Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Every-day-is-Friday five: Our Cat Ba Island vacation from our vacation.

We ended up with more time to spare than we anticipated so after Sapa we spent a week on Cat Ba Island. Another week in one place! Heaven.

Most people spend just a day or two on the island - it's pretty small - but we completely enjoyed our seven days. Here are five things that filled our time, in no particular order...

1. We kayaked around Lan Ha Bay. We booked seats on a junk boat taking a bunch of tourists to Halong Bay. The boat captain dropped us off at 9:00am at a small fisherman village in Lan Ha, said "see you around 3:30pm!", and boated off with the rest of the passengers. (Ummmm... okay!)

The fisherman gave us a kayak and paddle - no life jacket, no spray skirt, no kayak tutorial that you always get no matter how many times you've kayaked - and pointed us in the general direction of a mystery beach.  "Come back at noon."  (Ummmm... okay!)

we kayaked on our own for three hours

we didn't find the beach
but we found a cove...

... and sat there for a while

we wandered among the karsts

and sat some more

Then we enjoyed a delicious lunch with more food than we'd seen in one sitting in weeks, and sat on the fisherman's floating house watching tour buses roll in and out for a few hours until our boat picked us up again.

the plates just kept coming

kayaking is hard!

We considered joining an Asia Outdoors kayak trip later in the week but quickly decided we enjoyed our solo exploration very much and didn't need to pay a lot more money to go back out with a bunch of tourists. (We hope they had fun though.)

2. We rented a motorbike and explored the island. This included a visit to Hospital Cave, an important historical fixture of the island.  During the "American War" a concrete structure was built within a cavern and used as a hospital and military training facility.  It's been maintained pretty well and you can get a guide if you choose...  We're cave experts now so we opted to skip the guide.

the main corridor -
just a tiny bit creepy

it's no Paradise Cave, but impressive nonetheless

It also included several stops for photo ops.

such as this one

And a coffee break.

motorbiking is hard!

And there were about 5 minutes when I tried my hand at driving the motorbike.

I made this face the whole time

The entire trip including the photo stops and cave tour only took about five hours. Like I said, it's not a very big island.

3. We hiked to Frog Pond in Cat Ba National Park.  There are just a few hikes you can do in the park, and none of them lead to the elusive langur but one does lead to a small village where you can take a boat back to Cat Ba town.  Since we saw villages in the Mekong, Sapa and Lan Ha we decided not to do this and just stick to nature.


The hike itself was more than we anticipated - it was really hot and humid, and mossies/bees followed us for entire kilometers grating on every last nerve we had, and the path was up and down the whole way there and the whole way back.

steep and slippery

a little bushwhacking too

But the sounds in the jungle made all of it worthwhile, and the pond was really beautiful in a rugged, jungle-like sort of way.

Frog Pond

hit "play" - those aren't chainsaws

We're probably the only people dumb enough - or cheap enough - to choose a 10km walk back to town after a 12km up and down hike.  But see, catching a ride on a motorbike would've used up our beer money, and that beer when we finally did get to town was the BEST beer we've ever had.  Hiking is hard!

4. We wandered through Cat Ba Beaches 1-3. Rumor has it that three women washed up in three different places on the island, and each beach is dedicated to one of the women. Beach 2 was our favorite (it was the most serene spot) but the walkway from Beach 3 to Beach 1 was quiet and stunning, and it became our daily habit.

Cat Ba Beach 2

Cat Ba Beach 3 -
sitting around all day is hard!

between Beach 1 and Beach 3

5. WE DID NOTHING. Once you've explored the island there's really not much to do, other than what you've already done. So we took this opportunity a year into our travels to take a mental and physical break from everything. (Finally, right?)

We saw something new every other day and rested in between.

We uploaded pictures. We watched crappy movies like Wild Hogs and that awful Total Recall remake and A Good Day to Die Hard on the hotel's free HBO. We read. We blogged. We napped. We planned. We talked about things other than travel. On our last day, we enjoyed several loud thunderstorms and power outages. It was all really quite lovely.  Because seriously, travel is hard!

Food notes: you don't go to Cat Ba Island for the food, unless you like farm-raised seafood. But...
  • The best coffee is at The Flightless Bird.

it really helped with the year two planning discussions
  • Phuong Phuong, recommended by various sources including Wikisherpa and TripAdvisor, was great. Their tofu and tomato dish is lovely and their fresh spring rolls are amazing. But they are a bit pricey.
  • Otherwise we ate at Mr Zoom Restaurant. A LOT. At first we hesitated - "Mr Zoom"? Really? Turns out it was consistently well-priced and tasty, and everyone who works there is super-nice, even when French tourists loudly complain that "no one speaks English to understand what we want!" (Actually, they do speak excellent English, perhaps YOUR English is not so good oui?)

Mr Zoom breakfast

Mr Zoom dinner

Lodging notes:
  • Our first two nights we booked a room at Cat Ba Dream Hotel. It was fine for $8/night and they didn't push their tours (which were very pricey). No view for that price though.
  • After booking our kayak tour through Mr Zoom we asked to see the available rooms at his backpacker hostel. The one he showed us had no A/C and was a little dated but it was huge, it had a balcony and lots of windows, there were two fans, and it was only $6/night. SOLD. We booked it for the rest of our week and even with the occasional ant and daytime street noise we didn't regret a single minute. (Both just reminded us of Portland.) The family who hung out downstairs always said hello and we especially liked Grandma Zoom.

Special travel n
otes for you adventurous types:
  • The original plan was to stay in Bai Tu Long Bay which was supposedly less touristy than Cat Ba Island and definitely less touristy than Halong Bay. But then we saw that we could visit Lan Ha Bay from Cat Ba Island, and that Lan Ha Bay was also less touristy, and that Cat Ba Island was far easier to get to and stay on than Bai Tu Long Bay, and after all those words (and 367 days of travel) we were ready for a little bit of easy.
  • We went from Hanoi through Hai Phong, the bus-boat-bus cost about $10/person (arranged at the Hanoi bus station). The bus from Hanoi to Hai Phong was pretty insane and the high speed ferry was loud and not at all scenic. The trip took about four hours and the transfers were pretty hassle-free.
(but this is the ferry's first aid kit)
  • On the way back we did a bus-boat-bus combo from Cat Ba Island through Halong Bay and Halong City instead; it was $16/person (arranged through Mr Zoom) and took about eight hours. It was completely hassle-free and much nicer than our trip out. The boat was quiet and spacious, the bus was small and dropped us near our hostel in Hanoi (saving us from negotiating a taxi ride), and for our extra $6 we got to see Halong Bay. Worth all 600 of those pennies.
the cutest passenger on the boat

And now, back to Hanoi to make up for a few missed opportunities the first time around - and a lot of delicious food - before meeting Kim in Ho Chi Minh City, where the travel mania will begin again. We loved (and needed) this break so much, and now we are ready to get back to it!


  1. if you ever make it to the Southeastern United States, i recommend the truck-boat-truck

    1. Image won't load, we'll take your word for it...

  2. Hi, i read your blog thanks a lot for all the info you provided.

    Quick question, u mentioned that on your return trip to hanoi from cat ba island u went through halong city.

    Would u mind please telling me how did u reach from cat ba town to the port on the other side of the island to reach halong city?

    1) I m planning on staying in halong city either before or after cat ba island so I have to figure out how to commute/travel to reach cat ba island from halong city.

    2) what month did u visit Cat ba island? u said that u stayed over at the hostel without A/C, could u bear the humid and heat without AC at the hostel?

    3) What is the name of the kayak company u booked or the junk boat u booked from cat ba island? u said that it took u to a fishing village where u got the kayak? not clear about the itinerary of the junk boat trip.

    Thanks a lot

    Sebastian, happy new year 2018 , my personal email is

    1. Hi Sebastian, sent you an email with details. Basically, Mr Zoom was a huge help for all of this. Happy travels!