Gorgeous Hạ Long Bay includes more than 1,960 islands and islets of which most were formed in prehistoric times, tens of thousands of years ago from dramatic limestone karst!
Apparently, under the impact of the tropical wet climate, the development of karsts in Hạ Long bay has taken some 20 million years. It’s a stunning region but depending on the season, it can be bitterly cold and wet. The day-tour of Hạ Long Bay was filled with much rain and a biting freezing wind but it was still amazing to see this region!
Hạ Long Bay Legend
The legend goes something like this, according to Jade Emperor ‘s order, a mother dragon and her children landed in the bay known as Hạ Long. So as to stop the invading vessels, the dragons spat out innumerable pearls, which turned into jade stone islands and islets the moment the pearls touched water.
You can visit Hạ Long Bay from many Vietnamese destinations such as Hanoi, Hạ Long City, Haiphong, Cát Bà Island, and more.
The comfortable Hydro boat from Haiphong to Cát Bà Island leaves at around 13:00 hours (more times available), takes around 50 minutes, and is quite a pretty trip as you catch glimpses of limestone karsts along the way, at a high speed. Locals drive boats like they drive their cars and motorbikes – recklessly! Arriving in one piece is always a bonus in Vietnam.
UNESCO World Heritage Hạ Long Bay is the main reason everyone travels to Cát Bà Island and of course as this island is quite beautiful.
Cát Bà Island
A more sensible idea is to stay on Cát Bà Island instead of Hạ Long City where all the touts, scammers, pickpockets, and tourist traps live. As it’s winter, it’s the quiet season on the island, so not too many tourists around.
Although many travellers are drawn to Cát Bà mainly as a starting point to visit Hạ Long Bay, the island itself is very picturesque and laid back (maybe it’s because of low season). If you walk away from the main tourist strip that follows the water and around the island’s headlands, you’ll find some gorgeous scenery; a great place to visit and photograph. Half of the island is covered by National Park.
There are plenty of restaurants and coffee shops along the way so you won’t starve! As it’s still the wet season, it’s much cooler on the island than the mainland, so bring warm clothes. An icy breeze does blow over the island and coupled with torrential rain, it can be hibernation weather.
Canon Fort Tourism Area
The walk to this site (entry fee 60,000VND) from town takes about 40 minutes. There are some steep hills but the road is sealed so it’s safe to walk along and you’ll be rewarded with stunning scenery at the top.
The fort is also an interesting piece of history. The view of Lan Ha Bay and surrounding area is spectacular but it’s very cold up there so make sure you take warm clothes, especially if you wait for sunset, which some tourists brave. It was a very overcast day so sadly I didn’t get to see any sun or sunset.
Hạ Long Bay day trip
Booked a day tour (USD$23) around the bay from a travel agent a couple of doors down from our hotel but most travel agents, hostels, and hotels offer similar itinerary trips around Hạ Long Bay. You just need to decide on how much money you’re willing to part with, whether you want a day, overnight, or several days but also the type of boat you’d like to take around the bay.
The day started at 08:00hrs with a pick-up at the travel agent’s and a short drive to Viet Hai Village, the other side of the island before boarding our boat for the day. Had an excellent day (albeit the awful weather) with the Skipper and his 2 crew members experiencing wonderful sites and a delicious plentiful lunch (included in the ticket price) cooked by the friendly accommodating crew.
- Monkey Island – The first stop is to this famous island with a small house right on the beach surrounded by many friendly monkeys. You can climb up to the top of the hill for views of the bay but as it was raining and we only got about half an hour before returning to the boat, decided not to climb up.
- Cave (forgot the name) – You are given a torch, climb off the boat onto some slippery steps and wonder into the darkness of the cave. It’s not a very long cave and not so spectacular, especially after visiting stunning Paradise and Trang An caves.
- Hạ Long Bay – You’ve probably seen numerous postcards or photos of this famous bay without/or knowing its name. A very beautiful vast bay and even stunning when it’s pouring with rain.
- Lan Ha Bay – Lan Ha is a gorgeous bay and the floating fishing villages are amazing. High karsts surround the villages built on timber and plastic drums. Everything is connected over water by 30cm planks and the locals scurry along these with ease and without falling in! I really don’t know how the locals live out on the water amongst the karsts, as it’s bitterly cold. So cold that we had a couple of Russian tourists on board and they too found it freezing! The tour price included a half-hour of kayaking…if you wanted to brave the cold.
The day ended at around 18:00hrs; so much to take in. This region of Vietnam is breathtakingly beautiful; another memorable experience in Vietnam!
Gieng Ngoc Hotel (Cat Ba National Park, Cát Hải) – What a beautiful view of the bay from the balcony! The hotel is easy enough to find from the ferry terminal. Booked 4 nights through Agoda, which included a good breakfast included in the price.
The not-so-great hotel experience
Arrived at mid-afternoon and the hotel was quiet enough on the first night. On the second day however, the jackhammering started next door to our room. The noise was so deafening that I started to get a headache!
Advised by hotel staff that his would go on only until 15:00hrs, went out for a long walk in the rain and freezing cold, just to get away from the noise.
Allowing loads more time, we returned at 17:00hrs to what seemed an even louder jackhammering bellowing. The next day was the Hạ Long Bay day tour so we didn’t get back until 18:00hrs. The jackhammering stopped about half an hour later.
The following morning, the hammering started at 08:00hrs but we were staying out for the day anyway.
When we checked out, there was no apology from staff and I was also charged USD$1 for breaking a saucer – unbelievable!
So, I wouldn’t recommend staying here when the hotel is under renovations as staff are far from understanding. Why didn’t we change hotels I hear you ask…because we pre-paid for 4 nights. Rant over.
There are many average-priced restaurants along the waterfront offering the same local food and several western choices, so pick one and go for it as the service and quality varies – it’s a lucky dip here.
Leaving Cát Bà for Hanoi
There isn’t a problem buying your return ferry ticket (220,000VND) to Haiphong at the ferry terminal.
Back in Haiphong, waited a few hours in The Station Café literally right at the train station, for the 2-hour train trip (70,000d) at 14:35hrs to Hanoi’s Long Biên station.
The Station Café is a great little place offering hot/cold drinks and meals at cheap prices with great service, a clean toilet, and free wi-fi; good place to kill a few hours.