Kristen and I landed in Hanoi around midnight in early November 2016. We had a small budget for the 5 weeks that we'd be staying in SE Asia and organized cheap home-stays and hostels, but for the first night in Vietnam (after 30 hours of traveling), we booked a nicer room in Hanoi Old Quarter. They arranged an airport transfer for us so that we wouldn't have any issues getting to the hotel. There can be a lot of scams at the Hanoi Airport. If you're staying in Hanoi, arrange a transfer.
The next morning our first steps out in to the sprawling, seemingly chaotic streets of Hanoi, were met with smells and colors that Kristen nor I had ever experienced before. A mixture of motorbike exhaust, sizzling street food, fruit filled baskets, and nickel beers sent our senses in to overload. I fell in love with Vietnam immediately. We soaked it in.
After an entire day combing the streets of the Old Quarter, trying every noodle dish, exotic fruit, and fried goodness Hanoi had to offer, we wandered back to our hotel to discuss travel plans with the nice people at our hotel. Most Hotels in Hanoi double as a travel agency. They will book all of your tickets, tours, busses, boats, bikes, trains, you name it. I like to figure these things out myself, but our particular destination had a difficult route to get to it. We told the clerk that we wanted to go to Cat Ba Island for two nights.
"No problem" he said. And after a quick phone call and a couple of clicks he had a combination of Taxi - bus - bus - boat - bus tickets ready to go for us the following morning at 7am. They even had the cooks come in an hour early so that we would have breakfast before we left. We told them that was unnecessary, but they insisted and said they would hate for us to travel all day on an empty stomach. We left a generous tip.
We took the taxi out of Hanoi at 7am to the Bus hub. After some confusion about which bus to get on, a man finally told us that the "white people bus" to Cat Ba was "that way" as he pointed. About a 3 hour drive to a port town called Hai Phong, then a transfer and another 45 minute bus to the coast. Our bus was late to the boat and when the last person's first foot was on board, the captain went full throttle and we were off. The boat ride was about an hour and we passed some interesting boats and fishing huts that were on stilts. We docked on the north side of Cat Ba and were corralled on to another bus almost leaving two girls who were in the bathroom. 45 minutes later we were in Cat Ba town.
Cat Ba town is entirely walkable. Unable to know exactly where our hostel was, we walked to the other end and back only to realize the bus dropped us off right in front of it. We stayed at the Sea View Hotel. For $12 you can get a room with a view of the bay. We dropped our bags off and went out to explore.
Cat Ba Island is the biggest island in Ha Long Bay. It is made up almost entirely of national park. Most people come here and use the port to board their overnight cruise to Ha Long Bay or Lan Ha Bay. I had read a few stories about how beautiful the island itself is and if you travel all that way, why leave on a boat? The stories were right.
I walked down the street with the goal of renting a motorbike to get around the island. I didn't make it 20 steps before I was asked if I wanted to rent the cheapest motorbike on the island. Me being me I said maybe and set off to see if it was actually the cheapest. Turns out it was at a whopping $4.50 for 24 hours. I handed him 100,000 VND and he gave me 2 helmets and the keys. No questions asked (except my request for a bigger helmet(I have an enormous head)).
I went back to pick up Kristen and we grabbed lunch. A plate full of crab spring rolls and about 2 lbs of whole shrimp cooked in a spicy red sauce set us back about $8. Happy and full we hopped on the bike and took a ride up to the national park. It only took about 45 minutes to reach the other side of the island, but the views were amazing. Cat Ba is on the south side of Ha Long Bay. Although, Ha Long Bay proper is where the most dramatic of the limestone karst scenery is found. The views in Lan ha bay and around Cat Ba are just as good if not better with less boat traffic, less pollution, and less trash.
Day two, we took the bike out and explored some of the spots we had passed the day before. There is a cave just outside of Cat Ba about half way to the national park that used to serve as a hospital during the American War as well as a hideout for VC leaders. There is also a fun drive to one of the highest points on Cat Ba which ends at an old Cannon Fort. The history is interesting, but the views are amazing. You can look back at Cat Ba's rolling steep jungle tangled hills or out and down towards the Limestone islands and floating fishing villages.
From the top of Cannon Fort is where we noticed a small port where little wooden boats seemed to be shuttling people around, so Kristen and I decided to go check it out. At this point I was pretty anxious to get out on the water. When we managed to navigate over to the little port called Bến Bèo, we were met with a huge smile from a nice vietnamese lady asking us if we wanted to rent a kayak to paddle around the fishing village and Lan Ha bay. We didn't even know this was an option and told her that we absolutely want to do that and would come back in the morning since it was already close to sunset. We checked out the port and were asked constantly if we wanted "boat taxi". There were a ton of little boats and fishermen.
We finished the day at Cat Co 1 which is a public beach with a really nice trail running along the south facing cliff. We caught the sunset and headed back for more crab spring rolls.
Day 3 we got up early and zipped over to Bến Bèo port to pick up our kayak. We followed the woman away from the cement dock at the main port and south towards a flimsy pile of floating wood supported by sealed barrels and rope. We saw our kayak at the end and followed her out to it. She cut a plastic water bottle in half and used it as a scoop to get all of the water out of the leaky kayak and she asked what time we would be back. "Noon" I said. We had a bus to catch back to Hanoi at 1:30pm.
We hopped in the kayak and paddled in to a world that I never knew existed and will never forget. We turned a corner around the first island and it opened up to a lively floating fishing village complete with satellite TV for each floating shack. They run the Electricity from the main shore and across the sides of the islands just inches away from high tide level. There seemed to be life everywhere we looked. Dogs barking, women paddling their little boats around, fish jumping, shrimp splashing, children playing, and men smoking their cigarettes. It was eye opening and I loved it.
Once we made it through the fishing village the bay opened up to the beauty that is Lan Ha Bay. We paddled as far as monkey island soaking in the views. Caught a glimpse of a macaque monkey perfectly perched at the top of the island. And around the corner was a goat seeming out of place and excluded from the mainland. We realized time was getting away from us and we decided to paddle back.
We returned the kayak, hopped on the bike and drove back to Cat Ba town. After checking out of our hotel, I went to return the motorbike, and the man wasn't there. So I left the keys and the helmets with the bike and went to catch the bus. I guess it is an island and they are not too concerned with any bike theft. What a cool place.
Bus - boat - bus - bus - taxi
While back in Hanoi I sat in my tiny plastic chair on the sidewalk sipping a cold Huda beer, I thought how I'd never forget those 3 days in Cat Ba.
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