“From February to April, the weather is often cold and rainy, and ensuing fog can cause low visibility…”
– Lonely Planet, Southeast Asia on a Showstring
Rain and fog? True. Cold? False. After spending 2 ½ months in a state of perpetual perspiration, I was psyched to wear pants and freeze my ass off. I even considered buying a long-sleeve shirt of some sort, but decided against it as I was looking forward to goose bumps. But it was not to be, as “cold” was actually high-70’s with a chance of drizzle. Alas, I will have to wait for my San Francisco summer to wear my favorite socks at night once again.
I’ll tell you what Cat Ba is: the largest of the islands in Halong Bay, quiet, peaceful, and relaxing, fun to explore with a motorbike, and home to a booming tourist industry (from May to September, that is). Kiera’s parents were celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary and treated us to five nights at the fancy schmancy Cat Ba Sunrise Hotel. I’ll admit that it felt weird to walk into a place where the “welcome drink” is a beautiful fruity concoction in a champagne flute, versus a 550ml beer that I have to buy for myself at 7-11 before drinking it curbside. Even stranger were the men opening doors for me, the plush beds with multiple pillows, and the beachside bar— I felt like Anne Hathaway in The Princess Diaries, minus the unibrow.
By far, the most exciting part of our time on Cat Ba (we spent most of the time deliberately trying to avoid excitement) was the day that we rented motorbikes and tooled around the island. We checked out Cannon Fort, Hospital Cave (a cement facility built within a natural cave and used by the Vietnamese military to treat wounded soldiers during the Vietnam War), and attempted to return to our hotel by way of the national park and coastal road. I say “attempted” as we made it 11/12ths of the way back before coming upon dozens of huge boulders splayed across the road, completely blocking through traffic. The road crew clearing the hillside was unfazed by the growing group of onlookers, and we eventually aborted ship and returned the long way home. Due to the unexpected extra 18 miles, I experienced something that I never had previously—I ran out of effing gas. Just as we approached the crest of a huge hill, my bike’s engine cut out and there I was, watching Chris and Katy jet off into the sunset. Thankfully, they were close enough to hear my beeping horn and Chris advised me to coast as long as possible and then the three of us would make it the rest of the way via a Vietnamese mini-van (read: his motorbike). Thankfully, I only had to push the bike for about a quarter-mile before coasting all the way down the hill, where a gas station awaited me like a donut on a bodybuilder’s cheat day. Awesome.
We all thoroughly enjoyed Cat Ba Island and, while Katy had hoped for more sun and I had hoped for temperatures that would force me to use the Buff I’ve been carrying around for three months, we settled on quite the happy medium.
WANT TO HAVE A SIMILAR EXPERIENCE? HERE ARE THE IMPORTANT DETAILS:
Getting to and around Cat Ba Island: During the off-season, you’ll have to book all transportation through a travel agency. It costs approximately $7.50 (150,000 VND) to have a boat pick you up the morning after your overnight stay in Halong Bay and transfer you to Cat Ba and eventually to your hotel. The cost also includes entrance to the National Park. Add on $1.50 (30,000 VND) departure tax when going the other direction.
Where we stayed: Sunrise Hotel – Save on your reservation by doing it online through Booking.com or a similar discount website. The savings were around $40/night in April.
Motorbike rental: Travel agencies in town offer motorbikes for far cheaper than the hotel ($4-$5/day versus $15), but be prepared for faulty speedometers and fuel gages. Those may bite ya.
Cannon Fort: Ride up to the top of the old naval defense location and check out the information about the fort’s use during Vietnam’s struggle for independence and the Vietnam War.
Hospital Cave: A guide waits at the café across the street from the entrance; be sure to take him up on his offer to escort you through as he speaks English well and is very knowledgeable about the history of the area.
Cat Ba National Park: Complete the hike to the old fire lookout—it’s sketchy as hell to climb to the top, but the views are killer.
Monkey Island: Don’t do it. There are only about five unfriendly monkeys on the beach, which is no more beautiful than ones you can walk to from town.