Every hotel and travel agent in Hanoi and most of Vietnam want to sell you a tour to Halong bay. It is probably the most famous destination in the whole country and so there are dozens of companies to choose between, each with various durations and options for your trip. To be honest we were a bit overwhelmed with choice…we didn’t know what style of boat we wanted to take or what canoe trips we wanted to do! Couldn’t someone just pick one for us?
In the end none the wiser as to which tour we were going to take we headed for Cat Ba island. We had heard that the island across the water from Halong City offers the same spectacular scenery but without the huge numbers of tourist boats, all following the same routes through the water. After three buses and a ferry we made it to Cat Ba town, the main settlement on the island and found ourselves a ridiculously cheap room. One morning we were awoken by the screams of a pig being butchered but hey for $5 a night we weren’t complaining!
Our first morning we jumped on a pair of mopeds and set off to explore the island. First we headed to the Cannon Fort, the old French gun emplacement on the mountain top, which offers great views out across the water and the limestone karst dotting the bay. Before we headed inland to see the ‘hospital caves’, which was used as the name suggests as a hospital during the bombing of the Vietnam war. We got a local guide to show us the different rooms and explain the use, ending with the large cavern which was used as a cinema…yeh a cinema cave! We ended the day walking along the cliff path from one beach to another, stopping to watch the sun dips behind the karst formations.
We had finally decided on a tour company based in Cat Ba called Venture Travel but were too late to book on any overnight boats. Luckily for us there was room on their one day boat cruise, which took in the less visited bays of Lan Ha as well as part of Ha Long. After a false start when the boat broke down not 500 meters from the port, we cruised through floating fishing villages, admiring the landscape and watching out for sea eagles soaring overhead. It was gobsmakingly picturesque…made all the better because we saw barely another tourist boat all morning. This, our guide told us, was because the company ran a unique route through the bays, avoiding the busiest sections.
After lunch some kayaking was on the itinerary, through the well visited dark caves and some other lagoons. The highlight was when we pulled up near to the bank where our guide was enthusiastically pointing. There was a family of golden headed langurs jumping around in the trees. Officially there are only 35 of these monkeys left in the wild, so to see one let alone five was hugely rare. We watched for a full ten minutes as they ate and played, and responding to our guides singing…apparently they love Vietnamese pop songs! Our tour ended with a freezing cold dip in the sea, swimming out to a tiny beach only visible at low tides.
We decided to pay an extra $4 to take a scenic boat back to Hanoi, in order to have an extra couple of hours to see the limestone karsts and also to have a taste of what most tourist get cruising around the busier Halong Bay. We were glad we did not because it was fantastic, but it gave us perspective on what a great experience we’d had on Cat Ba island and Lan Ha bays. Here boats jostled for space and the air hung with the smell of diesel engines added to the pollution in the water itself. The trip ended with some irate westerners shouting at their guide because they were unhappy with the tour…we were relieved we’d chosen the ‘unorganised’ route!
As our time in SE Asia drew to a close we were heading back to Vietnam’s capital Hanoi, but more on that next post.