Vietnam is an incredibly charming country with picturesque landscapes. Within this fascinating South East Asian country, Ha Long Bay is undoubtedly the crown jewel of its natural wonders.
Such is Ha Long Bay’s beauty and prominence that most visitors to northern Vietnam (Hanoi in particular) would not consider their trip complete without a visit to this nature’s marvel.
In this travel blog, we’ll give you practical guides and tips on how to best explore Ha Long Bay, and why a trip to the encompassing Cat Ba Island is highly recommended. We promise that this will surely be one of the most memorable trips in your Vietnam adventure!
Ha Long Bay: Crown jewel of Vietnam
Located in the Gulf of Tonkin in northern Vietnam, Ha Long Bay is a large coastal area comprising of more than 1,600 limestone karsts and islands of various sizes. Of the islands, Cat Ba is the largest and is set on the south-western edge of the bay.
The limestone structures in Ha Long Bay has undergone a few hundred million years of formation and evolution, resulting in the striking and mesmerizing scenery of today. Due to its huge geological values, Ha Long Bay was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, thereafter cementing its title as the leading tourist attraction in Vietnam.
Administratively, Ha Long Bay actually refers to the bay area immediately south of Ha Long City. In reality, when most people mention Ha Long Bay, they are referring to the entire bay area bordered by Ha Long City (in the north) and Cat Ba Island (in the south-west).
This enormous bay area includes Ha Long Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay. Unsurprisingly, the bays share similar geological features and are essentially aesthetically indistinguishable from one another.
Note: See Ha Long Bay’s boundary as reflected in UNESCO’s map.
Guide to planning your Ha Long Bay trip. Why Cat Ba Island?
Hanoi is the nearest major city to Ha Long Bay. As such, many visitors to Ha Long Bay kickoff their trip from Hanoi. The drive from downtown Hanoi to Ha Long City, which is the main gateway to Ha Long Bay, is approximately 4 hours. Once at Ha Long City, visitors typically transfer to one of the numerous cruise boats to Ha Long Bay.
For most visitors, the way to explore Ha Long Bay either involves doing a stay-on-board cruise (usually 2-3 days and all-inclusive), or a single day cruise. Both of which are usually booked thru a travel agent in Hanoi so that the land transfers between Hanoi and Ha Long City is covered.
However, both ways of exploring Ha Long Bay has inherent disadvantages.
Disadvantages of stay-on-board cruise
For stay-on-board cruises, many travelers find it difficult to ascertain the condition and quality of the cruise from the local travel agents or websites. In addition, there are frequent stories of travelers that are booked on cruises which turned out to be booze parties, thus getting stuck with loud music and alcohol fueled mobs. Finally, such stay-on-board cruises are usually pricey, especially those that one deemed decent enough.
Disadvantages of single day cruise
For single day cruises, the problem lies with the lengthy bus transfer between Hanoi and Ha Long City. Given that the bus journey is approximately 4 hours each way, one can easily come to the conclusion that the actual time spent on the cruise is limited. This is definitely not a time efficient way of exploring Ha Long Bay. Lastly, the fatigue (from the long return bus journey) also has to be considered.
Solution: Visiting Ha Long Bay via Cat Ba Island
From our experience and those of other travel bloggers, the best way to explore Ha Long Bay is via Cat Ba Island. This method of accessing Ha Long Bay has been gaining popularity in recent years as it is more cost effective, and allows for more quality time in exploring the bay. Furthermore, Cat Ba Island itself has a number of attractions worth exploring.
The plan is to travel to Cat Ba Island (land + sea transfer is approximately 4 hours per way) and spend 2-3 days there. From Cat Ba Island, there are numerous cheap single day cruises to Ha Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay, which is just off the island. Such proximity to the bays meant that negligible time is wasted on travelling. In fact, the views of the magnificent limestone isles start even before your cruise leaves the jetty!
Other than allocating a full day to the bay cruise, the rest of the time could be well spent exploring the caves, hiking trails and beaches on Cat Ba Island.
Ha Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay Day Cruise (from Cat Ba Island)
The most commonly promoted (and most popular) Ha Long Bay/Lan Ha Bay cruise at Cat Ba Island’s hotels and travel agents is the Single Day Cruise. Price is USD16 per pax (as of Mar-2017). This is inclusive of lunch and kayaking equipment (see itinerary below).
A simple comparison of the itineraries between the single day cruises which originate out of Cat Ba Island versus those out of Hanoi, will show that the cruises from Cat Ba Island affords more cruising time, activities and sights. This is hardly surprising, for the reasons mentioned earlier.
Single Day Cruise Itinerary (8am to 5pm) (from Cat Ba Island)
#1: Monkey Island
Small limestone islet with wild monkeys located in Lan Ha Bay, a short distance off Cat Ba Island.
Cruise boats typically drop off their passengers here to allow them to climb to the top of a small hill for a panoramic view of the bay. Though the climb is short (approximately 15 minutes each way), the trail doesn’t have proper steps and involves overcoming sharp limestones. Definitely not recommended for young kids and elders.
#2: Kayaking in the Bay
Typically, the highlight of most visitors’ trip to Ha Long Bay/Lan Ha Bay.
The cruise boats will sail to a certain part of the bay where a kayak vendor is situated. From there, passengers will transfer to the kayaks. The same guide on the day cruise will lead the group on a fix route thru the bay and a few limestone caves, with the end of the route culminating in a beautiful enclosed lagoon. The entire journey is approximately 1 hour with easy paddling (assuming calm weather/water conditions).
As observed during our Mar-2017 trip, there appears to be no emphasis on safety during the kayak trip.
Prior to kayaking, the guide didn’t attempt to find out if anyone knew how to kayak or swim. More alarmingly, no life jackets were provided for the kayaking. In fact, our guide didn’t even ensure everyone in the group was around before leaving the starting point. Being the last to board the kayaks, we had to ask around for directions before being able to locate our group. Given that the sole guide is leading at the front, there was no attempt to ensure that the kayaks at the back of the group was safe or accounted for.
On hindsight, this was probably not the safest activity to be engaged in. The only reason we felt safe enough (during the kayaking) was that the water was very calm.
For anyone planning to go on the kayaking, we strongly recommend putting more thoughts to safety (e.g. requesting for life jackets, kayaking only if water/weather is calm). This is especially so for those whom have not tried kayaking or are non-swimmers.
#3: Lunch on board
After kayaking, lunch will be served onboard.
#4: Swimming on natural sand beach.
After lunch, the cruise will sail to a specific area in the bay where there are tiny limestone islets with their own small sandy beaches. Here, passengers could swim in tranquil waters and explore the empty beaches.
#5: Cruise in the fishing villages
In wrapping up the tour, the cruise will sail thru a number of floating fishing villages while on its way back to the jetty on Cat Ba Island.
Places to visit on Cat Ba Island
Cat Ba is a relatively small island, with its only major town located at the south-eastern tip. Most tourism related establishments on Cat Ba (e.g. accommodations, restaurants, travel agents) are located in this tiny town. From here, all main attractions on the island are no more than a slow 30 minutes’ motorbike ride away.
#1: Hospital Cave
Constructed between 1963-1965 during the Vietnam War by the North Vietnamese army, Hospital Cave is a military hospital built into the caves of one of the large limestone karsts on Cat Ba Island. The cave has a three-storey structure (with more than a dozen rooms) built into it and is hidden from the air. Located 8km from Cat Ba town (20 minutes motorbike ride), Hospital Cave remained operational till 1975 when war ended.
Nowadays, the cave is staffed by local English-speaking guides at its entrance. These guides are known to offer brief guided tours of the cave, with the guest/s free to offer any amount of tips deemed reasonable at the end.
Hospital Cave isn’t a large complex, and only the first 2 storeys are open to public. In its present state, the cave is little more than a few empty rooms and a rock cavern. Expect to spend no more than 30 minutes here.
Admission fee: 40,000VND/pax, payable to the lady managing the motorbike parking area along the road.
#2: Cannon Fort
Situated on a steep hill behind Cat Ba Town, Cannon Fort is a small coastal gun emplacement built in 1942 during the Second World War. In the decades that followed, Cannon Fort played a role during the conflicts against the French and American. Nowadays, the few cannon/artillery pieces, bunkers and tunnels are linked in a well-defined looping trail for visitors to explore.
Though historically interesting, most visitors to Cannon Fort are instead more captivated by its panoramic views of the island and the surrounding bay. In particular, the fort’s café offers sweeping views of Lan Ha Bay and the neighboring fishing villages. Such is the breathtaking view that the café is a prime spot on Cat Ba Island for catching sunset.
Cannon Fort can be reach via a short 7-minute motorbike ride from Cat Ba town. It is possible to hike up to the fort from town (2km), provided one doesn’t mind the steep road.
Admission fee: 40,000VND/pax
#3: Cat Ba National Park
Centrally located on the island, Cat Ba National Park is an easy 30-minutes motorbike ride from Cat Ba town. Most tourist visit the national park for the hike up to Ngu Lam Peak, which offers magnificent 360-degree views of the limestone karsts on the island.
The 1.5km (each way) hike begins at the entrance of the national park. After an initial short and easy walk to the base of a limestone karst, the trail quickly escalates into a frantic non-stop climb on proper steps. The hike up would typically take 1 hour, with the return journey at 40 minutes.
Near to the summit of the karst, one would first reach a viewing point which has a 2-level viewing tower. Past the tower, Ngu Lam Peak could be reach in another 10 minutes with some hard climbing. This is surely a hike that requires a fair amount of exertion, thus, do bring enough water.
Admission fee: 40,000VND/pax with another 5,000VND for motorbike parking at the park entrance
#4: Cat Co Beach (1/2/3)
Within walking distance from Cat Ba town, the beaches of Cat Co 1/2/3 are the main swimming beaches on Cat Ba Island. Located next to each other, Cat Co 1/2/3 are physically three separate bays, each with its own beachfront. Cat Co 1 is located in the middle of the three bays, and is linked to Cat Co 2 via a road, while linking to Cat Co 3 via a coastal elevated walkway around limestone cliffs.
The three beaches are not particularly large, as such, do expect a squeeze during the summer months when visitor volumes are high. Having said, Cat Co 1’s parking area (elevated behind the beach) and the coastal elevated walkway (between Cat Co 1 & 3) offers some fantastic view of Lan Ha Bay.
Riding motorbike on Cat Ba Island
There are limited (if any) public transportation on the island. Like most tourist to Cat Ba, we got around the island via motorbikes (renting at 100,000VND/day).
As with other parts of Vietnam, tourist can easily rent motorbikes without having to produce a license. However, unlike the chaotic and often hazardous traffic conditions on mainland Vietnam, the distinct lack of traffic on Cat Ba makes it relatively safer to ride a motorbike. Indeed, there are hardly any cars/buses on the road, as vindicated by the fact that there’s only 2 petrol stations on Cat Ba. The rental motorbikes typically have automatic transmission, thus, posing a lesser problem for those whom are not familiar with riding.
Getting to Cat Ba Island
From Hanoi, getting to Cat Ba Island typically involves taking a bus from downtown Hanoi to Hai Phong Jetty, then transferring to a small ferry to Cat Ba Island. Once on Cat Ba island, transfer to another bus for the ride into Cat Ba town. The entire journey easily take 4 hours.
The simplest and most convenient way of making this journey is to engage the services of Good Morning Cat Ba (facebook), whom will handle the entire journey point-to-point (e.g. from your Hanoi hotel to your Cat Ba Island hotel).
At USD18 per pax/way (as of Mar-2017), their services are not exactly the cheapest. However, based on our personal experience and that of other travel bloggers, they offer good services. Most importantly, they eliminate the need for one to negotiate the journey’s multiple transfers with multiple vendors.
Note: When using their services for the return journey back to Hanoi, if your trip involves reaching Hanoi during the evenings of Friday/Saturday/Sunday, the bus will drop off all passengers at a centralised location in downtown Hanoi. This is due to the road closure for the Old Quarter Night Market on these days.
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