Getting there and away
The only way to get to Cat Ba is by boat. You can take the hydrofoil from Hai Phong (90,000 dong), but it would be silly to miss out on a tour of beautiful Ha Long Bay, and you'll see very little of it crammed inside one of the small hydrofoils, looking out a dirty window (they're fast, but elegant, they ain't). A better option is to make your way to Ha Long City on your own -- if you arrive at about 10:00 the tour boats will be getting ready to embark, and it's a cinch to catch a ride on one of them (costs about 55,000 dong, negotiable, plus the pier fee, 30,000 dong, not negotiable). The trip takes about six hours, not because of the distance, but because the tour boats take their time and cruise the bay first -- well-worth the time and money if you've never done it before. You could reverse the process, and try to take a tour boat back from Cat Ba to Ha Long Bay, but that gets a little trickier to negotiate, and if you're headed to Hanoi, it's faster and cheaper to get there from Hai Phong than it is from Bai Chay, where the tour boats disembark.
You'll arrive in Cat Ba at one of three piers. The most convenient option is the pier on Cat Ba Harbour, from which the hydrofoils depart -- it's a short walk from there to nearly all the accommodation, with the exception of the Sunrise Hotel, which is over the headland a few kilometres to the east, on Cat Co 3. The Ben Beo pier is about 2km away, and it's easy as pie to catch a motor-taxi from there into town (should be about 10,000 dong, but good luck convincing the driver of that!) The pier at Phu Long is often used as a drop off point for tour boats -- if you've booked a tour, they'll cart you back and forth in a van (30km, but the road is mountainous -- takes about an hour.) If you're arriving on your own by hitching a ride on a tour boat, be sure it doesn't stop at Phu Long -- your boat ticket doesn't include a ride into town, and there isn't any guarantee one of the vans will have space for you.
The hydrofoil to Hai Phong leaves at 14:45 daily in the low season, four times a day at 07:00, 14:45, 15:00, and 15:45 in the high season -- costs 100,000 dong, takes 45 minutes. Slow boats leave at 05:45 and 12:30 year round, cost 70,000 dong, taking 2 hours.
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
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Once you're in your hotel on the harbour, everything is accessible on foot, including the beaches. You can tour the island by motor-taxi -- rates are very negotiable, but think in terms of 30,000 dong per hour -- and you can also rent a motorbike yourself for US$4-5 a day -- but that's not a 24-hour day. There's nothing legal or official about these rentals -- you'll just be renting some guy's bike from him for the day, and the police frown upon westerners driving around after dark, so the driver will generally want the bike back by sunset.
Minibuses can also be hired and you can go where you like -- but they won't let you drive it on your own, you'll have to hire a driver along with it -- should be about US$40 a day total.
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