Getting there and away
The only way to get to Cat Ba is by boat. If travelling from Hanoi your best bet is to buy a bus-boat-bus ticket from Luong Yen bus station (240,000 VND). Hoang Long is the main operator and has buses leaving Hanoi at 05:20, 07:20 and 11:20. The bus to Haiphong city takes 2.5 to 3 hours then you'll have a 25-minute ride on a hydrofoil followed by an hour in a bus at the other end. It's generally painless. If you're arriving from elsewhere and making your own way to the harbour, the hydrofoil costs 150,000 VND and you might be able to hitch a ride on the bus into Cat Ba town upon arrival at Phu Long pier. Otherwise you'll have to negotiate with taxis or motorbike taxis.
Most hotels and tour operators on Cat Ba will be able to book you on a bus-boat-bus back for the same price. They run from 06:00 until 16:00 on the return journey.
Another option – only really advisable if you're staying in Ha Long City -- is to get the ferry from Tuan Chau island. Tuan Chau is the departure point for some of the cruise operators, such as Bhaya, and you will see signs for it as you head along the highway into Ha Long City. The ferry takes 45 minutes, costs 60,000 VND and docks at Gia Luan pier. Apparently a bus meets each ferry to go into Cat Ba town but if it doesn't show you should be able to take a taxi – one of the ladies selling snacks at the pier will be able to help. Heading back the bus from Cat Ba town leaves at 08:00 from the square by the pier, or you can try and hitch a ride on a tourist bus. From May to end of September ferries depart Tuan Chau at 07:30, 09:00, 11.30, 13:30 and 15:00 and return at 09:00, 11:30, 13:00, 15:00, 16:00. Outside of these times they run less frequently: 07:30, 11:30 and 15:00 from Tuan Chau and 09:00, 13:00 and 16:00 from Cat Ba.
Alternatively, combine getting from A to B with a cruise of the bay and book onto a tourist boat from Ha Long City. The staff at the ticket office at Bai Chay pier informed us they didn't sell tickets to Cat Ba so your only choice is to buy from a tour operator.— the lowest we were quoted was 250,000 VND plus entry to the bay of 120,000 VND (around $18), the highest $25. Be warned though – although you may be told there is a 3.5 hour option (2.5 hours on a boat, an hour on bus from Gia Luan to Cat Ba town) in reality it could take anything up to 6.5 hours in total, including stops for kayaking and caves, which may not be included in your ticket. We'd only recommend this route if you have time to spare and want to explore the bay. And check what's included.
Usually Western tourists visit Cat Ba as part of a three-day tour that begins and ends in Hanoi, so most people don't have to worry about how to get there at all.
Updates from Travelfish readers
Ferry boat (not hydrofoil) from Haiphong to Cat Ba town
Today we took the public bus from Ninh Binh to Haiphong (60,000 d – 2 ½ hours). The manager of our hotel told us there was no 7am bus but only a 6:30 bus but that the bus could pick us up at the hotel and it would be the same price. We paid for the ticket on the bus and this was the price posted on the sign inside the bus station (we'd gone there the day before to scout for info). The bus picked us up at the hotel at 6:20 and then headed to the bus station where we waited about a ½ hour before leaving Ninh Binh bus station. We did see a bus leaving the station as we arrived making me suspect that we were on the 7:00 bus and not the 6:30 bus. In Haiphong the last stop was the bus station about 3km from the ferry. It took us about 45 min to walk the distance and it was quite easy to find our way after having looked on Google maps for the directions (both the bus and ferry stations are marked in Google maps).
When we arrived at the ferry station (just past the ferry station to a nearby island) we were immediately set upon by two women selling tickets to Cat Ba. They gave us lots of information taking us several times to look at a map on the wall of the waiting area. They told us there no longer was a 2 ½ hour– 80,000 boat that our guide book had described and that the ticket sellers just in front of the ferry station were selling tickets to Cat Hai island where we would need to get another ferry to Cat Ba island that would drop us an hour away from Cat Ba town. They made this scenario sound quite risky as there might not be a bus to take us to Cat Ba town and maybe not even a boat leaving Cat Hai. The boat to Cat Hai they said would leave at 12:10 and a direct boat to Cat Ba island would leave at 12:30. They made it impossible to talk to the actual ticket sellers as when we tried they kept intervening. Even though we knew we were being scammed into buying a tourist ticket we eventually gave in and paid the 200,000 per person price for a piece of paper that was not an official ticket. However, we kept an eye on them as we waited for the ferry and became even more sure that they were running some kind of scam. I wandered up the street and around the corner and one of them followed me, clearly displeased that I was poking around. I found a sign for a ticket office but they refused to talk to me with the woman standing there. I gave up and returned to wait for the ferry. Later some tourists arrived with the guy from that ticket office and I found out that they had paid 150,000 for a ticket from him. At around 12:15 all the Vietnamese who had been waiting in the waiting rooms went to get on the ferry (there was no 12:10 boat that I saw). The woman who sold us and the majority of the tourists tickets tried to keep us from getting on the boat with everyone else. We ignored her and got on. I really don't know why she did that. When we showed someone our “ticket” to check we were getting on a boat that would take us to Cat Ba we were asked to write our names and nationalities on a piece of paper. I don't know if all the tourists were asked to do that. We were shown to the bow which was a great place to sit though quite windy and chilly. After the boat left the dock, someone came around selling real tickets to people who didn't yet have tickets. No one ever checked to see if we had a ticket or not. Our boat did stop at Cat Hai island (dropping off most passengers) and then continued right on to Cat Ba town. Sooo.... my advice to anyone planning to take this route to Cat Ba town is stay firm and don't buy a ticket from the persistent roaming ticket sellers. I suspect it would work out fine to wait in the waiting room and just follow the crowd onto the boat and buy a ticket on the boat. The ticket should be 80,000. If there's any problem with that, somewhere between 80,00 and 150,000 is the next best price.
Update by jmwesby (1)
Written on 22nd March, 2011
Have an update or correction?
Once you're in your hotel on the harbour, everything is accessible on foot, including the beaches. You can tour the island by motorbike taxi -- rates are very negotiable, but think in terms of 100,000 VND per hour. You can also rent a motorbike yourself for 80,000 to 100,000 VND a day from numerous places in Cat Ba town. Mountain bikes are also available.
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