To see Halong Bay we decided to stay on Cat Ba Island, which is directly next to the bay and not too touristy. We stayed at Cat Ba Hostel. Originally we booked a dorm but the hostel was almost empty so we convinced them to give us double rooms for the same price as the dorm, $3 each. I roomed with Scotland.
The town is very small. One strip of restaurants and guesthouses/hotels along the bay with vertical streets going inward towards land. Our hostel was at the top of one of the vertical streets. In the summer the town is supposedly packed with tourists and backpackers. There’s an island feel mixed into this fishing village. But now it’s deserted. We did get very lucky with weather but it’s still winter here.
We picked up two Brits on the ferry to Cat Ba. Now we just need an Irish and I’ll officially be with the whole UK crew.
Our first day after checking in we walked to the beach, which is about a 10 minute walk from town. It was our first official view of the bay. We stayed long enough to drink one large beer but left because it really wasn’t warm enough to be there- the wind was too cold. On our walk back to town we stopped at an outdoor cafe/bar that was in the sun and out of the wind. We had a free cocktail then a few rounds of beer while sunbathing and playing pool.
That night we went to Good Bar, then Rose Bar, the two backpacker bars in town. Good Bar is on the third floor of a waterfront restaurant. The interior is stone and felt like the perfect atmosphere for a winter bar. The cocktails are legit made with fresh fruit juice, and they’re two for one. Rose Bar is the late night dingy spot.
Our second day we rented scooters- I rode on Scotland’s since I can’t bike. We drove through a small local town behind the touristy waterfront section. Up through the mountains on newly paved roads. We stopped at Hospital Cave, a small cave developed with during the war for Vietnamese to hide from bombers. The cave was 3 floors. The bottom floor is cement rooms- the meeting room, the cinema room, the washing room, the dining room, the hospital, etc. The second floor is a huge open cave, and the third floor (which we couldn’t go to) is a small room that generals used for their meetings. The floors are set-up like a labyrinth, so when you’re on the first floor you can actually be right below the third floor. Incredibly smart and spacious.
After the cave we drove to the National Park. We did the short hike up to Nam Lam Peak- one hour total. The hike wasn’t too bad and the view was incredible. Lush green mountains surrounded us.
We hopped back onto our bikes and tried to get to the Cannon before sunset. We made it but after learning it was $3 we decided against it. Not worth it after just being at a better view. So we decided to grab dinner at a local place in town. I had been excited to try the seafood which is supposed to be great on the bay but I was disappointed. I had Pho Tom, Pho with shrimp, but the shrimp were tiny and flavorless. Afterward we cleaned up and went back to Good Bar. I called it an early-ish night since we had to get up early the next day.
Up at 7:30am for breakfast and picked up at 8am for our day on Halong Bay. We drove to the port, which took less than 5 minutes. We boarded a boat and headed out to sea. The boat had an enclosed downstairs, and an open upstairs, half of which was a tarp we could lay on. We became friends with an Aussie and New Zealand girl on the tour, and the group of us spent most of the boat ride hanging out on the tarp. We drove for about 30 minutes past fishing villages (farms on the water) and landed on Monkey Island. We got off the boat directly on the beach and climbed up rocks to reach the top of the mountain on the beach. I wore flip flops which were awful to climb in (no warning there would be rock climbing or a hike.) At the top of the mountain there were two monkeys that joined us. One of them opened up a guys bag and grabbed an apple and piece of bread to snack on- the guy wasn’t quick enough to get them away.
We hung out on the beach for about 30 minutes after the climb. I found 6 pieces of beach glass including an aqua piece. Most of the pieces are green; I’m assuming they’re from Saigon bottles.
About an hour later we reached Halong Bay from Cat Ba Bay, although we couldn’t tell the difference. We canoed through Halong Bay for a while going through caves. After canoeing we had a seafood spread lunch on the boat. Steamed shrimp, fish, tofu, sautéed cabbage, spring rolls and rice. We then laid out on the tarp sunbathing for half an hour before the boat took off again. However, the boat only drive for about 20 minutes and then it stopped again for another 30 minutes. We parked next to another boat like ours and the workers all played cards and drank together. We just relaxed and played cards in the sun. The UK boy jumped in the water but it was too cold for swimming.
On the way home (about a 2 hour journey) we stopped at one of the fish farms and were able to walk around. Imagine a very narrow (less than two feet wide) boardwalk grid above the water, and in each of the squares is a massive net keeping the fish in. The fish are raised here. We saw all types of fish, some tiny and some that looked like mini-sharks. The boardwalk pathway was staying afloat by sitting on top of plastic canisters. Needless to say it was a wobbly walk, and my fears were heightened when I tripped over my own flip flops.
We went out hard that night since we didn’t have to wake up for anything the next day. First Oasis for half price daiquiris, then Good Bar where I drank 2-for-1 fresh passion fruit mojitos and the bartender split a cantaloupe shisha with me. I met a few Americans who are in Vietnam for a week on business- they’re in the shit business, engineers making toilets. We all went to Marigold Club, which was empty except with a few local men who insisted on taking photos and videos with me/us non-stop. Danced on stage for a bit then headed back to Good Bar until we finally got kicked out because it closed. A great night.
I woke up the next afternoon and headed down to the waterfront for lunch. I walked around the lake on the far side of town then settled into an outdoor table in the sun at My Way Cafe for some fresh seafood. I ordered grilled squid and a tomato salad. The squid was amazing- grilled with chopped garlic, ginger and chili peppers.
After lunch I walked through the local market looking for my typical fruit snack and a big a sweatshirt for Sapa. The market was typical for a town, a small section for fruit and vegetables, and another small section for clothes and accessories. Most of the fruit didn’t appeal to me; there are no papayas in the cold and the dragon fruit wasn’t ripe. However, I couldn’t stand to casually walk through the market like I usually do. I was the only person shopping at that time of day and every single stand owner was screaming at my to buy bananas while throwing green unripened bananas in my face. It became too much to stand so I quickly left.
Across the street I ran into Scotland and we decided to go for massages. We went to Foot Therapy above Kiwi Bar and both got an hour back, neck and head massage. They took us to the top floor of the bar and we each laid down on an actual bed and got massaged.
That night all of us went for a big seafood dinner at Phong Phong Restaurant, which I found on trip advisor. I ordered boiled green vegetables and grilled scallops. The waiter first brought me out a plate of white cabbage dripping with oil. I sent it back saying that this vegetable is not green and can I please have the boiled spinach instead. Next the waiter brought me out a plate of steamed clams with sweet and sour sauce, yet another translation mistake. I sent back the clams for grilled squid, which was difficult since the waiter was convinced he brought me scallops. More than halfway through my squid the waiter brought me a plate of broccoli in oyster sauce. Not what I ordered either but I didn’t complain; the broccoli was delicious. The squid on the other hand was not. It was supposed to be grilled with a lemon garlic sauce and instead was grilled then doused with a sweet jam like sauce. The restaurant forgot to charge me for the broccoli but I didn’t tell them. The entire meal was slow and stressed me out, so I felt better knowing something was free.
After dinner we went back to Oasis Bar where I got a peppermint tea and a coconut- I took the day off from drinking. There was a “Marnie the dog” look-a-like there who was in a serious need of a haircut. I called it an early night and went home a little after midnight to read. Yes, that’s an early night.