Continuing my adventures in Vietnam, this time I continued solo backpacking in Cat Ba to visit, among others, the ever-famous Unesco World Heritage Site of Ha Long Bay!
Cat Ba Island is the largest of 367 islands of the Cat Ba Archipelago and has the same karst rock formations that can be found all over Ha Long Bay.
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It also has a National Park that covers almost half of the entire island.
How to get there?
I was coming from the town of Doi Hong which is nearby the popular Phong Nha National Park, so I had to take a night train towards Hanoi, then another train to Haiphong and then a bus-boat-bus shorter trip to Cat Ba Town.
Yep, it was a bit long…specially the night train, as I bought the ticket 2 hours in advance and all the beds were sold out so I had to take a soft seat.
Luckily I was the only one in the carriage and was able to spread as much as I wanted on the overly shaking ride 🙂
If you’re going from Hanoi you can also get there by bus. If going by train, ask in your hostel for the right train station as the main one does not have trains towards Haiphong.
The train Hanoi-Haiphong costs 75k VND (just over US $3)
When you arrive to the train station in Haiphong, you will find people selling you the bus tickets towards Cat Ba, this bus journey includes a short boat trip.
They may want to charge you extra to get you from the train station towards the bus stop. Refuse to do this and keep walking (it’s actually walking distance) and they will offer to take you there for free…the price for the bus-boat-bus journey is 120k VND (around US $5)
Arriving to Cat Ba Town
After the short boat journey, another bus of about half an hour will finally drop you at the centre of Cat Ba.
The first impression is not particularly impressive as it just looks like a touristy town. However, I was there in mid February and it didn’t feel crowded at all.
It was a normal dorm to crash, nothing remarkable but a perfect fit when travelling on a budget.
What to do when backpacking in Cat Ba
I stayed in Cat Ba for 3 nights which I think is more than enough, if you’re short of time you could reduce this to 2 nights or even 1.
On my first day I rented a motorbike a rode to the National Park and then around the Island, the second day was raining a lot so I waited for the following day to do a day tour around Ha Long Bay and on my final day I just chilled around town and walked towards the Canon Fort before I took a night bus towards Sapa.
Visiting the National Park
Cat Ba being a rather large island, you need to rent a motorbike to explore it. As almost any town in Vietnam, there are plenty of places to rent motorbikes, ask around as the prices vary.
I ended up renting one from the main street on the sea front as it was cheaper than at my hostel. The rental for the day was 70k VND.
Although the island is big, it’s impossible to get lost as there are no many roads. Check on maps.me or ask the rental people and they will point you in the direction to take to the National Park.
After a short but scenic ride the entrance of the National Park will lead on a short hike towards different viewpoints.
There’s some climbing involved although nothing strenuous, go with hiking boots or trainers as some parts can be slippery.
The walk is a little bit confusing at times as it’s not well signalled, you will never get lost as the path is easy to follow but at times it has several intersections for which there are no signs explaining on which direction to take.
Depending on your speed you can count the hike towards the highest viewpoint to take anything between an hour and two.
The views are totally worth the trip, even with a cloudy day I enjoyed a lot this place!
The entrance fee to the park is 80k VND and this ticket also allows you to enter Trung Trang Cave.
BEWARE, if you go first to the cave and then to the National Park you will have to pay the entrance fee twice! don’t ask why, it’s weird…
So, after the park I went towards the cave. After coming from Phong Nha where I visited the magnificent Paradise Cave, and previously some cool caves in Ninh Binh, this cave was a little bit of a disappointment.
However, if you have not visited those two places previously you can surely enjoy it!
The cave is not too large and doesn’t take more than 20 minutes to walk it all.
Nearby the cave and the park there’s also the Hospital Cave. This was a secret underground hospital used during the Vietnam War.
I decided not to go there as a couple of friends I met told me that it was not worth it (and they were doctors!)
Afterwards we kept riding a little bit more around the island with no destination in mind, all in all a good day of exploring the island!
Sadly the clouds that I saw at the National Park became quite a storm and that meant that my second day in the island was spent chilling and relaxing at the hostel.
Tour around Ha Long Bay
For my third day backpacking in Cat Ba I had booked a full day tour around Ha Long Bay. Being such a touristy place, you will find a large amount of tour operators.
Pretty much all tours are the same, and when that happens you just need to go for the cheapest one! there are also several options in terms of multi-day trips and even some luxury ones.
Just up the road from Le Pont Hostel, there’s another hostel called Cong Khanh. This is the place to go for booking this tour as it was considerably cheaper than everyone else. As of Feb ’19 the price was 280k VND
The tour starts by sailing around the stunning Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay. The day was rainy and cold but the beauty was still there.
The boat ride is pleasant and it also includes a stop at one point to do some kayaking which was pretty cool.
It also includes a generous lunch which was of pretty decent quality.
After lunch there’s a stop in Monkey Island, where the tour operator sells this as a “hiking stop”.
More than a hike, it’s just a walk towards a viewpoint on top of the beach. No more than 20 min walk. But the views are fantastic!
Soon after we had another stop for a swim. The day was miserable and cold, but who know when you will be back to Ha Long Bay!! jump off from the boat and enjoy!
Towards the end of the tour we went through some floating fishing villages. It’d have been interesting to talk to the villagers to discover their thoughts on their way of living.
Canon Fort and leaving Cat Ba
My final day backpacking in Cat Ba was a pretty chilled one.
I started my day walking off towards the Canon Fort which is on top of a hill right outside the town. The walk is all uphill but not super steep.
It takes about half an hour to get to the entrance of the Fort, which has an entrance fee of 40k VND.
This fort was used by the Japanese in WWII and by the Vietnamese in later conflicts.
It’s relatively well preserved but for a pacifist like me it was not of much interest. The views however are terrific and when I was up there the sun finally came out for an even better landscape!
I left Cat Ba late that day as I had a long night bus towards Sapa and I could only think on how very soon the chilled atmosphere I found in this island will be massively disturbed as they’re currently building a massive complex with casinos, hotels and all sorts of touristy things.
So, if you’re planning to visit the Unesco site of Ha Long Bay make sure to go backpacking in Cat Ba quickly before this changes! so far it’s still an awesome destination for solo backpacking adventures, and I hope I’m wrong but I feel it may be lost very soon to a different sort of tourism.