Ha Long Bay from Cat Ba: away from the crowds

Ha Long Bay is an awe-inspiring natural wonder. Four times bigger than a similar Phang Nga bay in Thailand, this emerald water bay is filled with 2000 limestone islands and islets. The best way to see them is by boat. However, bearing in mind the huge volumes of visitors, it’s crucial to steer away from the crowds. Caves, hidden lagoons and fantastically shaped rocks are the greatest attractions while swimming, snorkelling, kayaking and visiting floating fish farms would keep you entertained during the time spent on the water.

Silhouettes of irregularly, roughly shaped limestone islets on the horizon at Ha Long Bay.

Cruises on Ha Long Bay

Many people choose to visit Ha Long Bay by booking a few days long cruise on a luxurious boat. It is true that the bay is so huge that seeing it all would take days. Yet, having in mind all the boat trips we had in our lives, we suspected we’d die of boredom stuck on the boat for more than a day.

Ha Long Bay is divided into three smaller areas:  Halong Bay in the center, Lan Ha Bay to the southwest and Bai Tu Long Bay to the northeast. We wanted to get away from the central, overcrowded routes by all cost so we chose Cat Ba Ventures company departing from Cat Ba Town. Their tours focus on Lan Ha Bay area.

Cat Ba Ventures one day trip to Lan Ha Bay

At $28, the Cat Ba Ventures trip wasn’t that cheap for Vietnamese standards but we read a lot of good things about them. Their one day tour with kayaking sounded really promising as it was packed with attractions and was supposed to take us to the places not frequented by the tourists.

A narrow passage between two karst islets and more islands on the background in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

On the day of the trip we met our group of 25 people and two guides speaking excellent English. We got on a overcrowded minibus which took us to the boat pier.

I got terrified when I saw the amount of buses and minibuses parked at the pier. We were assured that all those local tourists would only go for a tour to the Monkey Island. The main ‘attraction’ of that nearby island were the monkeys which learned how to drink beer. Really.

Floating huts and boats among karst landscape near Cat Ba pier

We boarded a large ship with amazingly quiet engine and indeeed saw that all the vessels swarming in the water were heading in the opposite direction than us. We were getting away from it all.

Fish farms on the Ha Long Bay

We passed by a huge floating village, consisting of separate platforms containing small huts surrounded with fish farms. After 20 minutes, we and another boat with Western tourists were the only ones in sight.

Shark-resembling fish farmed at the floating farms in Ha Long Bay

Our first stop was at a fish farm, doubling as a homestay. We were shown fish resembling sharks and enormous fish kept alive only for the purpose of tourism. The guide took a shovel full of tiny fish and started feeding the farmed fish so that we could see them more clearly. I wasn’t too happy with this ‘attraction’ but at least it looked like a small-scale farming enterprise.

Floating fish farms set among karst landscape of Ha Long Bay, guarded by dogs walking on narrow wooden planks.

Each of the floating farms kept dogs who spent their lives walking narrow passages between the pools. They were kept as a protection against theft.

Cruising the Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay blown us away with its scale. We were on a quite fast moving boat for many hours and the karst islets were all around us, close by as well as far in the horizon. There was just one problem: in some places the sea was full of garbage.

A small boat approaching two rocks resembling a gateway and the surrounding karst landscape of Ha Long Bay

Swimming in Ha Long Bay

Luckily, the lovely place where we stopped for a swim was totally free of garbage. We jumped out of the boat, straight into the sea and started swimming towards a small, white-sand beach under the karst cliff. I loved it. There were no restrictions on where or how far to swim which gave an amazing feeling of freedom. The sea was still and turquoise blue at that spot.

The author jumping with joy from the cruising ship straight into the turquoise waters of Ha Long Bay

Snorkel sets were available but neither the visibility was great nor where there many corals. As we heard from our guide, there used to be plenty but sadly they all died out.

The author swimming in emerald green water towards a small white sand beach under the karst cliff in Ha Long Bay

We were not completely alone- there were two smaller boats in neigbouring coves – but we were as close to paradise as possible under circumstances.

Landscapes and views

Later on, we passed by some more impressive looking rock formations, including a miniature of the famous James Bond rock from Phang Nga in Thailand and moored to have a really good and plentiful lunch.

A small, tall, vertical rock rising from the sea in Ha Long Bay, surrounded with larger limestone islands covered with greenery

Kayaking in the lagoon

The highlight of the trip was a 1.5 hours kayaking trip. We passed through a small cave in the karst rock into a emerald green lagoon. I couldn’t miss the opportunity to jump into the water: straight from the kayak. It was just enough paddling to keep us busy and excited but not that much to make us tired.

Sayak kayaking on green waters of the lagoon in Ha Long Bay, accessible only through a cave from where another kayak is just emerging

Long hours on the water

After a while, the cruise got a bit monotonous which is inevitable with almost any boat trip, especially such a long one. The last attraction was the second, less enjoyable swim. We were dropped in the middle of the sea with no beach around (apparently it was already under the water due to high tide). Secondly, the strong current made it harder to stay near the boat and brought some large chunks of garbage with it. Finally, someone spotted a giant jellyfish.

Steep, vertical white karst rocks covered with greenery rising from the sea in Ha Long Bay

On the way back, we were served lots of fruit and sweets. Finally, around 5pm, we arrived at the same pier we departed from. After a 15 minutes wait, a bus took us back to Cat Ba Town.

All in all, I was very satisfied with the day and was amazed we paid for this wonderful trip same amount as for the terrible experience we had in Phang Nga, Thailand.

How to get to Cat Ba island?

From Hanoi
There are many bus companies operating from the Old Quarter in Hanoi to Cat Ba Town (around 4h, depending on the ferry). It’s good to shop around to find the cheapest option (check vexere.com).

The cheapest buses depart from Gia Lam station to Ha Long city but you’re unlikely to save money on that option. You would need to take a city bus to Gia Lam (no.34), a motorbike taxi from Ha long city to the pier, a ferry to Cat Ba pier and then another bus to Cat Ba Town (see below) which would be a lot of hassle and would take a long time.

From Ninh Binh/ Tam Coc
You can get to Cat Ba Town directly from Ninh Binh and Tam Coc by a luxurious bus with a pick up and a drop off service for 350 000 VND (5 h journey).

From Hai Phong
There is a hydrofoil ferry (1h journey) from Hai Phong’s Pha Binh/Benh Binh warf directly to Cat Ba town. Bus no.2 would take you from Hai Phong centre to Benh Binh warf. The prices differ depending on the season, from 180 000 to 240 000 VND. Beware, there are reports of over-inflating price for the tourists.

Alternatively, you can take a bus of Hoang Long company. It requires switching to a speedboat in Dinh Vu pier, disembarking at Cai Vieng pier and boarding another bus to Cat Ba town at Cai Vieng pier. The whole journey would take 1.5-2h.

You can also take a public bus from Hai Phong’s Lac Long bus station to Ha Long Bai Chay bus station (departs every 15 min, takes 1h, 40 000 VND). Once there, get to Tuan Chau Warf and take a ferry (see below)

From Ha Long City:
The ferry leaves from Tuan Chau Warf in Ha Long City 5 times a day (last at 3pm), takes 1 hour and costs 80 000 VND. A xe om from Ha Long centre to the warf should cost around 10-20 000 VND.
The Ben Pha Gia Luan pier in Cat Ba is at the opposite end of the island than Cat Ba town. There is a minibus from the ferry terminal, leaving after every ferry. The journey costs 30 000 VND and takes around 30 minutes.

Cat Ba prices [in Vietnamese dong as of September 2018]:

683 500 whole day cruise in Ha Long Bay incl. a meal and kayaking
180- 200 000 cheapest bus Hanoi Old Quarter – Cat Ba Town
100 000 an en-suite double room with AC
40 000 cheapest meal in a restaurant
10 000 sticky rice with beans from the street

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