A must-see for us and a big point on our (as well as every other tourist’s) list was the famous Ha Long bay. We both wanted to spend at least one night on a boat among the islands to enjoy the sunrise and sunset. Since we are somewhat allergic to big tourist masses we decided to go to Cat Ba and do a tour from there.
First we looked into tours through our hostel in Hanoi. They offered us a three day/two night cruise including all transfers, a fancy three star boat and lots of food and activities. It wasn’t cheap but still alright value. After some online research we found the same tour cheaper, but it was already booked for the days we could go. It was the same for all similar alternatives so we decided to stick to our original plan and booked an open return bus ticket to Cat Ba.
Cat Ba Express picked us up on time, but because we stayed in the old town the bus could not stop near our hotel. The pick up guy shepherded us into a taxi, jumped on a scooter and off we went. Five minutes later we stopped at another street where he told us to wait for the bus, while he dashed off to ready the next passengers. Less than a minute later another guy came running and waving along the street and directed us two hundred meters to where the bus had stopped. Finally were on our way out of the capital.
Two and a half hours later we arrived at a harbour where we boarded a ‘speed boat’ which took us across to Cat Ba island. The ride took only about 10 minutes. Out of the harbour we got straight onto another bus for the remaining 45 minutes to CatBa town. The windy road offered us good views of the forest covered hills and valleys of the national park which coveres most of the island.
Cat Ba town is quite touristy but most of the hotels and restaurant are concentrated along the sea front. Behind them is a more traditional town with markets.
After a short search we found an alright double room with sea view for $6 for the night and went on to find and book a cruise. We had done our homework and narrowed our choice down to four tour operators. They all offered slightly different tours at different rates but the average was roughly $100 per person for two days/one night. After a lunch break and some hard thinking we choose Cat Ba Green Trail Tours and opted to stay in a cabin on the boat. Having everything settled, we headed for the beach. The water was surprisingly warm and clear. There was a path around a small peninsula and we enjoyed beautiful views and sunshine.
Cat Ba has three sandy beaches and we were very shocked to find that each of them had at least one hotel/resort either in operation or under construction. The beaches themselves are still public but would be a lot nicer without an eight or ten storey concrete block next to them. This is the dark side of mass tourism and development. We have yet to find a place where tourism development is confined to low impact accommodation. Everything has to be bigger and taller.
For dinner we opted for local seafood in the restaurant right next to our tour company following their recommendation. There was a wide choice and the food was delicious.
In the morning, we departed from the tour office by minibus to the harbour where we boarded a small cruise ship. There were 16 people from at least six countries which a really nice mix. Leaving the pier we drove through narrow passeges and past a few floating villages. People lived there on rafts with huts and at least one fishing boat and a small dinghy moored right outside. Some of the boats were surprisingly big and had us wondering how people maneuvered them in the narrow channels. The villages had their own shops, bars and restaurants and one of them even had a floating school since it would take students too long to get to the island. The closest villages to Cat Ba have under sea power connection but most people live off-grid using solar power and generators. They are supplied via shopping boats and even the rubbish is collected by boat. All of this was very interesting and quite impressive to see.
Once further out we transfered onto a bigger boat, on which we would also spend the night. For the next two hours we cruised through Lan Ha bay and into Ha Long bay. Lan Ha bay is the little sister of Ha Long and part of the national park.
We stopped in a beautiful bay among high rising limestone islands for swiming while our captain cooked lunch. We had both been looking forward to a dip into the clear blue water. We were joined by four other travellers, but most chose to stay dry on the boat.
Lunch was super yummy. The crew served steamed rice, prawn, vegetable, fish cooked in foil with tomatoes, peppers, onions and herbs, spring rolls and oranges for dessert. It was a lot of food and everybody loved it.
After another hour we arrived at a floating house where we rented double kayaks. Some of our fellow passenger had some trouble going in a straight line and steering, but soon they figured it out and we were on our way through a beautiful bay. After passing through a rather short tunnel, we entered an even nicer lagoon. We were the first of three groups in kayaks and in the tunnel we got overtaken by three boats full of lazy Chinese tourist being rowed around by a local. The scenery was awesome and the one and a half hours were over way too soon.
In the afternoon, we returned to Lan Ha and stopped at monkey island. This was the first time we saw more than four other cruise ships. The island is 20-30 min from Cat Ba by boat and many companies offer day trips there. Getting ashore was only possible via small tenders. Most of the group followed our tour guide up the hill, but since we were going to return the following day we opted for a drink in the beach bar and some monkey-watching. There are roughly 30 macaques living on monkey island. They were brought here by someome and live mainly near the beach where the tourists are. Over time the animals have become used to being fed by tourists and helping themselves to leftovers around the bar. Despite the sign outside the bar not to feed or throw anything near the animals or upset them, we saw quite a few tourists feeding and teasing them. One couple was eating a banana when monkeys approached them. They tried to hide the fruit behind their backs while waving a scarf at them. One upset monkey screamed for support and immediatelly there were three more on the scene making agressive gestures. Eventually they people got away but only just. There is cerrainly a very good reason why guides advise not to take any food with you when visiting the island.
After delivering the day tourist back to port, we dropped the other couple on the two day trip off at their floating guesthouse. We had prearranged to go night kayaking with the hope of seeing biolumomescent plankton. When arrived at the guesthouse it was quite chilly and there was no plankton to be seen and so we gave that one a miss. Our captain was quite reluctant to move the ship away from the guesthouse and further out into the bay but we insisted and eventually he gave in. There is no point paying for a night on the boat if you spend the night moored to a floating guesthouse.
Dinner was pretty much the same as lunch, but with the addition of a plate of cooked oysters and fried beef and green vegetables. We had a giant fish for the two of us (lunch was one fish for four) and it was again very delicious. We really enjoyed our private boat for the night and it was probably the biggest luxury we had treated ourselves to so far.
We woke up at 6 am and just in time to see the eastern sky painted all red and pink which looked stunning. It was a view we don’t get very often straight outside our bedroom. After a simple breakfast and being joined by a French family we cruised to Dau Be island. This island is located on the eastern end of Lan Ha bay and only two or three day cruises stop there, which means it is a lot quieter. Our kayaks for the day were towed along at the back of our ship until we reached the island. We paddled through a long and dark tunnel to reach the first of three hidden lagoons. Thankfully, we all had headlamps so we could see and avoid the hanging rocks. From the first lagoon, we maneuvered our way into a smaller lagoon. This tunnel was quite tricky because it was narrow and had a zig-zag and a strong current. The effort was totally worth it though. On the other side we entered a small lagoon surrounded by tall and steep rockfaces and trees. It was only our group plus about four other kayaks, some birds in the trees and our echo that filled this picturesque scene with life.
After some time we paddled back into the first lagoon before steering into another tunnel. This one was a lot easier to navigate despite the strong current because it was much wider. On the other side we entered a fairytale. The big lagoon was surrounded by forested hills and even had its own islands. Two fishermen were laying nets but otherwise it was just us and the stunning landscape. It felt like a dream floating amidst this landscape sunbathing in our little boats. We would have loved to spend the rest of the day there, but our guide reminded us that we had to go back to the boat.
On the way back we stopped at a small beach next to a temple and met the temple cats. Excited about our visit they didn’t leave us alone and demanded lots of cuddling and stroking. The cool breeze kept us from going in and out of the water so we stuck to playing on the beach and searching the sand for sea shells. Matthias then decided to swim the roughly 400m back to the boat while Zoë acted as support kayak. The French family could not resist when one of the cats decided it had enough of it’s beach and joined them in their kayak.
After paying hide and seek on the boat our guide returned it to its home before we left for monkey island.This time there were a lot fewer boats (it was Monday) and this time we joined the group on the trek up the hill. The bottom half is easy to climb, but the upper section is steep and rocky. Time and weather have eroded the stones into lots of pointy spikes with sharp edges. Good shoes are definitely recommended but people still undertook it in flipflops. We climbed up to the first of the two summits and spent a few minutes enjoying the view before heading back down.
We then joined a group of day tourists on another boat for the return to Cat Ba. After finding a hotel and enjoying some great burgers we followed Green Trail’s invitation for a free beer in their office.
This cruise was by far the best thing we have done in a long time. Choosing to spend the extra money for the two day option to go and see Dau Be was more than worth it. Touring from Cat Ba with its 43 cruise companies is also a very good idea compared to the more than 500 boats that are based around Hai Phong and only cruise that side of Ha Long bay. Don’t go during summer when it is hot and the place gets packed by Vietnamese tourists. Visiting in low season is worth sacreficing some heat for less tourists, boats and more privacy.