After spending a few days wandering around Hanoi’s Old Quarter and getting our fair share of history and culture in the city’s many museums, we were ready for a change of scenery. High on our list of things to do in Vietnam was a trip to Ha Long Bay, but we didn’t want to get stuck on a tour bus and have to come back to Hanoi. Throughout this long journey around SE Asia, we’re trying to do as little backtracking as possible. Thankfully, we discovered that a boat trip around the famous bay is just as easily done on your own by visiting Cat Ba Island. You can get the bus/boat/bus tickets from Hanoi to Cat Ba in just about any hostel or travel agency in the Old Quarter, and they run about $10-12 per person. In total, the trip took about five hours from door-to-door.
If you’re heading to Vietnam, you’ll need to get your visa before you arrive. For those who don’t have the time to go to a consulate in person, we recommend Vietnam Visa to help you arrange everything.
The main strip full of hotels, restaurants, and shops on Cat Ba is rather small, so it’s quite easy to walk from the bus to your accommodations. If arriving in the summer on a weekend, you might want to book a room ahead, as this is a very popular weekend getaway for Hanoians. If you’re like us and you show up in the middle of the week in November, you have your pick of hotels, and they should be offered at a discounted price. We stayed in the Phuong Mai Family hotel, where we were greeted very enthusiastically by the owner (he literally hugged me). For just $12 a night, we got a nice room with a beautiful view of the sea.
With the sun going down, we found a restaurant nearby and enjoyed some fresh seafood before taking a stroll around the waterfront. Although the main strip has a few bars, we called it an early night since we had to be on the boat at 8 AM the next day.
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Ha Long Bay Cruise
We were up bright and early (which we suck horribly at), and we had a quick breakfast, pounded a delicious cup of Vietnamese coffee, and got on the boat. There were about ten other people on the boat, which is standard if you’re just going out for the day. It’s possible to rent your own private boat for a Ha Long Bay cruise, but it’ll obviously set you back a lot more than $20 a pop.
The first hour or so on the boat was spent enjoying the views on the deck as we headed away from the island and into the bay. For our first stop, we got to take kayaks out and explore for around an hour. Going in and out of caves, watching wild monkeys jump through the trees, and admiring the unreal scenery – it was a pretty good morning to say the least.
While everyone was out exploring, the guys on the boat were hard at work cooking up a big lunch. Our feast featured spring rolls, stir-fried veggies, squid, fresh fish, and ice cold beer, and was impressive for a day tour on a rustic wooden boat.
Our next stop was one of many caves in Ha Long Bay. We all got out and went in to explore, as those with flashlights helped shine the way through the the cracks and crevices that we had to crawl through. Out on the other side of the cave was a small lagoon – the landscape here is truly amazing, and it definitely deserves all the hype it gets as a top place to visit in Vietnam.
Before the sun went down, we made one final stop to take a swim and hang out on a tiny beach in the middle of the bay. The views of the sun going down over the bay on our way back to Cat Ba were incredible, and we made it back just before dark. Another evening in Cat Ba was spent hanging out in the little street markets, snacking and drinking beer.
After our full day cruising around the bay, we hit the small strip of hole-in-the-wall restaurants and beer joints that local fishermen frequent in search of a cheap meal and draught beers. For about $4, we got a few cold ones and a huge plate of bun cha – a Vietnamese classic of grilled pork, rice noodles, herbs, and spices. Living on a tight budget doesn’t have to mean missing out on good eating and drinking in Vietnam.
Motorbike Trip Around the Island
The next day, we rented a motorbike from the owner of our hotel for $6 and headed out to explore. First up we hit two of the three beaches on the island. Beach-hopping is a great option here, as there’s a scenic walking path that winds around the sea and connects the three beaches. Thanks to less than stellar weather, we cut our beach bumming short in favor of visiting the island’s national park.
Admission into the park is less than $1, and inside you can enjoy a nice hike up to an old rusty tower where panoramic views of the island await you. It’s possible to take part in a longer trek through the park with an overnight stay in a local village, but you’ll need a guide for that and more time than we had. There’s also a small restaurant in the park, where we had a simple but tasty meal of noodles and rice while enjoying the company of the owners three dogs.
The next day, we had to pack our bags and move on again – something we’re getting quite used to. Next up in our month-long trip across Vietnam is our last stop in the northern part of the country – Ninh Binh.
Cat Ba Summary:
Transportation: We bought bus/boat/bus tickets in Hanoi for about $10 each. First, you take a bus to Haiphong. Then, you switch to another bus that takes you to the pier. From there, it’s a short boat ride to the island. Finally, one more bus ride brings you down to the tourist area of the island.
Accommodation: There are plenty of hotels on the main strip, from cheap backpacker rooms to big, fancy, beach-side hotels. We had a great room at the Phuong Mai hotel with a sea-view for just $12 a night. Prices are surely higher in the busy season or on weekends.
Get Around: You can easily walk to the beaches, but if you want to explore more of the island, you’ll want a motorbike. They’re readily available for about $5-6 per day. If you’re looking for more of a workout, bicycles are also for rent.
Activities: The main draw here is a Ha Long Bay cruise. You can go out for just one day like we did ($20/person), or you can do overnight trips and sleep on the boat (more like $70-100 per person per day). Other than that, beach-bumming, exploring the national park (less than $1), and cycling are all good options.
Food/Drink: As it’s an island, there’s obviously plenty of fresh seafood. You can also get cheap Vietnamese grub or comfort food in some of the tourist-oriented joints. There are a few bars along the main strip, but we stuck to the cheap street beers.
Recommended Time: Three nights and two days should be plenty, unless you want to overnight on the boat or do the trek through the national park and stay in a local village.
Total Cost: We spent $162 for the two of us for our stay in Cat Ba. The big ticket item was the Ha Long Bay tour, which cost $40 total plus a few extra for cold beers on the boat. Everything else was quite cheap.