Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay

Trip Start Jun 30, 2010
Trip End Jun 01, 2011

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Where I stayed
Bay View Hotel, Cat Ba Island
Hanoi Opera Cruise

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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A surreal time on Cat Ba

We headed east out of Hanoi, crossing the expanse of the Red River, named after the colour of its heavily silt-laden waters. The great river begins in China's Yunnan province and forms part of the international border between China and Vietnam. Once reaching the lowlands it spreads out to form the Red River Delta which then empties into the Gulf of Tonkin, our destination.

Cat Ba is the largest island in the Gulf and a short hop by boat from mainland Haiphong, which is three hours from Hanoi. This accessibility, together with its rugged coast, sandy coves and lush forest, much of which is protected as a National Park, makes it a popular tourist destination. We’d decided to be real tourists and take a holiday in Cat Ba Town, hoping for some good food, sunshine and peace. We bought two bus/boat tickets through the Hoang Long desk at Hanoi’s bus station and were impressed at the efficiency with which we were transferred from the bus to Haiphong - mini-van to the dock - speedy boat to the island - bus to Cat Ba Town. Later a woman told us how, along with a few travellers, she had decided to get to Cat Ba ‘independently‘. Her journey was going well until she arrived at Cat Ba’s quiet harbour where she was quoted an extortionate bus fare to get into Cat Bar Town, ‘absolutely no negotiation‘. She waited by the roadside for a few hours for more busses, or any kind of lift, but none came and the impasse ended only when she, and the other travellers stumped up. The scam is well documented, so we were surprised to hear it was still running, and it was the very reason that we’d booked our journey as one transaction through Hoang Long.

We arrived in Cat Ba Town mid afternoon and, eager to see what sort of rooms were available and what out-of-season rate we could negotiate, we popped into a couple of the many hotels lining the promenade. The Bay View Hotel’s pristine double ensuite with solid wall of glass looking out over the bay for US$12 a night clinched it. The owners had gone on holiday leaving the currently quiet little hotel in the hands of the kids, who, very sweet and capable as they were, went wide-eyed with terror every time we appeared in the lobby, terrified that we‘d need them to speak in English.

In contrast to the vivid sunsets, low-season Cat Ba Town was really subdued. It was difficult to imagine the peak-season mle as we wandered the quiet coastal paths, past the large fishing fleet and the floating fishing community out in the bay, and the empty Cat Co beaches. The few motorbike and boat touts that circled looked frustrated by the shortage of tourists and by our continued declining of their offers and the handful of coracles that ferried diners to the floating restaurants bobbed aimlessly about, the oars-men looking up hopefully at the seafront steps for customers. Bar the odd motorbike, the seafront dual carriageway was empty too. What a contrast to Hanoi! Those few that were on the road tended towards the bizarre or maybe just reckless. We had a ‘look no hands’ with one young lad who somehow rode his motorbike whilst puffing on a cigarette with one hand and talking on his mobile phone with the other, and a ‘forgot my lippy’ with two girls whizzing past on a moped, the pillion was reaching around with a cosmetic mirror so the driver could apply her lip stick! It was just great sitting back and watching the comings and goings, and that‘s practically all we did for four days.

Good food was plentiful and we languished in Green Mango, sampling most items on their menu, and it was really peaceful….that is until the restaurant a few doors down turned on its karaoke player and started belting out Christmas songs at so high a volume that the entire mile-long seafront could enjoy it. As part of the Jive Bunny-esque collection we had ‘Auld Lang Syne’ rave version, a Vietnamese ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer’, of course Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’ and some excruciating karaoke. Thankfully the outbursts were never sustained although we never knew when the entertainment would kick off. One morning we were woken by it at 7:30am (who on earth sings karaoke at 7:30am?!) and the next installment was at 11:30pm. Extraordinary. We returned to Hanoi feeling well rested but ever so slightly disturbed. Did that actually happen or did we dream it?

Cruising and kayaking in Halong Bay

Our second venture out to the Gulf of Tonkin was with Anita and James for a cruise around Halong Bay. Filled with dramatic karst islands and islets, sheer limestone walls plunging into the deep green waters, Halong Bay is a natural wonder and designated a World Heritage Site. Every Hanoi hotel / tourist agent will try to get you to take a tour there and most tourists will visit it at some point during their time in Vietnam. We were under no illusion, it would be busy, but keen to have a relaxing time with Anita and James we’d booked a 3-day, 3-star cruise on the Hanoi Opera, a new boat of a traditional Chinese junk design.

Our journey from Hanoi to Halong City, the port for the cruise ships, was a bit of a strain due to a cramped coach with shot suspension, some really bad driving and a concern for Anita and James‘ welfare. It was interesting how the nature of travel had changed now that we had loved ones with us. Although we knew we were not responsible for them or their happiness we couldn’t help but want for them to have a good time and to be safe. The mandatory mid-way break at a tourist warehouse full of silks and laquerware was a welcome chance for us to gather our nerves again before the bus careened off once more towards the coast. The Chilean couple on the back seats, airborne with every bump in the road, were uncomfortable and unhappy. After narrowly avoiding a head-on collision with another full bus, tempers flared between the drivers and our driver got a good punching. Thoroughly chastened, his driving calmed down and the Chileans cheered up.

At Halong City’s busy harbour large wooden cruise boats and the more manoeuvrable long-tail tenders, over-crowded with tourists, jostled to get to and from the harbour steps, narrowly avoiding taking chunks out of each other. Boats were packed in like sardines and the grey water was turbulent with propellers. We watched open mouthed as one tender, full with holiday-makers, was nearly crushed between two large vessels. Meanwhile our skipper had dropped the tiller to fend off another tender that had drifted dangerously close. We motored away from the anarchy through the anchorage, past hundreds of cruise boats in varying design and states of repair, and we couldn’t help grinning when we saw the smart, high curved hull and wooden masts of the Hanoi Opera and the misty shapes of the karst islands in the distance.

Once aboard we were greeted warmly and sprinkled with rose petals from the deck above. Our cabins were delightful; compact, as you’d expect on a boat, with warm wood flooring and walls, a big window and crisp sheets. The boat was well maintained and the crew seemed competent, but the experience thus far had triggered a warning bell that had us checking our life jackets and making sure we knew where the exits were. But all was well and our cruise was safe, great fun and interesting. We seemed to spend most of our time eating and watching the beautiful scenery float past. The sea was mill-pond flat, but the boat swinging on its anchor did make James feel a little peculiar.

Phil and I spent a morning with a guide kayaking the caves and lagoons of Cat Ba National Park and watching people go about their daily business as part of a permanent floating fishing community. Keeping the brightly painted houses and school afloat were blue plastic air-filled barrels lashed together under the decking. Tied up alongside were squid boats bedecked in lanterns, and floating in the water were banks of oyster buckets and fish enclosures. We watched a woman rowing from house to house delivering fresh-water, children playing on the water-level verandas, dogs guarding the fish nets from marauding birds of prey and uniformed children rowing home from school, completely at ease in their tiny coracles. Two girls were rowing out to the trip boats with groceries and snacks. They disappeared in to a cave for a discreet pee over the side before reappearing again and continuing their rounds. On our day-trip boat we met Richard and Galena, a great couple, American and Russian, living in Singapore (well currently anyway). We chatted away over lunch, which included a plateful of curious looking mantis shrimp, talking about past travels and travel aspirations. During lunch our chef-come-captain came over, beaming with pride, to surprise us with three extraordinary vegetable sculptures. He had carved a model boat out of carrot (including a flag, ladders and rigging), a dove out of turnip and an exotic bird out of pineapple!

Richard is a fantastic photographer and he sent us some of his photos, a few of which I've posted up here. His website is, but be warned, his photos from his extensive travels are incredible and its almost impossible to tear yourself away from them.

Best wishes

On 17th February a cruise ship sunk in Halong Bay with the loss of 12 lives. For more info see



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