Our first attempt to visit Hạ Long Bay 9 years ago was sadly cancelled when a typhoon hit northern Vietnam. At the time, our reaction was to go to the pub (a Bia hơi cafe on a corner) and wait for it all to blow over. We clearly knew nothing about typhoons, as while the rest of Hanoi battened down the hatches, we kept ordering more draft beer. Spoiler alert – the rain didn’t stop and I lost a flip-flop on the swim back to the hotel.
But this time things were different, thank goodness. The sun was shining as we left Hanoi, and it stayed with us through Hạ Long Bay, and all the way to Lan Ha Bay where our ship dropped its anchor.
Honestly, I was ready to be a little disappointed by Hạ Long Bay, as we’d read a lot about how busy it can be. For this reason, we flexed our budget on a two-night cruise that went beyond where most other ships turn around, in the hope of beating the crowds. Sure enough, we weren’t the only ship cruising through the collection of stunning limestone mountains of Hạ Long Bay.
But as promised, we were alone when we reached our mooring place in Lan Ha Bay.
The ship itself exceeded all of my expectations too. My closest parallel was the incredibly shonky two-bedroom boat on which we cruised around the backwaters of Kerala in India, where the fan in Helen’s room threatened to leap off the ceiling on every rotation. Our Hạ Long Bay ship in comparison was more than a step up, maybe more like a high-jump up. In fact, our cabin was more slick than many hotels we’ve stayed in on this trip.
While the cruising itself was appropriately beautiful, it was the trips away from the boat that were most memorable.
The kayaking that ended in hysterics
Kayaking around Lan Ha Bay was probably the highlight of the trip altogether. There’s just something about quietly drifting past the limestone mountains away from the chug of an engine that made the scenery even more picturesque. That is, if you can ignore the general bickering that comes as standard in a two-person kayak. After repeatedly veering right while attempting to paddle straight, Sara and I eventually teamed up on the kayak, which we blamed for our lack of control. With a common enemy, our teamwork immediately improved.
We paddled through the bay and under a rock arch to reach a lagoon, which was completely surrounded by limestone cliffs on all sides. Here the water was even more calm, without a single wave to wobble our serene kayak.
Our guide suggested that this would be a good place for a swim, so Helen, Sara and I obliged by sliding off our kayaks and into the water. While slightly milder than the open bay, the water in the lagoon wasn’t what I’d call warm, and I was the first to clamber back into our kayak to dry off and warm up. Sara and Helen followed shortly after, leaving one lady from our group left to make the (inevitably ungainly) haul. The issue was, she made it halfway up before the giggles arrived. In an effort to help, our guide repeatedly shouted “DON’T LAUGH, DON’T LAUGH”, which unsurprisingly had the opposite effect. Now in full hysterics and with the rest of the group joining in, she managed to beach herself half on, half off the kayak, before losing all control of her limbs. Eventually, assistance arrived from some fellow kayakers, and she slid face-first into the kayak, but still unable to talk through laughter. Honestly, I don’t think I would have had the heart to recount this story if it wasn’t for how well she laughed off the whole affair as we paddled back to the ship to warm up.
The hike to the summit
The following day we were up bright and early to get a different perspective on the region – from above. We took a small boat to Cát Bà, the largest island located right in the middle of Hạ Long Bay, and hopped onto a minibus from the shore to take us into Cát Bà National Park.
From here, we began the trek up through the rainforest to the Tháp quan sát viewpoint. The weather was mercifully cloudy and the thick canopy of trees ensured we were protected from the sun through any breaks in the cloud. The hike really wasn’t far, but the steep gradient rewarded our efforts with panoramic views over the island’s hundreds of peaks.
In the afternoon, we explored Trung Trang Cave via a 300m route through the mountain, past countless stalactites and stalagmites, some of which were even large enough to meet in the middle. At times the path was pretty tight, with no shortage of rock for me to hit my head on. The air inside the cave was uncomfortably warm and humid, in a stark contrast to the (relatively) cool winter air outside.
We spent the rest of the day recovering from the exertion on Cat Co 3 Beach – a stunning strip of sand at the foot of the Hôtel Perle d’Orient Cat Ba. While it wasn’t quite the weather for sunbathing, it did make a very peaceful spot for a quiet nap.
The cycle to Viet Hai Village
On the final day of our cruise we cycled 4 km inland across Cat Ba island to reach Viet Hai village. The path was almost entirely very well paved, apart from a short detour through rice fields, which was slightly rougher but even more beautiful.
I was surprised to learn that Viet Hai is actually a fishing village, despite being situated a few kilometres from the sea. This is primarily because Viet Hai is surrounded by mountains and therefore the village isn’t connected to any other towns by road. As a result, all goods must travel by sea and along the same path along which we’d just cycled.
With all the activities, our cruise felt like it came to an end all too soon. I think we were expecting to spend a bit more time gently chugging through the bay and less time exercising, but it was probably for the best given how much we ate at the incredible buffet dinners.
Following our cruise, we returned to Hanoi in order to catch an overnight sleeper train to Huế, the ancient capital of Vietnam and home to the famously spicy noodle soup.