We choose Lan Ha Bay over Halong Bay

(Updated: 1/29/2016 1:26:09 AM)

Unlike its famous neighbour, Lan Ha Bay reserves a more pristine scenery with an intense concentration of limestone mountains which the sea surface has partitioned into smaller bays and gulfs. Lying south and east of Cat Ba Town, the 300 or so karst islands and limestone outcrops of Lan Ha are just as beautiful as those of Halong Bay and have the additional attraction of numerous white-sand beaches.

There were two reasons we chose not to visit Halong Bay via Halong City:
The trips from Hanoi to Halong Bay via Halong City were mini-bus/transfer to boat/one or two overnights on boat/mini-bus back to Hanoi.  Only a small amount of luggage is allowed on the bus/boat – the rest is left behind in Hanoi.  We wanted to continue on to Ninh Binh after the boat trip and not back-track to Hanoi, so we needed to bring all of our luggage with us.

After scouring the internet for alternatives I came across Indochina Classic Junk, a rock climbing outfit operating from Cat Ba Island.  They encouraged independent travelers to bypass Halong City and go directly to Cat Ba Island.  Once on Cat Ba a boat could be hired, or a seat on a boat purchased to explore Lan Ha Bay.  There are 300 karst limestone islands in the Bay south and east of Cat Ba Town.  I believe you could also head north to the tourist haunted Halong Bay from Cat Ba if you wished.  The Slo Pony site made the trip from Hanoi to Cat Ba so easy.

Whoever wrote the page really knew their stuff.  They had intricate knowledge of the trip – how to make sure you got on the correct bus, and details of the bus change and boat to Cat Ba Island, and finally the bus to Cat Ba Town.

Further searches on the net revealed the same bus company Hoang Long Bus Company had a service leaving from Cat Ba City to Ninh Binh our next destination.  The reports I read of the bus to Ninh Binh said it was a crowded mini-bus, but that did not deter us too much.  It all just fell into place – we decided to do it.

It worked exactly as the Sails of Indochina site said it would.  We caught the air-conditioned full sized bus, which was clean and comfortable even if the trip was somewhat hair-raising – but that is half the fun of Vietnam.  As an extra bonus the bus screened a music video, that featured long, tragic romantic expressions, beautiful clothes and a wedding finale – what more could you want – plus it took our minds off the perpetual horn-blowing.

Hanoi to Cat Ba via Haiphong.
After purchasing our tickets at the front of the bus station we moved through to the cafe out the back.  There we found some other English speaking travelers doing the same trip.  On arrival at the main Haiphong bus station we (Cat Ba passengers) were dropped off at a small ticket office a little out of the city centre in a dusty commercial area.  We were asked to wait and although none of us really knew what was happening everyone was relaxed.  Food and drinks could be purchased from passing vendors. Later we decided that the half hour stop was made to time our arrival at the jetty with that of the boat.

Described on the Ethnic Voyage site as a speed boat, I was relieved to find the boat was large enough to hold twenty or more.  The waters between the mainland jetty and Cat Ba Island were sheltered and calm, so another of my fears – getting seasick – disintegrated.  After half an hour or so we arrived at the deserted Cai Vieng Harbour where we were met by another mini-bus and taken on a zippy ride into Cat Ba town.

It was as quoted on the site –
    Your ticket ($9) will cover all transfers. Transfers are timely and easy, just get off the bus or boat and the next means of transportation will be there waiting for you. All forms of transport are air-conditioned.

The boat was not air-conditioned but had plenty of fresh air circulating from the open hatch.

Slopony and Sails of Indochina Cruises
Slo Pony operates rock climbing and kayaking trips into Lan Ha Bay, but you need not have climbing experience to use their services.  Prospective Slo Pony customers who are looking to visit Lan Ha bay, congregate on the mezzanine floor at Noble House (home to Slo Pony) at 6 p.m.  every day for a planning session.  This is when boat and land trips are organized for the next day.  We enquired about sleeping overnight on a boat, but there were no other takers, and although we could have had a boat to ourselves, we decided on a day trip – kayaks and lunch provided.  The price depended upon numbers, with ours costing $25, a few dollars of which was refunded the next day when more people signed on.

Cat Ba Town.
I would not describe Cat Ba town as beautiful, but it was certainly interesting and enjoyable.  Concrete hotels, four or more stories high, stood like soldiers along the Esplanade.  Some thankfully were painted different colours which lent a little romance to the scene.  Rough undulating pavements covered with a mixture of  tiles and pavers demanded a certain level of awareness.  The gung ho atmosphere was endearing, with the pushy pearl vendors adding their vocals to the fray.  At night neon lights up the Esplanade and families came out to play.  Cat Ba is quiet during the week but noisy and congested with local tourists on week-ends.

Lan Ha Bay Boat Trip.
At 8.45 the next morning all the climbers and kayakers boarded the SloPony mini bus to Ben Beo harbour about 2 km away.  Our guide Jo, a friendly young American woman blended with our group effortlessly and kept us entertained during the day with stories of her nine month stint teaching English in Hanoi.

I was initially worried about our choice of Lan Ha Bay, but from the outset it was obvious that it was as naturally beautiful as its more well known counterpart to the north.  There were lots of small local fishing craft, but not that many tourist boats.  While Jo and the climbers were dropped off on an island, the remaining eight guests were taken to a good kayaking area.

We paddled together through a rock opening into a peaceful lagoon, then back through the floating fishing villages,  and briefly out into the open ocean.  All was peaceful until our buddy Miguel got held up on a beach by two guard dogs and had to retreat, shivering into the water, while he awaited rescue.  It made for a good story back on deck with a cold beer in hand.  We could paddle with the group or by ourselves, it was fairly unstructured.

After collecting the climbers, the boat moored for lunch.  The crew had prepared sauteed potatoes, fried chicken, spring rolls, rice, tofu, and omelette while  beer, softdrink and bottled water were available to buy.  We gathered in groups of four at individual cane tables on the lower deck, to share the communal platters.  Both times we took boat trips in Vietnam we were blown away by the variety of food the crew managed to prepare with little more than a gas burner and a piece of deck space.

After lunch the climbers were dropped at their next island while we cruised to a new kayaking spot.  This time there was a miniature temple on a nearby island to explore, and free kayak time spent exploring the maze of islands.   Back on board, we picked up the climbers, and lounged about in bean bags on the top deck, drinking beers, and watching the sun drop behind the islands while we motored back toward port.

By the way you do not need rock climbing experience to go climbing, the guide will instruct you.  Some people chose to kayak in the morning and climb in the afternoon.

On the way back to port we dropped some guests off for a romantic night at a low key island resort, and some others at the Hanoi Beach backpacker island, which was all pumping music, beach volleyball and partying.  It seemed like there was something for everyone in Lan Ha Bay.

We were so happy with our trip into the bay.  The scenery was out of this world – gigantic limestone pinnacles jutting skyward from the emerald green water – sandy beaches clinging to their bases – colourful floating villages –  plenty of time and space to explore wherever we wanted – great food – and good conversation.

Originally we thought we might do another trip the next day, but we decided to leave it on a high.  Our day could not have been better.

More things to do on Cat Ba Island.
On arrival we quickly chose a hotel so that we could organize a trip to the war-time hospital cave that very afternoon.  I had heard about this cave and was eager to see it.  In the side street near Noble House we walked into a shop with a tourist information sign out front, and negotiated the hire of two motorbikes with guides – for twice the price we could have had a taxi.  It was an exciting 10 km ride, up and down hills, along bays and beside green cultivated fields.  I clung on behind the driver who was about half my size, and spent all of his time answering his mobile phone which he kept tucked into the top of his pants, right under where my hand rested.

On arrival at the cave our drivers played pool at a nearby cafe while our cave guide led us up bamboo steps to the cave entrance.  Just inside the cave he produced a fake machine gun and a big smile.  He explained all the rooms.  There were operating theatres, a movie theatre, bedrooms, kitchens and an escape route where soldiers could jump from a high up cave into a pool below.  The cave had three floors of rooms built into it and was in use until 1975.  It was a truly amazing place.

On the way home, after yet another phonecall, we had an impromptu detour to collect my driver’s child from school. Thankfully she had already left the school with someone else, although three of us on the bike could have been fun.

Seafood is the speciality on Cat Ba.  There are tanks of live crabs and fish in some restaurants.  We tried several, all along the Esplanade Strip:
The Bamboo Hut, Huong Y, the Noble House Cafe (Western/Vietnamese mix), Green Mango (breakfasts) and last but not least the restaurant (name unknown) on the left of Bamboo Hut.  There, we watched the cook prepare superb fresh crab and prawn spring rolls for us, after which he whipped up stir fried squid and vegetables.  The squid was so fresh, sweet and tender, I salivate just thinking about it.

Restaurant food was only a few dollars but even cheaper food can be found at the markets on the way into town.
There are floating restaurants, accessed by boat from the main pier just near the welcome sign.  We did not try them as we did not like the thought of being at the mercy of the boat drivers should we wish to leave.

We stayed one night at a hotel on the corner of the Esplanade across the street from Noble House (home to Slo Pony).  At $10 a night double it was great value, but the huge rooms had a neglected feel to them.  Curtains were falling from their hooks, the sheet on the bed was probably dirty (I asked for and received another without problem), and the water from the claw foot bath ran across the floor in front of the toilet before finally finding its way to the drain hole in the far corner of the room.  Looking under the bed revealed a collection of cigarette butts.  I think there may have been only one other couple staying at the hotel, which I suspect would lift it’s game come the tourist season.  We did enjoy the view of the bay though.

The second night we spent at Noble House, $16/night double, which was clean and well maintained but noisy from the music in the bar.  We knew this would  be the case and had ear plugs ready for action.  The view from there was also amazing.

There are many hotels strung along the esplanade, with more up-market accommodation options also available.  Out of season there are many bargains to be had. Let us know if there is anything you would like to know about Cat Ba Island and Sails of Indochina Cruises.

Sails of Indochina - Lan Ha Bay

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