I cannot explain how excited I was to get to Halong Bay and see the beautiful landscape that had been on my travel bucket list for years. The reality of Halong Bay didn’t disappoint (even if the weather let us down slightly).
Ha Long Bay, one of the seven natural wonders of the world and a UNESCO world heritage site, is situated in North East Vietnam. There are over 1600 islands in Ha Long Bay, the largest being Cat Ba island. We stayed in Cat Ba for 4 days, in the Hong Phuoc Hotel. This family run hotel is newly-opened, clean, spacious and has really fair prices (a huge double room cost us about 13 pounds a night).
Things to do (and see!)
There are so many beautiful places to explore in the Halong Bay area – meaning you really should give yourself at least 2-3 days to take it all in. We spent 4 days roaming around and there were still things I wish I could have seen!
1. Tour of Halong Bay (and Lan Ha Bay, or others)
Definitely the thing I had been waiting for and the most iconic bit of our time here. There are no end to tour companies offering Halong Bay tours, but we chose a one-day, 14 pound tour with the Full Moon Party hostel. We were picked up from our hotel and driven to the harbour, then got on the boat which would take us around for the day. Our one day ticket included a visit to Monkey Island (see next point), hiking, kayaking, swimming, lunch and obviously the boat around Halong and Lan Ha Bay.
The best part of the day, in my opinion, was kayaking around some of the islands in Halong Bay. It was a very surreal experience to see such an iconic, beautiful sight in real life – it was definitely a bucket-list moment for me.
2. Visiting Monkey Island
We visited Monkey Island during our day trip to Halong Bay and saw about 8 monkeys in total. Although the monkeys are adorable, be careful around them – the cheeky so and so’s are known for stealing sunglasses, cameras and food. During our visit, they nabbed some food and a few jumped up on a couple of unsuspecting men – so hold on to your belongings and keep your distance!
3. Cannon Fort Viewpoints
Cannon Fort was used during WWII, the Indochina War and the Vietnam War – and you can have a walk around some of the caves, tunnels and passages that were used on your visit. Our main reason for visiting Cannon Fort was the view – this was one of the most beautiful views I have seen across SE Asia so far!
After a fairly steep walk from the main town, some sweating and a 40,000 VND entrance fee, you can take in the sunset at one of two viewpoints. We stopped at the artillery point viewpoint an hour or so before sunset and it got ridiculously busy at around 5pm. Sadly, the weather didn’t allow us to see the sunset very clearly, but we loved the view here nonetheless.
4. Cat Ba National Park
Our visit to Cat Ba National Park was quick and functional – we wanted to hike. There are many great hiking trails in the park, ranging from fairly easy to very intense, steep climbs. Our hike took about 2 hours in total and we had a great guide from Cat Ba Ventures to point out some rare plants and animals along the way.
5. Hospital Cave
Hospital Cave was used as a hospital during the war and remained in use until 1975. The cave was very close to the entrance to the National Park, so we visited after our hike and it was a very interesting pit-stop during the day. Entrance fee costs 15,000 VND but if like us you take a tour, it may be included in your price.
6. Cat Co Cove – the Beach!
Oh, how I’ve dreamed of a beach after 5 weeks on the road, visiting only mountainous villages and cities. There are 3 beaches in Cat Ba Island and we spent the day in Cat Co 3 Beach. Although there was some construction going on at the time, it was generally quite quiet and the view of some of the islands was amazing. Top tip: if you do go, don’t be stupid like me and forget to bring your towel, then have to spend 8 pounds on a new one from the souvenir shop…
Eat Up, Drink Up
1. Casa Bonita
After at least one visit per day to Casa Bonita, at the end of our trip we were ‘regulars’ who basically knew the menu by heart. Casa Bonita’s vibe is healthy food, looooads of vegetarian and vegan options and great tunes. They have four floors and comfortable seating on the balcony area outside.
Now that I’ve started cutting down my meat intake I’ve been loving the huge variety of veggie options in Vietnam. Casa Bonita’s coconut curry was definitely my favourite dish – it was to die for!
2. Like Coffee
Like coffee? I do – especially a really milky, frothy cappuccino or latte (I’m not good with strong coffee). This cafe on Cat Ba’s main street has a wide selection of Vietnamese and Western coffees. Prices are slightly higher than typical Vietnam standards, but for such a yummy coffee we were happy to pay the price.
3. Oasis Bar
Cheap drinks – check. Pool table (my new obsession) – check. Great atmosphere – yep.
Cat Ba and Halong Bay were easily the highlights of my time in Vietnam so far and I would have loved to have stayed a little longer. Many people say Cat Ba is too touristy, but when we visited in low season, it was pretty quiet. If I could go back, however, I would spend some time at one of the quieter islands – with over 1600 of them I don’t think I would be stuck for choice!