For the second night of our Ha Long Bay experience, we had opted to spend the night on Cat Ba Island. Cat Ba is the largest inhabited island in the Ha Long Bay area, and home to a large area of national park.
After surviving the epic walk in the national parkland on our arrival to the island, we then had to check into our hotel where we were booked to stay with the rest of the tour group. On checking in, the guy at reception asked us how many rooms we’d booked? Normally we share a ‘family room’, which usually consists of 2 double beds in one room. The kids had been very excited to see that on the junk boat the night before, they had their own cabin. However, at the hotel, we weren’t quite sure what to expect as the booking company had sorted out all the arrangements. Eventually the guy explained that the room allocated to us did in fact have 2 double beds, and we agreed that would be adequate for our needs.
After reaching the room, unloading our stuff and getting comfortable, there was a knock at the door. It was the reception guy again, who apologised and handed us another set of keys, explaining that our family had in fact been allocated two rooms for the night! You can only imagine the excitement! A few moments later, on inspecting their room, the kids were thrilled that they not only had separate beds at last and wouldn’t have to share, they actually had a double bed each! Roll on bed time…!
Before we could start planning our evening of romance however, we had one more excursion organised by the tour company. A visit to Monkey Island. If you google ‘Monkey Island, Cat Ba’ you will find lots of information that points toward a generally well-reviewed luxury resort, complete with white sand, a private beach, a beautiful bar, plus all the other luxuries you would expect from a good resort. I’m not really sure what this part of the cruise / island stay was aiming at – we were just told there was a good beach for swimming, plus a chance to see wild monkeys on the rocks surrounding the beach. We were pretty tired at this point due to the early swim and morning trek and rock climbing expedition. However, we didn’t want to miss out and thought we should just go for it. How bad could it possibly be?
After a short drive down to the port at just over 100kmph, we joined a splintered old wooden, smoky, diesel, ex-fishing and possibly ex-house boat, for the short 15 minute cruise over to the other island. Just before we set sail, the captain and his staff ushered people to move further down into the cabin, away from the stern, just enough so that the weight of the all the people would tip the boat far enough into the water, enough so that it could leave its moorings and start on our journey. This was an omen. And not a good one.
We chugged past the amazing group of floating houses, which are moored just off Cat Ba Island. All of the houses are connected, with wooden plank walk ways and appear to harbour small pontoons for catching fish – the main livelihood of folk living in these floating homes. There were dogs and children running about, washing hung out on the decks; and some of the small hut-like houses housed tiny restaurants, aimed at the passing tourists and locals alike. A beautiful sight to behold and it would have been great to explore further.
However we pressed on and soon reached the shores of Monkey Island. When I say we reached the shore, I mean exactly that: the boat chugged up to the sandy beach and simply ran aground. There was no pier or walkway used. The men on the boat jumped out, let down a plank of wood and held a long strip of bamboo which made-do as a makeshift bannister for us to hold on to as we disembarked the vessel. It was all very Pirates of the Caribbean. Ooooh arghh.
On first glance the beach looked nice enough. However, within a few minutes no less that 8 diesel-spilling boats chugged up, and all landed directly on the beach, just like ours had done. Watch out swimmers! From each of these boats, about 20-30 people disembarked. Mostly locals or Chinese. Everyone made their way over to the rocks at the back of the beach, as this is where the monkeys were supposed to be. And sure enough there they were! Lots and lots of monkeys.
This didn’t turn out to be such a nice experience though, as the locals were feeding them whatever they had to hand. There wasn’t anyone selling fruit to provide for the monkeys, which is usual in our experience when there are semi-tamed animals around. So instead, sweets being given, bubble-gum, biscuits, crisps, nuts, even cans of beer and strawberry fanta. I don’t even give my kids strawberry fanta! And of course, the hungry monkeys were taking everything offered to them, which everyone thought was hysterical. There was a sign which said, “Do not feed or hit the monkeys”. Hit the monkeys?! Who would hit the monkeys? And then we noticed people pulling their tails and trying to smack their bright red bottoms for a laugh, to see how they would react. Seriously. It was awful. Those poor creatures. I got pretty cross and said for people to stop, but they didn’t listen. So I pulled the kids away and said we weren’t going to participate in viewing the animals being abused anymore. I didn’t want the other people to think they had an audience for their ‘fun’.
So we then had 45 minutes left on the island to wait until the boat was returning to collect us. The kids wanted to swim in the water but it was a bit oil-slicked from all the diesel boats pulling up so close by. However, it was super-hot and after lasting just 2 minutes collecting coral and shells from the shoreline, we decided to go for it. I just had to hope and pray there would be no more ear infections caused by murky water, and begged the kids not to put their faces under!
We had a quick dip and thank goodness it wasn’t long before we had to dry off and travel back to our hotel and the TWO rooms we had booked!
After such a busy day, we got the kids showered and settled in their room pretty quickly. It was a bit strange sitting in our room, just the two of us, especially after 8 months of all being all together in the same room. But we soon got over that empty feeling – woo hoo!
We had all of 5 minutes to enjoy each other’s company until there was a power cut in both the hotel and the street outside. All the lights, air-con, fans went out. Total darkness. Just 30 seconds later there was a knock at the door. Champagne room service? No. Just 2 little people stood in the hallway clutching their covers and pillows. “Can we come and sleep in here with you? It’s too dark in our room and we don’t like it on our own.” In they shuffled and settled themselves on the spare double bed. Oh well. Normality in the Brooks family quickly resumed. So much for romance!
The following morning we had another early start and it was back on the junk boat for lunch, before heading back to Ha Long Bay port to get our bus back to Hanoi.
In summary, our Ha Long Bay cruise was fantastic. It was absolutely magical to be moored up at night time and to see the beauty of the area lit only by the lights on the boat. I wish we had spent even more time sailing! I would say that we definitely didn’t see the best of Cat Ba island in the 24-hours we were there. Friends who stayed on the island for several days loved it – enjoying remote, hidden beaches reached only by motorcycle, shopping in the local market, and visiting the floating houses, which we only passed by on our way to Monkey Island. Our tour to Cat Ba felt pretty rushed – we were on a schedule after all, and ended up seeing just a tiny part of the island, and probably not the best bits either. It seemed before we knew it, it was time to head back to Hanoi.
My suggestion to others who plan to visit Ha Long Bay, is dependent on time and budget, to either have a slightly longer cruise, and fully enjoy the time and activities offered aboard the boat, saving Cat Ba for your next holiday to Vietnam; or if you do have time and budget, split the trip completely and have a tour on the junk boat like we did, but then arrive on Cat Ba and spend several days there, exploring the island independently. That way, you will really get the best of both options.