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Halong Bay, with it’s 1600 limestone islands rising spectacularly from perfectly still water, is undoubtedly one of the most popular spots in Vietnam and accordingly, it can get a bit crowded there. Even in the off season, tour busses unload heaps of travellers into the waiting arms of touts and boat companies, where they are then in turn herded onto boats and shipped around the bay for a few hours. I’m no fan of the masses and being caught in a big crowd of wide eyed sheeple shooting flashes at attractions a mile away. Having heard bad things about the budget trips, I felt like I needed to do this thing some other way.
Head to Cat Ba instead of Halong Bay Town
It was a bit tricky to figure out how to do Halong Bay independently, since all the information I could find was of the usual boat tours, ranging from one to several days, but not much in between. Everything seemed to point towards the fact, that doing things yourself in Halong Bay was pretty difficult or, depending on who you ask, nearly impossible. Apparently, travellers just NEEDED to stick to tours to get something out of it. Then I read about Cat Ba, the biggest and one of the only populated islands in the region, which had a couple hotels on it and decided to base myself there for a few days and just kind of figure things out from there.
Join a tour, but get dropped off halfway through
When asking about transportation to Cat Ba, the receptionist at my hotel in Hanoi had a pretty good idea: Instead of taking the fast ferry through a boring landscape via Hai Phong, she recommended I join one of the many boat tours straight through the beauty that is Halong Bay and get dropped off in Cat Ba a few hours into it. That way, I’d get to see what the tours were like, without having to join a full one. To get to the boat though, required a 4 hour minibus ride (of course advertised as a VIP bus) on the insane Vietnamese highways, and in true Southeast Asian fashion, had half the passengers sitting in the aisle on little toy chairs in order to squeeze as many people into the vehicle as humanly possible. The tight squeeze, combined with the cheesy Asian music blaring from the speakers, the incessant honking, swerving and hard breaking, made for a pretty interesting, but also fairly unpleasant experience when I started feeling queasy about half an hour in.
Once settled on the boat, I figured out how the tours operated pretty fast. They aren’t too bad if you know what you’re in for and are actually a fairly fun and relaxing experience. Jagged limestone peaks, overgrown with green jungle vegetation rise up out of the water everywhere. Floating villages pass by, women in cone hats paddling little boats and even a dog or two, barking at the passing ships from platforms in the water. The boats take it slow and have restaurants on board, therefore I quite enjoyed my little tour through Halong Bay, sipping on a drink and watching the scenery float by. The trips aren’t very expensive and stop at several attractions, where travellers can opt to participate in the activities offered, or stay behind and just enjoy the incredible landscape. There are options to hike, kayak, explore caves and even to go climbing and swimming. But most activities cost extra, which can add up quickly. Of course, this isn’t advertised anywhere and more often than not, the touts try to swindle tourists into buying “cheap” trips, that then suddenly turn very expensive. Not feeling the need to spend any more money, I opted to stay behind and explore a floating village, while others paid for kayaking.
Rent a scooter, explore the national park and do tailored boat trips
The rest of the journey to Cat Ba was fairly uneventful. We few independent travellers were dropped off on the north side of the island, where in turn we were collected by another bus and driven into town.
“Oooh, you stay five nights?” I got asked incredulously by the owner of the hotel upon check-in in Cat Ba town. “Very long time!”
His face had already adopted the go-to expression of an Asian who doesn’t get why the heck anyone would do something like that. My research had already told me, that most people only drop by for only one night while on a Halong Bay boat cruise. Later, I asked him what tour options are available departing from Cat Ba and was surprised to find out, that you can actually book your own boat tour, tailored to your needs. If you can get a few people together for it to share the cost, that is, because it would probably be a bit too pricy for people otherwise. This seems to be fairly easy in Cat Ba, where the few people that are staying there for several days, seem to be looking for just that.
Cat Ba has the same rugged features as the rest of Halong Bay, with lush limestone peaks rising up everywhere, creating a dramatic landscape just waiting to be explored. There are beautiful trails along the coast and through the national park in the middle of the island. On the only sunny day of my time on Cat Ba, my companions and I rented scooters and drove in a loop around the island, simply exploring places as we found them. We went hiking up a steep trail in the national park, discovering an abandoned tower and of course climbing the swaying and creaking structure despite a rusted sign saying “no entry”. Afterwards, everyone sat on the peak for a few hours, chatting with a the fellow travellers that had made their way up there and gazing out over the green mountains.
While right now, Cat Ba is a paradise where – especially in the off-season – the few independent travellers might be the foreigners on the island, it also seems to be transforming fast. I saw a lot of resorts and hotels being built along the coast, indicating that this gem will probably be another hot spot of the region soon enough.
*Buying a bus-boat-bus ticket in Hanoi seems to be the most reliable and cheapest option of getting to Cat Ba. It will get you all the way there and you won’t get ripped off along the way. I paid 18$, which I thought was a pretty good deal for getting one of the tours included as well.