Cát Bà Island -The $16 Gateway To Halong Bay
Halong Bay is one of those places that no traveler wants to miss but often do because of the outrageous prices. What guides fail to mention is that there is a $16 gateway to the bay, and it comes by way of an island named Cát Bà.
If you’ve long dreamed of living on an all-inclusive boat in the middle of Halong Bay, then by all means that is the way you should experience this magical place.
However, if the idea of spending a couple hundred dollars in only two days makes you queasy, then the island of Cát Bà is your ticket to having a blast in one of Vietnam’s most beautiful destinations.
Cát Bà Island
Only a twenty-minute boat ride from the docks of Haiphong lies the island of Cát Bà. It is the largest of the over 300 islands in the archipelago and splits the ocean along Vietnam’s eastern coast in two. Most of the action occurs in the main town bearing the same name, where it is a good idea to meter your expectations.
While Cát Bà is one of the last budget friendly gateways to see Halong Bay, it is also; dare I say; the largest collections of Chinese tourist’s that you’ll find in Vietnam. The streets are filled with half-naked beachgoers, and massive dining halls serving almost exclusively in Cantonese.
That’s why I recommend that you rent a motorbike and head North out of town through the many villages and rolling green mountains that dot the island.
Cát Bà Island
Like many others, you will probably arrive on the island just before noon. This will give you plenty of time to grab lunch, book your $16 Halong Bay tour for the following morning, and rent a bike for ₫80,000 or $3.45 to do some sightseeing.
There are a few locations on Cát Bà Island that I would recommend you go; the Hospital Cave and the Cannon Fort. Both of which do a fair job of showcasing Vietnam’s conflicted past.
The Hospital Cave
Located thirty minutes North by motorbike near the center of Cát Bà Island, is an eerily cold remnant of the Vietnam War; The Hospital Cave.
Entrance Fee: ₫40,000 or $1.75
Parking Fee: ₫5,000 or $0.25
Buried deep inside a mountain; the Hospital cave was built between 1963 – 1965 with assistance from China. There are thirteen rooms in total including a large natural cavern that was used as a cinema.
The Cát Bà Hospital Cave
Striking propaganda posters of bombs with Nixon’s face on them adorn the walls of the damp concrete passageways snaking through the mountain.
!@#$ Off Nixon!
Stairways For Days
During the Vietnam War; or as they call it; the American War; top Vietcong leaders used the Hospital Cave as a base of operations.
The curators of the cave have done an excellent job recreating what a meeting of these top military minds might have looked like during that time.
A Meeting Of The Minds
The cave was not only useful as a bombproof shelter but also strategically located near the next stop on your adventure; the Cát Bà Cannon Fort.
Cát Bà Cannon Fort
Headed back towards town and atop the highest point on the southern side of the island is the Cát Bà Cannon Fort.
Entrance Fee: ₫40,000 or $1.75
Parking Fee: ₫10,000 or $0.45
Similar to the Hospital Cave; the curators of the fort have placed mannequins frozen in action to show what wartime conditions might have been like. The rusty anti-aircraft guns point to the sky give you a visual of how prepared they were to deter foreign invaders, but also how long it’s been since times were that dire.
The Cát Bà Cannon Fort
There’s also some pretty spectacular views of Lan Ha Bay from the top of the Cát Bà Cannon Fort. With its similar limestone karsts and the large collection of boats, it’s easy to see why many travelers mistake it for the world famous Halong Bay.
Lan Ha Bay
After you’ve seen the limestone karsts and turquoise waters of Lan Ha Bay from above, there will be no turning back. You will become gitty with anticipation for your Halong Bay tour the following morning (I definitely was).
The $16 Halong Bay Tour
The number one question I get asked regarding Halong Bay is “where can I find a sixteen dollar tour?”. The answer is everywhere. That’s the fair price around town and if someone tries to charge you more; which they will; just hop from one agency to the next until you find a tour that includes all the activities I’m about to cover and for the correct price.
The morning will start off by getting picked up from your chosen accommodation around 8 AM, just keep in mind that it’s Vietnam, so the van could be on time, but more than likely it will arrive a half hour late.
You’ll be dropped off at the Bến Bèo Pier where you’ll load up on a boat with no more than twenty-five other travelers and make your way to Halong Bay.
Rainy Day At Halong Bay
Even on a wet and dreary day during the rainy season, the beauty of Halong Bay was undeniable. I often like experiencing places in adverse weather conditions because it gives you an entirely different perspective and unique photos that stand apart from the typical ones on Instagram.
After a few hours of crossing the bay, you will arrive at some floating shacks with a ton of kayaks tied up to the docks.
The Floating Kayak Shack
You and a partner will be given free reign of a kayak for an hour of exploration around Halong Bay and the caves located nearby.
A few of the caves are more like a gateway to hidden parts of the bay that are entirely closed off from the outside world. It was a rush of adventure and by far my favorite part of the day even though we got drenched.
After everyone returns, the crew will dish out a delicious multi-course meal which is, of course, included in the price of the tour.
Before you know it, the boat horn will sound, and you’ll be off to your next adventure destination in Halong Bay.
Remote Bay Beaches
I assume that it is entirely up to your boat captain as to where you will lay anchor for the remote bay beach part of your tour. Whichever one he chooses though will surely not disappoint.
You should be given an hour to swim around and hang out on these tiny remote beaches found dotted throughout Halong Bay.
Remote Bay Beaches
Again the boat horn will sound and you’ll set off to the final destination of the day tour at Halong Bay; Monkey Island.
Located only a few minutes south of Cát Bà; Monkey Island is a beautiful islet shaped similar to an hourglass. It’s close proximity to the mainland means that it can be overcrowded at times. So much so that the Macaque monkeys the island is named after are virtually non-existent during peak hours.
The only way to enjoy this place; in my opinion; is to climb up to the viewpoint on the northern side of the island. There you can get a great view of Halong Bay and be far removed from the hustle and bustle below.
Monkey Island Viewpoint
After about an hour your boat will pick you up on shore and carry you back to the pier on Cát Bà Island. You’ll arrive around 5 PM where you’ll catch the same van back to your accommodation.
Alternatively, if you wish to return to Hanoi or other locations throughout Vietnam and your bus leaves that afternoon, you can tell your boat crew that you need to leave early and they will put you on a boat back to Cát Bà as soon as you arrive on Monkey Island.
Getting To Cát Bà Island
As it goes with any country’s most popular attractions, Vietnam’s Halong Bay is also super easy to get to. The most common route is a bus from Hanoi, but there are plenty of other spots travelers make their way from.
I recommend a company named Good Morning Cát Bà. They have excellent service and are one of the lowest prices around. My trip from Hanoi and back; including pick-up and drop off from both hostels; was only $27. That included the bus, ferry, and water. Comparable companies wanted almost double that.
Where To Stay
Cát Bà Vs. One Day Tour From Hanoi
I stated earlier that the main question I get regarding Halong Bay was how to find a sixteen dollar tour. The close second to that question is “Why not just take a tour from Hanoi?”. If you’re on a time crunch or aren’t worried about money then maybe booking a $55 day tour from Hanoi is the best option.
However, if you have at least two days and want to experience both Cát Bà Island and Halong Bay on your own time, then I think the choice is clear; go to Cát Bà.