Exploring Cat Ba Town, Vietnam – Over The Hill

Visit the local's side of Cat Ba Town for a completely different experience

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

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

9,999 km so far.

We decided to venture over the hill today to the locals’ side of Cat Ba Town on Cat Ba Island. Just like in Ha Long, the town is divided into the tourist side, and the ‘real’ side.

We needed a few supplies, and rightly figured that things would be more reasonably priced a short walk away from where we are staying.

Session Coffee

First, however, I began today like most. Meditation, followed by coffee.

If you are a regular reader you know how much I obsess about coffee. I have said it before and I will say it again: I am a junkie. I am a highbrow junkie though, what some people call a connoisseur. Sometimes, though, good enough is good enough.

On Hainan I was running perilously low on fresh coffee beans, so when we got back to Haikou I went to Excel Coffee to get more beans. Unfortunately, they were closed for the Spring Festival holiday. Feeling the DTs coming on, I did something I haven’t had to do the entire trip: I bought beans at Starbucks.

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

Now, until we get to Hanoi in a few days, where there are small-batch roasters, I am making my morning coffee with Starbucks Guatemalan beans. This is a bit like switching from drinking Eagle Rock Brewery Populist IPA every day (I am lost in a dream just thinking about this) to Budweiser.

My morning brew still has caffeine, still has a deep, dirty taste, but it’s something I could drink all day long and not get the coffee jitters. It just doesn’t have the special something that elevates a cup of coffee from ordinary to extraordinary.

wall art in cat ba town

Dirt on the wall? Nope. Take a second look.

This is, however, exactly what makes Starbucks so popular. It’s for drinking on the way to work, at work, and when you get home. It’s Budweiser. OK, so maybe you shouldn’t drink Bud on the way to work…

It is also a lot less expensive than gourmet beans. I paid roughly 50% less for the Starbucks beans than I have been paying for small-batch roasts. How do they do it? Just like First CityWide Change Bank: volume.

Cat Ba Town: Market Economy

This morning, a few hours later than my trek out yesterday, we both went to market to pick up banh mi ingredients again. The market here is really vibrant, even in the off season when only about two thirds of the stalls are open.

You can get this whole jar of reptiles for about $30. Deal!

You can get this whole jar of reptiles for about $30. Deal!

There’s the live bird section, the fish and shelled seafood section, the meat area, the tofu aisle, the vegetable area, the fruit stalls, supplies for altar dressing, flowers, household goods, the shops that sell water and snack food, and just outside the main entrance, all the ladies selling the goods from their personal veggie patches.

Every stall is run by a woman, smiling, saying hello, showing you what she has on offer, generally being nice, warm, and welcoming. We tried to bargain on fruit, and failed miserably. Every time we make a reasonable counter-offer to the first highly inflated price, the women just shut us down completely. Tonight Jane did some more research on bargaining techniques in Vietnam, so hopefully we can get better at it.

rice in the Cat Ba market

Rice scoop, Cat Ba Town, Vietnam.

Word of warning fellow travellers: I saw a man at the back of one shop carefully gluing the top back on a water bottle. Make sure your bottled water, if you have to buy it, is properly sealed.

We then walked the 800 metres up and over the hill that separates the tourists from the locals. From the reaction we received from small children, and some adults, it was clear very few visitors bother to take the time.

Jane had to make friends with this little tiger and his mom, Cat Ba.

Jane had to make friends with this little tiger and his mom, Cat Ba.

We found peanut butter at a reasonable price, Oreos for at least half the price they would be on “our side”, Snickers at half the tourist price, cheaper fruit and veg, and lots of street food stalls.

If you get to Cat Ba Town, take a stroll and see how the locals live. Not only will you get a better idea of the people your holiday is supporting, but you will get to see the effects of supply and demand at work.

Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em

After lunch we did some more walking for warmth.

tiny puppy in Cat Ba Town

Puppies just can’t sit still in Cat Ba town.

We climbed a long, steep set of stairs up to the temple overlooking town. This is the second time we’ve seen an altar in Cat Ba on which the main offering is half-smoked cigarettes.

Offerings for the dead, Cat Ba.

Offerings for the dead, Cat Ba.

Apparently this is a gift for family members who have passed on – possibly from smoking too many cigarettes in this life.

Vietnamese cigarette packages are just huge graphic reminders of what smoking can do, which makes this seem like an odd gift for your loved ones.

The views of Ha Long Bay from the temple were spectacular, even on this overcast, grey day.

view of ocean in ha long bay

The view of Ha Long Bay from high on the hill in Cat Ba Town.

We sat looking out into the harbour, with its floating seafood restaurants and fishing fleets, and beyond, to the karst islands dotting the sea like nature’s version of a Damian Hirst spot painting.  

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  1. Comment by ariel

    ariel February 16, 2014 at 8:41 pm

    those pink hairy things are rambutan, not lychee! but, they are similar and AMAZING. i can seriously eat my weight in those things. (please do so on my behalf) xoxo

    • Comment by Stephen

      Stephen February 16, 2014 at 10:41 pm

      Ah Ha. Thanks for the correction. We got some in our hotel fruit basket in Hanoi, and they’re available at breakfast too. I guess ‘it’s the season for rambutan!

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