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DIY travel Hanoi to Bai Tu Long $30 budget per person: 3 days Quan Lan island, Vietnam

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Follow moments from my journey on Twitter and Instagram #livingoutofariutbag
 

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.

Arranged tours Hanoi to Bai Tu Long: $130+ per person

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

On this journey, I used the app Rome2Rio because Google had no idea how to get there. After a few days of research here's the journey I took - I'm writing in October 2017.
Train from Hanoi to Haiphong
Departure: 09:28
Arrival (on time) 12:00 
Price: 70,000VND

Buy the ticket at Hanoi main station the day before

I took the 09:28 train from Hanoi Long Bien, the station north of the old quarter, not the main Hanoi station. The vast diesel train that seemed to be broken and being fixed for the hour before it left was a positive surprise. Whilst looking like something 100 years old, it had wifi and electricity plugs. The food cart contained unidentifiable foods but also had water and snacks like crisps. After rolling through vast countryside scapes and small towns, it arrived bang on time in Haiphong.
DIY Hanoi to Bai Tu Long train Vietnam

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. 

Haiphong bus station address: 
Bến Xe Lạc Long, 22 Cù Chính Lan, Hồng Bàng, Hải Phòng
Departure: 14:00
Arrival: 16:30

Price: 70,000VND

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.

Bus from Hanoi Haiphong to Cai Rong Cam Pha Vietnam

Cam Pha mines

Cam Pha. I chose this town because, looking at Bai Tu Long bay on Google maps, Cam Pha seemed to be the nearest place. It wasn’t the right place. This is a coal mining town which does not care about tourists, Bai Tu Long or the incredible landscape which it borders. Everyone was surprised to see me, the children shouted “look, an American!” in shock when I turned a corner. I searched along the harbour for any sign of a boat to take me into the islands. No luck.

Hotel in Cam Pha Mines

I stayed at a hotel that was clearly for business people in the coal trade. Oddly, I found it on Airbnb. But it’s not intended for Airbnb travellers. I paid 460,000VND for one night. I don’t recommend it. If I were you, I’d get on the bus all the way to Van Dong Island and get off at Cai Rong. If you need to stay the night, find a hotel there. I saw a few as I walked down the road. That’s where the ferry goes from to get you to Quan Lan island. It'll also give you better options for early morning ferries.

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.

The bus went past the coal mine, through the coastal towns of this province, from the main land on to the start of the islands making up Bai Tu Long. I used my GPS to get off at the road leading to the ferry at Cai Rong. I was thrilled to get off the bus and be greeted by 20 taxi drivers grabbing me to jump on their bike. Tourism! Sort of. I disappointed them by walking, and headed down the T Junction at Cai Rong, the road to the ferry.

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. 

There are loads of simple cafes and restaurants around the ferry. The restaurant charged me tourist prices of 50,000VND for rice and chicken. But I was glad to have eaten before I got on.
Cai Rong ferry to Quan Lan and Bai Tu Long DIY

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

Departure: 13:00
Arrival: 16:00

Cost: 70,000VND one way

Ferry through Bai Tu Long Halong

Arriving in Quan Lan - my favourite place in Vietnam

I’m a planner. Yet, I hadn’t understood enough about Quan Lan to feel sure enough to book anything. This turned out to be the best thing. When you arrive, a peaceful gaggle of tuktuk drivers is at this single peer looking for customers. I initially held back to see if the locals got on them. They did. One young islander with a tuktuk spotted me, grabbed me, said “you need tuktuk”. I said, "no no, I’ll walk.” “It’s too far! It costs only 20,000VDN. Come on!” That’s 70p. I had no idea where I was going, so I got on.

Don't plan, just arrive - the island will look after you

I was planning on arriving, working out where I was and then finding a place. There’s no need to plan a thing. Just jump in a tuktuk, if you’re offered a place, take it. I paid 170,000VND for one person. I just stayed at the village where my tuktuk driver lived.
I took everything he had to offer: room, meals, water, I rented his motorbike for 100,000VND. I ate at the local restaurants and explored the entire island from there.
Really, I’m not a particularly adventurous person. I thought I had my entire journey through Vietnam planned out in the my head. Airbnb through the cities, maybe visit the greener parts. But basically, stick to Google maps and book a few nights in advance so I know where I’m going. Well, Quan Lan island finally broke my control. It decided what I was doing. And everything turned out 1000 better than I could have planned.
The island is simple, peaceful, beautiful. Take enough cash because nowhere accepts card and there are no cash machines. You might be planning one night, but this place is such a wonderful haven you’ll probably want to stay longer.
Quad Lan island Vietnam stay on a island budget travel

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 took the early morning 200,000VND speed ferry to Halong.

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.

Next stop: I think it's Ninh Binh and then heading south to Hue, central Vietnam and on to Ho Chi Minh. For now, a rest a Halong.