Halong Bay

Itinerary Route Map

Imagine 2000 or more islands rising from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin and you have vision of breathtaking beaty. Halong translates as ‘where the dragon descends into the sea’, and legend claims the islands of Halong Bay were created by a great dragon from the mountains. As it charged towards the coast, its flailing tail gouged out valleys and crevasses. When it finally plunged into the sea, the area filled with water, leaving only the pinnacles visible.

    Designated a World Heritage site in 1994, this mystical landscape of limestone islets is often compared to Guilin in China or Krabi in southern Thailand. In reality, Halong Bay is more spectacular. The bay’s immense number os islands are dotted with wind-and-wave-eroded grottoes, and their sparsely forested slopes ring with birdsong.

    Visitors to Halong also come to explore the caves. There are few real beaches in Halong Bay, but Lan Ha Bay has sandy coves a short boat hop from Cat Ba Town.

    Sprawling Halong City is the bay’s main gateway, but the raffish collection of high rise hotels and karaoke bars is not a great introduction to this incredible site.

    Most visitor sensibly opt for tours that include sleeping on a boat in the bay. Some travellers dodge Halong City and head straight for Cat Ba Town, from where trips to less-visited, equally alluring Lan Ha Bay are easily set up. Cat Ba Island can also be a good base for visiting Halong Bay itself.

    As the number-one tourist attraction in the northeast, Halong Bay attracts visitors year-round. January to March is oftencool and drizzly, and the ensuing fog can make visibility low, but also adds an ethereal air. From May to September tropical storms are frequent, and year-round, tourist boats sometimes need to alter their itineraties, depending on the weather. Some tour companies offer full or partial refunds if tours are cancelled; check when you book.

 Sights & Activities

 Caves

Halong Bay’s islandsare peppered with caves, many now illuminated with technicolor lighting effects. Sadly, litter and trinket-touting vendors are also part of the experience.

Hang Dau Go (Cave of Wooden Stakes) is a huge cave consisting of three chambers that you reach via 90 steps. Among the stafactities of the first hall, scores of gnomes appear to be holding a meeting. The walls of the second chamber sparkle if a bright light is shone on them. The cave derives its name from its third chamber’s role in Vietnamese history. Part of the same system, the nearby Hang Thien Cung has ‘cauliflower’ limestone growths as well as stalactites and stalagmites.

The popular Hang Sung Sot (Surprise Cave) has three vast chambers; in the second there’s a pink-lit rock phallus, called the ‘Cook Rock’ by some guides. Not surprisingly it’s regarded as a fertility symbol.

Hang Trong (Drum Grotto) is named because when the wind blows through its stalactites and stalagmites, the effect resembles the sound of distant drumbeats.

Which os the caves you’ll visit depends on several factors, including the weather and the number of other boats in the vicinity.

 Islands

Dao Titop (titop Island) is a small island with a scruffy little beach. Make straight for the island’s summit for superb panoramic views of Halong Bay.

Cat Ba Island is the most developed ps Halong Bay’s islands anf Cat Ba Town is very close to the gorgeous Lan Ha Bay region.

 Kayaking

A Kayak among the karsts is an option on most Halong Bay tours. Count on about an hour’s paddling, often including negotiating your way through karst grottoes and around lagoons, or to a floating village in the bay. The villagers here farm fish, which are caught offshore and fattened up in netted enclosures. Most tour operators include a visit as part of their Halong Bay itineraties. These are probably also where your evening meal will come from.

If you’re really keen on kayaking, contact Handspan Adventure Travel (p83) in Hanoi, which runs professionally organised trips, has qualified guides and operated from less touristed Lan Ha Bay.

 Information

All visitors must purchase entry tickets for the national park. Tickets for daytime visits are between 80,000d and 120,000d, and overnight stays are 320,000d. Note that visitors must also purchase additional tickets (30,000d to 50,000d) for separate attractions like caves, islands and fishing villages within the park. Most admission fees are included with organised tours, but check when you book.

The offical Halong Bay Tourist Information Centre (033-384 7481; www.halong.org.vn; 7am-4pm) is at Bai Chay tourist dock in Halong City.

WATCH THOSE VALUABLES!

Take real care with your valuables when cruising the waters of Halong Bay. Do not leave them unattended as they might grow legs and walk. Always try to ensure there is someone you know and trust watching your gear on a day cruise. When it comes to overnight cruises, most boats have lockable cabins.

Getting There & Away

Talking a tour is centainly convenient, and many are pretty good value.

It’s also possible to head here independently. The regular run is by bus from Hanoi to Bai Chay (Halong City), and then by xe om or taxi to Bai Chay harbour. At bustling Bai Chay, you can book a tour, but once you factor in getting there from Hanoi it’s actually not much cheaper. These daytrip boats are also usually crowded, and often come with a soundtrack of Vietnamese karaoke.

There are also tour boats running from Bai Chay via Halong Bay to Cat Ba Island. Alternatively, head directly to Cat Ba Island from Hanoi and arrangge a boat trip from there to explore Lan Ha Bay.

Getting Around

Most boat tours leave from Bai Chay tourist dock in Halong City. Prices are officially regulated and depend upon the route, length of trip and class of boat. This dock is pretty chaotic, with hundreds of people embarking and disembarking from dozens of boats.

Hiring a one-star boat for a four-hour cruise costs around 2,000,000d, or it’s around 3,000,000d for a six-hour cruise. On weekends, prices rise by around 20%. Costs are usually divided between the total number of people on board.

 CRUISING THE KARSTS: TOURS TO HALONG BAY

There are many ways to experience the ethreal beauty of Halong Bay. Unless you have a private yacht (or you’re an Olympic kayaker),you’ll have to take a tour of some kind.

   For a serious splurge, cruising the karsts aboard a luxury Chinese-style junk is hard to beat. There’s also a very luxurious paddle ship, based on a French craft from the early 20th century. But be aware that nearly all of these luxury trips operate on a fixed itinerary, taking in the well-known caves and islands, and simply do not have the time to stray far from Halong City. Many ‘two-day’ tours actually involve less than 24 hours on a boat ( and cost hundreds of dollars per person).

    At the other end of the scale, budget tours sold out of Hanoi start from a rock-bottom US$60 per person for a dodgy day trip, and rise to around US$220 for two nights on the bay with kayaking. For around US$100 to US$130, you should get a worthwhile overnight cruise.

    We get many complaint about poor service, bad food and rats running around boats, but these tend to be on the ultrabudget tours. Spend a little more and enjoy the experience a whole lot more. It can be a false economy signing up for one of the budget tours, and it’s also potentially a matter of safety.

    Most tours include transport and meals, and sometimes include island hikes. Drinks are extra. Most of these trips follow a strict itinerary, with planned stops at illuminated caves often at the same time as many of the other boats operating out of Bai Chay.

    If you have more time and want to experence Halong Bay without the crowds, consider Cat Ba Island. Here you’ll find operators who concentrate on Lan Ha Bay, which is less frequented, relatively untouched and has a few sandy beaches.

    Because of weather, boat tours are sometimes cancelled and you’ll probably be offered a full or partial refund. Ascertain in advance what that will be.

Halong City

Halong City ( Bai Chay) is the main gateway to Halong Bay. Through the city enjoys a stunning position on the cusp of Halong Bay, developers have not been kind to it, and high-rise hotels dot the shoreline. However. the majority of food, accommodation and other Halong Bay services are found here.

     Most travellers don’t saty in town, prefering to spend a night out in Halong Bay otself. Increased competition for a dwindling clientele means budget hotel rates are some of the cheapest in Vietnam. Chinese and Korean visitor are noe more prevalent, preferring to enjoy the terra firma attractions of casinos and karaoke after a day exploring the bay.

Sleeping

Most people stay on a boat in the bay but there are hundreds of hotels around Bai Chay, and prices are very reasonable outside the peak season (June to August) or during the Tet festival.

Virtually all budget accommodation is on the hotel alley of Đ Vuon Dao, home to around 50 near-identical minihotels. Comfortable doubles are around US$15. Midrange and top-end hotels are scattered along Đ Halong, many commanding great views.

Thanh Hue Hotel

(033-384 7612; Đ Vuon Dao; r US$12-18)

Look for the powder blue paint job on this good-value hotel. Most rooms have cracking views of the bay from their balconies. It’s a bit of a walk uphill after a seafood meal and a few beers, but well worth it.

Tung Lam Hotel

(033-364 0743; 29 Đ Vuon Dao; r US $10-16)

This minihotel is a making a little more effort than most on this strip. All rooms have two beds, a TV, a minibar and en suite. Those at the font are spacious and include a balcony.

Novotel

(033-384 8108; www.novotelhalongbay.com; Đ Halong; r from US$110) This hip hotel fuses Asian and Japanese influences with comtemporary details. The rooms are stunning, with teak floors, marble bathrooms and sliding screens to divide living areas. Facilities include an oval infinity pool, an espresso bar and a great restaurant.

Eating

For cheap, filling food, there are modest places at the bottom of Đ Vuon Dao with English menus. Seafood lovers should head to the harbour-front Đ Halong.

Toan Huong

(033-384 4651; 1Đ Vuon Dao; mains from 50,000d; 10am-10pm) A simple place with friendly staff, a street terrace and an extensive menu (in English) with a bit of everthing: Western breakfast, fresh seafood and imported wine.

Asia Restaurant

(033-384 6927; 24 Đ Vuon Dao; mains 60,000-100,000d; 10am-10pm) A clean, attractive place that’s geared to traveller’s tastes, with good Vietnamese food and a smattering of Western favourites.

Information

Mainpostoffice (D Halong) At the bottom of Vuon Dao.

Vietcombank (D Halong) Exchanges cash and has an ATM.

Getting There & Away

BUS

All buses leave Bai Chay bus station, 6km south of central Bai Chay, just off Hwy 18. Note that many long distance buses will be marked ‘Bai Chay’ rather than ‘Halong Bay’. The overnight bus to Sapa departing at 6.45pm is a good option if you don’t wish to return to Hanoi. For Tam Coc, there are also direct buses to Ninh Binh.

For Cai Rong Pier (Cai Rong Pha) on the island of Van Don – where you can catch onward ferries to the islands of Bai Tu Long – either catch a direct bus to Van Don, or get off at the junction town of Cua Ong on any Mong Cai or Lang Son bus. Then catch a xe om or taxi to the pier. Not all Van Don buses continue to Cai Rong Poer, so check at the Bai Chay bus station.

Buses from Halong City

DESTINATION COST (D) DURATION &FREQUENCY
Hanoi 100,000 4hr; frequent
Haiphong 50,000 2hr; frequent to 3pm
Mong Cai 90,000 4hr; every 40min to 3pm
Van Don 60,000 1,5hr; approx hourly
Lang Son 110,000 5,5hr; 11.45am & 12.45pm
Sapa 450,000 12hr; 6.45pm
Ninh Binh 130,000 4hr; 5.30am & 11.30am

 

CAR & MOTORBIKE

Halong City is 160km from Hanoi and 55km from Haiphong. The one-way trip from Hanoi to Halong City takes about three hours by private vehicle.

Getting Around

Bai Chay is quite spread out; Mai Linh (033382 2226) is a reliable taxi option.

Cat Ba Island

Rugged, craggy and jungle-clad Cat Ba, the largest island in Halong Bay, is northern Vietnam’s adventure-sport and ecotourism hub.

In recent years Cat Ba Town has experienced a hotel room, and a chain of ugly concrete hotels now frames a once-lovely bay. But the rest of the island is largely untouched, and with idyllic Lan Ha Bay just offshore you’ll soon overlook Cat Ba Town’s overdevelopment.

Most of the year Cat Ba Town is a laid-back place, and an excellent base for activities around the island, or sailing and kayaking around Lan Ha Bay. On summer weekends Cat Ba turns into a roaring resort, filling up with vacationing Vietnamese. Hotel prices double or treble and there’s an excess of karaoke joints and hubbub. Cars are banned from the promenade, which is taken over by a sea of strolling holidaymakers, Weekdays are saner, but still busy between June and August.

Ho Chi Minhpaid a visit to Cat Ba Island on 1 April 1951 and there is an annual festival to commemorate the event. During this timw, expect lots of waterfront karaoke and techno beats from 8am to midnight.

Almost half of Cat Ba Island (with a total area of 354 sq km) and 90 sq km of the adjacent waters were declared a national park in 1986 to protect the island’s diverse ecosystems. Most of the coastline consists of rocky cliffs, but there are some sandy beaches and tiny fishing villages hidden away in small coves.

Lakes, waterfalls and grottoes dot the spectacular limestone hills, the highest rising 331m above sea level. The island’s largest body of water is Ech Lake (3 hectares). Almost all of the surface streams are seasonal. Most of the island’s rainwater flows into caves and follows underground streams to the sea, creating a shortage of fresh water during the dry season.

Cat Ba’s best weather is from late September to November, when air and water temperatures are mild and the skies are mostly clear. December to February is cooler but pleasant. February to April is still good, but you can expect some rain. Summer (June to August) is hot and humid with occasional thunderstorms. This is peak season and the island is packed with Vietnamese tourists.

Sights

First impressions of Cat Ba Town are not great, but the mediocre vision of a low-rent mini-Manhattan only extends for a street or two behind the promenade. A Ho Chi Minh monument stands up on Mountain No 1, the hillock opposite the pier in Cat Ba Town. The market at the northern end of the harbour is a great local affair with twitching crabs, jumbo shrimp and pyramids of fresh fruit. Head out of the town for the island’s best sights.

Lan Ha Bay

(admission 30,000d) The 300 or so karst islands of Lan Ha Bay are south and east of Cat Ba Town. Geologically they are an extension of Halong Bay, but these islands lie in a different province of Vietnam. The limestone pinnacles and scenery are just as beautiful as Halong Bay, but these islands have the additional attraction of numerous white-sand beaches.

Lan Ha Bay is a fair way from Halong City, so not so many touruist boast venture to this side of the bay. In short, Lan Ha Bay has a more isolated, off-the-beaten-track appeal (and far fewer visitors). There is an admission fee to the bay, but this is often incorporated into the cost of tours.

Around 200 species of fish, 500 species of mollusc, 400 species of arthropod and numerous hard and soft coral live in Lan Ha Bay. Larger marine animals in the area include seals and three species of dolphin.

Sailing and kayak trips here are best organised in Cat Ba Town. With hundreds of beaches to choose from, it’s easy to find your own private patch of sand for the day. Camping is permitted in gorgerous Hai Pai Beach (also known as Tiger Beach), which is used as a base camp by the Cat Ba adventure-tour operators and also hosts occasional fullmoon parties. Lan Ha Bay also offers superb rock climbing ans is the main destination for trips run by Asia Outdoors.

Cat Ba National Park

(031-216 350; admission 30,000d; sunrise-sunset) This accessible national park is home to 32 types of mammal and 70 bird species. To reach the park headquarters at Trung Trang, take a green QH public bus from the docks at Cat Ba Town (20,000d, 20 minutes). Buses leave at 8am and 11am. Another option is to hire a xe om for around 80,000d one way, or hire your own motorbike for the day.

Mammals in the park include langurs and macaques, wild boar, deer, civets and several species of aqirrel, including the giant black squirrel. The golden-headed langur is officially the world’s most endangered primate with around 65 remaining, most in this park. Birds include hawks, hornbills and cuckoos, and Cat Ba lives on a major migration route for waterfowl that feed and roost on the beaches in the mangrove forests. Over a thousand species of plants have been recorded here, including 118 trees and 160 plants with medicinal value.

A guide is not mandatory but is definitely recommended to help you make sense of the verdant canopy of trees. The multichambered Hang Trung Trang (Trung Trang Cave) is easily accessible, but you will need to contact a ranger to make sure it’s open. Bring a torch (flashlight).

There’s a challenging 18km hike through the park and up to one of the mountain summits. Arrange a guide for this six-hour hike and organise a bus or boat transport to the trailhead and a boat to get back to town. This can be arranged with the rangers at the national park headquarters, or at Asia Outdoors or Cat Ba Ventures in Cat Ba Town. Be sure to take proper hiking shoes, a raincoat and a generous supply of water for this hike. Independent hikers can buy basic snacks at the kiosks in Viet Hai, which is where many hiking groups stop for lunch. This is not an easy walk, and is much harder and more slippery after rain. There are shorter hiking options that are less hardcore.

Many hikes end at Viet Hai, a remote minority village just outside the park boundary, from where taxi boats shuttle back to Ben Beo pier (about 200,000d per boat). A shared public boat (50,000d per person) departs Ben Beo at 6am on weekdays and 7am on weekends. There is also accommodation here at Whisper of Nature.

Cat Co Cove

A 15-minute walk southeast from Cat Ba Town, the three Cat Co Cove beaches boast white sand and good swimming, although debris and rubbish in the water can be problem on some days. The prettiest is Cat Co 2, backed by limestone cliffs, and the site of Cat Ba Beach Resort. Cat Co 1 and 3 also have resorts.

Another option to reach Cat Co is on the tourist train (per person 10,000d) that trundles over the hill during the peak seasons. Water-sport gear like kayaks and windsurfers are also available to rent. Note that on summer weekends the three beaches get packed with Vietnamese tourists, and litter can be a problem.

Other beaches on Cat ba Island include Cai Vieng, Hong Xoai Be and Hong Xoai Lon.

Hospital Cave

(031-368 8215; admission 15,000d; 7am-4.30pm) Hospital Cave served both as a secret, bomb-proof hospital during the American War and as a safe house for Viet Cong (Vietnamese Communists; VC) leaders. Built between 1963 and 1965 (with assistance from China), this incredibly well-constructed three-storey feat of engineering was in constant use until 1975. The cave is about 10km north of Cat Ba Town on the road to the national-park entrance.

A guide (most known a few words of English) will show you around the 17 rooms, point out the old operating theatre and take you to the huge natural cavern that was used as a cinema (and even had its own small swimming pool).

CRUISES WITH A DIFFERENCE

If you’re after something a little different with your Halong Bay cruise, consider one of the following more interesting (and more expensive) options. All are based in Hanoi.

Emeraude Classic Cruise (04-3934 0888; www.emeraude-cruises.com; d US$360-600) A 56m replica paddle steamer with 38 air-conditioned cabins, all with elegant wooden furniture and smart hot-water showers. Lavish buffet-style meals are served. It is pricey for a cruise that’s less than 24 hours.

Handspan (04-3926 2828; www.handspan.com; d US$320-400) Handspan’s Treasure Junk is the only true sailing ship operating on the bay. That means you get to meander peacfully through the karsts without the constant hum of a diesel engine. Crack open a cold Bia Hanoi and you’ll be in heaven.

Indochina Sails (04-3984 2362; www.indochinasails.com; d US$896-1000) Cruise Halong on a traditional junk kitted out to a three-star standard. Indochina operates two 42m junks and one smaller craft; all have attractive wooden cabins and great viewing decks.

CANNON FORT

For one of the best views in all of Vietnam – no, we’re not kidding – head to Cannon Fort (admission 50,000d; sunrise-sunset). The astounding vistas include the colourful tangle of fishing boats in Cat Ba harbour, and the perfect little coves of Cat Co 1 and Cat Co 2. The views out to a karst-punctuated sea are quite sublime, and there’s even a terrific café and juice bar adjacent to the fort’s old helicopter landing pad.

The underground tunnels and gun emplacements here were first installed by the Japanese in WWII, but were also utilised by the French and Vietnamese during subsequent conflicts. Well-labelled paths guide visitors past two well-preserved gun emplacements, one ‘manned’ by life-size Viet Minh mannequins.

The entrance gate is a steep 10-minute walk or 15,000d xe om (motorbike taxi) ride from Cat Ba Town. From the gate, it’s another stiff 20-minute walk.

Activities

Cat Ba is a superb base for adventure sports – on the island, and in, on and over the water.

Mountain Biking

Hotels can arrange Chinese mountain bikes (around US$6 per day). Blue Swimmer rents better-quality mountain bikes for US$15 per day.

One possible route traverses the heart of the island, past Hospital Cave down to the west coast’s mangroves and crab farms, and then a loop back to Cat Ba Town past tidal mud flats and deserted beaches. Blue Swimmer and Asia Outdoors both arrange guided mountain-bike rides.

Rock Climbing

Cat Ba Island and Lan Ha Bay’s spectacular limestone cliffs make for world-class rock climbing.

Based on Cat Ba, Asia Outdoors pioneered climbing in Vietnam and uses fully licenced and certified instructors. Advanced climbers can hire gear here, talk shop and pick up a copy of Vietnam: A Climber’s Guide (US$20) by Asia Outdoors’ Erik Ferjentsik, which describes climbs and has some great tips about Cat Ba too. Full-day climbing trips include instruction, transport, lunch and gear. Longer trips by boat incorporate kayaking, beach stops and exploring the amazing karst landscape. Other less qualified Cat Ba operators also offer climbing trips, but Asia Outdoors is the authority on the island.

Sailing & Kayaking

Don’t miss exploring the spectacular islands and beaches of Lan Ha Bay. Blue Swimmer offers sailing excursions to myriad islands around Cat Ba, often including kayaking and sleeping in a bamboo hut on a private beach.

Plenty of hotels in Cat Ba Town rent kayaks (half-day around US$8). Blue Swimmer also has good-quality kayaks (single/double per day US$12/25), ideal for exploring the Cat Ba coast independently.

Trekking

Most of Cat Ba Island consists of protected tropical forest. Asia Outdoors and Blue Swimmer both offer a great hike around Cat Ba Island that takes in Butterfly Valley.

Tours

Tours of the island and boat trips around Halong Bay are offered by nearly every hotels in Cat Ba Town. Typical prices start at around US$20 per person for day trips and US$80 for two-day, one-night tours, but it is worth spending a bit more. We receive unfavourable feedback – cramped conditions and dodgy food – about some of these trips, but the following offer good prices and service.

If you’re looking for a different experience, the following adventure-tour operators understand travellers’ needs and will steer you away from the tourist trail to really special areas of Cat Ba, Lan Ha Bay and beyond.

Cat Ba Ventures

(0912 467 016, 031-388 8755; www.catbaventures.com; 223 D 1-4, Cat Ba Town) Locally owned and operated company offering boat trips to Halong Bay, kayaking and hiking. Excellent service from Mr Tung is reinforced by multiple reader recommendations.

Asia Outdoors

(031-368 8450; www.asiaoutdoors.com.vn; D 1-4, Cat Ba Town) Climbing instruction is Asia Outdoors’ real expertise, but it also offers excellent, well-structured boating, kayaking, biking and hiking trips. Rock up to its office in Noble House (at 6pm every night) to see what’s planned. Note that Asia Outdoors was formerly known as Slo Pony Adventures.

Blue Swimmer

(0915 063 737, 031-368 8237; www.blueswimmersailing.com; Ben Beo harbour) A very well-organised, environmentally conscious outfit established by Vinh, one of the founders of respected tour operator Handspan. Superb sailing and kayak trips, trekking and mountain-biking excursions are offered. Check it out at Ben Beo harbour or at its booking office in Cat Ba Town at the Green Bamboo Forest restaurant.

Some of Blue Swimmer’s trips also include staying at the Ancient House in a quiet location on the outskirts of Cat Ba Town.

CLIMBING THE KARSTS

If you’ve ever considered it, or been tempted to climb. Halong Bay is a superb place to go for it – the karst cliffs here offer exceptional climbing amid stunning scenery. Most climbers in Cat Ba are complete novices, but as the instruction is excellent, many leave Cat Ba completely bitten by the bug.

You don’t need great upper-body strength to climb, as you actually use your legs far more. The karst limestone of Halong Bay is not too sharp and quite friendly on the hands, and as many of the routes are sheltered by natural overhangs that prevent the climable portion of the rock from getting wet, climbing is almost always possible, rain or shine.

A few inexperienced locals may offer climbing excursions to new arrivals on Cat Ba, but beginners should sign up with the experienced crew at Asia Outdoors (above).

Climbing opportunities for beginners are located on walls inland on Cat Ba Island or out on beautiful Lan Ha Bay. You’ll be kitted up with a harness and climbing shoes, given instruction and taught the fundamentals of the climbing and belaying techniques, then given a demonstration. Then it’s over to you (with your climbing instruction talking you through each move and anchoring you, of course!). Most people are able to complete a couple of climbs at Hai Pai and Moody’s Beach, which are both ideal for beginners.

The vertical cliffs of Halong and Lan Ha Bays are also perfect for deep-water soloing, which is basically climbing alone, without ropes or a harness, and using the ocean as a water bed in case you fall. This is obviously only for experienced climbers, and it’s essential to know the depth of water and tidal patterns. We’ve heard reports of some climbers being injured falling into shallow waters, so it’s vital to attempt deep-water soloing only with an experienced crew like Asia Outdoors. It’s customary to finish a solo climb with a controlled free fall (or ‘tombstone’) into the sea and a swim back to the shore, or your boat.

SLEEPING

Most basic hotels are situated on (or just off) the waterfront in Cat Ba Town, but the area’s accommodation scene is quickly evolving. More interesting options have opened in other parts of Cat Ba, and there are some wonderfully isolated spots on other islands in Lan Ha Bay.

Room rates fluctuate greatly. In the high-season summer months (June to August) you can expect to pay a minimum of US$20 per room; rates sink to around US$12 for a decent room outside this time. The rates given here are for low season. Peak season rates are impossible to determine as hotel owners tend to pick a number out of their heads depending on demand. Note that from June to August, it’s definitely worth booking ahead because of demand.

CAT BA TOWN

If the seafront hotels in Cat Ba Town are full, detour to D Nui Ngoc, which is lined with good-value accommodation.

Thu Ha

(031-388 8343; D 1-4; r US$12-20) With air-con, wifi and a seafront location, the Thu Ha offers great value. Negotiate hard for a front room and wake up to sea views.

Le Pont

(0165 662 0436; jim.lepontcatba@gmail.com; 62-64 D Nui Ngoc; dm US$5, d & tw US$15-20) The best spot in town for budget-wise backpackers with cheap dorms and OK double and twin rooms. The rooftop bar and terrace is a handy place to meet fellow travellers.

Duc Tuan Hotel

(031-388 8783; www.catbatravelservice.com; 210 D 1-4; r US$12-20) Simple but colourfully furnished rooms feature at this main-drag, family-owned spot. The rooms at the back are quieter, but lack windows.

Cat Ba Dream

(031-388 8274; www.catbadream.com.vn; 226 D 1-4; r US$15-25) Slightly more expensive than Cat Ba’s ultracheapies, Cat Ba Dream is a good addition to the town’s seafront cavalcade of accommodation. Angle for a front room with sea views.

Phong Lan Hotel

(031-388 8605; D 1-4; r US$12-20) In the middle of the seafront strip; some rooms have balconies overlooking the harbour.

Hung Long

(031-626 9269; 268 D 1-4; d US$80) At the quieter southeastern end of Cat Ba Town, the Hung Long has very spacious rooms, many with excellent views.

CAT BA BEACHES & ISLANDS

Whisper of Nature

(031-265 7678; www.vietbungalow.com; Viet Hai Village; dm/d US$12/28) Whisper of Nature’s simple concrete-and-thatch bungalows are arrayed around a quietly flowing stream in the edge of the forest. Accommodation ranges from shared dorms to bungalows with private bathrooms. Getting there is an adventure in itself, with the final stage a bike ride through lush scenery. Ask about transport when you book, or hire a bamboo boat from Cat Ba Town to the Viet Hai village jetty (200,000d), and then a xe om (50,000d) for the final 5km to the village.

Ancient House Homestay

(0916 645 858, 0915 063 737; www.catbahomestay.com; Ang Soi village; shared house s/d US$17/25, private house d US$50) Located around 3km from Cat Ba Town in the quiet village of Ang Soi, this beautiful heritage home was carefully moved here from the outskirsts of Hanoi. Antiques fill the highceilinged interior and outside are well-tended gardens. A second adjacent house is available for more private use, and lunch and dinner set menus (180,000d per person) and available on request.

Activities such as cookery classes, biking, sailing and kayaking can all be arranged.

Cat Ba Eco Lodge

(031-368 8966; www.suoigoicatbaresort.vn; Xuan Dam village; s/d from US$35/45) This eco-resort celebrates a wonderfully quiet village location 12km from Cat Ba Town. Spacious wooden stilt houses sit around a breezy bar and restaurant, and activities include trekking, and riding bicycles to a beach 2km away. Pick-ups can be arranged from the ferry or Cat Ba Town.

Cat Ba Beach Resort

(031-388 8686; www.catbabeachresort.com; Cat Co 2 beach; bungalows from around US$80) Recently opened on Cat Co 2 beach, Cat Ba Beach Resort has manicured tropical grounds and accommodation ranging from seafront bungalows to shared houses sleeping up to eight. Kayaking, windsurfing and a sauna are all on tap, and there’s a breezy open-sided bar-restaurant with views over the water. Check online for good discounts.

Monkey Island Resort

(04-3926 0572; www.monkeyislandresort.com; d US$60-100) There’s a nicely social vibe going down at Monkey Island with a nightly seafood buffer, cool R&B beats, and a bar with a pool table. Accommodation is in comfortable private bungalows, and beach barbecues, kayaks and volleyball keep the holiday spirit alive. The resort provides free transfers from Cat Ba Town.

Look online for good-value packages combining Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay.

Cat Ba Sandy Beach Resort

(0989 555 773; www.catbasandybeachresort.com; Nam Cat Island; d from US$45) This island’s prescription for relaxation includes a choice between simple bungalows and posher villas with private facilities – all located under looming, indigo limestone cliffs. Spend your days swimming and kayaking, and kick back with seafood barbecues and beach bonfires after dark. Sandy Beach Resort is included on itineraries arranged by Cat Ba Ventures, as well as Vega Travel in Hanoi.

Sunrise Resort

(031-388 7360; www.catbasunriseresort.com; Cat Co 3; r from US$110) This beachfront resort is tastefully planned, with lowrise tiled-roofed blocks sitting below green cliffs. Rooms are spacious and smart, all with sea-view balconies, and facilities include a swimming pool, spa and kiddies’ playground.

Cat Ong Beach Cottages

(0983 234 628; www.catongisland.com; Cat Ong Island; r US$75-150) Located on a private island a short ride from Cat Ba Town, these beautiful, traditionally-built cottages enjoy a wonderful beachfront location. A seafood barbecue is served on the sand every night and boat transfers are included.

Eating

There are a few good places dotted along Cat Ba Town’s seafront strip, and the floating restaurants offshore are also worth a visit. For a cheaper feed, head to the food stalls in front of the market, or one block back from the watefront on the cross street that links the loop of D Nui Ngoc.

Green Bamboo Forest

(D 1-44; meals 80,000-120,000d; 7am-11pm) Friendly and well-run waterfront eatery that also acts as a booking office for Blue Swimmer. Our pick of the restaurants along the seafront, and the quieter location is also a bonus.

Family Bakery

(196 D 1-4, Cat Ba Town; dishes 80,000-120,000d; 7am-4pm) Friendly spot that opens early for goodies like Turkish bread and almond pastries. Pop in for a coffee, crème caramel or croissant before the bus-ferry-bus combo back to Hanoi.

Phuong Nung

(184 D 1-4, Cat Ba Town; meals 45,000d; 7-10am) Bustling breakfast spot that’s the most popular place in town for a hearty bowl of pho bo (beef noodle soup) – just the thing you need before a day of climbing or kayaking.

CT Mart

(18 D Nui Ngoc, Cat Ba Town; 8am-8pm) Handy supermarket at which to stock up before heading off trekking or on the boat trip back to the mainland.

Vien Duong

(12 D Nui Ngoc, Cat Ba Town; meals from 120,000d; 11am-11pm) One of the most popular of the seafood spots lining D Nui Ngoc, and often heaving with Vietnamese tourists diving into local crab, squid and steaming seafood hotpots. Definitely not the place to come if you’re looking for a quiet night.

Le Pont Cat Ba Club

(meals 90,000-350,000d; 11am-late) At the southeastern edge of the bay and with great views, the spacious and stylish Le Pont is our pick for Cat Ba’s best spot for a sunset cocktail or cold beer. The food’s passable, but really it’s the harbour vistas that are worth the walk from the centre of town. After dark it morphs into a nightclub.

Green Mango

(031-388 7151; D 1-4, Cat Ba Town; mains 150,000-220,000d; 8am-10pm) A good place for a glass of wine, cocktail or Cat Ba’s best espresso, but the huge menu covering everything from pizza, pasta and occasional Asian flavours can tend towards mediocrity.

FLOATING RESTAURANTS

There are numerous ‘floating’ seafood restaurants just offshore in Cat Ba harbour. We’ve heard reports of overcharging, so it’s essential to confirm the price of the food in advance, as well as the cost of a boat to get you out there and back. Locals actually advise heading around the bay to the floating restaurants in Ben Beo harbour. They’re less touristy and less likely to rip you off, but still check on the price of food upfront. A boat ride there and back, including waiting time, should cost around 140,000d. Hold off paying your boat fare until the return journey is completed, as we’ve also had reports of diners being left stranded on the restaurants. Ask your hotel to recommend a boat or catch a xe om (motorbike taxi; around 30,000d) over the hill to the harbour.

A recommended place at Ben Beo pier is Xuan Hong (031-388 8485).Choose your dinner from the floating pens and they’ll be grilled, fried or steamed for your table in no time. Prices simply go by weight and type of seafood; you can eat your fill of a selection of fish for around 200,000d per person. Just make sure you establish the estimated price before you eat.

Drinking

Cat Ba Town has a few good bars, or you can head to the bia hoi stalls near the entrance to the fishing harbour.

Flightless Bird Café

(031-388 8517; D 1-4, Cat Ba Town; noon-11pm) Discover your inner Kiwi at this friendly bar decorated with New Zealand memorabilia, including pictures of the mighty All Blacks rugby team and the beautiful Southern Alps. There’s free wifi for customers, and even well-priced massage and manicure services on offer.

Rose Bar

(15 D Nui Ngoc; noon-3am) With cheap (US$2) cocktails, loads of happy-hour specials and shisha (water pipes) on offer, Rose Bar ticks all the boxes for backpacker fun a long way from home. Bring along your MP3 player of choice, and you can usually hijack the sound system. Rose Bar often stays open after midnight during the busy season.

Good Bar

(D 1-4, Cat Ba Town; noon-late) This upper-floor bar has a real vibe, and the drinking, flirting and storytelling goes on until late most nights. It comes fully equipped with pool tables and terrific harbour views.

Information

INTERNET ACCESS

Most accommodation, seafront cafes and restaurants offer wifi access.

MONEY

Agribank Has an ATM on the harbour, and a branch 1km north of town for chaging dollars.

Vu Binh Jewellers (031-388 8641; Cat Ba market) Changes US dollars and offers credit card cash advances at 5%.

TOURIST INFORMATION

The best impartial advice is at Asia Outdoors, where the helpful crew can bring you up to speed on everything from transport connections to the best family run restaurants. Cat Ba Venture is also very helpful. Online, see www.asiaoutdoors.com.vn and www.catbaventures.com for local information.

Getting There & Away

Cat Ba Island is 45km east of Haiphong and 50km south of Halong City. Various boat and bus combinations make the journey, starting in either Hanoi or Haiphong.

It is possible to travel by boat from Halong City to Cat Ba Island, but it is a journey often blighted by scams.

TO/FROM HANOI

Departing from the Luong Yen bus station in Hanoi, Hoang Long (031-268 8008) operates a bus to Haiphong, followed by a minibus to Dinh Vu port near Haiphong, then a 40-minute boat trip to Cai Vieng Harbour (also known as Phu Long) on Cat Ba Island. From there, another minibus whisks passengers around the coast road into Cat Ba Town. The complete bus-bus-boat-bus combo takes around three hours (240,000d) and is very efficiently run. Buses depart Hanoi at 5.20am,  7.20am, 11.20am and 1.20pm, and return from Cat Ba Town at 7.15am, 9.15am, 1.15pm and 3.15pm. If you’re travelling from Hanoi, this is the most hassle-free way.

TO/FROM HAIPHONG

A fast hyrdofoil departs Haiphong’s Ben Binh Harbour and goes straight to Cat Ba Town. This takes around 50 minutes (200,000d). Cat Ba-bound hyrdofoils depart from Haiphong at 7am, 9am, 1pm and 3pm, and return from Cat Ba Town at 8am, 10am, 2pm and 4pm.

HALONG BAY TO CAT BA (WITHOUT THE HASSLE)

Based on the map, it looks like an easy undertaking to travel by sea from Bai Chay in Halong City to Cat Ba Island. And while it’s not very far in terms of distance, it can be a journey fraught with hassle for some travellers.

Tourist boats (around US$10) depart from Bai Chay in Halong City from around 1pm heading to Gia Luan harbour in the morth of Cat Ba Island. The journey takes four hours, usually stopping for swimming and to visit a cave, but once you land at Gia Luan, you’re actually still 40km from Cat Ba Town. We’ve heard many reports of travellers then being hassled by the local taxi and xe om (motorbike taxi) mafia who will demand up to US$50 for onward travel to Cat Ba Town. Despite their claims, there is a local bus (20,000d)- the QH Green Bus – that travels from Gia Luan to Cat Ba Town. Unfortunately the last bus of the day (5pm) usually departs Gia Luan before the boats arrive from Bai Chay. Funny that…

Some boat ownersin Halong Bay are part of the scam, so if you do book a tour or boat transort from Bai Chay to Cat Ba Island, ask specifically if there will be onward transport provided to Cat Ba Town once the boat lands at Gia Luan. Onward bus transport is included by some recommended operators, including Cat Ba Ventures.

   An alternative, and potentially hassle-free, way of gettig from Halong Bay to Cat Ba is on the passenger and vehicle ferry (50,000d, one hour, departing around hourly 6am to 6pm May to September, and 77.30am, 9am, 11.30am, 1.30pm & 3pm October to April) that travels from the resort island of Tuan Chau to Gia Luan. From Halong City across the causeway to Tuan Chau by taxi is around 150,000d (50,000d by xe om). Once on Cat Ba Island, travellers can then catch the QH Green Bus into Cat Ba Town. Purchase your ticket from the driver. Note that these buses leave Gia Luan for Cat Ba Town at 6am, 9.30am, 1.10pm, 4pm and 5pm, and despite what the local xe om and taxi drivers will tell you, foreigners are definitely allowed to travelon these services. You might also be able to hitch a lift to Cat Ba Town from a private car off the frre if you ask around.

    To travel the other way – Cat Ba Island to Bai Chay in Halong City – on the above services, contact Cat Ba Ventures (p109) in Cat Ba Town for the latest information.

Getting Around

BICYCLE & MOTORBIKE

Bicycle and motorbike rentals are acailable from most Cat Ba hotels (both around US$5 per day). If you’re heading out to the beaches or national park, pay the parking fee for security.

A xe om from Cat Ba Town to Cat Co 2 beach or Ben Beo harbour is around 10,000d, and in summer a kitsch tourist train also runs from Cat Ba Town to the Cat Co beaches (10,000d per person).

BUS

Cat Ba’s public QH Green Bus (20,000d) trundles between Cat Ba harbour and Gia Luan harbour in the north of the island, passing the national park headquarters en route.