In the middle of our mostly-city experience of Vietnam, we managed to steal away for a couple of days to go up north and explore some of the nation’s more natural sites. Out of Saigon, we hopped on a plane to Hai Phong and, via ferry and bus, found ourselves on Cat Ba. This island is the largest in all Ha Long Bay.
It was a long and tiring journey to this place but when we finally got there, we were greeted with cool refreshing winds. We wanted to look around the island and explore so we rented a motorbike, which appeared to be pretty much the only resonably priced way to get around. I was hesitant at first, anxious that it would be dangerous, (and totally unsure Kayo knew what he was doing!) but I also knew it would be fun. I hopped on and just enjoyed the ride. On our way up the mountain, the rain got a little stronger so we had to be extra careful, but it definitely made for an even more exhilarating experience.
Our clothes and shoes were soaking wet but we enjoyed every single moment of it. Little did I know that this was a pretty epic moment for Kayo, who told me he had always dreamed of motorbiking through Northern Vietnam. An item checked off his bucket list, I should say!
One historical spot we managed to visit was the Hospital Cave, which was a hidden, bomb-proof, three-storey safe house carved out by the Vietnamese to serve as a place of refuge for the injured and Vietnamese leaders. Think of it as Vietnamese NORAD during “The American War.”
I was impressed by how well laid out the wards are. There was even a big “theatre” where they watched films and entertained themselves while in hiding.
Food was great at Cat Ba too. I specifically enjoyed the hot pho because of the very chilly weather.
We kept coming back to this open air canteen called “Yummy” where every single thing we had was great! It was a cool place to meet other travelers too. Everybody ate and met up at Yummy. It was simply the place to be.
HA LONG BAY TOUR
The main reason for our trip to Cat Ba was so we could launch out into a boat and tour Ha Long bay. We booked it at the front desk of Bayview Hotel where we were staying. Apparently, every hotel can book these tours for you, and the entire day of activity cost only $15 each!
It was cloudy on the day of our boat trip but I think the mist added to the magic and beauty of its emerald waters and lush limestone islands. I spent most of the time just sitting out on the deck to marvel at it all. Did I mention it was terribly cold? Apart from my “island wear,” all I had was a light cardigan, a cotton shawl and a windbreaker. Kayo just had a rain jacket on. It was freeeeezing — but the view was amazing! It was all worth it.
We got to see a number of fishing villages, which is one of this region’s most popular and treasured features. This culture is what drives the area, with many people (and their pets) never leaving the villages for the mainland. I love how colourful these floating houses are!
Ha Long Bay is dotted with hundreds of limestone hills and islands. Some of them are in really odd shapes which makes you wonder how many centuries it took to form them, such as “Candle Rock” show on the left photo below.
After almost two hours of cruising, we reached a floating dock from where we rode kayaks and paddled our way through cave tunnels and lagoons. It was a fun little 90-minute workout!
After kayaking we headed back to our boat where we enjoyed a delicious lunch. Everything was cooked right on the boat and tasted so fresh! Kayo and I sat on separate tables, so it was also the perfect time to get to know the other travellers with us.
The final stop of our cruise, and the most challenging stop, was a visit to Monkey Island where, yes, there were many monkeys and where we hiked up a steep mountain of sharp, jagged rocks.
We were most unprepared for this part. Because Kayo and I had drenched our shoes the previous day, all we had on were rubber flip flops. Above is a photo of some actual Austrian mountain climbers’ hiking boots and mountaineering pants alongside Kayo’s market-bought flip flops and Vans boardshorts. Kayo quoted LOTR’s Gimli, “Oh, yes?! It’s just a simple matter of finding our way through Emyn Muil? An impassable labyrinth of razor sharp rocks!”
Everyone thought we were crazy for even trying but our adrenalin, pure curiosity and desire to make the most of this adventure pushed us to get our ourselves up that highest point. And I’m telling you, it was absolutely breathtaking!
I was dreading encountering monkeys but in hindsight, I realised what we did climbing up that viewpoint was far scarier than meeting any of the monkeys in the island.
Here’s Kayo taking selfies up top and me hanging on for dear life but also really feeling good to be there.
The descent was a lot more tricky — as expected — but we made it safely and have no regrets.
We only spent two full days at Cat Ba but it did feel like we did and saw so much. It was a pleasant breather in between touring crowded cities. I loved and always love being out amidst nature and these parts are like nothing I have ever seen or experienced.
Check out the rest of our C+V IN VIETNAM travel posts here: