Cycling to Cat Ba Island, Vietnam – If The Price Is Right

We bargain our way onto a private boat to Cat Ba Island

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

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

9,956 km so far.

Got out fairly early this morning, which for us means 9:30am. We still don’t understand how, or why, most cycle tourists start much earlier. Our plan was to head to the ferry dock so we could catch a ride to Cat Ba Island for a few days of rest before my parents get here.

We’d found mounds of conflicting info on the web about ferry times. So much so that we just decided to head over there and wing it.

On Trust

As we were leaving the hotel, one of the employees informed us that the next ferry wasn’t until 3pm, since it’s extra-low season. This aligned with some of the more reliable info I’d read, but we still expected the next words out of his mouth to be “I can arrange a boat for you at a low cost that will leave right now.”

Seafood farm, Ha Long.

Seafood farm, Ha Long.

Those words never came. Which brings me to a mini rant on the trouble with guide books. Guide books include so many warnings about the scammers, cheats, and liars you will meet as a budget traveller, that they teach you not to trust anyone. They make you see all the local people as vultures just out to separate you from your cash.

Since leaving China, where there is next to no tourist-scam culture, we’ve been on our guard. And you know what? It’s been totally unnecessary so far. We’ve been charged next-to-nothing for meals and hotels, given perfectly sound unsolicited advice, and treated with complete honesty.

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

Yes, there are scammers out there, and we know we need to keep our eyes open, but it’s good to remind ourselves that most people are just trying to make an honest living and strike a fair deal.

If You’ve Got The Money Honey, I’ve Got The Boat

With nothing better to do, we headed over to the ferry terminal anyway, just to see what would happen. The signs posted there indicated there would be a ferry at 11:30am, but everything was closed up tight, and we could see the ferry docked at another wharf, so we knew that was not going to happen.

As we were loitering around the terminal, a man came up to me and told me the ferry wouldn’t go until 3pm… and he could arrange a boat for us at low cost that would leave right now. It would be $60 for the two of us.

I laughed. That’s about three times our daily budget, and the ferry costs a sixth of that, so, nope.

cycling to cat ba island vietnam

View from our boat to Cat Ba Island, Ha Long Bay.

After a brief discussion with Stephen I offered the man $30. It was his turn to laugh.

So we bid each other farewell and parted ways.

We’d noticed a cafe a little way down the wharf, so we went there, ordered a coffee, and settled in for a couple hours of work. Did we mention yet that absolutely everywhere here has free WiFi? Italy and Germany should come for a visit to see how it’s done.

Cycling to Cat Ba Island: Have Coffee, Will Travel

The man working the coffee shop, who was looking after his very young daughter as well as running the cafe, got on his cell phone after we ordered our drinks. He seemed to be relaying our order to someone. Sure enough, a few minutes later, his wife showed up on a scooter, with our drinks in hand. As she arrived, he said to his baby, “Mama!”. Where she had been, where she made the coffees, we’ll never know.

Just after our coffees arrived, the man from the boat pulled up on his scooter, with a couple of backpackers on a motorbike.

“OK,” he yelled. He waved the paper on which we’d written $30. “OK, come!”

Alright then, I guess we’re going. We hastily packed up all of our stuff, grabbed our coffees, and followed the bikes to the wharf.

His little sampan-style boat looked like it would float, so we decided to go for it.

On the wharf where we boarded the boat, five or six people were crouching amongst piles of garbage, sorting it into its constituent parts. Half-eaten veggies over here, plastic bags over here, bits of cardboard in a third pile. If you’re wondering why you don’t see recycling bins in Asia, this is why. Everything gets reused and recycled further down the line.

As we so often do on this trip, we instantly felt the embarrassment of riches we are spending each day (currently around $25), when compared to what the local people live on. And then we start to think about what we used to spend living in LA. It’s madness is what it is.

Cycling to Cat Ba Island: Stunning Ha Long

The boat was a pretty rickety old thing, accessible only via a steep set of stairs leading directly into the water. I’d have been pretty wary of taking my bike down the wooden plank-turned-gangway, if they hadn’t just loaded the motorbike in the same way.

The ride was gorgeous. We made our way out of the harbour, which was lined with empty tourist cruisers, all resting up for the off season. There was a fleet of boats anchored in the harbour too, including one belonging to the company my mom, sister, niece, and I sailed with five years ago.

cycling to cat ba island motorbike on boat

We thought getting our bikes on the boat to Cat Ba Island was hard!

It’s easy to forget just how beautiful a place is until you revisit it, and this was no exception. Although I have to admit it was a little more beautiful on my last trip, in the 30C heat, than it was today, at around 9C.

Still, it wasn’t too cold for a little yoga.

cycling cat ba island

The now-classic boat on a boat pose.

On the other side, as we listened to one of our ship mates expertly bargain for a ride into Cat Ba town from the scooter taxi drivers, we were grateful for our bikes all over again.

Floating village in Ha Long.

Floating village in Ha Long.

We took a leisurely ride across the island. The karst landscape provided plenty of gorgeous views and plenty of steep ascents and descents, too. My body was making it plain that I badly need a rest day.

Aside from the squeaking of our chains as a result of yesterday’s mud bath, and the creaking of my tired bones, the silence along the roads was almost deafening. We had almost forgotten what it is like to be away form cities and people and industry.

This is the most industry we saw on our ride to Cat Ba town.

This is the most industry we saw on our ride to Cat Ba town.

Memories of my last trip here came flooding back as we rode along and finally entered Cat Ba town: the rickety old public bus we weren’t supposed to take; the empty junk we took to get here; and the overcrowded hell of a fast ferry we left on. And the beaches, oh the beautiful empty beaches!

But that’s another story.

Cycling Around Cat Ba Town

The town of Cat Ba, at least the tourist side of town, is nothing special.

The food is over-priced and underwhelming so far, catering strictly to the Backpacker crowd. Plus, there are white people everywhere. We’re currently suffering from reverse culture shock. For the first time in months we’re just another couple of faces in the crowd.

The town is lined with perfectly decent guest houses. As we rode along, we had plenty of offers for $6 double rooms. We finally took one and talked them down to $5.50.

The cost of our hotel for four nights is less than we spent on a boat trip to get here, so we probably paid too much. But what is too much exactly? If we’re happy, and the boat captain is happy, then it seems to me, the price is right.  


  1. Comment by Linds

    Linds February 11, 2014 at 11:48 pm

    Great rule to have when bargaining – if everyone is happy then it’s a win. Rather than some sort of sport to grind out the lowest possible price. Really enjoying your blog.


    • Comment by Jane

      Jane February 12, 2014 at 2:28 am

      Thanks Linds! We are pretty new to bargaining, and neither of us is very good at it, but it looks like we’ll get our practice over the next few months.

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