Cat Ba Island: An Alternate Route to Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
The Story -- Cat Ba Island and Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
Not being one for tours, Sara and I decided to make our way to Cat Ba Island, where a day trip into Ha Long Bay wouldn’t involve a bus ride to Ha Long City and back. We took a bus/boat combo from Lương Yên bus station for 220,000 dong ($11 -- leaves at 7:20AM or 11:20AM). It included a tourist-filled bus to Hai Phong, where we waited for about 20 minutes before getting on another bus to a port where we took a ferry to the north part of Cat Ba Island and then took another bus to Cat Ba town. It took about 5 hours in total and wasn’t the most pleasant time, but it got us to our destination and didn’t require much thinking from us. If we were to do it again, we would have just taken a bus or train to Hai Phong and then caught a public ferry to the island. It would probably cost about the same, and it would require more planning, but that’s one of the reasons we travel.
Sample Budget (for 2)
Transportation from Hanoi: 440,000 (including a 20,000 taxi from Cat Ba Town to the hotel — not needed, but we bought a bunch of “Christmas cheer” at the store)
Accommodations: 4,060,000 (3 nights)
Meals: 1,040,000 (3 dinners, 1 lunch)
Scooter: 70,000 + 50,000 gas (probably only needed 25,000) = 120,000
Attraction admissions: 1,020,000 (Ha Long Tour, Cave, Cannon Fort)
Booze and snacks: 1,000,000 (don’t judge, it was Christmas)
Total: 7,700,000 ($352 USD) -- $117/day (way too high, but it was Christmas!)
We arrived in Cat Ba at about 4:30 and checked in to our room at the Cat Ba Island Resort and Spa — not a place that we’d usually stay but it was Christmas and, since it was the off-season, we got a great deal (about $60/night). The resort has two pools (it was too cold to swim though) and a couple of water slides. We were upgraded to a suite, which had a balcony with an ocean view, and we were given tickets for a free sauna/steam-room. Needless to say, we were happy with the accommodations. The location of the hotel was ideal. It’s just a smidgen out of town, about a 5 minute walk, and it’s surrounded by some large rocky hills that cut out the noise from the town and keep in that marvelous ocean sound.
Our first full day on the island we decided to rent a scooter and explore a bit. We got up early and walked to town to find a place that rented scooters. Our hotel charged 190,000 dong ($9.50) per hour for one — we were sure we’d be able to find one for cheaper. We took about 2 steps into town when someone yelled, “Hello, you rent scooter?”. That was easy. We rented one for 70,000 dong ($3.50) for a half day.
Our first stop was Cannon Fort. It was a short ride up a steep hill. It would be possible to walk to from the town, but it would probably take an hour and be exhausting. First and foremost, Cannon Fort offers great views of Lan Ha Bay. It’s also the location of, you guessed it, a fort and a cannon. Actually, it’s not really a cannon but a couple of giant artillery guns. There are also some tunnels and a few artifacts. The fort was built by the Japanese during World War II. It was also used during the Vietnam War. Admission is 60,000 dong ($3)/person.
The next stop was Hospital Cave. It was a beautiful half hour ride to the cave. There are only a few roads on the island, so it shouldn’t be hard to find. The restaurant across the street from the cave offers parking, and the guide will probably be hanging out there if he’s not showing someone else the cave. The cave was turned into a hospital to hold and hide people during the Vietnam War. It’s 3-storeys and contained a pool, a cinema, a training area, plus all the hospital stuff. It’s pretty incredible and worth the 30,000 dong ($1.50) admission.
After the cave we had lunch at the restaurant across the street. The food was good and the woman who runs the place was really nice. As we ate, she pulled out her guitar and practiced a few songs. We could have stayed longer, but we had to race back to the scooter rental place and return our bike. If we had more time, we would have gone to the national park and done a hike. Cat Ba Island is the only place in the world that has golden-headed langurs, one of the rarest mammals in the world. Don’t expect to see one, there are only about 60 left. The park also has a hike to a fishing village on the east side of the island, but if you take a tour of Halong Bay it’ll probably include a drive by the village. We easily could have spent the entire day riding around on the scooter, but we wanted to take advantage of the nice hotel we were in, so we bought a case of beer and a bottle of Baileys from the CT Mart just north of the main road on Nui Ngoc street, and plonked ourselves down on some loungers that overlooked the ocean. The rest of the day is a bit of a blur.
The next morning was Christmas! We were up bright and early for a tour of Ha Long Bay. We bought our tickets the day before from Green Mango Restaurant. They were 440,000 dong ($22) each. I think you’d be able to save some money if you buy your tickets from the hotel that actually operates the tour, but I’m not sure which hotel that was. All the tours are sold along the main road, so it’d be easy to shop around, but you’d probably only save a couple bucks. At any rate, it’s not a lot of money considering the tour includes a full day on a boat, lunch, kayak rentals, and a ride to and from the port. We left at 8AM. There were about 12 other people on the tour. The boat had a cabin and an upstairs with enough room so that everyone could sit inside or out at the same time. We putted along the harbour through Lan Ha Bay to Monkey Island where we were let off and given an hour to climb some rocks to a lookout point. It was a great view and we did manage to see a monkey on Monkey Island.
After that, it was a slow drive to Ha Long Bay where we parked and kayaked through caves and into amazing grottoes. It was pretty magical. At one point, we kayaked into an area that was surrounded by greenery. It was extremely peaceful, or at least it would have been if the other tourists would have shut up. It blows my mind that people can be surrounded by beauty and tranquility, but they can’t stop talking about themselves long enough to enjoy it. We managed to get away from the crowd a bit and sat in silence for about 2 minutes before we heard a noise from the trees. We paddled to where the sounds were coming from. It was a group of monkeys. We couldn’t see them but it was incredible just listening to them communicate with each other. Suddenly, a monkey let out an aggressive call. The noise filled the grotto and attracted the other tourists. I was a bit disappointed that we had to share our find, but at least they shut up for a bit, and we even managed to get a glimpse of a couple of the primates.
When we got back to the boat, lunch was ready for us. It was a nice collection of dishes that included tuna, shrimp, cabbage, rice, and spring rolls. After lunch, we headed back. There was a quick stop at a rock wall where we were invited to climb up and jump into the water. It would have been fun if the weather wasn’t so cold, but no one braved it. Overall, the tour was great because of the scenery it offered, but having warm sunny weather would have made it better. If you’ve read our blog in the past, you’d know how much we dislike tours. I think it’s because we generally hate people — that’s not true, but we prefer to do stuff alone so we don’t have to listen to someone talk about their office job in New York while we try and take in incredibly inspiring sights. I think that renting kayaks and exploring Lan Ha Bay alone would probably be just as good as the Ha Long Bay tour. Lan Ha is similar to Ha Long and there are many small beaches that you’d be able to stop at to picnic, swim, or relax. You would also be able to explore the local boats and fishing village in a bit more depth.
For Christmas dinner we went to Green Mango Restaurant for a bit of western food. The owner is a very nice man that does an excellent job running his business. They were the first western restaurant on the island. He told us the locals all told him the place would be a failure. Since then, they’ve opened up a restaurant in Hoi An, 2 in Hanoi, plus a hotel. The food was very good and the service was great. Because it was Christmas, we were given a free glass of mulled wine. We split lasagna and a pizza — not the most Christmasy meal, but it was much enjoyed. After dinner, we had dessert and coffee. The bill came to 460,000 dong ($23).
We spent a total of 3 nights on the island. I think another day would have been great to explore the national park, or to take down another bottle of Baileys, but we had to move on. Instead of the bus/boat/bus/bus combo to Ninh Binh, we took a ferry from the Cat Ba Town port to Hai Phong (220,000 dong/$11), then a taxi to the bus station (50,000 dong/$2.50), and a bus to Ninh Binh (70,000 dong/$3.50). I think we would have saved money doing the combo, but we needed the challenge of finding our own way and I think we saved a bit of time. Make sure you don’t jump into the first taxi at the port in Hai Phong. They will tell you that they can’t use their meters for whatever reason. If you walk to the street you should be able to find one that will use the meter. The first guy that approached us quoted 120,000 dong ($6) to the bus station. He lowered that to 70,000 after we refused, but using a taxi with a meter we paid 50,000 ($2.50).
My parting words about Cat Ba Island: The town isn’t much — apparently in the high season it’s booming but it was very quiet when we were there. The highlights are definitely around the island via scooter. It’s an easy ride and simple to navigate, so if you don’t have much scooter-ing experience, it’s not a bad place to start. The summer will be busier, but it’s probably worth it if you like swimming. The beaches on the island are nice and there are a few hidden away ones that will probably be fairly quiet if you can find them. I have heard bad things about Ha Long City. We hate tourist towns and the pestering that comes along with them, I think Cat Ba was a great way to avoid the trap but to still see the renowned Ha Long Bay.
The Facts -- Cat Ba Island
Getting in and out
If you are coming from Hanoi, a bus/boat combo from Lương Yên bus station is probably the easiest (220,000 dong – leaves at 7:20AM or 11:20AM). It takes about 5 hours and will have you going from bus to bus, via Hai Phong, to boat to bus. For information on taking the train from Hanoi, go here.
From the south, your options are limited to buses. Ninh Binh is a great stop if you want to see the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex. Whether it’s before or after your trip to Cat Ba Island, you can get one of the many buses that run between the towns throughout the day from Niệm Nghĩ bus station. It’s possible to get a bus boat bus bus combo to Ninh Binh (book it along the main street in Cat Ba Town at one of the many tourist offices — I think it’s possible to get it for 230,000 dong), or you can book a ferry from the Cat Ba town port (leave in the mornings from 6AM until about 3:00 — about 200,000 dong) and then take a taxi from the port to the bus station (about 50,000 dong).
Be careful getting a taxi at the Hai Phong port, some might refuse to use their meters, but if you walk to the street you’ll find taxis that will use the meter. We skipped the boat-bus combo on the way to Ninh Binh and it ended up costing about 335,000 dong each, so I’d recommend the combo for price and convenience.
Best Budget Hotel
Since we were there at Christmas, we spoiled ourselves a bit and stayed at the Cat Ba Island Resort and Spa. It was great, but it’s not a BUDGET hotel. Gieng Ngoc Hotel, on the other hand, is about $15/night, it’s close to everything, and the rooms are fairly big. They also offer views of the ocean, some with balconies.
Best Budget Restaurant in Cat Ba, Vietnam
Seafood! I mean, c’mon, you’re on an island. There are a lot of seafood restaurants on the main road, but to save money and to eat like a local, go to the far north-end of the main road where there are outdoor restaurants setup at night. Pick one of the busier ones, sit down, order, and feast.
The Video -- Cat Ba Island and Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
The Map -- Cat Ba Island and Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
Next Stop Recommendation -- Hanoi, Vietnam
It’s finally time to head to the capital. Hanoi has so many little hidden treasures that it’s possible to stay for a couple weeks and not get bored. To get there from Cat Ba Island, your best bet is to take the boat-bus combo with Hoang Long bus company. The multi-vehicle journey starts at 7:15AM, 9:15AM, 1:15PM, or 3:15PM. Buy your tickets at one of the tour offices along the main road in Cat Ba Town. The entire journey will take 4.5 to 5 hours and cost around 220,000 VND. You’ll be dropped off in Hanoi at Lương Yên bus station.