Contributed by Eudaimoniacs
When one mentions Hanoi, people would instantaneously think about Sapa and Halong Bay. But what they don’t know is that there is an island that makes up the southeastern edge of Halong Bay.
An island that is juggle-clad, rough on the terrain, with a large portion that is untouched and wild as ever. An island where professional rock climbers will travel the distance to challenge their limit against the limestone karsts rock walls of Butterfly Valley, where the restless would seek solace in search for inner peace through yoga and meditation at Cat Co 1, where the harsh memories of WWII still lies etched upon the abandoned walls of Cannon Fort. And where lies the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever laid my eyes on.
Getting to Cat Ba
Cat Ba is usually part of an itinerary of a Halong Bay tour. Tourists would stay overnight at Cat Ba en-route to Halong Bay.
Good Morning Cat Ba arranges for our all-in transportation to Cat Ba. If you had done your research, you would know that to get to Cat Ba, the trip requires a bus, a boat and a minivan/bus. We chose to go with Good Morning Cat Ba (GMCB) rather than the Hoang Long (HL) bus because firstly, HL takes 5 hours to get to Cat Ba because of the numerous stops it will make to pick up and drop off locals, and there will be another bus transfer to take you to the boat terminal that goes to Cat Ba. Ticket price: 210,000 VND/way
As for GMCB, their route itinerary is tailored for tourists. So the bus goes directly from your hotel in Hanoi or their office in Old Quarter to the ferry terminal (no stops) for the boat to Cat Ba. A minivan will greet you upon your arrival at Cat Ba Jetty to transfer you to your hotel. Convenient, ey? This is recommended if you are strapped for time. Do note that there are many jetties in Cat Ba and you’ll get to the tourist accommodation area about 40 mins to 1 hour from this particular jetty, depending on your group size.
Our honest opinion: just go with GMCB! The extra dollars you’re paying is worth the convenience.
Duration: 3.5 hours
We requested for a pick up from Noi Bai Aiport to be transferred to GMCB office at the Old Quarter. At 2pm, the bus picked us up from the GMCB office. Onwards to Cat Ba!
Airport pick up fee: US$20/trip
Combo (bus+boat+minivan) ticket: US$18/way
Time from Hanoi to Cat Ba Island: 07.15am and 2pm
Time from Cat ba to Hanoi: 08.30am and 3.30pm
Duration: 3.5 hours
Hanoi Office: 13 Hang Huong Lane – Hang Ma Ward – Hoan Kiem District – Hanoi
Cat Ba Office: 265 Nui Ngoc – Cat Ba Island – Hai Phong City
Transportation in Cat Ba
Motorbike rentals in Cat Ba are available and rates start from US$4 for 24 hours. Half rental is US$2.50 (as of 1 Jan 2017).
There are also minibuses that go to and from Haiphong for VND 10,000.
Accommodation in Cat Ba
There is a long stretch of budget guesthouses and hotels near the jetty. Accommodations start as low as US$6 for dorms. I am someone who would look through ALL the lodgings available in a certain area and then settle for one that is cheap but at the same time gives the most value. For Cat Ba, I needed a room facing the sea with sunset views so that I can just take a time-lapse at the comfort of my room. I found the perfect one.
Quynh Trang Hotel
I opted for a quadruple room with sea view that cost US$21.82/night. It is located along Cat Ba’s lovely bay, framed by guesthouses but far enough to escape from the street noise. Quynh Trang Hotel is also located in a convenient location within walking distance to the grocery shops, food stalls and an 8-minute walking distance to the beach. Bingo! As for the room, above is how it looks like… And special mention to the owner Anh for his exceptional service and tips about what to do or where to go.
Attractions in Cat Ba
There are lots of hidden secrets in Cat Ba. In every nook and cranny lies remnants of the Vietnam War. Here are some of the main attractions in Cat Ba:
1. Cat Ba National Park
Cat Ba National Park was converted into a protected park in 1986. This park is monitored by UNESCO to protect its 32 different species of mammals and 70 different types of birds. With it’s diverse biodiversity and home to the highly endangered Cat Ba Langur, this jungle of rugged terrain is first on our “to-see” list.
The Cat Ba National Park is great for trekking. The diverse biodiversity of this park will definitely appeal to nature lovers. There is an 18km hike to the mountain summit which takes around 6 hours and finishes at the Viet Hai minority village where you can then take a shared boat to town.
Traveller tip: Suitable for adults of moderate fitness level, as this is a hardcore 18km (6-hour) trek through rugged terrains.
Opening Hours: Sunrise to sunset
Admission Price: VND 30,000
Shared public boat: VND 50,000/person (Departs from Ben Beo at 6am on weekdays and 7am on weekends)
2. Hospital Cave: The Secret Bomb-Proof Hospital
Hospital Cave is an example of grit, ingenuity and inventiveness of the Vietnamese during adversity in times of war. This 3-storey incredible feat of engineering is a huge military hospital inside a mountain bunker that was used during the Vietnam War.
The first level contains holding rooms for injured soldiers as well as surgical rooms and doctors offices. The second level used to be a ‘leisure’ room which contained a swimming pool and a cinema. The third level had facilities that were used by the Viet Cong leaders as a safe house.
Address: Trân Châu, Cát Hải, Haiphong, Vietnam
Phone:+84 31 3688 215
Opening Hours: 7am–4.30pm
Admission price: VND 15,000
3. Cannon Fort: remnants of an era of destruction (our top pick)
Cannon Fort is THE PLACE where people would go to get a great vantage point of the whole island during sunrise and sunset. The 360 views from this fort are stunning!
This hilltop command post is a strategic lookout point during three wars. It was used by the Japanese during WWII, the French during the Indochina War, and the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. The best way to get to Cannon Fort is by a scooter or car. You can also do a slow 15-minute walk up the steep hills.
Once you’ve reached the top, you’ll see a huge map of Cannon Fort. It doesn’t matter if you start on the left or right, the route goes on a loop around to hit all the sights.
Opening hours: Sunrise to sunset
Admission price: VND 40,000
Rock climbing & deep water solo
Highly recommended if you can climb at least a 6A grade
It’s the first day of 2017 and we decided to kick it off with deep water solo over at Lan ha Bay.
Cat Ba shares the same island topography as the iconic Halong Bay but differs quite significantly in terms of price and crowds. Being less known to tourists, Cat Ba was a joy for us to explore.
We have decided to start 2017 with deep water solo (rock climbing off a cliff with no safety equipment except the open water beneath you). There are two dominant climbing companies that operate in Cat Ba: Asia Outdoors and Cat Ba Climbing (Mr Zoom’s). We opted for Asia Outdoors despite it being more expensive; the reviews claiming absolute safety won us over. (When you’re doing extreme sports, safety is not something you want to cut cost on).
Reservations were on a first come first serve basis, so as luck might have it, there were only two slots left for Deep Water Solo (DWS). We gathered at their office at 8am for a 5-min shuttle to the jetty where the Asia Outdoor boat (together with people who signed up for rock climbing and kayaking) brought us for a cinematic cruise coloured with turquoise waters littered with jagged limestone cliffs.
We then transferred to a small boat where our cool guide, Connor brought us to a cliff face called the Three Brothers. It was a Grade 4 (easiest grade) climb, to assess whether it was safe for us to proceed with more challenging routes.
Getting to Three Brothers
‘Three Brothers’ is located an hour from Ben Beo Harbour. A basket boat will take you the crag which is located in the middle of Lan Ha Bay.
The 101 on Three Brothers
This crag is a perfect introduction for newbies to Deep Water Solo. Routes do not exceed 15 meters and are not that intimidating. (I’m lying. It is intimidating!) The climbs require basic boulder-style movements and techniques on a vertical rock. Keep an eye on some short overhang features as well.
The first jump is probably the hardest. You’d have to look into the horizon and just go for it. It is scary at first but after a few jumps… well… it is still scary. That being said, you’d probably regret not doing this if you’re in Cat Ba and can climb a 6A-grade lead route. This DWS experience will definitely be fresh in my memory for a VERY long time.
Route Difficulty: 4a+ to 7b
The 101 on Hawaii Five-O
Hawaii Five-O is meant for those who wish to push themselves further. The crag at Hawaii Five-O is brilliant. The overhang features will challenge your bouldering skills to the limit. (Honestly, I can’t even get past the first one after spending two hours climbing at Three Brothers!)
Route Difficulty: 6a to 7b
Rock climbing at Moody Beach
The second half of the day brought us to a scene from Lost World which is made up of a sandy beach with dark limestones, overgrown with vines growing on its crag. The climbs at Moody Beach is ideal for beginner to intermediate climbers. The rock quality is very good, with numerous good holds and ledges to rest. Though it’s not as exhilarating as DWS, it is highly recommended for those who have never tried climbing on natural rock before. You’ll struggle initially to find matching colours to your next foothold like how you usually do in the climbing gym. Oh and I also forgot to mention the sharp edges and surface of the rocks. But honestly, give it a try. It is really fun!
Getting to Moody Beach
Moody Beach is located 30 minutes and 4km north of Cat Ba town. You can reach the beach by kayak or a basket boat but the most convenient method is to just sign up with Asia Outdoors to arrange everything (transportation, equipment, lunch, etc). It’s advisable for you to check their available slots at least 1 day in advance to avoid any disappointment.
Route Difficulty: 5a to 7C+
Cat Ba in a nutshell
Cat Ba is made up of a tapestry of both horizontal and vertical landscapes sewn together to form a photographer’s dream. But a more intriguing thing to look at is the Vietnamese locals themselves. The war relics littered on this beautiful island are a mirrored testament to their souls. They are nice, polite and helpful but there is something in their eyes that says that they are not to be trifled with. The Vietnamese exude an air of confidence in their heritage and their country; a very admirable trait that is hard to find nowadays.
The Cat Ba rocks left me with some scars on my legs (slipped during DWS) but every time I look at my ‘tattoo’, it reminds me of how the turquoise waters and limestone cliffs helped me love myself even more. The freedom I felt while ascending vertically on adrenaline gave me a strong life lesson on how I can overcome life’s daily challenges without being brought down by it. I definitely picked the best place to rejuvenate and start 2017 with. Thank you, Cat Ba!