Ha Long Bay
About 5 hours from Hanoi in northeast Vietnam lies Ha Long Bay; a UNESCO world heritage site with 1,600 limestone islands sprouting from emerald coloured sea.
Anyone taking a trip to northern Vietnam will most likely pay a visit here as it’s one of country’s most well known attractions.
The problem with it being such a popular tourist attraction is that there are a huge amount of tour agencies competing with each other, a lot of them offering expensive, poor quality trips.
With arranged boat tours from Hanoi having a reputation for cramming 30+ people on poorly maintained boats and providing a crowded and rushed experience, it was hard to know which agency to go with.
I’m a fan of doing things independently wherever possible but it was proving tricky to find a way.
Then I heard about Cat Ba Island.
~ The view from Cat Ba Island
Hanoi to Cat Ba Island
Adam and I were actually coming down from Sapa. Having spent 3 days in Hanoi beforehand and on a race against time to get down to Ho Chi Minh City for work, we decided to skip a night in Hanoi again and headed straight to Cat Ba Island.
Our overnight bus from Sapa conveniently dropped us at Hanoi’s Luong Yen bus station in the early hours of the morning. This is where the Hoang Long bus company’s office and departure point is. You can pick up an inexpensive (around 250,000 VND) bus-boat-bus combo ticket to Cat Ba town.
~ On the boat to Cat Ba
We waited a couple of hours for the office to open and departed around 7:30am. I was in ultimate zombie mode a this point but from what I can remember the journey was pretty comfortable, the worst part being waiting around at Hai Phong for a while to change to a connecting bus. Better than those Vietnamese ‘sleeper buses’ designed for no one taller than 5’4”!
Cat Ba Island
First impressions of Cat Ba town weren’t too inspiring but if you venture away from the town you can discover quiet beaches, jungles, hills and look out points that I hear offer stunning views. There’s also a National Park and a few island tour agencies organising hikes there. I can’t comment on these as we were purely using Cat Ba as a base to see Ha Long Bay!
~ Cat Ba pier
Lan Ha Bay to Ha Long Bay boat trip
We did some research and took a full day trip to Ha Long bay with one of the reputable tour agents on the island, Cat Ba Ventures.
The trip cost us $29 each and included an English speaking guide, huge lunch, kayaking equipment and guide, snorkelling gear and drinking water. One of the best parts – there was only 14 of us on this massive boat!
There are also overnight trips available where you sleep on the boat, but due to budget and time scale, we settled for one day and it was perfect.
We started with a cruise through Lan Ha Bay, past floating fishing villages, then hundreds of beautiful limestone towers and islands topped with jungle. We then continued to Ha Long Bay where the boat anchored at an un-crowded spot.
We went kayaking through caves to hidden lagoons and only encountered about 3 other boat loads of tourists. Cat Ba Ventures pride themselves on taking you to the ‘less touristy’ area of Ha Long Bay and it was nice to find they stick to their word.
~ Kayaking through caves to hidden lagoons
At lunch the chef on board cooked up an amazing seafood and vegetarian feast. Once our bellies were full the boat carried on to a private stretch of beach at one of the islands. We had a huge area of the bay to ourselves where we could jump off the boat, swim to the island and do some snorkelling.
~ Our private beach!
Jumping off the boat was a terrifying experience, and that’s coming from a strong swimmer having few issues with the sea… until you can clearly see a few massive jelly fish blobbing about!
~ I soon learnt that to avoid panic and possible drowning, it’s best just to swim back to the boat without the goggles
We then headed back through the breathtaking scenery to Cat Ba Island around sunset. The whole experience was very peaceful and we were very glad to have chosen this way of seeing Ha Long Bay.