View of Halong Bay from Cat Ba Island

Escape to Cat Ba Island

A new year, a new destination – well, for a few days at least. After an unimpressive and exhausting Christmas week filled with teaching in Hanoi, we were looking forward to the New Year and the rare four-day weekend it gifted us. To celebrate the start of 2015 we took advantage of our time off work by escaping to Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay for some adventure and relaxation.

Us and the Sunset on Cat Ba Island

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Despite having spent the last four months living and working in Hanoi, when we arrived at Luong Yen bus station armed with a backpack we effortlessly slipped back into traveller mode. I felt like we’d been sucked back in time to our backpacking days and the memory of all those hours spent waiting at bus stops, train stations and airports came flooding back to me, along with the exciting promise of a brand new destination just hours ahead of us, waiting to be discovered.

View from The French Fort on Cat Ba Island

In Need of a Break

It felt good to leave Hanoi behind us and head towards the sea. Aside from taking an overnight trip to Kim Boi, we hadn’t escaped the city since arriving in August and my tired mind was glad to be fleeing the intensity of life in the capital. The previous few weeks had been a struggle. Our hectic schedule of working most mornings, afternoons and evenings and then spending half the weekend lesson planning had caught up with us and we were exhausted and deflated after missing Christmas in the UK for a second year running.

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

Two weeks of end-of-term testing at school had also left me in a slump and I was starting to feel disillusioned with teaching. I’d spent hours administering individual speaking tests, many with grade one kids who don’t yet understand: “What’s your name?”. What was the point when I knew the language centre was going to up the marks anyway so no-one got less than fifty percent? The time could have been better spent actually teaching the children and having fun with them. I had also come to dread my Tuesday morning Grade One Classes From Hell. The school system isn’t perfect here, in particular, the classes are huge and there isn’t a disciplinary system we can use aside from pulling kids’ ears or whacking them with a stick – which we don’t want to resort to, obviously.

In short, a break was definitely what we needed.

A Dog by the Dock on Cat Ba Island

Exploring Cat Ba Island

I was reminded of the island from Lost as I gazed out of the coach window on the final leg of our journey across the island to Cat Ba Town. Forested peaks and rocky mounds littered the countryside and in the distance, the sunlight glimmered off the paper-flat waters of Halong Bay. We disembarked along the short strip of hotels, cafes and restaurants that line the water’s edge as the late afternoon sun was turning the light buttery across the Bay. Ragged wooden junk boats, tiny fishing vessels and a few floating restaurants cast out their small silhouettes.

Sunset on Cat Ba Island

After checking into our hotel and taking in the view of the bay from our room we bounced downstairs to explore, invigorated by the fresh salty air and the promise of a beautiful sunset. I had almost forgotten how great it feels to arrive in a brand new place and taste the unknown. We took a short walk along the seafront to the end of a wooden pier, suspended out above the water with a clear view of the horizon beyond I heaved a sigh of relief to have escaped the never-ending bustle of the city back in Hanoi.

Road on Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

When we first arrived in Asia over a year and a half ago I was terrified of motorbikes. How things have changed. Now a motorbike is our main form of transport in Hanoi and we didn’t hesitate for a second when offered the chance to rent a bike and explore Cat Ba Island, a faded photocopied map marking the main sights tucked into Andrew’s pocket.

Beach on Cat Ba Island

Hospital Cave

Our first stop was Hospital Cave, which was used as a safe underground shelter for the injured during the American War. We were given a short tour of the cave and its many claustrophobic rooms used to treat the sick and wounded; these opened out to a large cavernous space used as a theatre and training room for Vietnamese army troops. The cave was very similar to those we saw in Vieng Xai in Northen Laos, which were also used as shelter from American bombing.

Hospital Cave, Cat Ba Island

Entrance to Hospital Cave on Cat Ba Island

Cat Ba National Park

We continued to follow a long, straight road to the National Park, which is home to the rare and endangered Cat Ba Langurs. It’s been a long time since we hiked anywhere and it felt great to be walking amongst the forest on our own in the quiet instead of along crowded, noisy city streets. We took the shorter two-hour round-trip climb up to Ngu Lam peak and breathless, we were rewarded with never-ending views of green-furred misty mountain peaks.

View fromm Cat Ba National Park, Vietnam

The French Fort

One of the last places to visit on the island is an old French Fort built to defend the island from sea-invaders. We wandered around the ancient stone ruins but were more captivated by the view; the fort was constructed on one of the highest peaks overlooking Halong Bay and we squinted through the afternoon sunlight, in awe of the glittering Bay beneath us dotted with islands, watching tiny toy boats slither their way across the water.

Cannon at the French Fort on Cat Ba Island

View of Halong Bay from Cat Ba Island

Beaches

Sunset was drawing near once again and we spent our final hours of daylight exploring several beaches. We were gifted with bright, sunny skies that day but the air still had a cool nip to it, leaving the beach almost deserted. As we made footprints in the sand I realised that this was the first time we’d set foot on a beach in months; I’m a city-lover at heart but living in Hanoi has made me realise how much I also cherish the countryside and the sea.

Beach on Cat Ba Island

Exercising at Sunset on Cat Ba Island

There was time to watch the island locals do their evening exercises and meet a couple of harbour dogs before we settled down in a café to watch the sunset on the island one last time, knowing I could return to Hanoi the next day with a little bit of peace restored to my soul.

Escape to Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

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31 Comments
  • Stefan Arestis
    Posted at 11:07h, 10 January Reply

    Yeah – we still have to get to that stage where we regard motorbikes (without helmets!) as a normal way of transportation. We still freak out at the idea of taking one in BKK (but then they do have PINK taxis here so you just got to!)

    • Amy
      Posted at 12:06h, 10 January Reply

      Ha, I remember those stylish pink taxis! I am still not brave enough to drive a motorbike myself but I will sit on the back fearlessly when Andrew’s driving 🙂

  • Helen
    Posted at 15:00h, 10 January Reply

    Looks beautiful and from the sounds of things a well deserved break for you guys to recharge your batteries. Starting to get used to the whole motorbike thing too, they are actually quite good fun to be on!

    • Amy
      Posted at 06:10h, 11 January Reply

      It was a lovely break Helen and now I’m looking forward to our next adventure up in Sapa at the end of February 🙂

  • Gilda Baxter
    Posted at 09:24h, 11 January Reply

    Amy, your pictures are beautiful. Halong Bay looked very peaceful, I would love to visit one day. Exploring by motorbike is great, you feel more part of the environment don’t you? I hope the next few months of teaching will be easier for you.

    • Amy
      Posted at 15:47h, 11 January Reply

      Thanks Gilda, we did have a peaceful day exploring and being out of the city was really refreshing.

  • Catherine
    Posted at 19:32h, 11 January Reply

    Glad you managed to get out of the city – sounds like you definitely deserve a break! Looks like a beautiful place to spend a few days with lots of great sights too – love the sunset photos 🙂

    • Amy
      Posted at 03:57h, 12 January Reply

      Thanks Catherine, it was great to actually see the sunset again, it’s been a while since we saw one in Hanoi!

  • Patti
    Posted at 03:48h, 12 January Reply

    So glad you had the chance to escape the busyness of the city for a few days, As always your photos are lovely and I always enjoy seeing that part of the world through your camera lens and your voice. The first year of teaching is always a challenge, it will get easier and I suspect part of it is cultural, so perhaps if you do teach in Spain next year it will be a very different experience.

    • Amy
      Posted at 03:56h, 12 January Reply

      Thanks Patti, I definitely still have good days and bad when it comes to teaching. I’m thinking in Spain private tuition would be better for me than going back into a school but we’ll see! It was so nice to get away for a while and I can’t wait for the next holiday now 🙂

      • Patti
        Posted at 04:27h, 13 January Reply

        Oh, that’s also a great idea – small group or one-on-one tutoring would be a good option and would probably feel more rewarding.

        • Amy
          Posted at 05:26h, 13 January Reply

          I hope so Patti 🙂

  • Emily
    Posted at 17:24h, 12 January Reply

    Looks like a well-deserved break! I’m a city lover too, but it doesn’t stop me from appreciating beaches and a change of scenery from time to time!

    • Amy
      Posted at 05:27h, 13 January Reply

      A change of scenery was definitely what we needed Emily, it was great to get away from Hanoi for a while.

  • Jenia from HTL
    Posted at 21:22h, 12 January Reply

    When we were in Vietnam last year we decided to skip Halong Bay, in part due to it being so touristed and in part due to the cost. We definitely know that we will be back someday and will have another chance to check it out. Would you say that Cat Ba was also crowded with visitors? And how ‘scenic’ is it?

    • Amy
      Posted at 05:29h, 13 January Reply

      Hi Jenia, thanks for commenting. Right now it’s low season so Cat Ba wasn’t crowded at all and it was really pleasant; no hassle at all. I’ve seen pictures of the island in high season though and it looks pretty hectic! I thought the views were pretty awesome but then I have been in Hanoi for the last few months, so I’m starved of sea views 🙂

  • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
    Posted at 20:57h, 14 January Reply

    Cat Ba looks lovely! It’s a part of Vietnam that we’ve not explored, so it was nice to see it through your eyes. I completely understand what you mean about being a city lover at heart, but needing some time away to rest and recharge. I love the energy and array of things to do in big cities, but sometimes it’s nice to get away from it all and being somewhere where there is nothing to do but relaxed. It certainly sounds like you earned the break and made the most of it!

    • Amy
      Posted at 03:11h, 15 January Reply

      Yep, the good thing about being in one place for a while is that when we do get away we make the most of it and really appreciate the change of scenery. We’re already planning more trips for the TET holidays 🙂

  • Pingback:This is It | Our Life in Vietnam
    Posted at 05:59h, 17 January Reply

    […] recent trip to Cat Ba Island reminded me of how beautiful and diverse Vietnam is. There’s so much more to see beyond Hanoi and […]

  • Pingback:2015 Travel Round-up - Our Big Fat Travel Adventure
    Posted at 12:06h, 17 December Reply

    […] kicked off 2015 with a weekend escape to Cat Ba Island and celebrated the Vietnamese TET New Year in February with visiting friends from the UK. We took […]

  • Samuel Mozilo
    Posted at 05:57h, 08 October Reply

    This is so cool! We were considering going to Vietnam on our up and coming excursion and this post is simply great.

    • Amy
      Posted at 06:32h, 08 October Reply

      Thanks Samuel, we loved Cat Ba 🙂

  • Pingback:What's the cost of living in Vietnam?
    Posted at 03:47h, 16 November Reply

    […] also spent money on occasional trips away to Kim Boi and Cat Ba Island, we’re also planning to go to Sapa for TET.  We arrived in the country with a […]

  • Pingback:The Complete Guide to Motorbiking North Vietnam
    Posted at 12:00h, 21 December Reply

    […] much-required sun and sand. In fact, you can put your bikes on a ferry that locals use and go to Cat Ba island. After having had enough to beach life, head back to Ha […]

  • Lorna Kale
    Posted at 08:56h, 15 September Reply

    This place is so amazing and not crowded like Ha Long Bay. Thank you for sharing useful information and stunning place we should visit when visiting Cat Ba island 🙂

    • Amy
      Posted at 11:39h, 15 September Reply

      Hi Lorna, glad you enjoyed – we loved Cat Ba!

  • Alice
    Posted at 05:05h, 21 September Reply

    Love that! I love kayaking on Cat Ba island to watch the stunning sceneries. There are some places I have not visited like: Hospital Cave, The French Fort… Thank you for sharing with us.

    • Amy
      Posted at 08:55h, 21 September Reply

      Hi Alice, yes the scenery is epic, definitely take a look at Hospital Cave.

  • From Hanoi to Cat Ba
    Posted at 06:00h, 23 March Reply

    The story about Cat Ba is so wonderful.
    Thank you for sharing the great things about our homeland.
    We are the tour operator in Cat Ba. And, we provide a bus from Hanoi to Cat Ba.
    Cat Ba Express is our company name and it is being highly appreciated in the field of transportation as well as organizing tours in Cat Ba.

    • Amy
      Posted at 21:36h, 30 March Reply

      Sounds great, we loved Cat Ba!

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