To some it’s bucket list material. To others a hopeless tourist trap. It all depends how you approach Halong Bay. Literally. The minute you set foot in Hanoi, you’ll be slapped with tours and promos. Should we book a 1, 2 or 3 day cruise? Sail in a traditional junk or floating palace? Pay 25 or 125$? AAAHHH, I’m drowning in options. There seem to be more tours than islands in Halong Bay.
Before you book a trip, please google ‘Halong Bay City.’ The pictures don’t lie. It’s a dull harbour city with entire fleets of tourists sailing towards the actual Bay. Not the romantic trip you were dreaming of, right? Now, don’t abandon ship yet. There’s a way to enjoy Halong Bay without hordes of tourists and noisy motor boats. It’s called Cat Ba Island.
Getting there? Smooth sailings.
Catba Island is the biggest island of the Halong archipelago, situated in the south of the bay. Over half of the island is national park. You can easily reach the island from Hanoi (around 210k dong, all-in) or Ninh Binh (more expensive: 310k). The bus first takes you to Hai Phong (4.5 hours) where you’ll board a high speed boat (1.5 hours). Another bus then takes you from the jetty to Catba Town (45 min), on the south side of the Island.
Catba Town - Brand new, dirt cheap.
Welcome to the Benidorm of Vietnam. A series of banal hotels in tutti-frutti colours sit along the waterfront. A hilarious concrete arch at the pier completes the picture. We are here in winter and most of the hotels are deserted. It’s like a ski station in summer. Depressing. But the low season also brings extra low hotel prices. We check the Full Moon Party Hotel overlooking the bay. 6$ is a bargain. There’s just one tiny problem: renovation works next door. As in: right-next-to-our-door. “Don’t know what happened” sighs the manager “This morning, they started working.” Judging the state of the works, they clearly started ages ago. Time to press the buzzer. Uhhh! Cancel that booking. Let’s go wild: 8 dollars! That’s the price of big, sea view room at My Ngoc Hotel, little down the Corniche. Vietnam’s best value ever. For breakfast, we walk to The Noble House for one simple reason. It’s the only place with customers. When in Benidorm … do as the Brits! For once, we forget local cuisine and stuff ourselves with tuna sandwiches and fries. For more authentic food, I strongly recommend the family run Quan Cat Ba on the other side of the Strip.
Halong Bay - A day trip is enough.
We were planning to do a fancy cruise to celebrate our 10 year anniversary, but ended up doing a day trip. And you know what? It was just perfect. I don’t see the extra value of spending extra days at sea. In Catba Town, every store sells the same all-in day trip for just 15$. It should include: transportation, lunch, canoeing, swimming and monkey island. No need to argue much.
Bucket list - Strike!
The pick-up is very early. A short drive later, we’re boarding a small ship with a luscious sundeck on top of a cosy cabin. With puffing diesel engines, we start sailing towards the edges of the actual Halong Bay. Cat Ba bay, Lan Ha bay, Ha Long bay …forget the names, the rocks rising from the sea all look the same. We float through narrow bays. The boat seems to be on a collision course. We can almost touch the spectacular karst rocks. Even on this winter day, the view is absolutely breathtaking. Wow!
A rare encounter with endangered Gold Headed Langurs
The boat stops at a little pontoon. With shaky legs we board our canoe. There’s a miserable winter sun. I really don’t want to fall into the freezing water. We wait for instructions … eh …what instructions? We just assume we need to follow Captain Thom, who already took a head start in his canoe. We try to paddle our way through the idyllic waters. My wife and me must be the world’s most spastic paddlers. Our synchronisation is a disaster. We quickly agree to take turns. One minute me. One minute her. When we’re about to cross one of the grottos, Captain Thom goes bananas. “There! There! Monkeys!” - Against the cliff face, a group of animals is coming our way. But these aren’t normal monkeys, they are gold headed langurs. One of the world’s most endangered species. Once they used to roam the whole island, now there are only 60 left. Bucket list, strike two!
Welcome to Monkey (Bite) Island.
After an excellent meal on board the ship, we lay anchor at Coral Bay for a swim. It’s December so only the brave, the drunk and the Brits hit the glacial water. In summer, this must be paradise, but right now, it’s Siberia. We finally set sail for Monkey Island. The long journey between thousands of karst mountains comes straight out of a fairytale.
Monkey Island is home to Asia’s most aggressive macaques. We try to climb the hill, but after 20 meters, a group of monkeys literally jump on top of us. A monkey bite can get you into serious trouble. We quickly turn around and run for our lives. How about a drink at the cafeteria then? Bad idea too. The macaques are fearless and snatch my drink. The owner chases them away with a fake slingshot. It’s just show. A minute later he gives the monkeys every half finished can of soda. The animals must be total diabetics. Their bouncy sugar levels might explain the hooliganish behaviour. Armed with stones, we retreat to the beach. Monkey Island sure added excitement to a perfect day. This must be the best 15$ spent in ‘Nam. But Catba still has other treasures.
Cat Ba National Park - Stairway to heaven.
“There are too many steps in Asia” sighs an exhausted Aussie. Once we start climbing the steep hill of Catba’s national park, we know what he’s talking about. Hundreds of steps lead through the jungle. But it’s worth every step. From the top, you can witness one of the best views in Asia. Hundreds of pointy hills as far the eye can see. A perfect 360 view of pristine jungle. Ideally, walk up the hill to meet the sunset. The rest of the park is rather mediocre. Local deer are sitting behind a sad fence. Monkeys are kept in quarantine, probably wishing they were dead.
Rent a scooter (50k/day) to reach the National Park. The bus to the jetty also passes by here. We tried to cycle here, but soon met some steep hills. Leaving us no other choice than to go exchange our bikes for a scooter. The park opens sunrise to sunset, admission is only 30k.
Hospital Cave - Charlie goes 007
The little visited hospital cave is a real life James Bond bunker inside a mountain. We climb up a bamboo ladder to what appears to be a natural cave. Surprise-surprise! It’s like entering the hideout of the Thunderbirds. We are greeted by life-size Vietcong dolls covered in plastic, like remnants of a surreal, suffocating sex game. Brrrr. The bunker has 2 floors. The ground floor is reserved for operating and hospital rooms. Upstairs there’s a swimming pool and a cinema room under the cave ceiling. Tickets (20k) can be bought at the little restaurant next to the road. The place also serves descent soup and yes WIFI! Roger that, Charlie.