Vietnam and Cambodia Trip Part Two: Cat Ba Island in Ha Long Bay
For millions of years the rising and falling of the sea formed over 1600 islands and limestone towers in Northern Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay. The scope of the karst topography is somewhat possible to see by looking at Google satellite images.
The resulting scenery is spectacular, and any itinerary to Vietnam includes a visit to the bay. I really wanted to see Ha Long Bay but the most common way to do this is on an overnight cruise. I’ve been told the boats are fantastic and all include activities like cooking classes and yoga. However, all I could think about was managing Will and keeping him calm so others could relax. This did not sound fun for Mike and me. I was about to forego this corner of Vietnam when I discovered that we could stay on Cat Ba Island and use that as our base for exploration. I had heard it could be tricky to get there but Cat Ba Sunrise Resort took care of all our transportation arrangements.
We left Hoi An early Wednesday morning and took an hour long, very cheap flight from Danang to Haiphong on Vietjet. The boat terminal was only 15 minutes from the airport. I had tried and failed to arrange private transport to the island so we had almost 3 hours to kill before the next hydrofoil to Cat Ba. Per request, the hotel arranged for our airport driver to take us to a supermarket so we could load up on snacks while we waited. We had an hour to shop which seemed like longer than necessary until we realized the store was huge and had an indoor playground. Mike supervised Will while I stocked up on snacks, excited to find some American staples. The driver then took us to the hydrofoil terminal; a woman was waiting with our boat tickets. We hung out at the cafe across the street, ate lunch and time passed more quickly and pleasantly than I’d expected.
At 12:45, we boarded the hydrofoil. The ride was forty five minutes long and was mostly unscenic riding down the river and through Vietnam’s second largest port. It wasn’t until we neared Cat Ba that the famous rock formations began. The Cat Ba Sunrise Resort bus waited at the pier. Five minutes later, we were at the hotel. Despite the gray skies, the resort was gorgeous. Will wanted to play on the playground then go for a swim even though it was overcast and maybe 70 degrees. He took a short swim then we hiked up a trail off the hotel grounds and around the bend of the island. As with our hotel, the views were gorgeous. Will scaled the rock walls while I took photos. We returned to the hotel, and Will played in the tide pools and in the sand. We ate dinner at the hotel’s beach cafe. Some young men were doing gymnastics on the beach which delighted Will and led to a gymnastics show of his own.
We’d originally planned to do a boat tour on Thursday. The forecast called for showers and much cooler temperatures. I asked the hotel if we could switch days with our Cat Ba National Park tour. It was raining when we woke up but luckily it stopped by the time we met our guide, Ty, for our morning tour. On the way to the National Park we visited Hospital Cave. Inside a massive cavern, a bomb proof hospital and safe house for VC leaders was built in the mid 1960s and used until 1975. We had to climb up some steep stairs to get to the entrance. During the war, the only way in was by ladders that could be easily removed. We then entered through a thick small metal door. Once inside the ceilings and rooms were bigger and better constructed than I anticipated. Three stories included multiple hospital rooms, a surgical theater and a cavern where performances were held. We did not get to venture up to the third floor where the VC met, but overall it was an interesting stop.
From there we went to Cat Ba National Park and hiked for a couple hours. The cooler temperatures were perfect for trekking through the forest and up the karst mountains to two peaks. Will did a great job hiking, sometimes scrambling up the trail, and saying Xin chao (hello in Vietnamese) to all we passed. He made fast friends with another tour guide who we kept crossing paths with. On the second peak, Will exclaimed, It’s really really beautiful up here.” And it was.
We returned to the hotel, ate lunch and forced Will to take a nap. I read, wrote, then brought him out to play on the playground and the beach. The wind had really picked up, and it was downright chilly. I was even more grateful that we’d switched tour days. Despite the weather, Will was begging to swim. Mike considers himself part of the polar bear club so took him in the pool where he lasted close to ten minutes.
Friday was a glorious day. The hotel drove us ten minutes to a small pier and we boarded a two-story boat. The bottom had an enclosed cabin, kitchen and bathroom. The top had an open deck that was partially covered and a small cabin for our captain. We settled in the comfortable lounge chairs. It was 70° and sunny; we were perfectly comfortable adding a light jacket over our short sleeves. We made our way through La Han Bay. We passed the floating village which had a lot more houses than I expected. I’d seen floating houses in the Amazon but this was a true village. Some houses had solar panels, and there were floating stores. Fishing nets often floated between docks around the houses, and surprisingly dogs guarded many of the structures. We would continue to see floating houses and businesses throughout the bay as it was rare for any of the islands to have usable land. Secluded beaches were even uncommon.
However, the main features of the ride were the copious amounts of limestone islands and towers jutting throughout the bay. The scenery is stunning. Mother Earth truly outdid herself here.
Will was bouncing off the walls at the beginning of the boat ride. I was kicking myself for not bringing a toy or something for him to do. In hindsight, maybe he was also tired and trying to keep himself awake. He fell asleep three separate times on the boat throughout the day. The first time it was only an hour into the ride.
After spending almost two hours riding through Lan Ha Bay we entered Ha Long Bay. Geographically Lan Ha and Ha Long Bay are the same. The only differences I noticed is that Ha Long Bay had a bit more trash, but neither were as bad as I had read about when looking at cruise reviews.
We stopped to kayak around 11 am. A lot of bigger booze type cruises were there as well. We shared a double kayak with Mike in the back and Will and I up front. Will did a good job of sitting still and really liked when I let him take a turn “oaring”. We kayaked through multiple caves into calm hidden coves. The main cove where we entered the kayak had some trash and quite a bit of natural debris but the smaller coves were pretty pristine.
After exiting the kayak, I heard someone call Will’s name. It was the guide he had befriended the day before in Cat Ba National Park. Sometimes I feel everywhere we go someone knows my child’s name.
I’d opted to include lunch on the boat with our tour. I am so glad I did as this was the best food we ate on Cat Ba. We feasted on prawns, seafood and morning glory stir fry, spring rolls, and pineapple. Will even pigged out but on rice and French fries. Then he put on a dance show for us while we finished our lunch.
Will was calm in the afternoon, and we all relaxed and enjoyed the scenery. We also loved watching the fishing boats, many obviously doubling as homes despite their small size and rustic construction. Often laundry hung outside and when close enough to peek we could see dishes and house wares inside.
Our captain anchored by a small beach. I didn’t want to freeze on the boat ride back, but Mike and Will wanted to swim. Will was a little freaked out jumping off the boat into the water so Mike swam to the island by himself. When he saw Mike enter a cave then pick up a giant “Yoda looking stick”, he frantically called for Mike to swim back and get him. It was quite a distance, and I was glad Will had a life jacket on. He listened well as Mike told him to pace himself and made it without help. They explored the little sandy beach, ducked in a small cave, went in a big cave where they climbed the stairs to a small temple and swam back. Will was cold so he wrapped himself in a towel and took his second nap of the day. We relaxed in the sun and in the moment.
When the hour was up, the boat began making its way back to Cat Ba. Will woke up and snuggled on Mike’s lap. The wind had picked up and when there was a direct unprotected opening from the ocean, the breeze was brisk. Luckily, we mostly stayed protected by the all the tall limestone cliffs. We had to wake Will up to remove his life jacket when the boat returned. He happily and sleepily pulled us in for a family hug and I knew it was his way of thanking us for a fantastic day.
Throughout the day I found myself wondering if this was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. I’ve been very lucky to have traveled to so many gorgeous locations. Maybe Greece was more beautiful? Maybe not. I finally concluded that it’s something that shouldn’t be ranked, but simply enjoyed. And on this day there was no place more beautiful on Earth. It was the perfect finale to our time in Vietnam which also may be my new favorite country.
Our entire trip in Vietnam went perfectly smooth until the morning of our departure. We had breakfast, visited with friends who arrived the day before, and packed. We had a little time so walked up the path from the hotel and took some family photos. On the way back, Will told Mike he wanted to be first and took off (I was dragging behind taking some photos). Mike assumed that he would meet us at the room but he wasn’t there. We spent several panicked minutes running around the resort looking for him. I finally found him running the hallways of a different wing on the top floor of the hotel. In our adrenaline and rushed state, Mike forgot to grab our passports and extra cash from the safe. Luckily the hotel checked the room and returned our valuables. We made it to the boat with a few minutes to spare. Mike and I used the boat ride to try to calm down. Will had also run off two years ago in Thailand right before we were checking out and also needing to catch a boat. I don’t know if it is his way of saying his doesn’t want to leave. And really who can blame him? Cat Ba was amazing. Fortunately that was the only bump in our entire trip. Our boat ride and taxi to Hanoi were relaxing and easy. We arrived at Hanoi’s airport with plenty of time for our flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Tips, helpful links and more photos below…
Tips: Cat Ba Sunrise Resort arranged all our transportation and tours. I was extremely impressed with how smoothly, thoroughly and efficiently our transfers went. Our tours were wonderful too. I’m so grateful we had 2 full days here so we were able to do the boat ride in great weather. If we’d only had one day, our boat ride wouldn’t have been as enjoyable. It was also a very nice place to relax. Since Ha Long Bay is out of the way to travel to, I am also glad we spent three nights there so it did not feel rushed. The hotel is gorgeous, and the facilities were great. Breakfast was good but other meals were just OK. We were too lazy to venture into town but that is an option. The beds weren’t very comfortable either but everything else more than made up for this. I was very happy we stayed here and we opted for Cat Ba versus the overnight cruise.
Cat Ba Sunrise Resort: http://catbasunriseresort.com/