DIY Cat Ba Island
Cat Ba Town (Cat Ba), Vietnam
Do It Yourself: Arranging travel from Hanoi to Cat Ba, and back.
Travel from Hanoi to Cat Ba
I'd tried to do my homework as much as possible before leaving Hanoi. There's a multitude of conflicting information about how one can get from Hanoi to Cat Ba Island/Cat Ba Town from Hanoi without signing up for a tour.
From the moment you get into town hotels (and others) try and drive the idea into your head that embarking on a journey to see the islands of Halong Bay (with or without a stopover in Cat Ba) is a difficult and expensive task—insisting that it's the best way to go. Online forums full of travelers ranting or raving about Vietnam echo similar experiences: That it's better to simply purchase a package tour.
Having traveled perpetually for nearly two years, I can count the number of times on two or three fingers that I've actually taken a tour of anything—and can smell the laziness through the screen. I don't like the idea of others dictating where I'll go, at what speed, or for how long.
Seeing the islands of Halong Bay sounded well and fine, but what I really wanted to do was the abnormal: Stay on the island of Cat Ba for an undetermined length of time without booking a three-day/two-night or two-day/one-night tour to get there (like 95% of the tourists seem to be doing).
This is a simple problem with a simple solution: The bus station.
There are two main paths to available: Hanoi to Halong City to Cat Ba Island, or Hanoi to Haiphong to Cat Ba Island.
The vast majority of tours purchased in the capital will put people on a bus for several unnecessary hours, shipping them to Halong City. It's from Halong City that tourists are ushered into a hotel, or onto boat for a tour of Halong Bay. Some tours return to Halong City and dump tourists on a bus back to the capital, whereas others allow folks a night or two on the only populated island in Halong Bay, Cat Ba.
The preferred method for reaching Cat Ba Island directly is via Haiphong. Instead of enduring the unnecessary hours of honking horns at ear-piercing decibel levels experienced during overland travel in Vietnam, a traveler can bus from the capital to Haiphong, where s/he can take a (fast or slow) boat directly to the island. No tour necessary—just transport.
The critical element in the Hanoi–Haiphong–Cat Ba Island equation is the boat connection in Haiphong. Guidebooks, Internet forums, hotels, and travel agencies all have conflicting information about the departure schedule of these boats. Some say they're in the early morning only, other says there's one in the afternoon, some say they're only in the afternoon, and most just tell you to take a packaged tour.
Resources pointed me to the Gai Lam bus terminal in Hanoi for transport heading to NE Vietnam. This turned out to be one of the most misleading pieces of information available, and will be clarified below. Do not take buses from Gai Lam if you want to reach Haiphong in time to make a boat connection.
Because of all the conflicting information, I thought it was best to take a trip out to Gai Lam the day before, just to make sure buses we indeed going where they should. This turned out to be generally useless, and a waste of 140,000 dong (US$9) in taxi money, as the ticketing counters had already been abandoned by late afternoon.
The locals were of little help, but the sight of a bus with markings for Haiphong confirmed that at least the departure point was correct.
I'm very accustomed to communicating without a command (or sometimes even knowledge) of the local language—having navigated cities, buses, and terminals in both hemispheres of the globe—but I'm absolutely astonished with the consistent inability of the Vietnamese people to understand non-verbal forms of communication. I'm there at the bus station, bouncing from one person to the next trying to figure out when the first Haipong bus of the day leaves, but no one can put 1 and 1 together.
I write down the city name on a blank piece of paper. I speak and draw arrows from the word "Hanoi", and point at my pocket watch. I use hand gestures and illustrations to signify that I don't want a bus right now, but tomorrow. People here just can't seem to extrapolate a need—I felt like I was back in Brazil, dealing with brain-dead bus drivers.
I left Gai Lam with little more than a confirmation of the physical presence of buses, and a photo a faded placard with city names, times, and prices (with the details for Haiphong conveniently absent/removed).
The plan was to get to the bus station as early as possible. Some sources said the only boats of the day departed Haiphong around 9:00 a.m., and the journey there would take, at best, 60–90 minutes.
I was up so late that I didn't bother going to sleep again. I knew that I had to get a pregnant Tatiana up at an unreasonable hour (for her), and that would take an early start and excessive amounts of patience.
I started the process of getting her up at 5:30 a.m.; she didn't move until 6:00; and we finally left the hotel at 7:00. Even with a pre-packed backpack, ready to go, it still takes ages to move this woman in the morning. Pregnant or not, she always has severe stomachaches for food when she wakes up, and now her pregnant belly has the added bonus of feeling nauseated as well.
About twenty minutes later, we were sitting on a bus, waiting to depart to Haiphong. I speculated that it was the first of the day, though couldn't confirm it. Cost of a bus ticket: 32,000 dong (US$2) per person.
I had read online that there are four bus terminals in Haiphong, and was warned to not take buses marked for Cao Rao, as it's some distance from the docks (suggesting travelers take buses bound for Tam Bac instead). Knowing this in advance did little to sway our decision to leave on a Cao Rao bus though, as I was more concerned with simply getting out of the city and making our connection than our taxi fare when we arrived. I don't even know if Tam Bac buses leave from Gai Lam.
As time on the bus ticked away, I was growing tired of listening to the driver's deafening air-horn and the sight of the long-nailed Vietnamese man sitting across the aisle (such a common sight), and began getting more nervous about our impending boat connection. The bus took a solid two hours to reach the terminal (9:30 a.m.), and by the time we dropped 65,000 dong (US$4) on a taxi to the docks it was 9:45.
We were greeted by a pair of women who informed us that we'd missed the 9:00 a.m. boat, but if we hurried—and they meant right now—we could still get to the island without having to wait around for the 12:30 slow-boat (that took four hours, instead of 45-minutes on the faster variety).
The problem was when I asked how much for the alternate boat—they wanted 400,000 dong (US$25) for the two of us, double the normal 100,000d/person price for the service.
Not wanting to be frantically rushed into a decision by these two women (marks for her), Tatiana walked away to see if she could corroborate their story from another person. I noted the prices on display: 100,000d for a fast-boat ticket; 80,000d for a slow-boat ticket (unless you were Vietnamese, in which case it's 40,000d). Vietnamese also get preferential pricing for the fast-boat as well, paying only 80,000d for the service.
Tatiana returned and informed me that she spoke with a man at a ticketing window who said the only departure was at 8:00 a.m., and that the slow-boat was the only thing left departing for the day from the docks. We still have no idea if there are two companies working out of that dock—one leaving at 8:00 and another at 9:00—or what.
The idea of waiting around until after noon for a boat that wouldn't get us to our destination until late afternoon, coupled with the notion of hotel-hunting at dusk, was enough for me to pay their ransom. The arrangement was that we'd be taken to another company on motorbike, where we would bus to an alternate dock, take a fast-boat to the island, and then bus across the island to the population center, known as Cat Ba Town. But before doing so, we negotiated 50,000d (total) off their asking price.
I couldn't help but think that if Tatiana had been able to get out of bed sooner, or if I was traveling alone, I might not be in this predicament.
Money having changed hands, we motorbiked up the street at lightning speeds, stopping only at the office for this alternate company long enough to discover their 10:00 departure had already left for the docks. Catching up to the bus, which was pulled over on the side of the road a few hundred meters down the street, I wondered if it was stopped to pick up other passengers, or if the office had called the diver and asked him to do so.
Rushed and relieved to be on the bus, I completely forgot to get proof that we'd paid someone for the transport. The girls didn't work for this company, and simply took a huge commission for bringing us to the bus. I forgot to make sure the crew understood the circumstances, assuming the girls would simply return to the office and pay for our fare—but realized too late that we had the potential to get really get screwed if the ticket-taker insisted we pay him 100,000d each.
Something like this did indeed go down, but the man was particularly intimidated by fact I was speaking English to him, and quickly backed off. What a mess.
We rode in the bus for 20 minutes; took a boat from a half-assed dock in the middle of nowhere for 30 minutes, and rode in a receiving bus on Cat Ba Island for another 25 minutes, before reaching Cat Ba Town around 12:45 in the afternoon.
Update: So what's the Best, Cheapest way to get to Cat Ba Town from Hanoi?
This is the question picking away at me until I finally had some resolution on our return to Hanoi. I honestly believe that catching an 8:00 or 9:00 a.m. fast-boat in Haiphong is next to impossible using transport departing from the Gai Lam bus terminal. Not only that, but paying for taxis adds unnecessary expense to the entire affair.
I've discovered that the cheapest way to get to Cat Ba Town from Hanoi is to purchase a bus/boat/bus combo ticket in Hanoi that takes you all the way there, without micromanaging each specific leg of the travel. This is offered by Hoàng Long (Hoang Long), the same company that took us from Haiphong to Cat Ba, and ultimately returned us to Hanoi stress-free.
Luóng Yên Bus Terminal, or Luong Yen Bus Terminal (without the excessive accents of the Vietnamese language), is the departure and return point for Hoàng Long's bus/boat combo service. This bus terminal is not referenced in the Lonely Planet (SE Asia, or Vietnam editions), but is located quite close to the Old Quarter.
The cost of a ticket from Hanoi to Cat Ba Island (Town) is 132,000 dong (US$8.25) per person, or the same price in the reverse direction. The cost of a ticket from Haiphong to Cat Ba Island (Town) is 80,000d (US$5). This US$5 ticket is the same one Tatiana and I each paid US$12.50 for, when offered by the extortionists at the docks that morning.
I've only found one reference to the Luong Yen bus terminal in the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree message forums, and hope this will provide point of reference for others in the position of trying to figure out how to get to Cat Ba without taking a tour.