- Minibus #1: from Sapa to Lo Cai, 45min.
- Minibus #2: from Lo Cai train station to Lo Cai bus station, 15min.
- Night bus: from Lo Cai to Halong Bay, 10h.
- Car: from Halong Bay bus station to Halong Bay port, 10mins.
- Ferry: Halong Bay to Cat Ba, 45min.
- Bus: Cat Ba port to Cat Ba town, 30min.
A grand total of 6 modes of transport and 15h later (including waiting time) we got to our destination of Cat Ba, a gorgeous island in North East Vietnam in Halong’s bay.
Our bus arrived very early in the morning which meant we were treated with a little kip in the car park before our ferry. Excellent. Eventually, at 8am we set off at sea and oh how beautiful it was! Hazey sunrise skies turned blue from orange with a magnificent display of mountain islands posing for us in the near distance.
Halong Bay is a landmark in Vietnam and so it should be – it’s special. But, as a consequence, it attracts a few too many tourists which is why we opted for the slightly lesser known island of Cat Ba that stands in the Halong Bay archipelago. I think archipelago is the correct word to describe Halong Bay, but it’s nowhere near my idea of an archipelago. I visualise this word as a group of little to large islands all discoverable, walkable and some inhabited. This bay however is dotted with large pointy mountains sticking out of the water like huge mangos shooting skywards with a thick peel of greeneries and sharp rocky edges. You can count close to 2,000 of them but they’re almost entirely uninhabited and inaccessible. A few have teeny corners of sand at their base resembling get-away beaches for the shipwrecked and some have been carved out by long narrow caves, but the majority are just huge pointy rocks. We felt very lucky to be welcomed by this iconic view after just a few minutes of setting foot in Halong Bay; it made the long journey completely worth it.
When the ferry eventually arrived on Cat Ba we made our way across the island to our hotel, we showered and rested, and then headed out to meet our friend Dennis. The weather was shockingly warm compared to Sapa so we were glad to slip back into our shorts for a walk to the beaches. We visited the town’s 3 beaches which were beautifully sandy and pretty much empty (mostly down to the fact high season begins in June). Being there in low season was good news for our wallets as our double ensuite room only cost $6 and we managed to book an all-day boat trip for $17 each.
Cat Ba has a vibrant fishing culture so on our first evening we dug into a couple of delicious fish dishes – prawn stir fry and spicy fillet of fish (not sure what type it was, they tend to generalise to just ‘fish’ to avoid getting lost in translation). Dotted around the island are a few large fishing communities that supply the area and beyond; we actually saw a couple on our boat day out. They consisted of dozens of shacks built upon floating platforms with fishing nets linked to one another. In other words, a floating fishing village that, nestled in between these ocean mountains, was a pretty incredible sight.
This was just one of our boating experiences. Our tour also took us to Monkey Island, to do some cave kayaking and some swimming. Monkey Island was amazing and, as it says on the tin, was filled with monkeys. They welcomed us on the beach when we got ashore and they were clearly very comfortable around humans because they had no qualms in attempting to take people’s stuff. A cheeky one knicked my chewing gum out of my bag and started eating it (and glared at me when I picked up his trash), another jumped on my chest when he saw I had some goodies and 2 little guys chased after Annalie for pretty much no reason (don’t think she’s much of a monkey fan now). On Monkey Island we also went for a little hike to get a glimpse of the view from the top, luckily we went there early because the path upwards was tiny and got extremely crowded.
Kayaking was even more amazing. We stopped off in a little bay surrounded by mountains that were connected by little fjords and caves. We spent over an hour paddling our way in and out of nature under the warming sun – it was spellbinding. We ended with a quick swim in the chilly water before lunch on the boat which marked our departure time for our next stop: the secret beach.
The name isn’t quite appropriate given all tour boats stop there, but we did get there first so managed to take a picture of it at its finest and emptiest. By 4pm the wind was getting chillier so we snuggled under our towels playing crosswords. It’s easy to see how amazing this place must get when summer arrives, but we were glad we saw it now, with good weather but half the crowds.
On our last day we decided to explore the island so we rented a scooter (for 80,0000 dongs, ie: £3). We saw the so called Hospital Cave – a cave turned infirmary during the Viet-American war – and then made our way to the national park where we embarked on 2h hike. The hike climaxed at the top of a mountain where we took in the grand views of the national park which surprised us by revealing to be pretty massive.
Another tiring and rewarding day came to an end and we celebrated it with a Vietnamese dish and – drumroll – a bottle of local wine! We found a pretty lively resto-bar called Oasis and tasted a delicious hot pot served on a little stove. A pan of veggies and broth boiled away as we cooked our noodles and meat inside it. Delicious (and no doubt more memorable than our Da Lat wine).
Whilst Cat Ba town isn’t particularly remarkable, its beaches, the island’s inland and surrounding bays in particular are like nothing we’ve seen before so all in all it deservedly earns a big thumbs up from us both.
Next and final stop in this wonderful journey called Vietnam: Hanoi.
Ciao for now xx