Cat Ba, the alternative to Ha Long Bay
How I ended up on Cat Ba? I hoped to see Ha Long Bay, one way or another. But lately whatever I was reading about Ha Long Bay, the main message was: it is super touristy and super dirty, full of trash. All you can see on your trip in the Bay is huge ships and floating trash. It would be better to avoid the whole thing – they said. Luckily, getting to Ha Long Bay was not a childhood dream, but it makes me sad, that seeing its beauty is a privilege, that is lost forever. So I started to look for a plan B.
Backpackers are targeting Cat Ba, the island a little south of Ha Long Bay. And to be honest, they already changed it fundamentally. 8 years ago there was no tourist mass here, there were a couple of hostels, two restaurants, and that was it. Today there is a proper – erm, Asian way of proper – town, with only hotels, hostels, homestays, western style restaurants and cafés along its main road, and many travel agencies offering tours on land and to the bay as well. Those, who visited both Ha Long Bay and Cat Ba say, that the latter is still way better. But is already over the point, till we could consider it a well kept secret of backpackers in Vietnam.
Cat Ba is a larger island (cca. 280 km2) with an amazing national park on it – more info on this one comes later. Many tour operators organize one night of the 3 days/2 nights Ha Long Bay tours on this island, but many more come here to use Cat Ba as a base when exploring the area. This is exactly why I came here. I kept checking the weather forecast, and it seemed that I had a good chance for having a sunny, partially cloudy day. After this weather window a huge cyclone hits the island, causing 10 degree temperature drop for the next days. And I for sure don’t want to be on a boat during those days. You know what I mean.
My travel from Ninh Binh was very Vietnamese – in the sense of nothing happening in the way it was promised, but still worked out fine. From wherever you start your journey, you anyway have to take a bus first, than change for a ferry in the pier of Cat Hai, and after a 10 minutes ferry ride you take another bus to get to Cat Ba Town. This was my first trip in Vietnam, when I was late. Actually arrived 2 hours later than expected. Most of these 2 hours we spent in the pier where nobody talked to us. I didn’t even have a ticket – why would a tourist need a ticket that s/he already paid for… We were just waiting for something to happen. Surprisingly I became better in handling these situations, I don’t get angry or frustrated so easily anymore. Somehow everything turns out to be fine, there are no things to worry about.
When I got to Cat Ba, Keith – the Canadian guy whom I met in Hoi An and who went to Hang Soon Dong – was already there. We had so much adventures to share and discuss.
The weather was still promising, so I signed up for a one-day boat trip to Lan Ha Bay, with the company called Full Moon Party Cruise. Okay, don’t laugh that loud. I checked many options, and all the boat tours were in the same price range, around 25 USD, and I wanted a reliable company, where the trip is not about drinking and partying, but more about the bay. And here I got the boat with this name…
Ha Long Bay vs. Lan Ha Bay
Before we go further in the story, let’s clarify the topic of Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay. Lan Ha Bay is south of its world famous brother, south and east of Cat Ba island, and includes 300 small islands. Some consider it to be the southern extension of Halong Bay, that consists of about 1.600 islands. It’s true, that sailing from one to the other, you can’t see the difference, you won’t see crossing a geographical line. Lan Ha Bay has a couple of little islands with sandy beaches and your chances to go into the water for a swim are better here, as it is less polluted.
Tour on the Bay
The forecast was right, we had great weather. It was not super sunny, but was warm enough to enjoy the trip, and luckily not too windy, so I had no major problems with the boat either. First we sailed to the Monkey Island, and started the day with a cool but short trekking, with short sections of climbing. We were the firsts to arrive to the island this morning, and we could complete the climb undisturbed, taking our time to get to the viewpoint. The view from the rocky ridge is really beautiful. I was surprised, that there were no serious accidents here so far. At some sections you need to use your hands and focus on your steps on the laser sharp rock, and some of the girls in bikinis were trembling at the end of the trip.
After the short climb all we had to do was enjoy the trip, the view from the deck, have nice discussions, check out the floating villages and enjoy life. Later we went for a swim. It was rather cold but totally worth it. We swam to a tiny sandy beach, and through a small cave we entered to the inside of the little island. Then got to the other side – all of us felt like being true adventurers. I still find it fascinating, that I actually went into the water, as it is not really clean. When we left the swimming spot I could see the trash in the water. It was even worse when we got into the kayaks to explore the bays and islands around us. At some places, where the currents were not strong enough, the trash got stuck and an oily, smelly layer was floating on top of the water. Yuk. It is really not nice. We saw more and more dirty spots as we got to Ha Long Bay. I was told, that authorities finally understood how serious the pollution of Ha Long Bay is, and there are government financed clean ups twice a month. It is an important step, but obviously not enough.
This is such a unique place, it is such a great experience to sail among the lush green limestone hills discovering more and more layers of hills behind. Like a fairy tale. I hope that the next generations will have the chance to see it, not on old photographs only.
I found the floating villages really fascinating. Our guide was born and raised on Cat Ba, but also spent part of his childhood in a floating village. The people live on fishing and farming fish. All their possessions are in the floating houses and do not really visit the mainland, or Cat Ba. Even their shopping is done on the Bay, as the grocery store comes to the door in the form of a tiny boat. The children living close to the shore are collected every morning by a school-boat to bring them to school on Cat Ba. Those living far are gathered in a room in one of the floating villages and get their – whatever level of – education there. Many of the families keep pets as well, I’ve seen several dogs on the porches. Cca. 4.000 people live on the Bay in floating villages.
Cat Ba National Park
The island itself also is worth an at least one day visit. The weather got cold and windy, but I still hopped on a motorbike and headed to the center of the National Park. There is a short and easy, but remarkable trek. Locals say it takes an hour one way, but I guess 30/40 minutes will do it. It brings you to an amazing viewpoint, and from there you can walk up to the top of Ngu Lam Peak. I was mesmerized. I hardly recognized, that I stayed on the top for hours. I enjoyed the view, I was daydreaming and enjoying the fresh wind and the clean air. I couldn’t get enough of the mountains surrounding us.
There are more trekking options in the National Parks. Some can be walked with a local guides, some are okay to discover by yourself. I only had time for this short trek, but I left being super content.
If you have time, I warmly recommend to take the only road heading to the north shore of the island, where nothing awaits you but the beautiful multi-layered view of the islands in the Bay.
The view is very similar from the ruins of Cannon Fort, high above Cat Ba Town. I found it extremely funny, that someone considered it worthy to showcase the few remaining cannons with wax soldiers. But the main attraction here is the view anyway. Many people visit this place around sunset to see the surrounding little islands floating in the golden water, but I missed this view due to the clouds brought by the cold front.
But honestly, it is beautiful without the orgy of colors as well. It is a great walk to the fort (though the majority take a bike to ride up), as the view is great on the west and the east side of the fort as well. Surprisingly you don’t have to buy anything in the tiny cafes built at the viewpoints.
So, that’s it. No conclusion, no reviews. Just a recommendation: go and check this place out until you can do so, as Cat Ba and Lan Ha Bay still worth a visit.
- Ninh Binh – Cat Ba bus ticket (including pick up from Trang An, bus to Cat Hai, ferry, but to Cat Ba Town): 360.000 dong (15,6 USD)
- One day boat tour in Lan Ha Bay, crossing to Ha Long Bay, kayaking and lunch: 500.000 dong (22 USD)
- Fort Cannon entrance fee: 40.000 dong (1,7 USD)
- Hospital Cave entrance fee: 40.000 dong (1,7 USD)
- Cat Ba National Park entrance fee: 80.000 dong (3,5 USD)