Having a blast in the karsts – Lan Ha Bay, Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island

After some internet research and pounding the Hanoi pavement, we decided that we wanted to do two nights out on the water to allow us to get away from the crowds and also to give us some time to explore Cat Ba Island National Park. We settled on a two day three night trip through Lily’s Travel Agency, which fitted the bill perfectly.

On the morning of our trip, we piled on to the air-conditioned mini bus with the other tourists heading out on Azela Cruise’s ship. After we had collected everyone we hit the highway towards Ben Pha Got pier. Our tour guide, Vang, entertained us with some Vietnamese legends and a quick rundown of Vietnamese history, throughout which he remained impressively impartial when discussing French and American impacts on the country.

A large majority of Halong Bay trips leave from Ha Long city area. Azela is among the small number of companies that operate out of Cat Ba Harbour instead, so we had to get a bus to Ben Pha Got pier, then a car ferry over to Cat Ba Island, then get back on the bus for the trip  to Cat Ba town on the far side of the island, and then we finally got on the ship. It was a bit of chopping and changing, and the car ferry was ancient and murderously slow in the scorching sunshine, but actually the transfer was quicker than going through the normal ferry terminal.

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All of this effort meant that we started our trip in Lan Ha Bay, which is part of the larger Halong Bay area but south of the UNESCO world heritage area of Halong Bay proper. Lan Ha Bay receives less tourists than Halong bay, but is by no means empty. As we shared the water with several other boats we wondered quite how jam packed Halong Bay would feel when we eventually stopped there on day three. For the time being we were in blissful peace.

Our ship was bobbing about 200 metres offshore and most of our companions were shuttled over by a sturdy looking water taxi. There wasn’t enough space for all of us so we, naturally, volunteered to be ferried through the floating villages in what could generously be described as a wooden dingy; the captain started the engine by touching two bare wires sticking up out of the deck together. It was by far the more authentic transfer.

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Once on board we were fed several kilos of seafood and rice for lunch before being shown to our cabins one by one. We were the last people left to be taken to our cabin and the entire crew assembled in the narrow gangway outside the door, smiling madly at us. Once we had squeezed past them in to the room we were met by heart shaped balloons, towel swans and rose petals all over the bed.

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We had mentioned in passing at Lily’s that we were on an extended honeymoon and they had obviously put in a word for us. It had taken over a year of dropping hints to get a honeymoon perk, and we hadn’t even done it on purpose this time. We dumped our bags on the floor grinning embarrassedly; each and every one of the crew leaned through the door to say congratulations to us, it was really very sweet.

We had half an hour of sailing before our first stop so we changed in to our swimsuits and gawped out of the window. Lan Ha Bay is absolutely gorgeous.

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Thirty minutes later we piled in to the small tender boat towed behind the cruise ship and made for a small beach on one of the many islands. When we arrived there were a fair few people there, but groups gradually came and went and it was always possible to find a bit of sea for yourself. The green water was wonderfully warm, James went so far to say too warm, and whilst there wasn’t any fish to see it was lovely to just float around taking in the stunning view.

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We were also able to leap in to the sea from the top of the tender, which is always fun.

During our short stint on the beach, two of our party had managed to injure themselves on the craggy limestone karsts, the walls of which are deceptively sharp. The crew performed some rudimentary first aid which mostly involved winding several metres of gauze around the affected area. We were transferred back to the ship and sailed another 45 minutes through the limestone outcrops to a floating dock where kayaks awaited us. We were the first ones in to our kayak and having waited for the guide to set off we powered on ahead, making the most of having the place almost entirely to ourselves.

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We have decided that you have to get in a kayak to truly appreciate Lan Ha Bay. It is beautiful from the boat but getting up close and personal with nothing but the noise of your paddles in the water is another experience entirely.

Being in a kayak also means that you can dip through the caves that are scattered throughout the labyrinth of karsts and you find yourself in little hidden coves that the boats can’t reach.

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Unfortunately, Halong Bay is not immune to the scourge of litter; water bottles and sweet packets are almost certainly the by-product of passing tourists, large quantities of polystyrene are more likely to be discarded by local fisherman, who use polystyrene boxes to keep their catch fresh and presumably lob them in to the sea when they are past their best. Taking our lead from Vinsen, we decided that rather than get upset we would collect up as much as we could and, as a result, felt a great deal better than if we had just bemoaned the problem. We picked two sack loads of litter on our two kayaking trips and also on our walk and cycle around Cat Ba Island. On each occasion, locals saw what we were doing and stopped to thank us for it. Please don’t get us wrong, we aren’t trying to put you off, there is relatively little litter in the bay and it is an absolutely stunning place to visit.

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At the end of day one we gathered on the top deck for the “sunset party” where Vang tried for the millionth time to get people excited by the idea karaoke and to encourage us to perhaps take part in “Azela Cruise Idol”.

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There were far too many British people on board for this idea to ever take off and Vang eventually admitted defeat whilst we sipped drinks and watched the sky grow dark over the gorgeous view. Dinner was another enormous affair and after three courses we were all groaning. The evening entertainment, now that karaoke was dead in the water, was squid fishing, and several people took their turn hanging over the side of the ship, jiggling fishing lines in the lamplight. As it wasn’t squid season it wasn’t surprising that all attempts were unsuccessful but they did manage to hook a couple of plastic bags.

We hadn’t been fully briefed by the agency on what to expect on day two but it turns out that on the three-day trip you spend all of the second day on a completely different boat. It was comforting that the two other people on the three-day trip looked as baffled as we did when we were deposited in the lounge of a larger cruise ship and invited to have free tea and coffee. One of the girls leaned across the table: “what are we doing here?!” We all shrugged and hoped that someone would explain it to us at some point. Chatting with other guests it transpired that the ship we were on ran day trips around Cat Ba Island and we had all been ferried off to join this one for the day whilst our own ships went back to harbour to collect the next bunch of guests. Initially peeved that we had been foisted off our own boat where we had private cabins with air conditioning and all of our belongings, we settled down to read for a couple of hours whilst the Australians on board proceeded to get plastered at 9am.

In the end, it was an excellent day and ill-humour was quickly forgotten when we unloaded on Cat Ba Island for our cycle tour to nearby Viet Hai village. We were on the east coast of the island, away from the main town of Cat Ba. This meant that whilst some tourist ships stop there for a tour, there were relatively few people and we were able to enjoy the cycle in complete tranquillity.

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Our temporary tour guide, David, didn’t prove himself to be particularly capable of keeping us together and we all set off in ones and twos, cycling around the coast, up two short but punishing hillsm and through some truly beautiful countryside until we reached the village.

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Previously incredibly poor, Viet Hai village has found new prosperity in tourism and the village was more concrete and electricity than traditional village. In a way this made it more authentic and the setting was undeniably spectacular.

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We stopped for a cold drink at one of the many small drinks shops in town before heading out on a short trek to a nearby cave in the jungle. David, once he had managed to corral our group together, explained that the cave had previously been used by the Viet Cong as a munitions store; it had easy access to the South China Sea, across which the Chinese would ship goods to the Viet Cong fighters. The cave had also served as a hiding place and Vang showed us huge piles of snail shells, snails making up a large part of their diets when food supplies were low.

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The cycle back to the ship was considerably easier than the way out and we enjoyed the opportunity to soak in some more of the scenery at a gentle pace. To get a full experience of Halong Bay we would 100% recommend getting on land and cycling around, along with kayaking it was the highlight of our trip.

We were incredibly sweaty when we got back on board and the prospect of soup at lunch was a daunting one. We managed to pile our way through two courses and many cups of tea (beer for James) as we chugged to our next stop for some more kayaking and swimming. It was another beautiful kayaking trip, the group quickly spread out and at times we couldn’t see another person anywhere around us, it was wonderfully peaceful. After 40 minutes we deposited our kayak and haul of plastic bags and bottles back on board and spent another half hour just lazing in the water watching the now well-sloshed Aussies throw themselves off the top deck of the boat, something Caro could not work herself up to do.

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Just after 5pm the tender boat from the Azela arrived to take us back to the ship. After showers we emerged on the top deck to meet our new shipmates and our new, insane, cruise director, Noni. She was wonderfully enthusiastic and kicked off the evening by teaching everyone how to say “cheers” in Vietnamese and began what would turn in to an evening-long indoctrination project:

Noni: How was your food?

Guest: Very good, thank you

Noni: No, everything was not good

Guest: It was, really very nice

Noni: No! Everything was excellent

Guest: OK

Noni: How was your food?

Guest: Excellent?

Noni: (Beaming) Yes! How was your day?

Guest: It was great fun

Noni: (Stares)

Guest: I really enjoyed it

Noni: (Stares)

Guest: It was excellent

Noni: Great! (turns to next person) How was your food?

Noni was much more forceful in her suggestion of karaoke as the evening activity, and delightedly informed us all that all of the songs were in Vietnamese. We were in for a long night until everyone discovered the key to avoiding karaoke; scurry to your cabin immediately after dinner and don’t stick your nose outside again until breakfast time. But not before James had enjoyed a couple of sunset beers.

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Day three dawned hot and sticky and we were reluctant to leave the air-conditioned sanctuary of the boat but Noni ushered us on to the tender at 7:45, and we set off to visit Halong Bay Pearl Farm. Despite our misgivings about how busy Halong Bay itself would be, it wasn’t actually overwhelmingly crowded and was equally as beautiful as Lan Ha Bay.

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On the way to the pearl farm Noni tried to drum up some more audience participation by asking someone to come and help her feed out the fishing net in to the water behind the boat, we all sat and watched her do it instead. The pearl farm was actually a pleasant surprise; we had expected it to be purely a hard sell on the pearls but actually the quick 20-minute tour and overview of the pearl culturing process was quite interesting and it was cool being able to watch them actually implant the membrane that starts the development process and also to see some pearls being harvested. Naturally, there was a shop at the end of it all but the sales staff weren’t pushy and were happy to stand back and let people browse without interruption.

On our way back to the boat we stopped to collect our fishing net back in. This was only mildly less boring than watching it go out; we had caught two tiddly little fish and a couple of crabs which, once they had been extracted from the net, James surreptitiously dropped over the side of the boat. The fishing was definitely not a high-point of the trip.

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Back on board we had half an hour to shower and pack before our “cooking class” in the dining room. This was actually more of an assembly class as we were presented with the makings of fresh spring rolls, shown how to roll them up and then let loose on the ingredients to give it a go ourselves. Noni, the queen of organised fun, decided to make it in to a competition with a bottle of Heineken as a prize.

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To be perfectly fair, it was a bit of a laugh and filled a bit of time before we were served lunch at 10:30am, which was a touch early for beef curry but they wanted to get us off the ship by midday, ready to welcome the next bunch of guests. We were really glad that we had opted for the 3-day cruise because if we had only had days 1 and 3, without the cycling and extra kayaking in the middle, we would have felt a bit short-changed.

Lan Ha Bay, Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island were all absolutely gorgeous and lived up to all of the hype. Two nights, three days was the ideal amount of time to spend on the water and we would join everyone else who has been there in saying that you absolutely must include it on your agenda and try and get out to Lan Ha Bay if you can, so that you can experience the gorgeous tranquillity of Halong Bay at its best.

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