There are certain attractions or points of interest around the world that are so famous that you HAVE to visit them. Machu Picchu in Peru, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the Taj Mahal in India the list goes on. Unfortunately the popularity of these attractions, coupled with the poverty of the countries they are in means that sometimes they become tourist traps designed specifically to fleece unwitting or uncaring holidaymakers and screwing over the budget travellers in the process. Ha Long Bay, it turns out, is one of these places.
Originally we had planned to make our way to Hai Phong and jump on a ferry from Ben Bing ferry port out to Cat Ba Island DIY style. Imagine our dismay when the “Ferry Authorities” tried to charge us a small fortune for ferry journey, upwards of 250,000 VND per person (€9.50).
It’s worth noting there is a public ferry going from Dinh Vu terminal for (we hear) about 8,000 VND (€0.30) per person, but its a 30 minute drive from town, it’s an isolated port with nothing around and there’s no public transport, so this option is best for those who have their own transport like a bike.
From Hanoi To Cat Ba Island:
We went a bit arse ways on this one as our transport from Sapa dropped us outside My Dinh bus station, 8KM from Hanoi, instead of at Ben Xe Gia Lam, the main terminal.
If this unfortunate event should befall you, fear not! Follow the footfall of people towards the main building and ticket office on the far right of the compound.
To get to the Old Quarter or City centre or Gia Lam bus station you’ll need to take the No. 34 local bus which loops around the entire city.
You should ask at the bus terminal where exactly where the bus stop is. The only reason we mention to do this is that if you board the No. 34 in the opposite direction of the city, a quick 20 journey could turn into an hour-long sightseeing tour. Trust. us.
Hanoi to Hai Phong:
A number of companies have buses running from Gia Lam to Ha Long Bay, the first ones leaving at 6 am. A lot of them go to Ba Chai, this is where the expensive tours for Ha Long Bay leave from. Despite what the touts tell you, you do not want to go here. Instead, find yourself a bus headed for Hai Phong, this is a much cheaper jumping off point.
Many touts approached us with mad prices from 200,000 VND (€7.60) per person, down to 100,000 VND (€3.80), guess which one we went with?
In the main bus terminal, the company Duc Phuc will try to charge you 120,000 VND. We were asking around for more prices at other ticket desks when a tout approached us offering us tickets for 100,000 VND with a bus company called Kalong.
It seems we jumped on the tail end of a sleeper bus coming from somewhere. Point being, ask around and don’t pay more than 100,000 VND.
Hai Phong to Cat Ba Island:
Hoang Long Company takes you 1.5 hours by bus and speed boat, costs 150,000 VND (€5.70)
Departs from No. 4 Le Thanh Tong, Hai Phong at 8.00, 10.00 and 14.00.
Contact Hoang Long office in Hai Phong, Tel 0313.552866.
Hadeco run a similar service for 120,000 VND (€4.50)
Departs from the office at Bến Bính, Minh Khai, Hải Phòng, at 7.00, 8.00, 10.00, 13.00, 15.00 and 16.00.
You can contact them via:
Skype +84 164 655 2255,
or web, http://hadeco.vn
We can recommend Hadeco as they were the ones we used, and they were perfect.
Accommodation On Cat Ba Island:
At 130,000 VND (€5) per night for private double room, Victor Charlie Hostel is one of the cheapest accommodation options on the island. It’s run by a lovely family and includes an omelette baguette and coffee breakfast.
Unfortunately, it is also built into the side of a mountain, and as cool as it is to look out your window at the inside of a cave, it sucks when the humidity makes your stuff damper than the seats at a Micheal Bublé concert. But hey, it’s our own fault for going in the rainy season.
Things To Do On Cat Ba Island:
As always renting a bike is one of the first things we recommend doing anywhere in Vietnam, and Cat Ba Island is no exception.
Ask at your hostel, a full day should not cost more than 80,000 VND for automatic (or $3 as most rental places advertise in dollars).
Cannon Fort Viewpoint:
A nice easy walk uphill Cannon Fort Viewpoint is known as one of the most beautiful viewpoints in Vietnam and a beautiful spot to enjoy a sunset. Unfortunately, it’s not worth the 40,000 VND (€1.50) entry cost on a cloudy or rainy day.
Cat Ba Bay Viewpoint and Monument:
A free alternative to the Cannon Fort that provides an enjoyable view of the bay and pier area. Not the most spectacular view, but a nice time killer. The path leading up is hidden behind a number of parked buses. Take the main road from the pier (the road where the CT Marts are) and stay straight until it veers to the right. You should see either the path going upwards or a few parked buses.
Yup, a hospital… IN a cave, you better believe we weren’t giving this one a miss. The 40,000 VND (€1.50) per person entry fee includes a quick tour with a guide. There are 3 floors and 17 rooms of what was a Viet Cong hospital complex during the Vietnam war. The rooms are decked out with dummies and memorabilia from the era to make the experience more realistic. If you have any interest in history this is a great way to kill a few hours.
There’s 5,000 VND (€0.19) parking at the restaurant across the road (this is also where you buy your tickets and NOT a scam as Luke initially thought!) While there is a little climbing involved going in flip flops is no problem.
So here it is, “The main attraction”. We ended up screwing the pooch on this one a little. When we arrived in Cat Ba Island our plan was to book a tour going to the “less touristy but equally beautiful” La Han Bay. However, a shitty run of luck with the weather meant we were unable to book a tour for several days. When the weather eventually cleared we booked a tour with our guesthouse for 300,000 VND (€11.30) per person without getting too many specifics (rookie mistake, we know).
The tour started badly when the bus didn’t even have space for us and our guesthouse lady had to argue us onto the bus. In the end, we were hooshed onto a ferry with about 8,000,000 other gringos and spirited VERY quickly through a floating fishing village, a monkey island, a kayaking stop and the “real Ha Long Bay“.
While it was absolutely stunning, I spent most of the time plugging my ears to avoid the megaphone-wielding tour guide, dodging selfie sticks and trying no to murder people who think its ok to litter.
The company we went with was called L Travel, and although there was nothing wrong with the tour itself, we just HATE tours. You can’t do Ha Long Bay without some sort of tour, but If like us you absolutely despise them we suggest you triple check that the tour you’re booking goes to LA HAN BAY, It’s at the south end of Ha Long Bay and has the same limestone karst islets that make that make Ha Long Bay famous but without the tourists and boat overcrowding that plague Ha Long Bay.
A cheap as chips DIY Alternative to the tour that we only figured out at the end would be to head to the pier and jump a little ferry taxi from Ben Beo ferry terminal to Dao Khi Island (A.K.A Monkey Island) for 5000 VND (€0.19) per person. Visit on either first taxi boat or get there for about 4 pm (when the majority of tour boats leave!) Taxi boats pass through one of the Bay’s largest floating fishing villages where over 1000 people live, so you’re killing two birds with no tourists (that’s probably not the real saying though…)
Food in Cat Ba:
Buddha Belly is a vegetarian/vegan eatery run and frequented by Buddhist monks. They have a hefty menu with lots of cheap options including set menu options that change every day and are always served with soup and rice. A small plate is 30,000 VND (€1.14) and a large is 50,000 VND (€1.90).
Yummy Restaurant serves local Vietnamese and Thai fare at extremely reasonable prices. Dishes range from 25,000 VND to 40,000 VND (€0.95 – €1.50) with more expensive seafood dishes available.
Everything from Pad Thai to Indian curry, pancakes and coffee, nearly every dish has a veggie option as well as the menu having a full page dedicated to vegetarian dishes. All dishes are served with rice.
Even though the tour went a bit arse ways Ha Long Bay is one of the most picturesque, beautiful sceneries we had the pleasure of seeing in Vietnam. and that says a lot, Vietnam is full of some pretty amazing scenery. If you get the chance you should definitely check it out, although maybe do La Han Bay instead.
If you fancy checking out the tomfoolery we got up to on Cat Ba Island you can check out our Ha Long Bay Instagram highlights here
As always if you have something to ask, add or admit do give us a shout, it gets awful lonely here online. In the meantime…
Happy Travels TUG x
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