When I first came across the amazing green visions of Cat Ba archipelago, I knew I just had to visit this most beautiful place on earth. The archipelago consists of 367 islands in the North of Vietnam and if you go at the right time, it offers profound solitude and the perfect place to disconnect from the real world. After three days drifting between islands and houseboats and dining on simple fresh seafood, I felt like a new person.
How and When to Visit
If you want to visit Ha Long Bay and the Cat Ba archipelago, the easiest way is to book a tour to pick you up from Hanoi. Whilst you can sort out your own transportation to the islands, it is not worth the hassle and you will need to find a tour company anyway if you want to go on any of the boats. I spent a lot of time researching budget through to high end options and settled on a mid range tour run by Good Morning Cat Ba, which I highly recommend. A few years back it would have taken 5-6 hours to get from Hanoi to Cat Ba, the largest island in the archipelago however the journey is now much quicker since they built a super highway. The tour company picked us up from the old quarter of Hanoi early in the morning and packed us onto a bus with at least 30 other tourists. It took 2.5 hours to drive to Hai Phong City from where we took a short ferry to Cat Ba before all going our separate ways.
Before my trip, everyone I knew warned me that it would be a touristy experience, with loads of Chinese tour groups due to the areas proximity to the Chinese border. However I unwittingly picked the perfect time of year to go in April, when the weather is slightly cooler and there were no crowds at all. The majority of other tourists were from Europe or Vietnam, and many times I was the only person around to enjoy the peace and beauty.
Cat Ba National Park
I choose a two night, three day tour from Good Morning Cat Ba. When we arrived at Cat Ba around midday we were treated to a simple home cooked meal next to the Good Morning Cat Ba tour office before a private car drove us to the National Park. More than 50% of Cat Ba consists of wildlife, with a lot of lush green forest and limestone mountains. It also has historical significance as the island was home to some warfare during the Vietnam War.
Our guide took us to the Hospital Cave as a first stop. The cave served as a military base and hospital to injured civilians and troops during the war. We needed to climb a steep incline to enter the cave, which was hidden in a rock face. The cave is organised over multiple levels deep inside, as ingenious locals created a sophisticated series of military and hospital rooms that are well preserved. Whilst it has become a tourist attraction with plastic dummies of injured troops and officers to bring the history to life, it was interesting to discover the impact the war had on this apparently remote island. Vintage Vietnamese propaganda posters are displayed on the top floor of the cave.
Just past the cave we entered the National Park and trekked for over two hours through Kim Giao forest, up to the Ngu Lam peak. It was one of the more difficult treks I have done in southeast Asia due to the amount of steep and rugged steps and lack of handrails. However when we got to the peak the effort and sweat was well worth witnessing a stunning view of Cat Ba.
We took a small boat from the Cat Ba ferry terminal to Monkey Island to spend the night. This is a private beach resort in Lan Ha Bay and the boat ride was only 20 minutes. When we arrived the sun was setting and there were a multitude of dragon flies decorating the purple-pink sky. I stayed in the deluxe garden rooms within the resort, which were comfortable wooden huts with large balconies overlooking the beach. The bathroom facilities were basic and air conditioning only worked between 9pm and 7am in order to conserve energy.
After a quick refresh I headed to the upper floor of the main resort area where a BBQ buffet dinner was served. Fresh clams, squid and fish were cooked on hot coals with side dishes of spring rolls, pickled vegetables and salad. The food was simple, fresh and all you can eat. The resort also had a bar serving cheap beer and cocktails. Whilst the price was reasonable, the cocktails were sugar laden and weak on alcohol. I drank the worst daiquiri of my life here without the pleasure of feeling tipsy.
A defunct karaoke bar sits at the top of the hill next to the resort and cruising boats can make out the large KARAOKE sign from a distance. I went for a wander after dinner to check it out but learnt the place is currently closed much to the delight of locals. Previously, hoards of Australian backpackers would head to Monkey Island and drink until they passed out at the karaoke bar creating a lot of noise and disruption to locals. The venue is pretty much empty and souless today.
On the opposite side of Monkey Island is the public beach and hiking trek. It is also where all the monkeys live! We travelled there via boat and were surprised to see how fat and lazy the monkeys are. They regularly indulge in Oreo cookies and bananas that tourists purchase at the kiosk. I held a piece of banana out to one of the monkeys and accidentally dropped it on the ground. It was too much effort for the monkey, who was apparently well fed, to jump down and pick it up so it went back to sleep instead.
The hike at Monkey Island is short but very difficult as it requires proper hiking shoes due to the steep and jagged rocks. I climbed up as far as I could before returning to the beach for a swim. In April, the sun was hot by midday but the water was very cold. I lasted about 15 minutes in the water before needing to run out and soak up some more heat from the sun.
Cruising Lan Ha Bay
The next day I boarded the Good Morning Cat Ba cruise boat. The boat was two stories and included four king size rooms with ensuite, kitchen, common room, and a large upstairs deck. On the boat we spent a lot of time cruising around the green waters of the archipelago past what seemed like hundreds of small islands with grand limestone peaks. As there were not many tourists onboard I could enjoy listening to the quiet sound of the water whilst taking in the fantastic view without disruption.
On the boat we passed by the fishing villages of Lan Ha Bay. More than 4,000 residents live in these floating villages, which have existed for hundreds of years in the region. The villages are comprised of wooden structures atop barges as well as boats tied together. Each structure represents a single household, although some operate as businesses for selling sundries. The main source of income for these families is fishing and usually the men will go out during the day to set traps and bring home fish, oysters, clams and other seafood whilst the woman rear the children and take care of the home.
Our tour guide explained that the residents of the floating villages are a tight knit community who know each other intimately. Young adults will be aware of other singles through the network and a typical date would be to go fishing together or hang out on the mainland. Families usually have a lot of children because there is no electricity and not much to do at night, however the walls are paper thin so they must try and be quiet during any evening escapades. It can be particularly perilous for infants growing up here and parents keep a sharp eye on their children to ensure they don’t fall in the water. Usually by 4 years old, children will be very good swimmers. When they get a bit older, children commute to Cat Ba island to go to school. Interestingly there are a lot of dogs living on these floating villages, with at least one per household. As the houses do not have locks, the dogs act as guards when the families need to go out. Most of the dogs swim especially well, so tourists should be careful not to get too close to them as they may jump off and attack you!
We spent the afternoon canoeing through secret caves and lagoons around Hang Ca. We spent several hours exploring areas devoid of civilisation in our canoes, which was spectacular although hard work on the arms! Our Good Morning Cat Ba tour guide called us back onto the boat before high tide, so we did not get trapped inside any of the caves.
The food served on the Good Morning Cat Ba cruise was simple yet fresh. We ate mostly seafood including baked fish with tomato, lightly seasoned clams and fish cake wrapped around sugar cane, along with raw spring rolls and salad. There was always plenty of food to go around at meal time although no snacks in between. We spent a night sleeping on the boat. During the evening the crew invited everyone to join them for nighttime squid fishing, where they dunked baited lines over the edge of the boat and waited 20-30 minutes for a bite. Our host then told us stories about Vietnamese history and culture whilst we sat on the upper deck drinking beer until the wee hours.
It was my first time sleeping on a boat and it was more comfortable than I expected. My room was spacious and had an ensuite bathroom with modern toilet and shower. There was no hot water or air conditioning, but the peaceful night sleep rocking with the waves more than made up for it.
On the last day of the tour, our cruise boat dropped us back off at Cat Ba where our group enjoyed special Vietnamese hand drip coffee with condensed milk before being transported back to Hanoi.
If you are seeking a peaceful holiday amid natural beauty with a small dose of physical activity, I would recommend visiting Cat Ba and the surrounding islands with Good Morning Cat Ba tours. It was an incredible experience and one of my favourite holidays in southeast Asia thus far.