Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and looking at the postcards, it is stunning. Some people we spoke to told us that we must go whilst others said that it had been ruined by so much tourism and litter and recommended we skip it.
We decided to pass on the overnight boat option from Ha Long City and instead stay on Cat Ba island and take a day trip to Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay. Bearing the bikes in mind this was also definitely our easiest option.
The drive and two ferries to get from Hanoi to Cat Ba were nonetheless long, dull and drizzly. Once we got onto the island however the views from the road were stunning. When they’ve fully completed the road from the ferry to the town it will be a really spectacular drive, but for now the smooth new road is punctuated by sections of mud and gravel that rather blight the experience.
Cat Ba is growing in popularity as an alternative to Halong Bay and you can see that new hotels are being built to cater for the demand. This makes the unexciting town feel a bit like a building site. It’s certainly not pretty but once you get out of the town things do improve.
Our boat tour started early and though the skies looked grey the weather forecast promised it would get better. We floated gently out into Lan Ha bay and soon we were treated to gorgeous views of the amazing limestone karts that makes this region such a hot spot for tourism. As promised, it was quiet. We saw no other tourist boats for the first couple of hours as we slipped through the calm blue waters.
We did encounter some when we stopped to clamber off the boat and into kayaks. Soon we were paddling through a low, dark cave. It was tricky to manoeuvre but we made it through to a beautiful lagoon and spent some time floating around, letting the sun dry us off while our tour guide played his flute to add to the generally serene atmosphere.
The next part of the tour was all about swimming in the open water. The boat found a deserted area and anchored, giving us the opportunity to jump off the side and cool off. It was pretty blissful! That was followed up by lunch and then a cruise into Halong Bay. As promised, our tour stayed clear of the overly crowded and by areas, instead taking us to an area with a number of tiny beaches accessible only by small boat or swimming!
Back on the boat, we made a rather uninspiring visit to a fish farm on the way back to Cat Ba, and just like that our trip was done!
The next day we slept off all the kayaking and swimming then found a really beautiful beach just a short walk from the main tourist drag in the town.
Cat Ba is nowhere near as charming as some of the coastal towns in the South of Vietnam but with an adventurous spirit and a willingness to put effort into finding decent restaurants in the town it can make a really great short trip from Hanoi.