If I had to sum up our time on Cat Ba Island in one word, I’d have to go with ‘magic’.
Every visitor to Vietnam dreams of seeing those famous karst limestone islets rising up from a perfect blue green ocean. The impressive scenery and unrivalled natural beauty mean Ha Long Bay is a must on every travellers wish list.
Unfortunately, this does mean that a trip to this part of the world can quickly become a very crowded and ‘touristy’ affair. Boats jostling for the best sites, tour groups covering the same routes and stopping at the same sites each day. Despite the draw backs, we decided, like so many before us, that our trip just wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t get there.
Visitors to the area are generally sold a 2 day 1 night cruise package from Hanoi either by travel agents back home or on the ground in Hanoi. Initial research indicated this was the way to go since Ha Long town itself wasn’t a terribly interesting location. We started looking up our options but the more we researched, the less excited we got. Bad reviews talked of the obvious pollution, the relentlessly crowded waters and tourists scrambling for the perfect selfie as they kayak and visit caves with a hundred of their newest mates. Nothing about it sounded good, but luckily, just as we were about to pull the pin on the whole idea we stumbled across a little-known place called Cat Ba Island and suddenly, we had a plan.
When you think of Ha Long bay, you visualise that one picture of the ‘bay’ surrounded by cliffs, but what many people don’t realise is that Ha Long Bay is massive! It stretches across some 1553 sq kms and has up to 2000 islets. Right next to Ha Long bay sits an unassuming neighbour, Lan Ha Bay. Lan Ha offers equally, if not more beautiful scenery and is home to another 300 islets many with the added bonus of alluring and secluded white sand beaches. But best of all? Due to the distance from Ha Long, not many tourist boats venture into Lan Ha meaning you can cast your eyes across these incredible waters and see nothing but the views- bliss!
Getting to Cat Ba was easy. We travelled from Hanoi on a bus-boat-bus combo. Many reviews and blogs we read warned against road travel to the island and recommended the train, but honestly once you’ve been in Asia for a while you realise the roads aren’t that scary, and whilst it is still mildly unnerving when cars overtake around a corner with naught but a honking horn to warn oncoming traffic, the system works and I haven’t felt unsafe at any point on a bus trip in Vietnam.
We went with the Good Morning Cat Ba agency. Total cost was $US 18pp and included all transfers and pick up from your hotel in Hanoi’s old quarter, once the bus has picked everyone up in Hanoi the entire trip only takes about 3 hours. It is possible to do the trip on your own without the help of an agency which may end up slightly cheaper, but at this point in our trip we kind of just wanted to pay the bit extra for someone else to sort it out.
We left at around 9am and arrived in Cat Ba at about 12pm and once we’d checked into our home for the next few days went for a walk to get our bearings. We wandered about checking out the small town and found two of the three beaches on the island, Cat Co 1 and Cat Co 2, an easy 9 and 12 min walk respectively from town. Cat Co 2 has a resort located right on the beach with some pretty awesome looking bungalows, we wondered out loud on the cost and whether we could try staying a few nights but alas, our backpacking budget didn’t stretch that far #backpackingfeels. But the beach is public and the views are pretty. Cat Co 1 on the other hand is where it’s at. The beach is nestled in a dramatic cove with views of a few small limestone islands. But better yet, the beach is lined with umbrellas and chilled tunes serenade you as a sneaky bar serves up cold beers and cocktails with happy hour from 3-5pm every arvo.
Still, our main purpose in coming to Cat Ba was to see the bay! We knew that we wanted to do a boat tour and since it was December and the forecast for the next day was sunny we decide to try and organise one straight up. We found the Tourist information centre and figuring this was a good place to start went in for a look. Turns out this was the best move, we were able to book onto a group boat tour the next day for just $US 17 pp, it ticked off pretty much everything we wanted to see and included lunch (we get pretty excited when the meals are included these days – #budgetlife)!
Our boat tour started at 8am when we were picked up by bus and taken to Cat Ba ferry to board our boat for the day. We set off and were immediately blown away by the sheer number, size and immeasurable beauty of the karst limestone islands and formations in front of us. Not 10 minutes into the journey we were going past a quaint and picturesque fishing village of some 300 families, set against the dramatic backdrop of the mountains.
We cruised through the bay for around 30 mins until we reached Monkey Island. As the name suggests, there are monkey’s there. I’m not terribly fond of monkeys after a somewhat unfortunate and terrifying incident at a temple in Malaysia, but Davis was pretty excited to see them up close for the first time- that is until they started chasing & hissing at some kids – note to all – Monkey’s are not your friend!
It’s unclear if the island is called monkey island because it is home to monkeys or if some enterprising person just took a few monkeys over there, built a resort and called it Monkey Island. Either way it’s a nice island, with a lovely beach and beautiful views across the bay. There is a semi challenging walk you can take up to the top of the mountain which offers a beautiful vista across the beach and the bay.
After getting back on the boat we got to cruise through Lan Ha bay for around 1.5 hours. Lan Ha bay is hands down one of the most awe inspiring, breathtaking places I’ve ever seen. This place really does show nature at her best. With stunning view after stunning view, every corner offered a new treat for the eyes and best of all we had the whole place to ourselves sharing the water with only the occasional fisherman.
We then arrived into Ha Long bay and had an hour and a half for some kayaking. This was awesome. We paddled around secluded inlets, through a cave and found ourselves the only ones around – probably a good thing as we had to have a discussion about who was the captain of the kayak (me) and who should follow the captain (Shane), we may have disagreed on the finer points here ;p
Regardless of how you visit Ha Long, some form of kayaking will likely be included and we can’t stress enough that you should do it! The islands are impressive from the boat but up close and personal is another story and really puts them into perspective, making you appreciate them that much more. Kayaking done it was time for lunch (yay!) and then onto a spot in Lan Ha Bay for swimming and snorkelling. It was December and while the blue green waters looked inviting, it was cold and only a few brave souls dared to give it a go before quickly getting out shivering. Seeing this, we decided not to swim and just chilled on the boat, taking in the views with a beer. All too soon it was time to head back to Cat Ba, we sailed back through gorgeous Lan Ha Bay passing more secluded beaches, remote resorts and took a slower ride through the fishing village for a closer look at this unique way of life.
All in all there are a number of boat tours you can do and they are very easily organised and booked when you arrive. There were a number we found just by walking around town that we hadn’t found at all during hours of trawling the internet, so if you’re going, just book it when you get there. Many we looked at online were two and even three and four times the price we paid but the one we booked was great, with loads of time just cruising around staring at the landscapes in wonder broken up with activities – all in all perfect!
Day three on Cat Ba and we were amazed that the sun was still shining! We took this as a sign that we were meant to explore the rest of the island and rented a moto to check it out. Cat Ba town itself is not terribly exciting though it does have a few hidden gems if you look for them. We took in some incredibly views across the bay from the top of Cannon Fort and learnt a little about the history of war in Vietnam along the way. We visited the Hospital Cave which was used by Vietnamese soldiers during the war as, you guessed it, a hospital. I wouldn’t call this a must see as a cave, but it’s definitely interesting if you’re a bit of a history or war buff and I was glad we stopped for a look. You’ll be charged an entrance fee of 50 000 dong and a guide will walk you through the rooms within the cave explaining what the various areas were used for during war time.
Cat Ba Island is small so it takes no time at all to get from one side to the other. We’d heard there was a nice view from the north of the island so we decided to go check it out. The ride was only about 20km total but took us a while as we kept stopping to take pictures of the incredible views around us. From mangroves, locals digging for mud crabs, limestone mountains, valleys and villages there was so just so much to see!
But the best view was waiting for us at the end. We came to the end of the road, quite literally, as you ride onto a pier and are rewarded with this view across the bay – just magic.
Of course, now we knew about happy hour down at Cat Co 1 we had to made sure we were back in time to see out the day sipping Bia Hanoi under an umbrella whilst sending our mates snapchats of our current predicament – sometimes you just have to right!? #sorrynotsorry. The perfect end to a perfect visit.
If you have time and want a less touristy experience, go Cat Ba over Ha Long. It’s cheaper, you’ll have the flexibility to design your own itinerary and best of all you’ll get to see Lan Ha Bay, which in my opinion is more impressive, more beautiful and best of all quieter than Ha Long anyway.