Northeast Vietnam

Con Son Den Kiep Bac - Hai Phong - Around Hai Phong - Ha Long Bay - Ha Long City - Cat Ba Island - Bai Tu Long Bay - Mong Cai Chinese Border - Around Mong Cai - Lang Son - Cao Bang - Aroud Cao Bang - Ba Be National Park - Thai Nguyen - Around Thai Nguyen


IDD Code:(+84) 31
Rugged, craggy and jungle-clad Cat Ba. the largest island in Halong Bay, is straight out of Jurassic Park. Lan Ha Bay, off the eastern side of the island, is especially scenic and offers numerous beaches to explore. While the vast majority of Halong Bay's islands are uninhabited vertical rocks, Cat Ba has a few fishing villages, as well as a fast-growing town. Except for a few fertile pockets, the terrain is too rocky for serious agriculture; most residents earn their living from the sea, while others cater to the tourist trade. Life has always been hard here and many Cat Ba residents joined the exodus of Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s and '80s. Although the island lost much of its fishing fleet this way, overseas Vietnamese have sent back large amounts of money to relatives on the island, fuelling the hotel boom of the past decade. Cat Ba is still relatively laid-back, despite about a 20-fold increase in hotel rooms (and karaoke machines!) since 1996, Almost half of Cat Ba Island (which has a total area of 354 sq km) and 90 sq km of the adjacent waters were declared a national park in 1986 to protect the island's diverse eco-systems. These include subtropical evergreen forests on the hills, freshwater swamp forests at the base of the hills, coastal mangrove forests, small freshwater takes and coral reefs. Most of the coastline consists of rocky cliffs. but there are a few sandy beaches hidden away in small coves. There are numerous lakes, waterfalls and grottoes in the spectacular limestone hills, the-highest of which rises 331m above sea level The largest permanent body of water on the island is Ech Lake, which covers an area of 3 hectares. Almost all of the surface streams are seasonal; most of the island's rainwater Hows into caves and follows underground streams to the sea, which creates a shortage of fresh water during the dry season. The waters off Cat Ba Island are home to 200 species of fish, 500 species of mollusc and 400 species of arthropod. Larger marine animals in the area include seals and three species of dolphin. Ho Chi Minh paid a visit to Cat Ba Island on 1 April 1951 and there is a large annual festival on the island to commemorate the event. A monument to Uncle Ho stands on Mountain No 1, the hillock opposite the pier in Cat Ba town.
The best weather on Cat Ba Island is from late September to November, particularly the latter, when the air and water temperature if mild and skies are mostly clear. December to February is cooler, but still pleasant. From February to April rain is common, while the summer months, from June through August, are hot and humid. This is also peak season and the island is overrun with Vietnamese tourists from Hanoi and beyond.
Cat Ba National Park
This accessible national park (tell: 216 350; admission 15,000d, guide fee per day US$5; dawn-dusk) is home to 32 types of mammals - including langurs, wild boar, deer, squirrels and hedgehogs and more than 70 species of birds have been sighted, including hawks, hornbills and cuckoos. The golden-headed langur is officially the world's most endangered primate with just 60 left in the park. Cat Ba lies on a major migration route for waterfowl, which feed and roost on the beaches in the mangrove forests. There are 745 species of plants recorded on Cat Ba, including 118 timber species and 160 plants with medicinal value. The park is also home to a species of tree called Cay Kim Gao. In ancient days, kings and nobles would eat only with chopsticks made from this timber, as anything poisonous it touches is reputed to turn the light-colored wood to black. A guide is not mandatory, but is definitely recommended if you want to go walking; otherwise, all you are likely to see is a canopy of trees. Two caves in and around the national park are open to visitors. Hospital Cave oozes historical significance, as it served as a secret, bomb-proof hospital during the American War. This cave is actually just outside the park and the entrance is located about 2 kilometers along the road to Cat Ba town. Hang Trung Trang (Trung Trang Cave) is easily accessible, but you will need to contact a ranger to make sure it is open. Bring a torch (flashlight) as it is gloomy inside. There is a challenging 18km hike through the park and up to one of the mountain summits. Arrange a guide for this six-hour hike and organize a bus or boat transport to the trailhead and a boat to get back to town. All of this can be easily organized with rangers at the national park headquarters or at the hotels in Cat Ba if you're travelling independently. Many hikes end at Viet Flat, a remote minority village just outside the park boundary, from where boats shuttle back to Cat Ba town (about 250,000d per boat). Don't get stranded or you'll get stiffed. Take proper hiking shoes, a raincoat and a generous supply of water for this hike. Independent hikers can buy basic snacks at the kiosks in Viet Hai, which is where many hiking groups stop for lunch. This is not an easy walk, and is much harder and more slippery after rain. There are shorter hiking options that are less hard core. If you're planning to join an organized tour from Hanoi, check the trekking options before you book, as many of the cheaper trips don't actually hike through the park at all. To reach the national park headquarters at Trung Trang, lake a minibus from one of the hotels in Cat Ba town (15.OOOd, 30 minutes). Another option is to hire a motorbike (one way 30.000d).
The white-sand Cat Co beaches (simply called Cat Co 1, Cat Co 2 and Cat Co 3) used to be great places to lounge around for the day. However, 1 and 3 have been taken over by new resorts, leaving Cat Co 2 as the only sane and safe haven. There is also simple accommodation here. It is accessible via a wooden Cliffside walkway around the mountain from Cat Co 1. On weekends the beaches fill up with Vietnamese tourists and litter becomes a real blight, but during the week the crowds diminish. The beaches are about 1 km southeast from Cat Ba town over a steep headland, and can be reached on toot or by motorbike (about 10,000d).
Other beaches include Cai Vieng, Hong Xoai Be and Hong Xoai Lon.
Cat Ba Town
A sleepy fishing village just a decade ago, it is now the Costa del Cat Ba! Since being 'discovered' by Hanoi residents. Cat Ba has turned into a highly popular summer getaway, filling up on weekends and holidays, when the town is jumping. This has been a boon for the range of amenities available, from hotels to restaurants, but the downside is a boom in karaoke joints and the tuneless wailing they often emit. During the summer the town also fills up with cars, as Hanoi residents use the car ferries to come via Cat Hai. Weekdays are saner, as is just before or just after the peak summer season.

Internet Access : There are now several internet cafes in Cat Ba. Prices tend to be higher than the mainland, at 15,000d an hour or more, and the connections quite slow. There are a couple of places to the southeast of the boat pier, plus one or two on 'hotel alley'
Money: Remarkably, there are still no banks on Cat Ba Island, but Vu Binh Jewellers (tell: 888641) can change cheques at 3% commission and does credit card cash advances at 5%. The nearest ATMs are in Haiphong or Halong City.
Post: The main post office (D 1-4) is a one-stop-shop for postal needs and telephone calls.

Tourist Information: There is now an official Tourism Information & Development Centre (tell: 688 215; Đ 1-4), located almost opposite the boat pier in Cat Ba town. The staff here can bring you up to speed on transport options in and around Cat Ba, plus it has Cat Ba Biosphere Reserve maps available. Most guesthouses and hotels can 'help' with tourist information (booking you on their trips, in other words)
Over the past few years the number of accommodation offerings in Cat Ba has risen dramatically to keep pace with an ever-expanding tourist market. Look around, as the quality of hotels varies widely. There are now a couple of upmarket resorts in prime beachfront locations for those with the money to spend. Most hotels are situated on the waterfront in Cat Ba town. The ones to the east, built right up against the hillside, tend to offer better cross-breezes and less of the karaoke call-girl scene. Most hotels have at least one staff member who speaks English. Room rates fluctuate greatly. In the high-season summer months (May to September) you can expect to pay a minimum of US$15 per room. During the slower winter months (October to April) you can find decent rooms for US$10 or under. The rates given here are for low season, when there's usually the opportunity for negotiation. It is impossible to quote high-season rates, as they tend to pick a number out of their head depending on demand.
My Ngoc Hotel Restaurant (tell: 888199; fax 888 422; D 1-4; r US$5-8;This old-timer has simple, clean rooms that are very good value. The hotel also has a popular little restaurant spilling out onto the street. Kayaks are available for those that want to explore the rugged coast.
Phong Lan Hotel (tell: 888 605; B 1-4; r US$5 10, Right in the middle of the seafront strip, it is worth requesting a room at the front with a balcony overlooking the harbour. Check out the glam tiles in the bathroom: bizarre
Hotel Thanh Tung (tell: 888 364; Đ 1-4; r US$6-10; Another popular spot on the seafront strip, this place has 'bed rooms forward sea’, which is sea-view rooms to the uninitiated. Same as the other budget places realty, but meticulously clean.
Quang Due Family Hotel (tel: 888 231; fax 888 423; Đ 1-4; r US$10; One of the longest-running cheapies in town, this friendly little family hotel has just seven rooms, resisting the expansionist tendencies of the competition Satellite TV and hot water come as standard.
Tien Thang Hotel ( 01 -4; r US$10;One of the newer hotels in town, the rooms here deliver mid-range standards at budget prices, making for great value. Satellite TV, big bathrooms and sea-view balconies are all available.
Sun and Sea Hotel ( Đ Nui Ngoc; r US$12-15; This popular little hotel is a friendly place to rest a weary head All rooms include satellite TV, fridge and hot water, plus breakfast is thrown in for good measure...not literally thrown in, you eat it at the table just like normal. To avoid the hoopla in town, try a night in the rustic guesthouse (r120,000d) over on Cat Co 2. The huts are basic bamboo shelters and the price includes a tent to protect you from the elements. The small village of Hien Hao offers home stays in local houses. This is quite an authentic experience and what's more the villagers arc very friendly. For more details contact MrTuan (tell: 888737). Hien Hao is about 20km from Cat Ba town or just 12km from the ferry landing at Phu Long.
Midrange & Top End
Noble House (Đ 1-4; r US$10-30; Small in size, big in character, this place has thoughtful decoration and elegant bathrooms. It's worth booking ahead, but bear in mind that prices leap to US$30 or more during peak season.
Princes Hotel ( Đ Nui Ngoc; rUSS20-30; One of the smarter addresses in town, the Princes (ifs plural) has swish rooms that are spanking clean. The hotel is also a bit of an entertainment mecca, with a rooftop bar and basement nightclub.
Sunflower Hotel ( Đ Nui Ngoc; r US$18-25, ste US$45; A well-established Cat Ba landmark, this has a whop¬ping 104 rooms located within its two proper-ties. All rooms feature TV, minibar and full bathroom, plus the bonus of breakfast.
Holiday View Hotel (tell: 887 200; 01-4; r US$25-35; Looming large over Cat Ba, this major new hotel is serious value for money. The large rooms include all the trimmings and, on the upper floors, panoramic views. Its claim to be 'the only star hotel with international standard' isn't strictly true, however.
Sunrise Resort (Cat Co 3; s/d from US$79/89; Occupying a private beach on Cat Co 3, this is the most sophisticated place on Cat Ba. Rooms are spacious and smart and facilities include a swimming pool and spa. It's a good option for families, as it has a kiddies playground.
Cat Ba Water Park Resort (
CatCo1;s/dUS$90-100;0f course it has a swimming pool - after all it s a water park. But unlike most water parks, it also offers smart rooms for those that want to linger at Cat Co 1. It's a better bet during the week or low season, as the water park draws huge crowds on summer weekends.
Ocean Beach Resort ( r per person from US$35) Going one belter than a private beach, this little retreat boasts its own island about 5km offshore. Accommodation is in traditional but comfortable bungalows set on the beach and all rates in-clude boat transfers and breakfast.
Sumptuous seafood is the smart choice in Cat Ba town and there are plenty of restaurants to choose from along the seafront strip. Huu Dung Restaurant (Đ Nui Ngoc, dishes 10,000-50/OOOd) This place has always served up wholesome food, but it's best to eat early, as the Lan Song Xanh Disco is right across the road and cranks up the volume from 8pm or so. The house special is whole steamed fish with lashings of garlic and soy sauce. Hoang Y (Đ 1-4; dishes 15,000-50,000d) If you are in the market for fresh grilled shrimp or squid with garlic, this little seafront place is a popular option. As well as a solid selection of seafood dishes, there are also good vegetarian dishes on offer. Dolphin Restaurant (tell: 888 804; Đ Nui Ngoc; mains 20,000-50,000d) This place is popular with travel lers thanks to a selection of Western dishes to complement the reliable Vietnamese fare. Don't worry, definitely no dolphin!
Green Mango (tell: 887151;Đ 1-4;mains 50,000-100,000) The restaurant of choice in Cat Ba, the chef here learnt his tricks at Bobby Chinn's in Hanoi. The alluring menu includes a selection of smaller appetisers if you just can't settle on one thing. The braised duck is superb but save some space for the delightful desserts. The interior is all drapes and candles, so customers often linger for cocktails.
One of the most enjoyable ways to spend time in the evening is to sit at tables on the water-front towards the eastern end of the harbour, order a drink from one of the stalls, and watch the world go by.
Noble House (tell: 888 363) As well as a popular restaurant downstairs, thils spot has a great 2nd-floor bar. Comfy chairs and inspired decor help people settle in for the evening, plus there's a free pool table, board games and plenty of drinks flowing.
Flightless Bird Cafe (tell: 888 517; 0 1-4; from 6.30pm). Little more than a hole in the wall, this wall, welcoming place is a good option for those with their drinking boots on and as the night wears on, travellers gravitate. There is a breezy 2nd-floor balcony overlooking the harbour, plus a small book exchange.
Blue Note (Đ Nui Ngoc) The after-hours haunt in town, this is karaoke with kudos. The well- stocked bar stays open until the last person leaves and the song list includes indie anthems from Oasis and Radiohead. there is a stage: perform at your peril
Getting There & Away
Cat Ba Island is 45km east of Haiphong and 20km south of Halong City. Be aware that there are several piers on Cat Ba Island. Most handy is the jetty direcity in front of Cat Ba town from where the hydrofoils to Haiphong, depart. A second popular one is at Ben Beo, about 2km from Cat Ba town where most of the tourist boats berth. The other pier is at Phu Long, 30km from Cat Ba, where boatsfrom Cat Hai arrive. At Phu Long, motorbike drivers wait to whisk passengers from the fer¬ries to town (or the 15km to Cat Ba National Park) for about 50,000d. There is also a public bus that meets the boats, but this takes longer to get across the island, The best option for independent travelers is the hydrofoils linking Cat Ra directly to Haiphong. These air-con rockets reduce the journey to just 45 minutes. There arc several companies running the route, with three departures a day in the high summer season and just once a day the rest of the year. Summer season services depart between 10am and 5pm. Tran tour (tell: 888 314) runs the Mekong Express (100,000d, 2.45pm departure), which is the safest and most comfortable option. Tahaco (tell: 031-374 7055) has smaller hydrofoils, which are cheaper at 70,000d and depart at 3.15pm. There are no longer hydrofoils operating to Ha long City. The easiest way to get from Ha long City to Cat Ba is to hop on the tourist boats (100,000d, five hours) that leave several times a day. This is less organized going in the other direction to Ha long City, but your guesthouse or hotel should be able to hook you up with a boat going that way. There are also plenty of slow, chartered tourist boats making the run from Ha long City to Cat Ba Island; check with the cafes and travel agencies in Hanoi about tour options. Such trips generally include all transport, accommodation, food and a guide, but double check to be sure. An alternative way to reach Cat Ba town is via the island of Cat Hai, which is closer to Haiphong. A boat departs Haiphong and makes a brief stop in Cat Hai on the way to the port of Phu Long on Cat Ba Island. It is also possible to drive a motorbike or car to Haiphong, from where you can get the ferry to Cat Hai, then drive 15 minutes across the island to a pier from where you take a terry to Phu Long. This accounts for all those surreal traffic jams during the summer season. A bridge is under construction to Cat Hai which will make Cat Ba even easier to reach by vehicle, There are also direct buses from Hanoi to Cat Ba town. Hoang Long bus operates lour services daily to Cat Ba (120,000d, four hours) from the Luong Yen bus station. However, it is just as easy to use the bus-hydrofoil combination via Haiphong.
Getting Around
Rented bicycles are a great way to explore the island and many of the hotel can arrange Chinese mountain bikes (700,000d per day. There arc also some tandems available for double the pedal power. Minibuses with driver are easily arranged. Motorbike rentals (with or without a driver) are available from most of the hotels (from US$5 without a driver). If you are heading out to the beaches or national park, pay the parking fee to ensure that the bike is still there when you return: there have been reports of theft and vandalism. You'll get plenty of offers to tour Cat Ba Harbour in a rowboat (around 30,000d), or you can hire a kayak from one of the hotels. Tours of the island and national park, boat trips around Ha long Bay and fishing trips are peddled by nearly every hotel and restaurant in Cat Ba. Cost depends on the number of people, but typical prices are US$8 for day trips and US$20 for two-day, one-night trips. Among the consistently reputable tour operators, take a look at the My Ngoc Hotel (tell: 888 199} and Quang Duc Family Hotel (tell: 888 231)
Monkey Island is also part of Cat Ba National Park and many visitors make a boat trip here. However, we do not recommend this trip as the troop of monkeys on this island is pretty aggressive and many travelers have been bitten. The bite itself can be painful and shocking, but worse are the rabies shots that follow. Save the monkey business for somewhere more interesting like Cue Phuong National Park.
There are numerous 'floating' seafood restaurants just offshore in Cat Ba Harbour. There have been several stories of overcharging, so be sure to work out in advance the price, as well as the cost of a boat to get you out there and back. Locals advise heading around the bay to the couple of floating restaurants in Ben Beo Harbour: the waters cleaner and it's less touristy A boat ride there and back, including waiting time, should cost around 50,000d. Ask your hotel to recommend a boatman. One of these restaurants is Xuan Hong (tell: 888 485), a fish-farm-cum-resraurant at Ben Beo Pier, just next to the passenger jetty, where you can tread on the edges of the large fish cages and get a close look at the workings of the 'farm'. You will know that the fish is fresh when it is plucked from the cages after you've ordered. Prices simply go by weight and type of seafood;you can eat your fill of a selection of fish for around 100,000d.