When I was living in Vietnam, I was based in a large industrial city called Hai Phong. Although I wouldn’t really call it a tourist spot (in fact, in the five months I lived there, I only bumped into one other group of tourists), its airport and close proximity to Cát Bà Island means that you may hear of it, or even pass through it, on your way to check out Ha Long Bay.
Ha Long Bay is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in my life. Vast, mystical and endlessly impressive, the thousands of islets that make up the Bay truly are a sight to behold. As my boyfriend lived and taught here during our stay in Vietnam, I was lucky enough to spend a great deal of time here. It really is no surprise that so many people travelling through the country put Ha Long Bay at the top of their bucket list.
However, if the idea of an organised cruise or tour doesn’t take your fancy, you may be wondering how else to explore the magical destination that is Ha Long Bay. There are a couple of fun and low-cost ways to enjoy the beauty of Ha Long, which I’ll discuss over the next few blog posts. To start, my first tip is to…
…Visit Cát Bà Island
Cát Bà is the largest island in Ha Long Bay, and for this reason has become a true tourist hot spot. Although a great deal of its coast is dotted with backpacker hostels, bars and restaurants, much of the island is still extremely beautiful and ready to be explored. It may not look promising upon arrival, but there are some gems to be found. There are also many great ways to take in the sights of the wonderful Ha Long Bay – my favourites include:
Climb to the top of Cannon Fort
Entry costs just over £1 (about 40,000 Dong) and the walk to the peak will take you less than 30 minutes – if you don’t get distracted by the goats along the way! You can also drive to the top if you’ve hired a motorbike. Once you’ve reached the top, make your way to the outdoor bar, order a beer, and enjoy undisturbed views across the bay.
Catch a boat to Monkey Island
This is easily done as there are plenty of places offering trips to Monkey Island and you’ll be able to compare prices before settling on one you’re happy with. I did this twice while visiting Cát Bà Island and on both occasions I had a fantastic time. Both trips were roughly three hours long (with 1.5-2 hours on Monkey Island included) and the group sizes were small.
On the boat journey itself you’ll pass through the iconic limestone karsts of the bay, and once you’re there you’ll be able to spot them from the coast. Another great way to take in the views is to complete the short hike from the beach to a lookout spot. The hike itself only takes 20 minutes or so, but you’ll need sensible shoes as it’s quite rocky. Also, make sure you don’t get too close to any monkeys – you don’t want to antagonise them, as cute as they may look.
If the idea of sitting on a crowded touristy boat doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, then why not explore the bay with a solo kayaking adventure? After all, there’s no better way to enjoy the bay than by looking up at the karsts from the sea itself.
There are plenty of places to book a kayaking tour from Cát Bà Island, so do your research to find one that looks reputable and affordable. As I didn’t book my kayaking adventure this way I’m unable to recommend a good company, but talk to other tourists, read travel blogs and you’re sure to find a great deal.
How to get to Cát Bà Island…
…from Hai Phong
If you don’t want to take part in a cruise or tour group, I’d recommend getting the hydrofoil ferry from the Bến Bính Port in Hai Phong (you can check out the schedules here). This is the quickest and easiest way to get to the island – it takes about 45 minutes and you’ll arrive at the touristy part of town. NB: you won’t be able to take your motorbike if you’ve hired one.
If you’re coming by bike, you’ll need to drive slightly further out of the city centre (it’s a fairly tough drive, so be careful) to the Bến phà Gót terminal. The journey is much shorter (roughly 15 minutes) and much cheaper (I think I paid about 50p!) but you’ll arrive right at the top of the island. Transport links aren’t reliable or that easy to find (unless you’ve previously booked a car or bus to pick you up) so you’ll need to drive roughly 20km through the national park to reach the hotels, bars and so on. The drive is beautiful with winding roads and gorgeous scenery, but you’ll need a motorbike unless you’re a true cycling pro!
If you’re coming from Hanoi, it’s very easy to get to Hai Phong via bus from the Gia Lâm bus station. The buses are frequent, only take an hour and a half, and cost about £2! From the bus station, it’s best to get a taxi to Bến Bính . The ferry will take roughly 45 minutes and costs about £7. You’ll arrive at the bottom of the island which is where all of the hotels and bars are based, and where you’ll be able to book a trip to Monkey Island or walk to Canon Fort.
…from Ha Long City/Bãi Cháy
If you’ve found yourself on a bus to Ha Long city or the touristy hub of Bãi Cháy, you may be spoilt with great views of the bay itself but no chance to kayak or swim in the sea. If this is what you’re looking for, you’ll need to get a taxi to Tuần Châu Island. From here, you’ll be able to purchase a one-way ferry ticket to Cát Bà.
The journey is slow (around an hour long) but incredibly beautiful. You sail right through the limestone karsts, avoiding all the tourist boats and enjoying an unforgettable view. If you can get a morning ferry, I’d really recommend doing so. The bay looks very eerie yet peaceful – much different from when the droves of tourist ships ascend!
The boat will drop you at the top of the island, so it’s a good idea to book a taxi driver to meet you there or check the public bus timetable at the ferry terminal in advance. You don’t want to get stuck there without transport to the town centre of Cát Bà, as you certainly won’t be able to walk.