There are loads of tourists and travellers who heard about the magical beauty of UNESCO World Heritage site - Vietnam's Ha Long Bay (literally translates as "descending dragon bay") - the famous views of the rocks, limestone karsts, isles floating mystically on absolutely still emerald color water. It's a must see!
We didn't go there. Anything must see in South East Asia means thousands and thousands of package tourists marching in hordes and following a couldnt-be-caring-less tour guide.
Here is the trick - instead of Ha Long Bay you go to Cat Ba island - it's part of the same geolocal magic, located about 50km south of Ha Long and experiencing significantly (!!!) less tourists and more travellers. It's also a bit more difficult to get there which as with any destination means that it will be awesome and much less explored. And in addition, it has some more very sweet spots to see!
We took a bus from Hanoi. Some tour agencies will try to sell you highly overpriced tickets, what you should do is go to the Luong Yen bus station and get the ticket there from the Hoang Long Bus company (cheapest tickets, bus + minivan + boat + minivan about $12) The bus station is quite an interesting experience itself - no one will be eager to help you, so you should be persistent, the bus platforms don't have destinations so you might need to have several opinions from locals on from where exactly your bus leaves. The departure time is sort of flexible, so when the driver arrives - what I assume usually happens and happened to us - he's just going to take off, stop in the middle of the station and wait for a couple of minutes for whoever figured out it's their bus and frantically ran to get on it yelling "Heeey! Cat Ba? Cat Ba?"
The bus takes about 4hrs to get to Hai Phong city, there you have to wait for about 40 minutes to get on a minivan which takes you to the harbour. The road to the narbour is quite sketchy and you constantly get the feeling that your expectations of the world famous beauty should be lessened - construction sites, walls of ship cargoes, half ruined village houses, dirt, dust, no road. After an hour on the minivan you switch to an old ferry boat that takes you to the Cat Ba island. The water around you is something that makes you doubt the expected beauty as well - brown, stinky and full of floating trash. On Cat Ba island you get to yet another minivan that will take you to Cat Ba town - that's where the picture starts to change: magnificent spiky hills and cliffs, mangroves, rice paddies. There is a downside to it as well - a lot of land is undergoing construction: hotels, residences, restaurants and entertainment centers - I guess it's clear that in 5 years Cat Ba will be just another Ha Long.
Cat Ba town is very cute with most hotels located right on the water front. As for 2011 you can get a good room on top floor facing the bay for $10 after bargaining, but it depends on the season as well (November/December is not a peak season) Here is the view from our balcony:
There are a lot of small cute restaurants on water front, many of them family owned, many of them extremely cheap. Our favorite place (thanks to Rachel and Brian, our good friends) is a little bit behind the main street - find the Slo Pony adventures office on the water front, turn inside, walk for about 2 minutes and in one of the parallel to water front streets you'll see number of very basic looking eateries - all of them will be extremely cheap, with awesome atmosphere, really really delicious food, especially seafood hot pots, and absolutely great owners/chefs that will treat you as their very special guests!
First adventure we did in Cat Ba was renting a bike and going to the National park located just 1.5 hours out of Cat Ba town. The ride was fun and spectacular:
National Park boasts number of wildlife like monkeys and birds to see, we didn't see any except a couple of squirrels and the local westerners confirmed some days later that a most of the wildlife in the hills has been...well...eaten by the locals.
Nevertheless one thing that you should do in the park is climb to the very top of the hill. I don't have to explain why:
On the way back in the village we met some less exotic animals. South East Asian dogs don't know how to play "throwing stick". Nevertheless I tried :)
Next day we went on a boat to cruise the bay with Slo Pony Adventures (highly recommend). The scenes are just beautiful, everything we hoped for and beyond.
And the cruise crowd was great - a lot of young fun travellers (about 15 ppl), plenty of time to hang out on the dock just lying down sun bathing, having tasty lunch, having nice conversations. At our destination in the bay the crowd separated to do several activities - cliff jumping, slo climbing (climb the rocks from water without any ropes, get to the highest point you can and just let go - jump back into the water) and kayaking, we did kayaking around little islands, rocks and caves. Really fun!
After the trip most of the crowd went for food and drinks to one of the backstreet eateries. We ordered a hot pot, fresh springrolls, veggies and a lot of draft beer and Vietnamese vodka. Draft beer costs about $0.07, hot pot - about $3-5, side dishes - about $1-2. That's where we got to know our new really good friends - Rachel and Brian - Americans from LA/Portland/Alaska spending half a year working on a glass tourist train in Alaska! How fun! Great sincere open-minded people with awesome stories, absolutely crazy and fun to hang out with anywhere and anytime.
We clicked immediately after they told us they've been drinking Hanoi vodka in their water bottle on the cruise - who does that besides Russians?! :) We shared so many cool stories over our little party dinner, and so the friendship began! Spoiler alert - we had a freaking amazing New Year party in Cambodia together later on - that's how it works if your friends travel around as well - you just re-connect somewhere sometime again!
Here is Brian advertising the draft beer like a pro - just look at that woman on the label from 80'! :)
Cat Ba was fun! Visit it rather sooner than later to experience the best!