The magical waters of Halong Bay

Trip Start May 01, 2010
Trip End Apr 30, 2011

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Where I stayed
Cat Ba Paradise

Flag of Vietnam  , Hải Phòng,
Monday, November 15, 2010

We are coming to the end of a wonderful week spent on verdant Cat Ba island, situated in the emerald waters of Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay. The whole area is a beautiful geological wonderland consisting of thousands of craggy limestone islands lined with secluded beaches and riddled with caves. Cat Ba island is by far the largest island and its rugged steep-sided slopes are cloaked in jungle. We are based in Cat Ba town, a string of hotels and seafood restaurants surrounding a bay containing hundreds of fishing boats. Our hotel, Cat Ba Paradise is a bargain at only $8 a night. It doesn’t have hot water and the air-con keeps going off but it is clean and we have a large balcony overlooking the bay. We also have a fridge, handy for making ice cold G&T’s! Just 15 minutes walk from our hotel are the three sandy beaches of Cat Co 1, 2 and 3. Beaches 1 and 3 both have resorts behind them so we opted for lovely and quiet Cat Co 2 and spent three lazy days here swimming and sunbathing with only sea eagles for company.

On our second day we took a boat tour of Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay. The scenery was breathtaking as limestone pinnacles surround you on all sides and the boat steers through narrow passages between the islands, making it feel like a tropical version of a fjord or sea loch. Unfortunately we had chosen the only cloudy day here for our tour which didn’t make for good photos. We passed fish farms and floating villages and stopped off at one to have a go at kayaking, which was fun but hard work and resulted in a soggy bum! Back on the boat we travelled deeper into Halong Bay, enjoying a very good lunch onboard, before stopping off at one of the islands to visit a cave. We were expecting a small grotto so were pleasantly surprised when we discovered three huge caverns dripping with stalactites and stalagmites and illuminated with different coloured lights. Later in the afternoon we stopped in the middle of a channel for a quick dip before continuing on to beautifully craggy Monkey Island where we avoided the apparently aggressive monkeys and climbed to the top for some great views. Then it was back to Cat Ba town for some G&T’s on the balcony.

On our other day tour we were much luckier with the weather. We decided to go to Cat Ba National Park by ourselves, taking the bus to the park headquarters from where we could walk along one of the trails. While we were having breakfast, a man from one of the many tour agencies approached us asking if we wanted to go the national park (maybe he saw that we were wearing hiking boots?). We said we did and before long, he had arranged motorbike transport there, a guide, lunch and a boat trip back, all for a very reasonable fee. The thirty minute ride on the back of a motorbike was great fun. My driver ignored my requests to go slow and we were overtaking everything else on the road, zipping through a gorgeous landscape of limestone crags and verdant green forest against a bright blue sky. We stopped at the park headquarters and began the 15km hike starting along a small lane passing through clouds of butterflies. It was hot and we were grateful when we soon passed under the cool forest canopy. Cat Ba National Park covers half of the island and includes subtropical forests, freshwater swamp forests, coastal mangroves, lakes and coral reefs offshore. It is home to the world’s rarest primate, the golden-headed langur, as well as other primates, wild boar, deer, civets, squirrels and many birds.

The walk was tough but very enjoyable and involved a lot of scrambling as we crossed a series of steep limestone hills. We felt pleasantly tired and very hungry by the time we reached remote Viet Hai village for our lunch stop. From there it was another 5 km along a lane passing through a green valley surrounded by peaks on all sides until we reached a narrow inlet of the sea, where the water was deep emerald and looked very inviting. We boarded a boat which chugged out into Lan Ha Bay and were delighted to find that we were following the same course as the previous boat trip but this time with the most perfect weather imaginable. With a cloudless sky and warm late afternoon light, we experienced the incredible majesty of this place in a way that we had not been able to do under grey skies. We haven’t seen any yachts here, which is surprising as the whole area is vast and would be a great place to spend a few weeks or even months exploring by boat.

We return to Hanoi tomorrow by way of a bus, boat, minibus, then another bus! It’s all done with the same company so not nearly as laborious as it sounds. We were in Hanoi for a couple of days before coming to Halong Bay and found it incredibly noisy and chaotic. The streets of the Old Quarter are completely choked with motorbikes and crossing the road is a bit of an art form! It’s a shame because I can imagine it must have been a lovely city not so long ago but is now far too congested. This time we will only be there for one night before taking the train north to mountainous Sapa.

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