Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay
Trip Start Jun 30, 2010
58Trip End Jun 01, 2011
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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
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
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 ¼ mile-long seafront could enjoy 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
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
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 www.7continentsgallery.smugmug.com, but be warned, his photos from his extensive travels are incredible and its almost impossible to tear yourself away from them.
On 17th February a cruise ship sunk in Halong Bay with the loss of 12 lives. For more info see