Boats, Birthdays and Bikes - an amazing few days in Halong Bay and Cat Ba island

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November 20th 2012
Published: November 24th 2012
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Halong Bay was a 'must do' for us in Vietnam despite all the negative reports we had heard on it, so it was with slight trepidation that we booked a trip on a junk boat to see the famous karsts. We shopped around the many travel agencies in Hanoi to find one we were happy with and one which could arrange a one day tour of the bay for us but instead of returning to Hanoi, it would then drop us on the island of Cat Ba where we could spend a few days at our leisure...these few days coincided with my Birthday and turned out to be the highlight of our trip so far and the best decision we could have made!

So, after hunting around Hanoi for ages for a travel agent who we felt we could trust and offered us a good price, we finally booked a one day/one way trip to Halong Bay with a transfer to Cat Ba island afterwards for $19, along with the Dutch guys and Hannah & Leigh - we knew we didn't want to spend a night on a boat or do a 2 day organised trip after all the horror stories we had heard (which cost upwards of $65) and a oneway tranfer from Hanoi to CatBa cost's $12 so we weren't losing much if the Halong tour wasn't great , so this worked out well for us. We were picked up by a nice mini-van at 8.30am and given some infomation on the trip by the driver/guide - so far so good. We were really looking forward to this trip but almost expected it to be a bit of a dissapointment as everyone we had spoken to was so negative about Halong, so when on the way and the sky went grey and the heavens opened we all thought 'here we go, washout', but there is nothing you can do about the weather so we just prayed it would stop by the time we were on the boat.

After being dropped off at Halong City, the 6 of us were told to wait while the other people on the bus were taken to a boat as they were doing an overnight trip. We waited for about 20 minutes and it was 1pm by this point so felt sorry for people just doing the day trip and heading back 3 hours to Hanoi at the end of the day, it seemed like such a waste. Soon after we were joined with another group and finally taken to our boat for the day, which looked...really nice! As we boarded we were offered seats at tables and could see lunch being prepared - we all looked at eachother thinking 'wow this is nice' but were kind of waiting for a hiccup along the way. We set sail and lunch was bought out, which although was mainly vegetarian food was still nice, and as the rain had stopped we then all went up to the top deck of the boat to relax on the cushions, have some drinks and admire the views which we had come to see. The limestone karsts which Halong is know for were jotting out of the green/blue water all around us and it was so peaceful with hardly any other boats around, it really was beautiful and we couldn't believe our luck - maybe we didn't have the best weather but so far the day was going well, the boat was nice and we were all having a good time. After about an hour we stopped to see a cave which again we had heard was rubbish but it was quite impressive really - we went in and it was huge inside and had been rigged up with all different colour lights which was cool - then it was back on the boat to a secluded spot for some kayaking where there were maybe 4 other boats, but plenty of room for everyone. Scott and I shared a tandem kayak (thank god as i am useless at kayaking!) and we went off in the open water for a while, at one point going through a big hole in a rock but almost missing it, then just cruising around looking at what surrounded us - quiet clear waters, natural cliffs and just stunning nature - bliss.

It was getting dark when we pulled up to Cat Ba island after a great day on the boat, but true to the travel agents word our transfer to the town was included and we were shuttled there as promised - we were all surprised at how smoothly everything had gone and again this just goes to show how different people's experiences can be so we were really glad we had made our own decision and seen Halong Bay, as it was a brilliant day and we would have been gutted if we had missed it.

So onto Cat Ba island...

We had debated going to Cat Ba as we didn't really know that much about it but it sounded like a good place to spend a few days and offered quite a few things to do so decided to be dropped there at the end of our Halong Bay day trip. After a 40 minute bus ride we arrived in the dark and quickly found a hotel for 2 nights on the front overlooking the bay - we picked Cat Ba Dream while the others stayed next door at Vien Dong - we couldn't see much from the balcony but were promised good views the next morning. Cat Ba seemed like a cute little seaside resort with lots of hotels and just a handful of restaurants, not a crazy party place which suited us just fine. We all freshened up and met for dinner a little later where we found a cute restaurant on the front which would offer us 2 for 1 on drinks plus a discount of the bill as there was 6 of us - perfect. The nice thing about eating with other people (aside from the company of course) is that you get to try lots of different dishes and share so we all ordered a feast of chicken, pork, vegetables, rice, noodles, spring rolls, prawns and fresh fish which was delicous and we hoovered it up. Hannah and I had got some Malibu from Hanoi which we had put in water bottles so enjoyed topping up our pineapple shakes with that throughout the night while the boys were on the beers!

After a great meal we went to the one lively place we could find (can't think of the name now) and carried on drinking and playing card games getting steadily more merry until at midnight everyone suddenly got up and sang me happy birthday which was a shock as i'd almost forgotten my Birthday was the next day! Shots followed and before we knew it the bar was closing and we were getting Banh Mi baguettes and making our way to bed at 2am...just like at home then! It was a great way to end such a good day, but the best was yet to come...

The next morning we woke to sunny skies and warm weather, at last! We put swimwear on for the first time on our trip and all went for a nice breakfast, where the others surprised me and had bought me a Vietnamese conical straw hat which they had all signed, such a nice gift - when travelling you make friends quicker than at home and we had been lucky enough to meet 4 great people who we all got on well with - so it was a nice way to start the day. We all decided we wanted to hire a private boat for the day and see what Cat Ba had to offer in terms of scenery, so Scott went off and 5 minutes later came back with the thumbs up as he had found a fisherman who would take us out for the day on his boat for the princley sum of 75,000 VND each - just £2.50!

We stocked up with drinks from the shop and boarded our little boat for the day, and as we set off the sun came out properly and the sky turned bright blue - the first time I have had my birthday in the sun - we couldn't beleive our luck again as apparently the last few days had been miserable! The fisherman stopped throughout the day at several beauty spots where we could jump in the warm seas and swim to secluded beaches, or just sunbathe on the boat and enjoy our snacks of crisps and fruit, along with chilled malibu and pinapple juice - perfect - we didn't see another boat or any other people all day except for a tiny lone rowing boat, it was really incredible and we were loving it. We all gave eachother nicknames throughout the day which was so funny - Jasper was 'King of flips' as he kept diving off the boat but was rubbish at it, Hidde was 'Prince Holland of Holland' as apparently his family are very well off, Hannah was 'saucy' as he initials are HP like the sauce, Leigh was the Jackhammer (but we don't know why), I was the Vicar, partly because of my name and partly because if Hannah & Leigh were to get married on the boat I could oversee it (the things you talk about after a few drinks!) and Scott was either 'Scotty doesn't know' from the comedy film Roadtrip, or Scott 'the wave' because he always waves at people!

The scenery all day was spectacular, it was hot and sunny, everyone was so relaxed and happy, so when Scott bought a Birthday cake out of nowhere and everyone started singing I was close to tears, what a fabulous surprise!! The cake was amazing, he had secretly organised it through our hotel and it even had my name on it, I was shocked and touched, it was so lovely. The cake was yummy and it wasn't long before we had all finished it (the fisherman had some too) and were back to lazing on the deck of the boat contemplating life and wondering if it could it get any better - this is what travelling is all about. As we headed back to land after what I can only describe as one of the best days ever, the sun was setting over the bay and had turned the sky a bright firey orange/red colour - a perfect end to a perfect day and definately a memorable Birthday! Cat Ba really surpassed our expectations and once again we were so happy we had decided to come here. We were all pretty tired that evening so Scott and I went for a meal just the two of us which was lovely before meeting the others for a drink, but by midnight we were all shattered so called it a night. There were talks of karaoke but thankfully that didn't happen! I went to bed that night blissfully happy and we both said if we have another day on our trip as good as this we will be very lucky.

Another thing to do on Cat Ba is hire moto-bikes for the day to explore the small island which is exactly what we did the next day. It was warm and sunny again so we set off on our bikes (all 6 of us) and stopped to get petrol, which is where we somehow broke the stand which the bike leans on...ooops! We carried on to the first stop which was the Hospital Cave, 12km away. We parked our bikes opposite the cave by a small restauarnt and the owner said he could fix our bike for 50p which of course we said yes to. We then climbed up some rickety stairs to the cave. This cave was used in the 1960's-1970's as a hospital for injured soldiers when Vietnam was being attacked and on first glance wasn't anything to get excited about, but then a man came outside and told us he was the cave manager and would we like a tour of the caves for the equivalent of £1 each. We were a bit scpetical but as we were there we thought we may as well, and it turned out to be really good. Inside the caves the guide would switch off lights and jump out to scare us, at one point when the lights went back on he had a miliary hat and a fake gun poiting at us! We walked through the cave which had 17 rooms, and when we got to another dark bit the guide told us all to look up. We weren't expecting to see anything different to what we had just walked through but then he turned on the light and we were in this massive open cave which was awesome with really high ceilings and hidden alcoves. The tour took about half an hour and was well worth it, especially as he took a group photo for us when we left and then pretended that the door was stuck and we couldn't get out on the other side!

After that we said bye to the Dutch guys as they were heading back to Hanoi that afternoon and the four of us continued riding through the countryside looking at the lush green scenery everywhere. The roads were nice and quiet so it was an easy ride, and we rode through several tiny villages and alongside inlets and lakes which were very scenic. Before returning we stopped at a small open cafe on the river for a bit of lunch - aside from us and the waitress/manager the only other sounds were roosters and dogs, it was really peaceful and pretty. We returned the bikes about 5pm and I treated myself to a $1 pedicure (!) before we had a last meal in Cat Ba which wasn't what we expected but it was nice all the same...the fried potatoes with chicken, garlic and tomato dish i ordered turned out to be chips topped with chicken and tomato sauce, while Scott's dish of pork with vegetable was just a plate of spinach leaves as they forgot the pork! Oh well. We made the tough decision to leave Cat Ba the next day, as even though we had wanted to see the beaches on the island, we were told the weather was changing and time was of the essence, so we sadly packed up our bags that night and prepared to move on.

So did we make the right decision skipping an overnight tour and visiting Cat Ba? You bet we did! We couldn't have wished for a better few days on Halong and especially Cat Ba and would reccomend this to anyone coming this way. Not only was it an amazing few days anyway, but the fact that I celebrated my birthday on a private boat with great people and gorgeous surroundings was just so special, we can only hope to have another day as good as this on our trip!

S&V's Travel Info & Tips:

General Info: Approx 33,000 VND to £1 / 21,000 VND to $1.

Transportation: We booked a one day Halong Bay trip through Friendly Travel in Hanoi for just $19 each, who we would totally reccomend. The lady in there was so nice and gave us all the info we wanted, on other things as well as Halong Bay. The trip included being picked up from Hanoi, the boat trip, lunch, all fees and being dropped in Cat Ba town afterwards. To organise your own boat for the day in Cat Ba just go to the seafront and speak to the local fishermen - we paid 75,000 VND each (about £2.5/$4) for the day. Moto bikes are 100,000 VND for a day's hire.

Food: We enjoyed the food in various restaurants on Cat Ba although it wasn't the best we have had and was quite expensive, but there are lots of options.

Accomodation: We found a great room in Cat Ba Dream hotel right on the front for just $8 a night. The rooms were nice, big and clean with wi fi and air con, plus the manager was so helpful and helped us with cheap onward travel too.

Other observations:

x) People continue to be super friendly and we can't beleive all the bad things we have heard about them; to us they are one of the nicest races we have met and we have been to 3 different places in the 'Nasty North' of the country now!

Additional photos below
Photos: 83, Displayed: 33


25th November 2012
On our moto-bike

Just don't txt as you drive...OK?
27th November 2012

Makes me want to go!
Good blog! And you guys are just beaming in these wonderful pictures!

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