Hạ Long Bay — you’ve seen the pictures — and when you are in northern Vietnam, you must experience it. When we were in Hanoi, plotting our visit to the famous UNESCO World Heritage site, we started to wonder if Hạ Long Bay was right for us. It seemed that every guesthouse owner, tuk-tuk driver, travel agent, and porta-potty attendant had tours of Hạ Long Bay to offer; luxury, budget, one-day, overnight, kayaking, snorkeling… the list goes on. Having been in similar situations before, the preponderance of tours gave us the uneasy feeling that this experience might be vastly over-rated and brimming with tourists.
There was an alternative, however. I’d read in the Lonely Planet that a less touristy way to see the karsts and fishing villages was to do a bus-boat-bus combo to the southern end of Cát Bà Island. Then, after spending a couple of days exploring the island, taking a boat ride back north through Hạ Long Bay to Hạ Long city where the majority of the tours start and end. Since we were traveling with friends, it was relieving to find that they had come to the same conclusion through their own research. So, off to Cát Bà we went, and we couldn’t have made a better choice.
Bus-Boat-Bus: On the Way to Hạ Long Bay
After telling our hosts at The Happy Moon Hotel in Hanoi where we wanted to go and how they set us up with the bus-boat-bus tickets for an extremely reasonable price. Then, we booked two nights at Nam Phuong Hotel in Cát Bà through booking.com for so little it was almost embarrassing… ok, I’ll tell you later if you promise to read the rest of this post.
The morning of our departure, a clean, new minivan picked us up, whisked us down a freshly paved and uncrowded highway then dropped us off at the commercial ferry landing. The ferry motored through unremarkable waters to the west side of Cát Bà Island where we disembarked and then boarded a bus for a 30min ride to Cát Bà’s southern end.
Just a short way down the road, the bus started snaking its way through unspoiled portions of the island that were rugged and green. We craned our necks and pressed our faces to the windows to catch a glimpse of the tops of the peaks. As the bus pulled into town, an entrepreneurial young man named Michael jumped onboard to invite us to stay at his hotel or to just get directions. No strings — seriously. The bus stopped right in front of Micheal’s Full Moon Party Hotel and let us off. We already had a hotel booked and Michael’s never would have been ours because the word “party” was in its name. FWIW, we avoid places with the word “backpacker” in the name, too, and tend to get a decent night’s rest. Trust us. Some trial and error went into the development of this guideline. Anyway, we wound up eating lunch at his place and eventually booked our return boat-bus ride to Hanoi with him. Michael was a real go-getter in a destination that was about to boom, a good spot for that young man to be.
Conveniently, our hotel was just down the street. We feared the worst since we only paid $12US — total for two nights. Not to worry, though. The room was basic and clean and the view of the harbor was splendid. It won’t be long before the properties remodel and jack up the prices. Glad we caught it before the boom.
Tranquility to Turmoil
We spent a couple of days hiking and exploring the island. It was incredibly beautiful with its surreal landscape and surprisingly devoid of tourists. Eventually, our main sightseeing of Hạ Long Bay occurred on our way back to Hanoi.
We departed Cát Bà on a small boat that toured the beautiful and serene southern end of Hạ Long Bay. Wow! The karsts erupted from the water in dramatic fashion and towered over our modest aquatic transport. The boat wove its way through the maze of karsts, with us oohing and ahhing as we passed. When we arrived in the more tourist-boat-filled waters, our little boat transferred us to a bigger boat. It seemed like we just stepped back onto the beaten path. Yep, we sure did. Not surprisingly, coffee and beer cost twice as much as on the small boat. At least lunch was included, but you did have to make your own spring rolls. Actually, that was fun and part of an unexpected cooking class.
Arriving in Hạ Long city was an utter shock. The tourist boats thickened into a chaotic swarm. Horns blew, engines roared, and small boats suckled up to big boats to transfer tourists from boat to shore and vice versa. Once on the jetty, we could see that it was actually a well-oiled money extraction machine. As quickly as tourists could be unloaded and reloaded, the big boats set off on another tour. Platoons of Europeans, Americans, Australians, and others marched along the jetty to and from the boats. The crush of the crowd made me anxious.
Not a moment too soon, our bus (not nearly as nice as the minivan at the start of our excursion) to Hanoi arrived and took us away from the madness. We watched the fancy hotels drift by our bus window and wondered how much north of $6/night they cost. They didn’t even have a view and the road to them from Hanoi was horrible, both in condition and in congestion.
Sometimes we get lucky and this was one of those times. Exploring Cát Bà and seeing the less traveled portion of Hạ Long Bay was an experience we will always remember. Additionally, avoiding Hạ Long city is something we will always remember too!
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