Lifestyle & Culture

Exotic Vietnam: Pro expat tips for experiencing the traveler’s Cat Ba Island

ALL PHOTOS BY MARTIN RISBERGS

There are expats, and then there are those lucky few who can live anywhere in the world they wish, traveling to the most exotic destinations while the rest of us are nine-to-fiving our lives away.

Take my sister Marjorie and her husband Martin. They have seen more of the earth – mostly the most beautiful parts – than any people I know.

I live vicariously through Martin’s great snaps. He’s a skilled photographer who took one my favorite photos – a boat at dawn on a river in India.

They have a place in Atlanta, but most of the year they’re on the road. 

So while we’re putting in 18-hour days at Dispatches, they’re slung up in a garden full of jasmine and bougainvillea in Myanmar, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka or Corfu.

But you can’t hate on ’em … they are travelers, not tourists, who do it right, diving deep into to local cultures, especially the Buddhist traditions in India, Southeast Asia and China, while living simply on the roads less traveled.

They tread lightly on the world, staying at inexpensive places, eating where the locals eat and savoring the experience instead of rushing back to the cruise ship for the buffet.

Last year, they spent time in Vietnam, one of the highlights of a travel year that included China, Britain, Greece and Sri Lanka.

Yes, Vietnam is a 14-hour non-stop flight from Europe. But it’s on the bucket lists of a lot of Europe-based expats and you can break up your trip by stopping off in Dubai or India.

They visited northern Vietnam including the coast east of Haiphong. Cat Ba Island is part of Vietnam’s first national park, a rugged archipelago with thousands of islands and strange towering structures called “karsts” in the South China Sea.

Millions of years ago, they were part of the stone cliffs on the sea, but wind and water wore away the limestone leaving monoliths teetering in the sea on tiny bases.

So we asked Marge for tips:

We left the USA in February 2018 for an 8-month round-the-world adventure.

My husband married a gypsy and our motto is, “On the road, less is more.”

One of our favorite stops was Vietnam. The rhythm of the country is nice and welcoming. Vietnam has good food, fabulous sightseeing and thriving, resilient, kind people.

This is a big county, but internal flights are inexpensive and convenient. Luggage is weighed and measured for carry-on, with dimensions smaller than Europe carry-ons.

Tip 1 – See Hoi Ann from An Bang

The ancient town of Hoi An is the gateway to the area from Hanoi and Danang. You want to see Hoi An because it’s historic with traditional Vietnamese architecture that’s been preserved, but it’s really touristy to the point they’ve ruined it.

We recommend staying in An Bang, a lovely beach town 10 minutes by taxi from Hoi An.

MARGE AT A BEACH CAFÉ AT HOI AN

An Bang Beach is small and simple but offers everything you’d want in a beach stay (plenty of restaurants and beach umbrellas) and a great hotel, but smaller crowds.

Danang Airport is a 30-minute taxi to An Bang beach.

Where to stay:

Santa Villa hotel is new, enjoyable and affordable and even has a small swimming pool. We paid $34 including a hot breakfast and their website often has promotions. 

Where to eat:
The  Green Tree Restaurant has delicious, inexpensive food right on the water, plus lounge chairs and umbrellas on the beach.

The internet is free if you eat/drink there, and the girl who owns it is so kind.

ONE OF THE FAMOUS KARST STRUCTURES IN LAN HAN BAY (All photos by Martin Risbergs)

Tip 2- Skip Ha Long Bay for Lan Ha Bay

We recommend Lan Ha Bay on Cat Ba island instead of Ha Long Bay. Lan Ha Bay is just as beautiful as Ha Long Bay but with fewer tourists, which, of course, means it’s less expensive.

The entire area is the center of Vietnam’s adventure tourism, with hiking, kayaking and other activities amid some of the most exotic scenery in Asia.

How to get there:

Fly into Haiphong. Then taxi 15 minutes or hydrofoil to Cat Ba island in less than 30 minutes.
Where to stay:

Nhat Anh Hotel ($10-15 low season, with the price doubling in high season) on Cat Ba Island has fabulous views of the bay and karsts. And it’s quiet.

Ask for a room on the second floor (first floor, if you’re European) facing the bay. There is an elevator.

The family who owns the Nhat Anh is really nice and the breakfast ($1-$2) was the best we had. It includes bun cha (grilled meat with noodles and salad) and Vietnam café in a small press, café su. (coffee with condensed milk).

The hotel’s boat tours were good and less expensive than agencies on the street.

To get to Nhat Anh Hotel from the hydrofoil harbor, go left (back toward the water) and walk 10 minutes to the little bridge/peer/intersection)  at 23 Tung Dinh street, Cat Ba island.

Booking.com has them listed but they are more expensive than booking yourself.

THE VIEW FROM CANNON FORT

 

Tip 3 – On Cat Ba Island, visit Cannon Fort

Lonely Planet says Cannon Fort has the best views in Vietnam, and they’re right. There are spectacular views and a restaurant atop a limestone knob that used to house anti-aircraft guns during the Vietnam War.

Allow at least two to three hours here, because there’s quite a bit to see and it’s a great place for a meal at the end of the path. (And by the way, the path is hidden.)

The taxi driver will wait for you (for a minimum waiting fee), or you can walk back to town. 

The details:

If you’re flying into Haiphong Airport, the F&F Hotel close to the airport was fine and close to the hydrofoil we took the next day to Cat Ba island.

If you need a hotel near Hanoi airport, we recommend the Airport View Hotel. It is a 3-minute taxi ride from the airport. A room includes breakfast and is only $21 USD equivalent per night.

The owners are kind and helpful, and they’ll throw in a free ride back to the airport.

We liked Room 205 because it was in back off the road and quiet.

Call Ms. Tina at Airport View Hotel
Hotline (24/7): +84 168 322 1969
Email: hotelnoibai@gmail.com
Address: Dien Xa, Quang Tien, Noibai Airport, Hanoi

BONUS

If you’re in the neighborhood, check out Sri Lanka (if there’s not a civil war going on.)

Sri Lanka is an inexpensive destination with a lot of natural beauty. It has decent infrastructure. The trains are cheap and slow but rail service runs throughout the country.

Religion is significantly less apparent than in India.

Tips: Go to Mirissa by train. This surf town is simple and beautiful with amazing botanical gardens in Kandy.

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