Last you heard from us we were a mile deep in a cave, soaking wet for two days and loving every minute of it, and then slurping eel soup for an evening in Đồng Hới. From there we left early the next morning and took a $20 flight up to Hanoi. This was so cheap we were pretty skeptical it would work out but we took a shot since the alternative was 11 hours on a bus, and surprise, it was fine! Arriving in Hanoi around 9am we took a shuttle bus into town to see if we could catch transit to Cát Bà that day. We had decided not to book any accommodation until we had a ticket in case we had to spend a night in Hanoi. (Yes, there is foreshadowing here.
Luckily we were just in time for a bus headed for Cát Bà and once we were settled in and were fed a sleeve of oreos we jumped online to search for a place to stay in Cát Bà. We knew Cát Bà would still be touristy, but all the hotels we were seeing were sort of at the top of our normal budget. Just as we were about to suck it up and pay the extra, Gregor checked Airbnb and found a reasonably-priced room so we went with it. Not the best choice of our travels so far.
Upon arrival we met up with our host’s daughter who brought us to our new digs at the back end of an alley. There we were greeted by a shirtless older Russian (Alex) and some friendly Vietnamese. We said hello as Alex’s daughter brought us up to our room with Alex followed right after us pretty much insisting that we wanted to rent a motorbike for the 3 days we were there. His daughter shooed him off saying “later, let them rest” and he retreated downstairs to the sidewalk.
It was immediately apparent that the daughter was going to have to walk through our room to get upstairs to hers, not “past” as our host had indicated beforehand, oh well. Our hostess/roommate showed us the rest of the place including the bathroom – squat toilet, sink that did not drain and shower head that required straddling the squat toilet to shower – talk about efficiency! Also the kitchen which was a freestanding gas burner under an umbrella on the concrete “garden” terrace along with a couple plastic buckets for dishes and/or laundry. Rounding out the ensemble was and a rice cooker that had to have been intentionally camouflaged to hide the grunge and a mini-fridge with an open can of beans inside. I have been in Vietnam one month and have not seen one canned good before then. I can only imagine what spaceship this can of beans was beamed from.
Not entirely thrilled with our new residence, we vowed to plan some extra-long days to be in the room as infrequently as possible. After dropping our stuff off we wandered through the market in town and then decided to stop at this busy locals spot right on the water that had cheap beer and my favorite snack, raw peanuts! We also ordered some sauteed squid which turned out to be uncleaned and presumably you eat the whole thing. Gregor was very brave and ate several. I almost cried. It was kind of hard day.
This brings us to Cát Bà Town itself, a seaside handful of busy streets on the southeast corner of the island (most of which is park). Unlike our previous location in Phong Nha, Cát Bà Town has not gracefully weathered its recent influx of tourism. It is by a good margin the grubbiest town we have been to in Vietnam and also seemed less than welcoming (though to be fair we spoke to several other people who loved Cát Bà, so it may just be one of those things!). It does have a few things going for it though: the obvious proximity to one of the most unique coastlines in the world, fresh and abundant seafood, and a lot of friendly travelers.
Later on we ended up chatting with a group of Westerners while having some beers to recover from the journey and the room, and they got a laugh out of our accommodations and told us how much nicer their dorms were. Happily they also told us about a kayaking day trip they just did and thought it was great. It happened to be right upstairs from the bar we were at and they had two spots left for the next day’s trip so we booked them!
After our evening out the day we arrived, we decided it was time to retire to what we dubbed “the Gulag” before our 8am kayaking departure. We ended up not going to bed for a while, however, as we were waylaid by Alex and his neighbors hanging out in the alleyway and chatting. This was a pretty entertaining experience involving some stereotypical Russian hospitality. We eventually cut loose, and wishing our upstairs comrade Erika a good time at the bar on her way out, managed to get some sleep.
Our day kayaking ended up being one of the best values we’ve found. We took a group boat out from Cát Bà Harbor into Lan Ha Bay, snagged some kayaks that were parked at a floating fish farm (there are lots of floating things in the bay including many homes), and spent the day exploring around the karsts. Along with the scenery we saw a lot of what makes for daily life here including various forms of fishing (ranging from highly to slightly ineffective), oyster farming, fish farming, lots of floating homes with families and dogs, and unfortunately, lots of garbage. Highlights included swimming in the bay, chatting with the cool folks on the boat with us, and seeing camo- and purple-colored crabs scuttling along the tidal cliffs of the many islands. Unfortunately the light was really difficult that day, and we don’t think the pictures below really do the bay justice!
The next day we rented a motorbike from our gregarious hosts to do some island exploring. First we went to do some hiking in the center of the island park. Here we met up with a few folks we had met the day before on the boat and we had a fun – albeit very hot and sweaty – climb up to some viewpoints. Along the way we saw a civet, a huge centipede, and some bright orange jungle crabs scuttling around on the fallen leaves.
From there we looped around the southern portion of the island and took in scenes of karsts, goats, and fields while navigating between wide paved roads and narrow muddy tracks (quick video here). To finish off the day we rode up to Cannon Fort which overlooks Cát Bà Town and the surrounding bay for a great sunset view. We hung out with our friend Bob for a while who was wrapping up a 3-month travel stint in Southeast Asia, and then grabbed a late dinner of some fried fish. One last night in the Gulag and then we were gratefully on our way to a comfy room in Hanoi’s old quarter!
Specifics: we got to and from Cát Bà with Good Morning Cát Bà out of Hanoi. It was decent, using ~24 person buses on each side of the ferry. There might be some cheaper alternatives without door-to-door service. Kayaking was with Asia Outdoors, they also do climbing (top rope and deepwater). Definitely recommended, everyone on our boat was happy. Surprisingly, some of the best phở bo we had in Vietnam was right in town at a place called Phở 10, on the north side of Nui Ngoc near the main harbor road. We went there twice so it was no fluke, the beef was excellent. Make sure you get the little donut things to dip in the broth.