What is commonly called « Halong Bay » is in fact 3 bays, from South to North :
- The small Lan Ha Bay, southwest of Cat Ba Island, inaccessible to large collective junks and therefore much quainter;
- Halong Bay itself, North of Cat Ba;
- Bai Tu Long, North of Halong Bay, characterized by larger islands with beautiful beaches, and less tourists because it takes 3 days of cruise to visit it together with the other two.
Do not mix Halong Bay, which is 80 km North of Hanoi, and « Halong Bay on Land » (Ninh Binh/Tam Coc), which is 120 km South of Hanoi in the middle of the Red River Delta. Both are magnificent, and it is possible to go from one to the other by bus without going through Hanoi.
Some people wish to visit Halong in one day only. NOT recommended! It takes 6 hours round-trip to go from Hanoi to Cat Ba Island, 8 hours to Halong City + one hour to embark, which means that your actual cruise is a few hours only. Besides, there are few things as magical as watching the sunset and the sunrise onboard in the middle of the bay.
Collective junks – and some private ones - leave from Halong City, Cat Ba offering only private junks or larger junks for one-day cruises only (not recommended considering the transfer Hanoi-Halong). To visit « Halong Bay », a absolutely magical site, you have the choice between 2 solutions :
- Book an organized tour from an agency. Considering how complicated it is to go from Hanoi to Halong and the numerous public transportation scams, it is the easiest solution and the possibilities are endless, from a private junk (expensive, but infinitely better in all respects) to deluxe and standard Budget collective junks. The operators’ private cars or minibuses pick you up and drop you at your Hanoi hotel.
- Go on your own to Halong City or Cat Ba Island and rent a junk once there. It is feasible, but going to Cat Ba is complicated, especially when one does not speak Vietnamese, and you will end up paying the same price, probably more because of frequent scams, especially on the transfers Hanoi-Halong. Therefore, I DO NOT recommend that solution.
Of all the ways to visit Halong, private junks are by far the best for several reasons :
- You are the only passengers onboard
- Smaller than collective junks, a private one can sail through smaller channels and stop on isolated beaches inaccessible to collective junks
- Whereas collective junks must all spend the night in the same bay by police order, private junks can do it anywhere and do so in small isolated bays.
- Better food and service.
Of course, it is more expensive but you have to consider that cruising in Halong Bay is a trip of a lifetime worth some larger expense. Be careful of companies that propose a “private” junk of more than 3 cabins. They are not private junks and you end up with passengers whom you do not know.
One of the best specialists of private junks on Halong is Oriental Bridge Travel (www.orientalbridgetravel.com). The company OWNS a two-cabin private junk, Oriental Sun, which allows a total control of the onboard quality and maintenance. If you are two people only, the agency does not put other people, therefore, you have the 2 cabins for yourselves,.
Oriental Bridge also proposes carefully selected other junks, private and collective, going from Deluxe to excellent superior ones, describes in great details in the website.
THE TRANSPORT HANOI-HALONG
All the junk operators listed in the website include the round-trip ride Hanoi-Cat Ba or Halong City in their rates.
WHERE TO STAY AND EAT IN CAT BA ISLAND
There are more and more hotels in Cat Ba City. I visited many and here is my selection :
3 Stars : Hung Long Harbour
Brand new and impeccable on Lan Ha Bay. Ask for the rooms with balcony (those of the suites are in fact huge terraces). Not expensive for the quality.
2 Stars: Cat Ba Dream
Impeccable, with a large terrace on the bay and unbeatable rates : $10 for a single/double/twin, 12$ for a triple.
There are also 2 resorts in small islands off Cat Ba : Cat Ba Monkey Island Resort and Cat Ba Ocean Beach Resort, as well as 2 in the mountains of Cat Ba Island : Cat Ba Suoi Goi Resort and Cat Ba Whisper Natural Bungalow.
I have tried a lot of restaurants in Cat Ba City, a lot of them so-so. The best I know is the My Ngoc, on the Espalanade. After-diner entertainment is completely dead.
WHAT TO DO IN CAT BA CITY
Visit of the Canon Fort
Nobody goes there and everybody is wrong, for the view from the top is amazing ! It’s just behind Cat Ba City on the road going to Cao Béo (Nui Ngoc Road). You climb 177 m on top of a hill dominating the entire region. In 1942, the French installed three 137 mm canons to control the passages; 2 remain plus the bunkers. Entrance fee 50 000 dongs and they are worth it!
The National Park
It covers ¾ of the island. You can walk in there and even do a trekking to the village of Viet Hai, but my opinion is that it is a waste of time considering all the fabulous things there are to see in North Vietnam.