We left the peaceful Mai Chau rice ﬁelds to spend one more night in Hanoi; one last $5 dollar foot massage and get ready to explore Cat Ba island and the UNESCO nature’s wonder of the world, Halong Bay.
Luckily, the bus system in Vietnam is very well organized. Even though we had to take three buses plus a ferry ride to reach Cat Ba from Hanoi, it was all arranged in one ticket, bought at the bus station. It took us 5 hours. Once we arrived, we knew we were in the right place. It was a clear sunny afternoon, the ocean on one side of the street with huge limestone mountains, and beautiful beaches behind it.
There are various ways to explore Halong Bay. However, it has become so touristy that it’s almost annoying as many people are on the same place at the same time. We chose to go to Cat Ba island instead, which is less touristy. You can do day trips to Halong Bay without having to stay overnight on an overpriced boat.
The best way to explore the island is by renting a motorbike. The traffic here is nowhere near the same as Hanoi, where you can spot more than 300 motorbikes in less than one minute. Proven! The best thing of renting a motorbike is that even if you have a driving license, it’s not valid in Vietnam anyway. No experience required and only $5 dollars for the whole day. Having no license nor experience, we were given the keys and oﬀ we went to explore the island.
The island had a good role during the war, and Cannon Fort and bunkers still remain there for historic purposes. All of the remains are up in a mountain and the views are exceptional. We were amazed and almost felt what these soldiers went through as we walked through the canons and bunkers. It’s really good to experience the history of a country in person, and we were happy to do so.
On the way to Cat Ba national park, we visited the Hospital cave. During the war, it was used as the names suggests, as a bomb-prrof hospital and it remains intact. The cave was dark, and had about 10 empty rooms and various secret paths that unveil more rooms inside. It’s very cheap and worth the visit. Next stop, Cat Ba national park for some trekking. There are various treks, including one that is 7 km and takes a whole day to do. We decided to go to the view point. It’s a good 50 minutes trail to the peak and breathtaking views of the island and the park. Even though, it was 40 degrees outside, we were happy to make it up on top, take a rest and go back down. After a long and very hot day, we headed over to the beach to relax, go in the water and ﬁnish the day the right way. 🙂
The next day we booked a whole day to visit Halong Bay with the company Cat Ba ventures. We had read to be very careful booking tours with hotels as owners ask friends to do these tours and are very often horrible experiences. Cat Ba ventures are locally owned and with very good reviews all around. The experience was very enjoyable for 30$ the day. We went kayaking under huge limestones and bat caves and swum in 85/25 degree water, plus snorkeling in a private beach. The lunch was included with very fresh and delicious food. We also got the chance to meet some nice people during the day. Halong Bay is worth exploring everywhere around. There are over 3,000 islands divided in three bays, so lots to discover and see. It was a day packed with fun adventures, fun people and good food.
Having two full days with many activities, we decided to stay one more night and spend a whole day by the beach. There are three major beaches in Cat Ba, Cat Co 1, 2, and 3. Luckily, very easy to remember and all of them are beautiful. The best one and less crowded was Cat Co 3 so we spent most of the day there.
Cat Ba was in itself worth all 5 hours spent traveling to it, not even counting the visit to Halong Bay. Now, we get ready for an overnight 16 hours bus to Hue and its historic tombs.
Halong Bay is worth the visit from Cat Ba instead of Hanoi if you have some more time. A boat tour in the Lan Ha Bay and Halong Bay cost between 25 and 31 USD with Kayak and lunch included. We advise you not to book through hotels which don’t do full tours. There is an entrance fee to get in the Halong Bay area which the majority of hotels don’t buy.
Half day to visit Cat Ba national park, Hospital cave, Trung Trang cave is sufficient. Those 3 places are in the same area closed by and you can go by bus/ taxi or motobike.
Most of the hotels, restaurants and bars are in Cat Ba town. Unless you want to be away from the crowed, stick around the city center.