Exploring Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island

Halong Bay in the north of Vietnam is a magnificent cluster of jagged limestone rocks jutting out of the ocean and is home to floating fishing villages, tranquil waters and deserted islands. It’s probably one of the most visited tourist attractions in Vietnam and was also one we had to go and see for ourselves.

We booked last minute onto the Halong Hideaway Tour with our hostel and, although it wasn’t one of the cheapest tours out there, it had great reviews. After reading so many blogs and reviews it looked like booking a budget tour could be very hit and miss and we really didn’t want to end up having a rubbish time on the trip as this was our one time to do the tour. We had nearly not booked the tour because the weather wasn’t the best but our only alternative would be to fly back later in the year to do the tour then and that was an added cost we didn’t really want to have so we took the risk and went for it. We would be leaving the next morning.

On Thursday 4th January 2018, we met at 8:15am in the lobby of our hostel to get our bill settled and head out on the bus to start our journey up to Halong Bay. We headed to the bus and met the rest of our tour group who were from the other Central Backpackers Hostel in Hanoi (they have two hostels: the Old Quarter and Original hostel in Hanoi). It was around two hours to Halong Bay and then we had to get a boat, another bus and then another boat to the island off the coast of Cat Ba Island where we would be spending the next two nights to explore Halong Bay and the Cat Ba National Park. Named after the tour, the island was called Hideaway Island. The journey was long and involved waiting and being shuffled about so we were glad when we finally got to Halong Bay and properly began the tour. The weather wasn’t rainy but it was very cloudy and grey so we weren’t sure how we were going to find the next few days around the area and just hoped the weather would hold out.

On the boat to our accommodation we had some drinks, got to know one another and got a tour of Halong Bay. The tour offered a one or two night option and if you only chose the one night option this was your main chance of having a look around he Bay. We chose the two night option as it offered more and the reviews recommended it as you got to see more – this was a good call! We went through a fishing village where the villagers live all year and sold their fish to the surrounding areas. They had solar panels which gave them around three hours of power a day and loads of them had satellite dishes which meant they could use the three hours of power to catch up on tv! Fishing in the area was their full means of an income and every house boats attached.

The scenery was stunning and the weather had cleared up a lot since we had been on the bus so we could see right across the bay. After a while the boat docked for lunch which was a big spread of rice, potatoes, fish, meat, veg and fruit. There was loads to go around even enough for seconds and after the early start and travelling we were glad of it.

After food we all got changed and jumped into the freezing cold water! Just as I was about to jump in I saw an enormous jellyfish gliding passed the boat. Turns out there were loads of jellyfish in Halong Bay but they don’t pack a strong sting so it doesn’t have to stop you jumping off the boat! It was fun drinking, chatting and jumping off the boat even if it was very cold. We had made friends with the other people staying for two nights, three Canadians called Keven, Ryan and Jamie and a Norwegian called Tara. We ended up spending the rest of our trip with them an Aussie called Corey who had been the only one to stay two nights from the last tour so stayed an extra day to do the activities with us.

After a few hours we were taken to Hideaway Island and shown to our rooms. We were staying in dorm rooms that were suspended on huge wooden poles in the water. When we arrived there wasn’t any water in the bay but when morning came the tide had risen and had us suspended in the water. It was remarkable the difference in the tides and we actually heard stories of their being fatalities on other islands where people had passed out on the beach and been swept away (we were warned of this from the beginning and they made sure no one slept on the beach!)

The drinking games continued starting with a game called Funky Ball. This was played on the volleyball court and involved a bottle of water in the middle with two teams of equal numbers on either side. You then all had a full can of beer on the ground in front of you and took turns throwing the volleyball at the bottle of water. If the bottle was knocked down by your team, then all of your team had to start drinking as much of their beer as possible whilst the other team ran to stand the bottle upright again. The aim of the game was to be the team that finished their beers first. It was a really fun game and everyone got involved which was really nice. We had a great host called Carly who was from Texas and was there to make sure we had a good time. Our group got on with her so well and spent both evenings with her – she was pretty much part of our group over being the host by the end! After dinner (another good spread) we played beer pong, exploited the happy hour and free shots and played a game called stack cup. This was probably our favourite game as it was really high tempo! You had a bunch of cups of beer in the middle of the table and then you all stood around the outside of the table. There were two cups and two ping pong balls at opposite ends of the table and you had to bounce the ball into the cup. If you did, the cup moved round to the person next to you and the aim of the game was to catch up to the other cup and stack them, thus making the person with that cup drink from one of the cups in the middle. The twist came that if you got the ball into the cup first time you could fast forward the cup to the person next to the other cup and that would increase the chances of the cups being stacked. If that kept happening you could ‘cyclone’ someone making them have to drink multiple times – this happened to me on both games!! The game gets super stressful in a fun way and can be played with loads of people. We had a great group for our tour with everyone up for a laugh and the games which made them all more fun.

The next morning we got up for breakfast and the day’s activities. Those doing the one day left us to go kayaking and then back to Hanoi whilst we got back on the boat to cruise through more of the bay to Cat Ba Island. It was great to get to see more of the bay and we were pretty much the only boat out there which made it all even better – I don’t know what it’s like in peak season but I imagine that was a perk of us coming when we did.

Once we arrived on Cat Ba Island we were given bicycles (with cute little baskets which I loved) and started our cycle around the island and the small villages. It was so beautiful and we passed the gorgeous limestone cliffs, farms and flowering bushes lining the roads whilst being waved at by the village children. We all loved it!

Our next activity of the day was a hike. The reviews had said this would be hard but I don’t think any of us knew just how hard it would actually be. The hike was incredibly steep with areas you had to climb over rocks on your hands and feet! The issue we had was that, because of the rain they had on previous days, the rocks and path were really slippy so we had to take it slow. This was probably the first time I was glad to not be in Vietnam in the warmer months as I couldn’t imagine such an intense climb in temperatures of 30 degrees or more!

Once we got to the top (which was meant to have incredible views over Halong Bay) all we could see was white. This is no exaggeration, all there was to see was one giant cloud. We were a happy bunch and just laughed about it but it was a shame to not see those views!

We then had the hard job of getting back down the treacherous mountain which was a lot harder when we were had to go down the slope instead of up it! A few of us had little slips and falls but we all made it down in one piece and were glad to have completed the hike regardless!

Our ‘great’ view over Halong Bay and Corey (bottom, left) looking how we all felt about having to go back down the mountain! Top, right from left to right: me, Niall, Tara, Jamie, Ryan, Koo (our guide), Keven and Corey (at the front) – a great group!

We cycled back to our boat which was a relief to be on flat ground again! We also had lunch waiting for us for when we were back on board. A lot of the hike had involved us all talking about food which, added to us doing strenuous activity, made us very hungry!

After lunch we all stripped down to our underwear and jumped off the boat into the water. We had to exploit this being our last time to do it and had talked about it on our way down from the hike so had to do it despite us all not bringing swimwear onto the boat! The water ended up not being as cold as it had been the previous day but it still wasn’t warm so we didn’t hang round swimming in it. On our second jump in (because, why not?!) Ryan lost his footing and had to hang on to stop himself falling off the boat. We all watched in shock and it took us a while to jump into action and hoist him up (and by us I meant Keven and Niall). Once he was safe we all found it hilarious and what was funnier was that he was about to record us all jumping in and so filmed his near fall as well which was very funny to watch back on! It was great way to end our day of activities and what I remember most from the day is just laughing loads and loads!

We had another night of drinking games which was also very fun and it was sad to know it was our last night all together as we all got on so well! We couldn’t have been luckier with the people on our tour as the people can really make or break trips like this!

On the 6th January 2018, our final day of the tour, we packed up our stuff and went out kayaking around the bay. We had been lucky with the weather for the whole trip and this remained the case with us having a clear day and calm water. Kayaking is always more hard work than I remember and I hadn’t expected to do so much exercise on the tour! We headed over to a deserted island that used to belong to the Castaways Tour which is the big partying tour for Halong Bay. I have never been on a deserted island before but never expected the island to still have so many things on it. There was a lot of rubbish, bottles were still on the tables in the bar and the chalk board still had a list of the activities of the day on it. The island was abandoned due to a rat infestation so it didn’t really make sense for why they couldn’t at least clean the place up a bit before they left it. It gave the whole place a very strange feeling to it.

We then kayaked back to the island and started the long journey of boat, bus, boat and bus back to Hanoi. It seemed to take even longer than on the way there but that may have just been our perception because we were tired. Once we were back we only had an hour before our bus would come to take us to our next stop, Phong Nha, so we said our goodbyes (hopefully not the last time we would see everyone) as soon as we got off the bus. We had enough time to get some food – Bánh Mì which is a Vietnamese sandwich – and get the last little bits for our 10 hour journey on the night bus.

We couldn’t have asked for a better tour of Halong Bay or a better group to experience it with. It had been worth the extra money we had spent and the extra day had been a very good idea. I had been worried that Halong Bay would end up being a bit underwhelming from the hype of the place as well as us visiting similar scenery in Coron and El Nido in the Philippines but the calmness and vastness of the place is amazing and I was not disappointed at all.

Sending Love x

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