From the moment I decided I was going to Hanoi, I knew that I had to cram in a day trip to Ha Long Bay with its rocky karsts that rise imperiously from the water. Rather than booking onto a tour in advance, I decided to wait until I arrived in Hanoi. Hence, after my walking tour I found myself sitting in the common area of the hostel, surrounded by cigarette smoke and scrolling though internet page after internet page about the best way to visit Ha Long Bay.
Recurring themes began to appear: you have to go, lots of tourist boats, and be careful of super budget tours as safety isn’t always a priority. The first point I already knew, the second I was a tad worried about but knew it was the off-season, and, as a sea-faring soul, the third concerned me deeply. Eventually I stumbled across a blog post by Budget Travel Talk that sung of the advantages of visiting Lan Ha Bay instead. It is the same karst rock formation but falls under the jurisdiction of a different province and is not nearly as crammed with tourist boats. At that moment, in the way that coincidences often happen (may the spirits of chance forever look favourably upon me), I looked up just as the hostel’s propaganda information screen showed off their cocktail cruise to, you guessed it, Lan Ha Bay.
Well who am I to ignore signs. The hostel trip was cheaper than most two day one night tours to Ha Long Bay because it stayed on the tour provider’s island, Cát Ȏng, rather than sleeping on board and it was focused in Lan Ha Bay so didn’t have the same tourist saturation to drive up prices. Futhermore, even with low price there would still be the opportunity to hike on Cát Bà island, swim in the sea and kayak among the karsts so I saw no reason not to sign on to the next day’s tour.
The tour bus picked everyone up from their hostels the next day, thankfully at a late enough hour that I had a chance to make the most of the hostel’s free breakfast. On a side note, I am never going to get used to English watermelon and pineapple after the deliciously ripe versions of the fruits I eat on a regular basis here in Singapore. The bus journey provided a nice opportunity to catch up on sleep and see a little of the Vietnamese countryside (rice paddies and roadworks). Suddenly, over the flat horizon the tall rocky hills of Ha Long City rise up. However, it was not to them that we headed. Instead we drove to Cát Hẚi Island, part of Hai Phong City. From where we set out on our six hour cruise among the thousands of islands of Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay.
The lovely smog and dust cloud over mainland Vietnam. Fortunately it disappeared as we got in among the rocky karsts.
We were extremely fortunate that the rain of the previous day had cleared up and we were left with beautiful blue skies as we ventured through the karsts. Something everyone on the cruise really appreciated was the lack of other boats. I think this was mainly because we were in the less visited Lan Ha Bay for most of the cruise but I expect visiting in the off season also helped.
A typical Vietnamese lunch was provided on the middle deck about an hour into the cruise. Our guide seemed confused when we asked for more of the tasty chili sauce, checking several times we wanted more of the chili sauce before getting it.
We moored at this floating pontoon to go kayaking. I don’t trust myself with anything electronic in close proximity to water so don’t have any photos of this part of the cruise but can assure you, my dear reader, that it was a huge amount of fun. We went through a couple of cave tunnels where stalactites reached down to the water and bats screeched up in the shadows before stopping in a little lagoon to try and see the white headed langur monkeys. Unfortunately, even our guide’s hand whistling couldn’t tempt them to appear. However, the break did give my arms a chance to recover slightly so I can’t complain.
The only downside to the kayaking was that we were close enough to the karsts to see just how much rubbish had washed ashore. Over the duration of the cruise, I found the amount of rubbish we saw floating around, most noticeably in the Ha Long Bay section, really saddening. I knew that this would be the case before we set out however it was still a shock to see.
We had a huge amount of fun leaping from the roof of the boat into the blue depths below by this little island. No one swam to the beach but it was lovely to be swimming in the sea again and cheering for everyone to jump in.
As previously mentioned, we spent the night on Cát Ȏng island. We all stayed together in one of the dorms rather than in the little cottages. All the food was included in the trip, and there was certainly a lot of it, particularly at the evening meal. The “starter” buffet table alone had enough for everyone to eat their fill.
Nothing beats a full stomach and midnight campfire after a blissful day at sea.
The next day, we paid an extra $10 to take a little boat over to Cát Bà island and climb hike through Cát Bà National Park to Ngu Lam Peak. The hike wasn’t too strenuous in and of itself, it was just the heat at the jungle floor that had us wishing for the end. However, the view we had once we reached the top was definitely worth it and was made all the sweeter by the effort we had put in. Oh woe is me *dramatically faints at the thought of exerting oneself*.
Having scaled the mountain *strikes dramatic pose of victory* and while waiting for our bus, I took the opportunity to try drinking straight from a coconut, a beverage that every man and his dog had been trying to sell to me since I arrived in Cambodia at the beginning of the week. While it was nice enough, I think I will continue with water unless someone starts spiking the coconuts with rum. Eventually our bus returned and we were driven to our final lunch before getting the ferry and bus back to Hanoi.
All in all, a very fun cocktail cruise and tour around Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay where ironically everyone’s least favourite part was the cocktails.