Tag Archives: halong bay

Vietnam (again)

Having finished the Cambodian sampler with the Ballinger’s we hopped a plane to Hanoi to do a quick Vietnam sampler. Upon arrival a bus and ferry saw us back over to Cat Ba Island. We loved this place the last two times that we had come and the price was so low that we had to come again.

Cat Ba Island

Now is probably a good time to mention that the price WAS so low, but now it has gone up over 300%. Don’t get me wrong, it is still cheap, but the days of $ 10 a night rooms are gone. Sadly also gone are the cheap food stalls by the bay. They have been shoved off over the hill leaving only the overpriced tourist options in the heart of town. While some of these are ok, most of them are very much the same, leaving a hole when it comes to variety.

The first activity was to do a run around the island on one of the electric golf buggy type transports. This started in the hospital cave and went on to the Trung Trang Cave. After some time spelunking the caves we buzzed about the island before returning for dinner and a few drinks.

Next day it was off on the boat to visit Halong Bay with all of the usual inclusions (candle rock, turtle rock, kayaking, swimming, the fishing village etc.) along with a landscape dotted with karsts. Sadly, the levels of smog and pollution has made the concept of having a blue sky virtually impossible.

I must say that this trip to Cat Ba and Halong Bay was disappointing and will probably be our last. It has become even more touristy (if that is possible) and the level of pollution is making the place unpalatable. At our first stop for a swim, not one person on a boat of 35+ people was willing to get into the water due to the state of pollution. The boat moved to a new spot and then a few braved the waters.


From Cat Ba, it was a five hour journey to Hanoi where we checked into a local house (AirBNB) in the heart of oldtown. This saw us in behind the shops down a tiny alley. Once settled we started by hitting the usual haunts on yet another day when the old folks destroyed the children. First, it was off to the lake and a trip through the Tran Quoc Pagoda then a wander across to St. Joseph Cathedral before hiking down to Train Street.

After a drink and having a train try and run us over we walked back to the heart of the old town for a meal. But on the way we took the scenic route passing by (but not entering) Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, the palace, the opera house and the war museum. This walk saw one child being carried while the older two dragged themselves along as if they had circumnavigated the globe on foot (bearing in mind that the first 5 hours were sitting in a car transiting from Cat Ba).

The evening was spent blitzing the night markets and just generally experiencing old town Hanoi at night, something that continued the next day too. The new thing for us was to jump in and do the full tourist routine and attend the water puppet show. This is typically something that Jill and I run from, but it was pretty good.

The days were spent exploring, with a particular focus on the infamous egg and coconut coffees that are on offer in Hanoi (something that almost all of us got stuck into).

Hoi An

Leaving Hanoi we were off to Hoi An and Danang to explore. Some airline rescheduling issues made our attendance almost irrelevant as we were on the ground for less than 24 hour before having to leave. Our travel buddies got to stay and play but we were virtually there and gone again.

But before we left we managed to find time to blitz the food stalls and have ourselves some quality Banh Mi, Cao lau noodles and white rose dumplings.

The Cao Lau noodles cannot be found anywhere else in Vietnam as the noodles can only be made with lye water from a local well. Cao lau noodles are thicker than normal rice noodles and topped with pork, herbs, a little fragrant broth and rice crackers. The white rose dumplings get their name from the way that the white rice dough falls into a rose-like shape when they are steamed, these are filled with shrimp or pork and topped with crispy garlic.

Time being short and all, Jill and I left the Ballinger’s for their holiday while we headed on to Australia to start on the next leg of this seemingly endless journey. As Hoi An is the home of the Vietnamese tailor shops we left our friends being measured up for a wardrobe refit and with a heap more exploring to do.

Cat Ba and Halong Bay

We visited here twice on this trip…the first one was planned as Jill claims that last time we said that we should spend the night on a boat on Halong Bay rather than just do a day trip. And the other was that Dim was here and you couldn’t come to Vietnam and not see Halong Bay. So this post will cover off on both options that most tourists would do when visiting the famous Halong Bay.

While wandering through the war museum in Hanoi we ran into an met a lovely Italian lady (Chiara) who had ridden out the COVID waves in Melbourne. We all chatted and had lunch (at my favourite Indian joint) and told her we were off to CatBa island and she chose to join in. A quick trip to the bus company and an extra hotel room and we were all set. So four of us set off on our journey.

I re-read the previous post for Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay and everything that I wrote the first time holds true today with one exception. The transit was really easy now, no nightmares just a smooth and efficient transfer. Once on the island, the place is fantastic. The planned developments have partially gone ahead, however COVID slowed the rate of development and also dried up (for now) the influx of Chinese tourists. So at the moment, it is still absolutely lovely.

For decades, Cát Bà has been the launching point for Ha Long Bay and now this has been extended to include Lan Ha Bay. They are basically the inner and outer bays surrounding the island. Lan Ha Bay is made up of around 300 karst islands and limestone sea rocks and is southeast of Cat Ba Island. Lan Ha Bay is equally as beautiful although it is less visited, less inhabited and therefore has the extra appeal of being a more peaceful place.

There is much more here in terms of accommodation, resorts and restaurants than our first trip, but not so much to be silly. Our accommodation was amazing, we had a queen room with a private en suite for the princely sum of $15 a night and it included breakfast. Add to this that the lady on the front desk would bend over backwards to help despite being heavily pregnant. She was a machine.

On our arrival after hte bus trip and ferry ride, we hired scooters for 100,000 dong a day (about $6.50) and after a scooter lesson, given by me, Chiara was up and running with zero fear. This terrified Dim and I, as we knew what could go wrong. But she was fearless and two days later she was even riding with a pillion (a British women she met on the day trip).

We organised a day trip and the next morning took off on the traditional Cat Ba day trip. This included a boat trip around the bay, kayaking, beach time, swimming, a huge lunch and capped off by a fish massage at a local fishing village. This is basically exactly what we had done a decade earlier (with the exception of the feet eating fish). There is a similar day trip option leaving from Hanoi every morning and getting back the same night. I do not recommend this as you are adding 3-4 hours of driving on top of what is an already full day and you will be missing out on most of the activities.

After a full day on the water we headed to the bridge (where Jill and I had eaten and drank so many years earlier) and the four of us had a meal by the bridge (including beers) for 510,000 (about $35). All in all a great way to spend a day. And most importantly we capped it off with a street stall pancake like the ones in Thailand.

Nadim, Jill and I were on the bus back to Hanoi while Chiara chose to stay on and explore the island some more (on the motorbike with the British girl she met on the boat). We did meet up again briefly in Hanoi before she headed back to Italy then we headed to the next point in the journey.

After a bit more time in Hanoi, Dim went home and we headed to our pre-arranged tour and cruise on Halong Bay. This one was a bit flasher than the Cat Ba Trip (certainly a lot more expensive). This was a 2 day cruise of Halong bay, leaving from Hanoi and sleeping overnight on the water. It was lovely, the meals were magnificent and the rooms were amazing, especially given where we were.

While the cruise boat was much nicer, you still got on one of the dodgy boats for all of the daytime activities. And all of the activities were identical, which was fine but we had done it all a week earlier.

Having done Halong Bay in 2 of the 3 main ways available I must say that option 1 of the day trip from Hanoi is a bust and I really discourage this as there is too much to see in one day and it would have been exhausting and unsatisfying. The 2 day trip was much better. You are not pushed for time, you have a night on the water and the tours are all included. But it is seriously expensive.

My choice would be the Cat Ba Island option. Having spoken to Jill about the overall costings the price we paid for our 2 day cruise was about 5 times more than our Cat Ba trip, and the only difference was that we slept on the water. For the amount we spent on the 2 day cruise we could have spent a week on Cat Ba (including accommodation) and had different tours and trips every day (all within the same budget).

Sunworld (if you remember from back in the Danang Post)is in the process of establishing itself on Cat Ba island. The cable car is already in place and the resort is currently being built, along with what will likely be another Disneyland-type development. When it is finished, the entire Cát Bà cable car system will be 21.9 km long with 5 stations spanning the sea to link the towns including Cát Bà national park. When finished, this cable car will have the longest cable line in the world.

Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay

After our nightmare transit to get to Cat Ba Island we wandered the streets in search of food and drink…we found a western joint that did the most credible attempt at a burger and chips that we have had since leaving home (with a couple of beers) and then found a little street stall selling 2 litre kegs of local beer for 70,000 duong ($3.50)…and it was a hot day…so we had that..closely followed by an afternoon nap.

IMG_3067 IMG_20140923_144417 IMG_20140924_122848 IMG_20140925_131945

We organised our Ha Long Bay day trip through the hostel. For the grand price of $24 a head. We hopped the boat at the harbour at 8am where we sailed around Lan Ha Bay, checked out the seriously impressive karst (lumps) landscapes that we had been craving to see the day before. Stopped along the way to hop onto kayaks where we got to paddle through secluded lagoons, under rock arches and through limestone tunnels…basically every perfect scenario for the day.

IMG_3087 IMG_20140924_093253 IMG_20140924_121217 IMG_20140924_122713

Having kayaked we got a seafood lunch on the boat as we travelled to the Me Cung cave (inside one of the lumps) where we spelunked. From here we sailed to a private beach where we swam and some snorkelled (supposedly looking at coral reefs). Continued cruising through Halong bay during the afternoon past the floating fishing villages and on to Monkey Island for another swim while the others took photos of the tree rats (monkeys). After this we sailed back to Cat Ba arriving at sunset…not a bad day…

IMG_20140924_084023 IMG_20140924_145928 IMG_20140924_092259

Possibly the best day we have had since leaving Australia…definitely in the top 5.

A group of us from the boat all joined up and headed out that evening to sample the local street food on offer and to tap into those baby beer kegs. Some awesome pancake, rice paper wrap things were found and life was good. The next day we were up and out, hiring motorbikes, for $5 this time, and off exploring we went. This time I went the whole day without crashing the motorbike…but then again…this time I did not try doing donuts in the mud. A little bit of skin lost, some bruises to the ego and a gob full from the wife…no real damage done. This time we just zipped around the island checking out the cool stuff on offer.

We stopped at the hospital cave…a little cave half way up one of the lumps. The 75 cent entrance fee suggested it would be a fizzer but boy were we wrong. This place was huge, three storeys high and built inside the mountain, stairs, rooms, operating theatres, even a cinema. It was used for many years as a bombproof hideaway hospital and as a safe house for VC leaders.

IMG_3120 IMG_3125 IMG_20140925_120324 IMG_20140925_121348

When we hit the water on the other side of the island we sat staring at the sea eagles circling, swooping and scooping fish from the water. This is such a simple activity but is fascinating and an easy way to while away time. We rode back to the tourist side, found a beach and set up camp for a couple of hours. Late afternoon arrived and we were besieged by a tour group of Chinese…they had set up activities on the beach for them (similar to children’s games) and had the doof doof music and MC blasting across the beach. Tranquility ruined…we rode away.


Cat Ba island only has a couple of real touristy things to see and do and they are good. It has 3 fairly small resort beaches which are ok without being stunning. The key thing it has is as a launching point to visit and cruise through Halong Bay…and for that it is perfect. I cannot think of any way that our stay on Cat Ba could have been better. Google tells me that there are some major 5 star tourist developments planned with bungalows, casinos and expected capacities of around the 6000 mark. If that is he case…plan your visit soon…as such things will ruin the place.