Cat Ba to Halong Bay – Going Right, Gone Wrong

The trip to Halong Bay goes perfectly to plan and then things fall apart

This post is part of our epic series documenting 19 months of cycling through 22 countries. If you want to know more about cyling from Cat Ba to Halong Bay, read on.

(Don’t miss: Our post covering everything you need to know before cycle touring Vietnam)

10,036 km so far.

All the problems I thought might arise today, didn’t come to pass. We were planning on catching the 9am ferry from Cat Ba to Ha Long. I thought our alarm might not go off, or we might not make it all the way across the island in time.

road to cat ba island ferry

Lovely views crossing Cat Ba Island.

I thought maybe the ferry wouldn’t run, or that we’d been given misinformation about the time.

I thought we might get to the dock and find out we were at the wrong location.

Instead, everything was straightforward and easy. We got up before the sun (why do some cyclists do this every day?), ate a little muesli, and hopped on our bikes.

Stephen’s note: Seriously, why do so many cycle tourists get up at the crack of dawn to ride? I do not understand.

Before we were even out of town, we cracked the big milestone we’ve been anticipating…

10,000 km!!!

If I had the time and patience to make this page full of balloons and confetti, you know I would.

(Don’t miss: Our post about everything you need to know before visiting Vietnam)

Wow, 10,000 km and still going strong!

Wow, 10,000 km and still going strong!

10,000 km. That’s far. Like, really, really far. Fuelled only by vegetarian food. On bikes. Yup. I admit, I’m pretty proud of us.

Cat Ba to Halong Bay: Ship To Shore

The Cat Ba ferry was a bit of a rust bucket.

Bikes on the Cat Ba to Ha Long ferry.

Bikes on the Cat Ba to Ha Long ferry.

Actually, it was a total rust bucket.

I had no idea that a boat made entirely of rust could still float. But I suppose they make cement boats float, so why not rust ones?

rusty stair case on the ferry

Stairs o’ rust, Cat Ba Island to Halong Bay ferry.

At least there were plenty of flotation devices on board.

old lifejackets on the cat ba island ferry

Brand new floatation devices, Cat Ba Island ferry.

While we made our crossing, the crew made their lunch. Their galley consists of a large metal cupboard on deck, which holds their food supplies, plus a gas burner. They have a second electric burner in the cabin, and a rice cooker, of course. They put all of this to use today, cooking a feast of cabbage, thick slices of a pate which comes wrapped in banana leaf, and lots of white rice.

It was quite amazing to see what they could put together with such a simple set-up.

While they ate, we sat outside and enjoyed the view of the karst islands for a second time.

Views views views, Ha Long Bay.

Views views views, Ha Long Bay.

We enjoyed it even more when the sun came out and started to warm away the chill that had found its way deep into our bones.

On the far shore, we headed into town and spent a while trying to choose a guest house.

The choice of hotels in Ha Long is ridiculous, making it almost impossible to find the decent ones. You could look in 30 and never see anything better or worse than anything else. Then again, the one we ended up in is probably a little worse. But, it has soft mattresses and WiFi, and the price is right.

Plus, it feels wrong to complain when we see the simple quarters the owners of this guest house share, along with their three kids.

Lunch was, for me, a disappointment. We stepped up to a crowded little canteen off the main street, and got completely railroaded by the woman running it. She had us inside, sitting down, and ordering before we even knew what was happening. How’d she do that?

We had a terrific view of her tiny kitchen at the front of the restaurant though. It was another simple set-up, with a glass case showing off their wares, including several different kinds of shellfish, as well as a half-dozen rigid cow tongues (yuck).

Shellfish selection, Cat Ba Island.

Shellfish selection, Cat Ba Island.

We watched as the woman made a tomato sauce which we hoped was going into our tofu dish. She started with a little plastic jar of something tomatoey, added in two huge scoops of two different white powders (msg and sugar, we think), fish sauce, chiles, and coriander. She finished it off with a giant dollop of honey, poured straight from the jar.

As you know, when you pour honey straight from the jar, a sizeable glob oozes out and sticks to the rim of the jar. This woman was faced with the same problem. Her solution? She stuck out her tongue and gave it a big lick, twisted the lid back onto the jar, and put it back in its place on the food shelf.

We were very relieved when this turned out NOT to be the sauce for our tofu after all.

Hello Daddy, Hello Mom

Since we’ve been emailing back and forth with my parents for days about their stay in Ha Long, we knew almost every detail of their schedule. This meant we were pretty sure that, even though we weren’t due to meet them until this evening, we could catch them at the dock before they jumped on a boat for a tour of the bay.

After a few minutes of eager anticipation of their arrival, I spotted Dad’s Tilley hat bobbing in the distance.

It was amazing to catch a glimpse of a pair of familiar faces in a crowd so far from home. When my mom spotted us, she came running across the beach like a little kid to give us both giant hugs. We only had a few minutes to say hello, but it was well worth the effort to surprise them.

jane with her mom and dad

Jane and her parents in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.

After their boat trip, we got together for dinner. Choosing a restaurant suitable for parents, after so many months eating in Chinese dives, was somewhat tricky. Everywhere that looked “decent” was outrageously expensive. Everywhere that is priced reasonably (for a tourist town) was not going to be acceptable. In the end, we settled for one of the expensive, almost decent-looking places.

The food was pretty bad and the bill was ridiculous for what we got. Though, since they price everything in American dollars here, it seemed like a pretty good deal compared to how much the same meal might cost back home.

None of that really mattered anyway, because the company was terrific. It was so nice to catch up on each others’ travels in person. FaceTime is great, but it’s no substitute for actual face time, sitting right across the table from each other.

We made our plans for the following day and then my parents went back to their comfortable ship while we went back to our crappy little guesthouse.

A wall and flowers, Ha Long city.

A wall and flowers, Ha Long city.

Upon entering the room, I noticed that there were muddy footprints on our bathroom floor that hadn’t been there before. And the inner door to our room was unlocked, even though we’d locked it earlier. Anxiously, we rifled through our things. Everything was present and accounted for. So who had been in our room, and why?

We surmised that the proprietress had needed to switch on the hot water heater in our bathroom for some reason, since the footprint led directly there. But this really doesn’t explain why the inner door to our room was unlocked.

We’re a little unsettled by this invasion and we’re plenty glad that we’ve got a latch on our door that can only be opened from the inside.

In future, we must spend more time shopping around.

The Evening News

Bang bang bang!

Hello hello!

It’s 9pm and someone is knocking at our door. Oh man, this is never good news. Briefly I wondered if they were going to ask us to return the extra blankets we’d been given an hour or so earlier. But no.

Remember that post where Stephen talked about how solving our small every day problems has prepared us for solving bigger, more dire kinds of problems? Well I sure hope he’s right.

The man who runs the hotel had our passports. He told us in his limited English that we had to leave tomorrow. What? Why? We’d agreed on two nights. We shook our heads, not understanding.

He opened the passports to our Vietnamese visas. He pointed at the Valid Until date.


That’s tomorrow! WTF?

In Hong Kong, we had been told quite clearly, after we very carefully asked, that no matter what date we entered Vietnam, the visas would be valid for 30 days from the day we entered. Apparently that is a total lie. A quick bit of research tonight told us the visa is valid only until the date you put on the application form, and not one minute longer.

Well, thank you very effing much, Mr. Font Of Misinformation from the Vietnamese Consulate in Hong Kong. If we’d known this, we’d have been far more careful when selecting the dates to put on the form.

I’d also like to thank the Vietnamese border guards, who never thought to point out that even though we were entering the country on bikes, we only had ONE WEEK left on our visa.

If we had a swear jar on this trip, I’d have filled it tonight.

So now, tomorrow, instead of spending the one day I have to see my parents actually getting to see my parents, chances are we’ll be running around sorting out visa issues, or, more likely, getting on a bus to Ha Noi, so we can fix this problem in the big city.  


  1. Comment by Taina

    Taina February 18, 2014 at 7:07 am

    Oh no! What a high/low experience between the achieved milestone and the visa crisis… sending you positive thoughts and hoping for the best for you!

    • Comment by Jane

      Jane February 18, 2014 at 8:52 pm

      Thank god for the highs though, or else we couldn’t handle the lows. Looks like the visa crisis will be OK. Still crossing our fingers.

  2. Comment by Andrea

    Andrea February 17, 2014 at 6:37 am

    First of all – congrats on 10,000K! Unbelievable,
    And secondly, i hope the Visa thing worked out for you….. (just the suckiest of timing.)

    • Comment by Jane

      Jane February 18, 2014 at 8:53 pm

      We think we’ve got it sorted (we hope). Bad timing, but also good timing. If we’d known about the visa expiring sooner, we would have gone straight to Hanoi and missed my parents, so maybe it’s all meant to be.

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