Cruising the Karsts Around Cat Ba, Vietnam

We’re going to switch the blog back to talking about some of our other travels on our round-the-world trip, but are hearts are still with Nepal. If you’d like to contribute to help the people of Nepal recover from the devastating earthquake, please visit our page collecting some worthy causes.

One of the biggest tourist draws in all of Vietnam is the scenic UNESCO World Heritage-listed Halong Bay on the coast east of Hanoi. We considered a visit there, but when researching came across many stories of how scam-prone it was to take a trip on the bay. We then found out about the neighboring Lan Ha Bay, which also has the characteristic karsts but is further away, so less infiltrated by large tour groups. Another benefit of Lan Ha Bay is that it easily visited as a day trip from the sizable town of Cat Ba, on large Cat Ba Island. This sounded like a better fit for us, so after our time in Hanoi we took a two day trip out there.

Getting There

Based on the advice from Lonely Planet and our Hanoi hotel, we booked a multi-step trip from Hanoi to Cat Ba town using the one company that offers this service – Hoang Long transport. It was a long and somewhat grueling process, but we did make it to Cat Ba as promised with no last minute fees, so we felt it was worth it. The steps were:

  • Taxi from our hotel in Hanoi to the bus station
  • Bus from Hanoi to the Hoang Long office in Haiphong. This bus left earlier than the ticket stated, but went somewhat slow as it would pick up and drop off people anywhere along the road. It was a bit of a strange ride too, because for the first half of the journey they looped a show of old-time Vietnamese music performances about four times over, then for the second half they switched to videos that showed scantily-clad women dancing to pop music.
  • After a wait at the Hoang Long office, a different bus from the office to a ferry terminal on the coast
  • A 30 minute or so ferry ride across a channel to another ferry terminal on Cat Ba Island
  • A bus ride from the ferry terminal to the Hoang Long office in Cat Ba town
  • Walk from the office to our hotel

Where We Stayed

Cat Ba is a big tourist draw, especially in the summer, so there are plenty of big hotels right on the water. We chose the Gieng Ngoc, which was on the somewhat quieter end of the main road. Both the two of us and Wayne and Peggy (Della’s parents) went for a small upgrade to get a room with a balcony overlooking the water. Our room itself felt a little dated, but the view was quite nice, so we were glad we made that decision.

What We Did

As you might expect, one of the big draws of visiting Cat Ba is taking a tour out into Lan Ha Bay, so our first order of business after getting checked in and grabbing some lunch was to go around town and find a tour for the next day. A few different offices on the main drag offered some decent-sounding tours with both snorkeling and kayaking, but we kept looking because we were hoping to find something that was more oriented to just kayaking. We found just such a tour at Asia Outdoors. Their main focus is rock climbing, but they also offer full-day kayaking tours. We booked one of these for the next day, then asked them for guidance on what to do with the rest of our afternoon.

They recommended that we walk out to the beaches just outside of town. The first beach was just an easy 20-minute walk away.


Wayne is never one to turn down a swim, so he got into his suit and dove right in. The rest of us decided it was a little too chilly, so we just relaxed and watched the groups of Vietnamese teenagers frolic in the surf (maybe they had just graduated like the groups we saw in Hanoi?). Some of them were even playing in organized team activities that we had fun trying to figure out (future Rendezvous games ideas?).

To get to the second beach we took the nice pedestrian path along a cliff face. This gave us an excellent view of the karsts of the bay that we would be kayaking through the next day.

At the second beach Wayne hopped right back in the water.

From the second beach there was a road that led back into town, making for a nice loop. We walked back in and then headed out for dinner (more on that later). After dinner, we enjoyed just walking down the main drag. The teenagers were out in groups and seemingly having a lot of fun. One of the most popular activities was to rent a tandem bicycle and ride up and down the street.

The next day, we woke up bright and early and headed over to the Asia Outdoors office. They rounded up the group of kayakers and rock climbers, then shuffled us into vans for a short trip over to a small harbor. Here we got on the traditional junk boat that was our transportation for the day.

It was a nice large boat with tables and benches downstairs and a platform upstairs. For the first part of the ride, we stayed downstairs and enjoyed the view as we cruised out into Lan Ha Bay. The boat dropped off the people that were going rock climbing, and then we moved up to the top. The boat had to stop at a depot to pick up our kayaks, and then drove us to our first spot.

We got into our kayaks, which were two-person set-ups made up heavy fiberglass. You sat down inside, but no net or anything like that. Della took the back seat. After the group was all in their boats, our guide led us on a tour of the different spots. We kayaked through a hole in a karst, then around some others.

We headed to a place where at high tide you can go in to an isolated lagoon. This is very low tide though, so we had to park a ways a way and walk in over the muddy ground and sharp rocks. It was pretty inside but not too much to see.

Our next stop was a beach, where there was a small cave with a shrine inside. We also tried to help a giant jellyfish that was near the shore get back out in the open water.

We rode into one cave, where we were able to get pretty deep since the tide was so low. We went around another karst, through another opening, and then headed back to the boat. In the distance we could see a karst with a hole underneath that the guide said was on one of the Vietnamese dong notes, but we later couldn’t find it.

Back on the boat, we rode back to pick up the climbers. On the ride over we got to talking with some of the people on the tour, and they were very easy to talk to. During this ride our lunch was ready, so we headed down to the cabin area. It was a variety of Vietnamese dishes served family-style, and all very good. We were stuffed! There was also a pause when we let some overnight guests off, and Wayne and Della took the opportunity to jump in for a quick swim.

The boat drove us back to the kayak depot, where we got out for our second round of kayaking. This was with a larger group since some of the climbers came. This time Eric got in the back.

This trip wasn’t quite as scenic but was still nice. We were led past floating villages, where fisherman live on the water and have large setups to grow fish and to catch squid. We went into a large interior cove of one karst. Della got out and swam here, but didn’t linger long because we had seen a few of the large jellyfish. We road back around through some more karsts and past a sunken concrete boat. Wayne wanted to go out to the open ocean, but no one else did so he didn’t.

We kayaked back to the depot and returned our kayaks. Once everyone was onboard, the boat headed back to harbor. We enjoyed the views of the bay in dwindling sunlight. Peggy stuck up a conversation with a group of New Yorkers who had gotten on at the depot – as it turned out, one of them was the founder of Asia Outdoors, so it was interesting to hear his stories.

The minivans took us back to Cat Ba town, and we rushed to make sure and get good shots of the sunset from the boardwalk and then the rooftop terrace of our hotel. A long day, but a fun one. We couldn’t have asked for better weather, and the amount of kayaking seemed to be just right!

The next morning, the two of us just hung out in the room and caught up on the blog, but Wayne and Peggy still had a bit of a sightseeing itch. They hopped on the back of motorbike taxis and took a ride up the hill behind town to the Cannon Fort situated on top. From here they had great panoramic views of the island and the bay beyond. There were also a few exhibits from the fort’s use during the French and American wars.

Where We Ate

As we said, Cat Ba is definitely a tourist town, so there are plenty of places to eat along the main drag, all with about the same menu. It was still early April when we visited though, so some had not yet opened for the season. We tried three different places that were open, and none particularly stood out. They all had seafood dishes which Wayne was interested to sample. Della isn’t as much of a fan of seafood, but was able to find dishes like curries to satisfy her.

On the first night, it was Eric’s birthday, so we also went out in search of “fresh beer,” the very cheap local beer that has been recently brewed (that we first tried in Hoi An). It was a bit of a scavenger hunt, but we finally found one place and enjoyed a couple of glasses.

Getting Away

From Cat Ba, we wanted to get back to Hanoi, and again the recommended way was to book a combination ticket through Hoang Long. We took the 1:30 bus back to the ferry port on Cat Ba island, then the ferry back across to the mainland.

From here our journey changed from what we were expecting. While we were on the ferry, a guy who we didn’t recognize said that the four of us should follow him once we got off. We were a little skeptical, but a big group followed him so we went to investigate. As it turned out, they were a tour group coming back from a multi-day trip and headed back to Hanoi, and the guy we were following was their guide. There were a few empty spots on their minibus transport back, so some arrangement had been made for us to get on that. This saved us from having to transfer to a different bus in Haiphong.

While on this bus, we did witness some of the rudeness that we had been warned to expect in northern Vietnam. Another couple had also gotten on the minibus, seemingly with the same permission from the guide. After a break at a rest stop though, the guide came to the back where they were sitting and stared at them hard for a minute, then asked to see their ticket. They showed it to him, and he accused them of getting on the wrong bus at the rest stop! They protested, and the rest of us backed up their claim that they had been on since the ferry. The guide wasn’t satisfied, and flagged down a passing Hoang Long bus on the highway. Both our bus and that bus pulled over, and the guide tried to get the Hoang Long bus to take this couple. But that bus didn’t like their ticket either, so they had to get back on the minibus. The guide threw his hat down in disgust and sulked the rest of the journey home.

Final Thoughts

We really enjoyed our time on Cat Ba. It helped that we found a tour that met our desire to kayak so well, and that there was such great weather to allow us to really appreciate the scenery of the karsts. At least for us, choosing to stay on Cat Ba and do a day trip to Lan Ha Bay over cruising into Halong Bay turned out to be the right decision.

6 thoughts on “Cruising the Karsts Around Cat Ba, Vietnam

  1. Great Memories of those 3 days. I am not sure I understood the whole issue with the couple with the wrong ticket enougt to defend them or not

  2. I thought the day spent kayaking was one of the best days of the whole trip. The weather was gorgeous, the water was a comfortable temperature to swim, the scenery was spectacular and we chatted with nice people from all over the world.

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