In a series of weekly features, City Plus looks at destinations for weekend breaks out of Hong Kong and gives you a handy guide on what to expect, what to do and what to pay. This week, it's Cat Ba Island in Vietnam. Why Cat Ba Island? Because until recently this was northern Vietnam's best-kept tourism secret, and even now it is relatively undeveloped. It is one of the most spectacular destinations in the region and if you go at the right time of year you can have a slice of it all to yourself. Everyone knows about Halong Bay, and its notoriety is reflected in the coach loads of tourists and the fleets of pleasure boats. In Cat Ba, you can get away from most of that. Set on the edge of the extraordinary matrix of tiny, deserted islands that rise jaggedly out of the South China Sea and make Halong Bay so famous, Cat Ba has all of Halong's coastal beauty but more charm and less congestion. Ten years ago there was only one hotel and one restaurant in Cat Ba Town. It has since boomed to become a popular weekend retreat for people from Hanoi - but still relatively few tourists head there. There is a reason of course. It is not the easiest place to get to and it takes a bit of backpacker spirit to get you there. You will need to fly to Hanoi, hire a car or van to take you to Haiphong (2? hours, around US$35) and then catch a fast ferry (one hour, US$10 a head) to Cat Ba Town. The good news is that you do not have to stay in backpacker accommodation once you arrive. If you do, there are very good low-priced options for US$10 a room per night upwards, but you can also up your budget to stay somewhere mid-range, if a little soulless, such as the high-rise seafront Holiday View Hotel (US$40 to US$50 a night) or, better still, splurge out US$100 a night and stay at one of two luxury resorts around 1km from the town and the ferry pier. What's there to see and do? The highlight of any trip to Cat Ba - in fact, the main reason to go there - is hiring a boat for the day, taking a trip around the outlying islands and picking your own private, deserted beach set in mesmerising, turquoise-blue sea. Once there, meandering between islands in an extraordinary seascape or sipping a cold drink and wandering over sand that may have not felt another human footprint for ages, you will forget all the aggravation of getting there. Where should I stay? For value stay at the Family Hotel opposite the ferry pier in Cat Ba Town. This is the original Cat Ba hotel - 10 years ago it was the only one in the main island town. Prices have not changed much in the past decade. A room with three beds and air-conditioning overlooking the bustling Cat Ba Town seafront will cost US$12 a night. You can hire a boat for the day from the Family Hotel with a meal served up for an all-inclusive price of about US$40 for six people. The boat comes equipped with a supply of cold drinks but beware: you may end up paying almost as much for the drinks as the boat hire, so check prices first. Make sure you plan your itinerary with the hotel because many of the boat drivers speak no English and will happily take you 50km out into the South China Sea when the best beaches are less than 30 minutes away. There are scores more mini-hotels within walking distance of the main pier in Cat Ba Town offering similar room prices and boat trips, so shop around if the Family Hotel is full. Shop around for boat trips too, as prices vary greatly. If you crave creature comforts for a night or two, take a motorbike around the bay and stay at the new Sunrise Resort, the better of the two resort options with a fantastic setting in the middle of its own bay. Rooms with balconies overlooking the swimming pool and beach cost about US$100 a night. What shouldn't I miss? The island has three good beaches all within walking distance of the town and each other. The alternative is to take a motorbike taxi (5,000 Vietnam dong or HK$2.50 each way). The middle beach has a reasonable restaurant. Best of all, a wooden cliff walkway with spectacular views has recently been built linking the three beaches - perfect for a sunrise stroll or a sunset jog. If you fancy a day away from the coast, there is a national park in the centre of the island with monkeys, other wildlife and a lake. Hire a guide and driver through any hotel to take you there. What one piece of advice would you give to a first-timer? Leave your laptop behind. It is almost impossible to get an internet connection even at the Sunrise Resort. There are a couple of internet cafes in the town if you need to catch up with your e-mail - but why bother? Wait until you get back to Hanoi or Hong Kong. What will a weekend there cost me? The best time to visit Cat Ba Island is May and October. In the winter, sea temperatures are a little too low and in the summer the island is overflowing with visitors and prone to storms. Return flights to Hanoi on Cathay Pacific cost about HK$5,000. If you have air miles, use them - it is relatively expensive to buy a ticket but a return trip only uses up 15,000 points on air miles. Alternatively, book a package for a two-night break in Hanoi with flights included and delay the flight back to Hong Kong for four days or so. It works out cheaper than just a return flight, only in many cases and you can have two nights in Hanoi before or after you visit Cat Ba.