Cat Ba: Motorbikes and Halong Bay
It's a missed opportunity not to visit Halong Bay when in Hanoi. Especially if you have the time. It is, after all, Northern Vietnam's primary tourism destination. Having taken an overnight boat tour to Halong in 2011, I was seeking a different experience. We chose Cat Ba as an entry point, the largest island located along the southeastern edge of Halong. We went with my friend from high school and getting there was an adventure.
To back up, we booked transportation to Cat Ba through Insider Travel Vietnam, which is essentially a reseller of Good Morning Cat Ba's services. We were to meet at the Hanoi Opera House, but after waiting nearly an hour, we were never picked up. Will called the company, and a man on a motorbike pulled up and told the ladies to get on. His words, not mine.
When I asked about Will, he pointed to another motor bike, and told Will to get on the back.
With all of our luggage in tow, he said we were going to chase the bus. It turned questionable when we got on the highway and narrowly weaved through traffic.
Riding on a motorbike on the highway is a completely different experience than the streets of Hanoi. We knocked off another bikers' rearview mirror, continued through red lights, brushed against buses. After what felt like eternity, but likely only a half an hour, we pulled up to our alleged bus.
We were shuffled onto a bus full of less than pleased passengers. Needless to say, we avoided eye contact with our seat mates for the remaining two and a half hour bus ride. Once we did arrive to Cat Ba, our hostel, Central Backpackers Hostel, didn't look like much from the outside. However, we were pleasantly surprised by the interior and even more so by the dramatic view from our room.
We felt confident--or at least lucky--on motorbikes after surviving our highway experience. So the first thing we did was rent our own. The island is in the city of Haiphong, and commonly used as an overnight stop for tours to Halong. But, the island deserves its own accolades.
To me, exploring the island by bike was the highlight of our stay. Over half of Cat Ba is covered by a National Park, which includes tropical limestone forests, beaches, caves and willow swamp forests.
Cat Ba served as an ideal place to learn on our own. For the most part, once we got out of town, we were treated to an open road.
Will and I shared a bike, but it was thrilling nonetheless. The mountains jutting up on either side was awe-inspiring.
Although the bay and surrounding islands typically have a tropical climate, we found it to be quite chilly. Or at least, cooler for the area.
Escaping the oppressive heat lent itself to endless exploring.
Despite being a tourism hub, by bike Cat Ba felt remote as we rode the perimeter. The key is to avoid the flashy, built up downtown area.
The natural landscape of Cat Ba is the real treasure. We did find it surprising that more people don't get flat tires. Or maybe they do.
We entered and exited small local villages selling snacks and a range of random gadets.
We passed Trung Trang Cave, situated in the largest valley on Cat Ba.
We parked our bikes to check it out.
The cave is documented as over 2,000 years old.
The unique shapes within the cave are due to hundreds of natural stalactites, or dripping formations.
We were the only ones there and it was nice to explore on our own accord.
We stayed in Cat Ba for two nights, and chose to do a full day tour on our second day.
Halong Bay was deemed an UNESCO’s World Heritage site in 1994.
The bay displays evidence of prehistoric humans and is also lauded for original limestone karstic features.
Furthermore, Halong Bay has experienced over 500 million years of geological changes. It's comprised of roughly 1,600 clusters of massive islands spewing up from the ocean. Remarkably, jungle-like vegetation grows atop of the limestone.
Clearly, Halong Bay's popularity is warranted. But unfortunately, overnight boat tours can become quite a racket among the younger, rowdier backpacker community. And more expensive. As an alternative, day trips from Cat Ba are cheap and a solid introduction to the area.
A highlight for sure was when we were able to kayak around an inlet and under caves.
We passed floating fishing villages dating back thousands of years. Four small communities are still inhabited by locals. The houseboats are tethered together and largely remain self-sustained today.
We were provided lunch on the boat, which was impressive.
We also did a short climb for a stunning view of Monkey Island and the surrounding area.
The view itself was spectacular. Monkey Bay on the other hand we could have skipped. We found it to be a tourist trap.
On our last day, we rented bikes again and drove to the National Park, which covers roughly 102 square miles.
There were several hiking trails, and it was a bit confusing since most of the sinage was in Vietnamese. We walked by what appeared to be abandoned barracks.
Once we reached the forest, we didn't exactly know what we were getting into. It seemed straightforward at first.
But quickly became a scramble.
The air was thick and tremendously humid.
And the trail essentially became a vertical climb to the summit.
Once we reached further up, the trees opened and the cooler breeze felt like drinking cold gulps of water. It was so refreshing.
I would argue that Cat Ba is worth a visit if only for the National Park. If we had more time, I would have enjoyed an even longer trek.
Any situation is what you make of it. Yes, Cat Ba and Halong Bay can be touristy. But the unique immensity makes it easy to understand why its a national treasure.
Staying for two nights was an ideal amount of time for us. We also had nearly two full days flanking our boat tour, which allowed us to really explore some of the outskirts of the island.
For Cat Ba, we enjoyed staying in a hostel to meet other travelers who were also on our boat tour. The hostel made the logistics of renting bikes, booking the tour very easy.
It was a completely different experience than the last time I visited Halong Bay. I didn't have a strong yearning to see it again, but I'm so grateful we did. Will said it was one of the most beautiful places he's seen. It's not something you see everyday. Personally, I would like to go back to Cat Ba in warmer weather. I hear some of the beaches are wonderful and we ran out of time. That being said, the ominous, overcast weather provided a different and fitting perspective of Halong Bay.