Budget travel alternative to Ha Long Bay

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There’s a lesser-known island to the east of Ha Long Bay that offers a cheaper alternative to the famous tourist trap. While I highly recommend this destination, I secretly hope that the island’s popularity doesn’t blow up. I want Cat Ba Island’s laid-back atmosphere to be preserved for all posterity.

The following itinerary is doable in as little as 2 full days on the island, plus two travel days.

How to get to Cat Ba

You have a choice between the tourist bus for 18 USD one-way or the local bus for 10 USD one-way. With either ticket, your transportation between the island and mainland is included.

Choose the tourist bus, I beg you.

We took the tourist bus on the way to the island, and the trip from Hanoi to Hai Phong took 3 hours. Since we were the first tourists to get picked up at our hostel, it took about one additional hour before we left Hanoi. We were never bored, since Wi-Fi was available on the bus. (The password will most likely be 12345678, by the way.) And by the time we arrived, there was enough time for lunch, a massage, and a quick nap before catching the sunset over the water.

Then we had the bright idea to take the local bus back to Hanoi.

Our return trip was nearly unbearable. It took about 6 hours total. By the end of the line, the bus’ echoing horn rang in our ears and our legs had gone numb. To make matters worse, instead of returning to the Old Quarter, as I had expected, we were told to get off the bus at a large bus station that was a good 6-dollar Uber ride away from where we needed to go. Not worth saving 8 bucks at all.

Tourist bus | Company: Good Morning Cat Ba | Phone: +84914607571

What to eat

The seafood in Hai Phong is phenomenal. My favorites include:

  • Seafood chao (congee)
  • Seafood hot pot
  • Fried crab spring rolls
  • Stir-fried squid
  • Anything shrimp

 

Rent a motorbike

It’s best to rent a motorbike to explore Cat Ba, including the national park located in the center of the island. Even the most timid of learners (me) will find the drive from Hai Phong to the national park to be safe and relaxing. The road is paved, there isn’t much traffic outside of the town, and there are no sharp turns.

You can find rentals for 4-5 dollars per day anywhere along the main drag in Hai Phong. We were quoted $4 but ended up paying 100,000. As in most cases, you will save money using American cash.

The road from Hai Phong to the national park winds through majestic green hills and bustling villages. Along the way, you’re likely to catch a glimpse of goats and pigs wandering around.

Always expect to pay for motorbike parking, except maybe at restaurants.

Cat Ba National Park

Parking costs 10,000 dong across the road from the national park. The man who operates the place will invite you to have ice cream and a chat. He loves talking with foreigners, whether they speak Vietnamese or English.

The ticket to enter costs 40,000 dong.

Just head straight until you come to a restaurant of sorts. From there, take a left to hike the mountain.

Be prepared for a very steep hike and possibly very large lizards. The view is worth it!

Swimming and kayaking tour

Just wander down the main street from your hotel to browse the many signs offering tours. Make sure to inquire what each tour package does and doesn’t include before you make a final decision.

The cheaper tours, for as little as 12-15 dollars, typically include swimming, kayaking, and/or a quick trip to Monkey Island. On the other end of spectrum, there are 2-3 day junk boat cruises.

My friends and I opted for a $13, full-day swimming and kayaking tour with Family Quan Cat Ba at Cat Ba Palace Hotel.

Family Quan Cat Ba | Contact: Mr. Hung | Phone: +84988304569

Karaoke

Treo Club on Núi Ngọc Cát Bà Street offers a surprisingly high-quality karaoke experience. We asked for a small room at Treo Club and got a huge, flashy room with its own private bathroom. An employee sat outside the door, ready to take our drink order at any time.

The song menu, as at most places in Vietnam, offered mostly older English songs and was difficult to navigate. But that wasn’t enough to stop us! We sang English, Korean, and Vietnamese songs ’til we gave out.

Literally gave out. I had forgotten that, in Vietnam, they don’t set a time limit based on how long you want to sing. They let you sing thoai mai, or comfortably. Which means you had better keep track of the time if you want to save money.

We didn’t even glance at the clock.

I’m surprised the three of us could last that long. For just over 2 and a half hours, the total price was over 400,000 dong.

Best foot massage ever

The most vocal of the foot massage places, Phuong Mai, has good reason to yell at each tourist passing by.

The lady was very familiar with us by now, especially since we had rented our motorbikes from the same place. After karaoke, we were walking by for about the thousandth time when we decided to turn around and walk back in.

Amused, she offered us manicures or foot massage. My friends opted for having their nails done, while my feet were aching for some care.

Those were the best 5 dollars (100,000 VND) I ever spent!

My friends were jealous, actually. They could tell the lady massaging my feet was in the zone. It was by far the best massage, let alone foot massage, I’ve ever had in Vietnam. My feet didn’t even tickle!

Even now, I would head straight back to Cat Ba just for another foot massage.

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