Halong bay

Sarah from SupBoardGuide shares with us how best to experience Halong Bay without the scams and tourists!

In 2015, I booked a three-week holiday to Thailand. I came home 6 months later.

I was having a bad day, I had, had a fight with my boyfriend at the time. So I booked a flight and broke it off.

Taking care of Sacky 101.

After a couple of months, I also sent an email to my boss stating I was coming home. But didn’t know when. So it was probably best I just quit.

Eventually landing in Vietnam, I met up with my best friend there and it was her birthday soon. So, we decided to give rock climbing a go.

I found a website “Asia Outdoors” that did deep-soloing. Which is climbing over water. So no gear, you just jump off. Or fall off if you are a rookie like we were. They had awesome reviews and good company values.

The main attraction was that they gave you a detailed “How to get to Cat Ba” explanation. The local way, not through some scammy tourist bus service. Insider knowledge when you are traveling feels like holding the secret to eternal youth.

It wasn’t until we got there that I realized the treasure we had found by luck.

Waiting to talk to the climbing guides I had a chat with a couple who were there for the day.

They’d booked a tour from Ha Long that stops on Cat Ba to see the “this-can’t-be-real” hospital cave. They were drowning in self-pity realizing how quiet, beautiful and generally friendlier Cat Ba was than Ha Long. Because they also stated it’s pretty much exactly the same scenery.

Halong Bay

The reason everyone goes to Ha Long is to see the limestone karsts blasting their way to the heavens out of the green, calm waters of the bay. They take the traditional junk boats to get a taste of culture and normally spend a night or two under the stars.

The whole thing is so easy to sell and sounds incredible. For some, it would be the experience that is described. Though they forget to mention the hundreds of boats that share the water. The rubbish that floats between you and the karsts. The scams. When you realize you paid $100 more than someone who’s on the same itinerary, the romance suddenly feels sleazy.

For me, coming from a place of natural beauty that you rarely have to share, the realistic side of Ha Long makes me not want to go there. Hustle, bustle, scams, tourists….

Planting my feet on quiet Cat Ba where I more than once found myself in natural beauty, where I’d perhaps run into 4 or 5 people the whole day. That is more appealing. And to get the same experience you would in Ha Long but at a fraction of the cost? Yes, please!

I was asked to help make menus in English by entrepreneurs starting vegetarian restaurants. My soul was filled with the genuine smiles of the girls at the markets after gifting them clothes I no longer wanted to travel with. Junk boat parties on floating villages drinking their wood chip wine. Okay, so I think I threw up that night but still, the experience was great! Even the horrible 7 am karaoke blasting from the bay couldn’t wipe the satisfaction of staying on this gem of an island.


And through all of it, I felt like a guest. I was a guest on the island. Everyone was my host and I felt welcome. In fact, so welcome, I accidentally used my whole month visa there.

A love of climbing was born. An already proud love of Vietnam was nurtured. I even started my paddle boarding venture there which now acts as my job.

If you are planning a trip to Vietnam, take my advice and get to Cat Ba. Hire a bike and explore this history. There are caves after caves and many you’ll have to yourself. The man at the hospital cave loves guitar and so if you play, go have a jam. It was my weekly jam! (get it! haaa)

You can go paddle boarding, kayaking, canoeing and take in the natural wonders on your own time. You can go out on junk boats with the (very good looking) climbing guides and have your memories printed with a starlit sky, soundtracked by drunk karaoke and the feeling of a light breeze drifting over your rooftop bed.

You’ll get a daily influx of tourists but outside of those hours, you are treated to serenity. Don’t give me the satisfaction of saying “told you so” when you are crying with an empty wallet because you can’t see the karts through all the other boats and tourists. And say hey to the guys at Asia Outdoors for me!

Thank you Sarah!

Tell us about your experience visiting Halong Bay! What are your top tips? 

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Halong bay
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  1. Vietnam and Halong Bay seem like the paces to visit this year. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  2. Wow this place sounds wonderful!! Such an awesome job too! I love the secluded areas and all the activities you can do!

  3. I went to Vietnam in August last year, and it was way too amazing. We headed out to Lanha Bay, from Cat Ba, rather than Halong Bay, and absolutely loved it. Specially, when we head out kayaking and add up jumping off the boat.

  4. Halong bay is in my bucket list as Vietnam is one of the few countries I haven’t visited in SEA, but I didn’t know it was this busy and touristy. I’ll definitely keep your suggestions in mind for the future.

  5. […] Halong Bay is iconic and for good reason. Labeled as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this bay is stunning, full of jagged limestone karsts protruding from the water. It is a unique experience and a must in Vietnam. Just make sure you choose your cruise wisely using these tips for Halong Bay. […]

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