We chose Lan Ha Bay over Halong Bay

(Updated: 9/16/2016 5:11:25 PM)

Sailing and kayak trips here are best organised in Cat Ba Town. Geologically, Lan Ha is an extension of Halong Bay but sits in a different province of Vietnam. Around 200 species of fish, 500 species of mollusc, 400 species of arthropod, and numerous hard and soft coral live in the waters here, while larger marine animals in the area include seals and three species of dolphin.

Why Lan Ha Bay ?
1. Trips from Hanoi to Halong Bay via Halong City are usually mini-bus/boat/mini-bus back to Hanoi.  Only a small amount of luggage is allowed – the rest being 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 have our luggage with us.
2. Lan Ha Bay is south of Halong Bay, away from the majority of tourist boats but has the same karst limestone outcrops and additionally – white sandy beaches.
3. It was April 2011 and a tourist boat had very recently sunk during the night in Halong Bay with several people drowned – I wasn’t keen to stay overnight on one of those boats.
4. We’d heard Halong Bay was very polluted.

How to get to Lan Ha Bay.
After scouring the internet for alternatives I came across Sails of Indochina. This outdoor adventure operation, based on Cat Ba Island and In Hanoi Old Quarter, encouraged independent travellers 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 366 karst limestone islands in the Bay south and east of Cat Ba Town.  Trips could also be organised north to Halong Bay from Cat Ba.  
Sails of Indochina made the trip from Hanoi to Cat Ba SO EASY.

They had intricate knowledge of the trip – how to locate the correct bus, the Cat Ba Island boat the final bus into 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 visit Lan Ha Bay instead of Halong Bay.
It worked exactly as the Sails of Indochina site said it would.  
The full sized air-conditioned bus from Hanoi was clean and comfortable. The tragic/dreamy facial expressions and wedding finale of the screened video, helped take the edge off the horn-blowing madness outside of the bus.

Hanoi to Cat Ba Town via Haiphong.
Nuoc Ngam Bus Station – Hanoi.
Tickets were purchased on the day of departure, at the station only 10 minutes by cab from the old quarter in Hanoi. In the cafe out the back we found some other travellers doing the same trip. 

Haiphong Bus Station.
On arrival at Haiphong, the Cat Ba contingent of passengers, were dropped off at a small ticket office in a dusty commercial area on the outskirts. We waited there and although no-one knew why we were there, the atmosphere was relaxed and food and drinks could be purchased from passing vendors.
Afterward it became apparent that this stop was made to tie in with the arrival of the boat. When the time was right we were back on the bus and headed for the jetty.

The trip from Haiphong to Cat Ba Island.
Described as a speed boat, I was relieved to find ours was a decently sized passenger boat.  The waters between the mainland jetty and Cat Ba Island were sheltered and calm, making travel sickness a non-event.  Half an hour later we arrived at the deserted Cai Vieng Harbour where another mini-bus made a zippy cross country ride into Cat Ba town.

It was as quoted on the site –
The ticket ($12) covered all transfers. When getting off one form of transport the next would be waiting. All forms of transport are air-conditioned.
It eventuated that the boat’s A/c amounted to fresh air circulating through the open hatch – perfect.

Sails of Indochina.
The Company operates rock climbing, kayaking trips plus more into Lan Ha Bay. Prospective customers, congregate on the mezzanine floor at 06 Hang Mam  . We decided on a day trip – kayaks and lunch provided.  The price was dependent on numbers, with ours costing $69 p.p. A few dollars were refunded the next day because more people had signed on, reducing the price. Impressive.

Cat Ba Town.
Cat Ba town was more interesting and enjoyable, than beautiful.  Concrete hotels, four or more stories high, stood like soldiers along the Esplanade, some randomly painted bringing a tiny taste of Italy to the scene.

I enjoyed the endearing gung-ho atmosphere, where pushy pearl vendors shouted while we navigated the uneven mix of tiles and pavers on the footpath. At night the dull Esplanade evolved into neon-land 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 a.m. climbers and kayakers board the mini bus to Ben Beo harbour about 2 km from town.  Guide Jo, a friendly young American mixed effortlessly with all and kept up an entertaining array of stories from a nine month stint teaching English in Hanoi.
Initially unsure of our choice, it became obvious that Lan Ha Bay was as, if not more, naturally beautiful than Halong.  In places it abounded with small local fishing craft and water villages, in others it was just us, the islands and the gorgeous green limestone tinged water.

When the climbers and guide were dropped off at an island, the captain took the remaining eight passengers to a good kayaking area. I liked that the kayakers were not treated as an after-thought.
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 one kayaker decided to leave his two man kayak to his partner and walk along an island beach. His kayak was out of sight by the time two guard dogs forced him to retreat, shivering into the water to await rescue.  It made for a good story back on deck with a cold beer in hand. 
The kayaking was fairly unstructured. Some chose to paddle with the guide (who set a cracking pace) but it was easy to explore individually. We started off with the guide and then started exploring by ourselves.

After collecting the climbers, the boat moored for lunch.  The crew prepared sautéed potatoes, fried chicken, spring rolls, rice, tofu and omelette with individual (and correct) tabs kept for beer, soft-drink and bottled water.  We gathered in groups of four at individual cane tables on the lower deck, to share the plentiful 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.

With the climbers dropped at their next location, we cruised to a new kayaking spot with a mini island temple and free kayak time in the maze of islands. This time everything was very laid back with some kayakers choosing to stay on deck to relax while others explored the temple and islands.
Lounging in bean bags on the top deck, drinking beers, swapping stories and watching the sun drop behind the islands as we cruised back to port was an enjoyable way to end the day.
Previous rock climbing experience is not necessary and the guide instructs as you climb. It is possible to mix it up with say kayaking in the morning and climbing in the afternoon. One passenger switched to kayaking after completing her first climb as she found it so physically challenging.

On the way back to port we dropped some guests off for a romantic night at a low key island resort, and others at the Hanoi Beach backpacker island, which was all pumping music, beach volleyball and partying.

Overview of the Boat Trip.
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 – good conversation. It was one of those magic travel days that I still think about years later.
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.  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 driver/guides.  Taxis were also available at twice the price, which was still inexpensive.
I’m not a motorbike rider but it was an exciting 10 km ride, up and down hills, along bays and beside green cultivated fields.  My pint sized driver spent his time nonchalantly on his phone, while I clung somewhat nervously behind. Whenever we went downhill I found I slid toward him on the highly polished seat. Awkward!
I did love the wind and sense of freedom and could easily become addicted.
On arrival at the cave our drivers played pool at a nearby cafe while a guide led us up bamboo steps to the cave entrance.  Just inside the cave he produced a fake machine gun (joke) while explaining the rooms. With the machine gun prop disposed of we visited the operating theatres, movie theatre, bedrooms, kitchens and the escape route where soldiers could jump from a high up cave into a pool on the lowest level.  The cave had three floors of rooms built into it and was in use until 1975.  Who knew such a thing existed?
On the way home, after yet another phone-call, we made an impromptu detour to collect my driver’s child from school. Thankfully she had already left with a relative, although to be one of three-up on a bike would have been an experience.
Seafood is the speciality on Cat Ba.  Restaurant tanks of live crabs and fish are common.  We tried several places 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 fresh, sweet and tender and is still the best I’ve tasted and I eat a lot of squid.
Restaurant food was only a few dollars but even cheaper food could be found at the markets on the way into town.
There were floating restaurants, accessed by boat from the main pier just near the welcome sign, but we were happy with the quality and price of those on shore.
Our first hotel (on the corner opposite Noble House) had huge rooms but a neglected feel, with curtains falling from their hooks, and drain water that flowed from the claw foot bath, across the floor in front of the toilet before finally finding it’s way to the drain hole in the far corner of the room.
I think there may have been one other couple staying at the hotel, which I suspect would lift it’s game come the tourist season.  It had a great view of the bay and supplied clean sheets when asked. You can’t argue with $10/night double!
The second night we spent at Noble House, $15/night double, which was clean and well-maintained with the same great view, but noisy from the music in the bar.  We knew this would be the case and had ear plugs ready for action.  

The esplanade had more up-market accommodation options available.  Out of season there are many bargains to be had.

Our Recommendation.
We recommend the Lan Ha Bay experience. It worked well with our ongoing travel plans and was a low-key and budget friendly alternative to Halong Bay.   When we were planning this portion of our 2011 Vietnam trip it was difficult to find information on Hanoi/Cat Ba/Ninh Binh, and I hope this post helps fill the gap.

Sails of Indochina - Lan Ha Bay

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