DIY travel Hanoi to Bai Tu Long $30 budget per person: 3 days Quan Lan island, Vietnam
Walking down the streets of Hanoi, every shop has a tour for $130+ to Halong Bay, and some even to Bai Tu Long, where you’ll find some of the most incredible landscapes of Vietnam’s amphibian national parks. The thousands of jutting islands amidst the calm seas are a glorious and stunning sight that must be seen. But do you have to pay $130 to see them? I stubbornly set out to get to Bai Tu Long myself to try and do it for less - and I did it. I also heeded the advice to avoid the tourism of Halong Bay.
My DIY trip from Hanoi to Bai Tu Long and Halong Bay: $30-50
My travel gear: secure hand luggage
On my 30 days through Vietnam I'm living in my RiutBag X25 - secure backwards laptop backpack - in expanded mode as my main luggage with a waist strap to help carry the load. Tucked inside is my RiutBag Crush, a secure backwards super light daypack that I use for short trips. Between these two, I have all my travel needs covered for 30 days. And, I'm not paying for checked luggage - everything is carry-on safe.
Step by step from Hanoi to Bai Tu Long without a tour guide
Buy the ticket at Hanoi main station the day before
Bus from Haiphong to Cam Pha
Coming out of Haiphong train station, I ignored all the taxi drivers who wanted to take me to Halong Bay. I walked across Haiphong from the train station to the bus station, grabbed some Bun Cha food along the way. Eventually, I found the bus station. You’ll have to ignore the taxi drivers again and stay alert for who actually works at the bus station. Over on the left, you’ll find the ticket office. I chose to get off at Cam Pha, but in reality, I would have done better going all the way to Cai Rong.
The bus was small, local and didn’t leave for a really long time. It wasn't clear why. I can see why tourists prefer just to take the pre-arranged tour. But if you’re happy to just see what happens, this trip pays off. Eventually it left. The driver and the guy who stands at the door looking after the passengers and pulling new ones in where totally in control. They new exactly where I wanted to get off and literally took me to the hotel I’d booked. Have faith! This trip may seem a little tricky but everyone helped to get me there.
Cam Pha mines
Hotel in Cam Pha Mines
Bus from Cam Pha Mines to Cai Rong
The next day I got up, ate Bun Cha breakfast round the corner for 25,000VND. I wasn’t sure where to get the bus from. There’s no bus stop, just look for a bus going where you’re going.
I saw the sign in the front said” Van Dong”. That was enough for me. I stuck out my arm, the bus barely stopped, someone pulled me up and I grabbed a seat. I handed the bus conductor 100,000VND not knowing how much it would cost and not saying how far I was going. He gave me back 60,000VND so it costed 40,000VND.
Ferry at Cai Rong to Bai Tu Long islands (Quan Lan)
The harbour was full of ships. The jutting islands were there to greet me. I've never never travelled like this before. I can only thank Rome2Rio, Wiki travel and one comment on a Lonely Planet forum for getting me there. I’m not used to being off Google’s directions. Here's where you're aiming for on Google:
Seeing the harbour, I asked someone how to get the island of Quan Lan. They pointed me left to the ferry office. This is just the place you get info and board your boat. You don’t pay for tickets on land - just wait until you get onboard.
I took the 13:00 slow ferry to Quan Lan. I arrived at about 12:45 to see what the process was for getting on the boat. I headed in, asked again where the ferry for Quan Lan left. Before I could get on, I was taken round the side of the ferry office to show my passport. Then I came back to the boat, asked to fill in my details - name, year of birth, nationality - and we set off. I didn’t pay for my ticket until we nearer the shores of Quan Lan.
Cai Rong to Quan Lan slow ferry
2 hours sailing peacefully through the most remarkable landscape I’ve ever experienced. When someone noticed I wanted to take pictures, they said I could head out on to the deck above. I spent most of the journey staring out as we passed hundreds and thousands of uninhabited islands in this limestone karst typography.
Cai Rong to Quan Lan island by ferry
Cost: 70,000VND one way
Arriving in Quan Lan - my favourite place in Vietnam
Don't plan, just arrive - the island will look after you
Rent a motorbike
I can drive a car but I’ve never been on a motorbike or moped. I don't have an international or Vietnamese driver's licence. For 100,000VND my host gave me a bike, filled up the tank for 40,000VND and showed me out to start it up. Within seconds I was driving down the island’s main road, weaving around goats, racing butterflies down the highways, stopping off at untouched white beaches, dipping into lagoons, slowing down not to disturb the water buffalo at the sides of the roads, waving at the kids shouting “hello!” as I drove past.
The villages are quiet at night. After a journey getting from Hanoi of constants new experiences hour by hour, I was the happiest kind of exhausted. I must have slept for 10 hours straight.
How to get off Quan Lan island
There are two options to get off the island: ferry to Cai Rong from Quan Lan at 13:00 or the ferry to Halong from Quan Lan at 07:00. I got the feeling from the blogs I'd read that I would have to leave from a different end of the island to get to Halong. That's not the case. You can leave from the ferry port you arrive. Just ask your hotel/guesthouse when you arrive what the options are.
My hotel host told me to meet him the next morning at 06:20 so he could take me, again for 20,000VND, to the ferry via tuktuk. The whole reason I’d made this trip was to avoid Halong and its tourism. But, given Halong is further east and I want to head south after this I just headed there ready to make my way through the tourist jungle.
I got to see Bai Tu Long and Halong, from the local ferry service. I stepped off at 08:30 this morning and, just so you know, I haven’t seen a single tourist here. Halong is beautiful in the morning. And I’ve just stopped off at a great blogging cafe called Wander Station. Great wifi, great coffee and tasty food.