We set sail in the early morning. As we head out of the bay, local villagers living on floating houses connected by wooden planks and floating on wrapped styrofoam, have already started working. Dogs run around on the floating premises. Small, colourful wooden fisher boats with corrugated roofs pass us by while we leisurely pass karst stone rocks sprawled around the waters. The early morning mist covers the tops of the rocks with a mystifying blanket that will hopefully be lifted later today to reveal the scenery in full. Here and there hamlets are adorned with a patch of golden sand, a preview of the visit to secluded beaches in the offing of our boat trip.
The watery sun reflects as a golden patch on the green waves, patterned by natural waves and those created by a few other boats setting out to one of Vietnam’s tourist highlights. We are on our way to Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay, where over 1600 islands and islets rise from calm blue waters. Most of these are uninhabited because of their drop cliffs. However, about 400 floating houses do accommodate locals that live off fishing. Fishermen already lived in Ha Long Bay hundreds of years ago, but solar power and generators have allowed locals to permanently live on the waters and start fish and oyster farms.
Their dogs barks at us as we sail passed the farms. Our guide explains that these dogs are not pets but are kept to protect the fish farm against attacks from hawks.
Scanning the skies I actually spot a hawk, its dark feathers in stark contrast with the still clouded skies. My gaze follows the shape of a white limestone formation that erects from the waters with steep 90 degrees cliffs. The remarkable shapes of the rocks have been formed over the course of 500 million years. The sides of the base have been beaten away by the regression and transgression of the sea and give some of the limestone pillars a precarious look, as if it would not take much strength to make it loose its equilibrium and fall over with great force. In other rocks, the water has hollowed out the base creating natural tunnels and caves. I am excited to take a closer look.
The bright yellow kayak slides smoothly through the calm waters. Paddling alongside the base of the rocks adds a new dimension to the beauty of the landscape. We put on our headlights as we enter a dark cave. It is difficult to see the flow of the water and here and there I use my paddle to push away the kayak from the edgy walls. As light falls inside the cave from the other opening of the tunnel, I can see the stalactites hanging from the ceiling. On the other end of the tunnel, we find ourselves in a deserted bay. Surrounded by tree-covered rocks and small strips of coral beach, we enjoy the sound of birdsong.
We pass some more tunnels as we make our way to other bays where we wish other groups of travellers a good morning. The waters in the bay are shallow and devoid of currents and so kayaking here is a leisurely activity. Every now and then, we lay down our oars to just float about while we enjoy the scenery.
Night has fallen without a visible sunset, but the skies have cleared up after dusk and made way for a starry but moonless night. We hit the waters again in kayaks and are surrounded by pitch dark water. As our eyes get used to the darkness, the silhouettes of the rock formations become visible against the black skies that are dotted with lights. It takes only a couple of metres before I notice that it’s not just the stars shining bright above us, but also hundreds of small lights in the waters that surround us. The white lights in the water appear for a brief moment each time our paddles touch the surface, and are in fact bioluminescent plankton.
It is a magic, fairy tale setting that has us behaving like overly excited little children. We splash our paddles in the water for minutes on end, and could have continued doing so for hours.
Back on shore, or at least back on the floating construction where we have our room for the night, we enjoy the evening watching the stars above us and we occasionally splash our hands in the water from the structure’s edge to watch some more magic – eh… plankton light up.
Morning awakens us with sunrays and the skies show some promising patches of blue. Seizing the moment, we pick up our paddles again and set out to find ourselves a pretty beach. There are no other tourists to say good morning to this time, only a couple of fisherman whom we greet cheerfully. Instead of small bays protected by the shallows of rock formations, we now see the grandeur of the surroundings with the ocean on the horizon. My arm muscles start to ache as the water is not as wrinkle free as and shallow here and it is the third time in 1,5 days’ time inside a kayak. It is a morning exercise with the prettiest one could imagine though, and as I soak in the peace and calm of the surroundings I feel the soft light of the morning sun warming up my body.
Later in the day the skies open up and give us a glimpse of what the bay looks like at its best. I enjoy the ride back to the harbour from the bow of the boat and lift my hand every now and then to wave a goodbye to fishermen.
How to get to Ha Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay?
Both bays lay off the coast of Cat Ba Island and can be reached only by tour boat. Cat Ba Island is connected to mainland Vietnam with a short ferry ride from the harbour that you can reach by bus from Hanoi. The easiest and fastest (and still cheap) way of transportation is to arrange a package that includes a bus on both sides on the island and the ferry. In total it takes about 4 hours to get from Hanoi to Cat Ba Town (or the other way around). We arranged this through Cat Ba Express for $15 pp one way.
Should I visit Ha Long Bay or Lan Ha Bay?
Ha Long Bay is the most fabled bay of Vietnam, but Lan Ha Bay offers the same scenery with less tourists. My advice however would be to opt for a two day, one night, boat trip so you can see both.
How can I book a tour to Ha Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay? / daytrip versus overnight trip Ha Lan Bay
There are various tour operators providing day trips and overnight trips. Itineraries differ, so focus on what you like to see most and which activities you like. Our tour included kayaking, cycling to the abandoned Viet Han village and a short hike up to the viewpoint of Monkey Island.
We thoroughly enjoyed our overnight trip with Cat Ba Green Trail travel. When opting for an overnight trip, you can either choose to spend the night on the boat (only 1 room available), a floating homestay (basic but fine room) or a bungalow (the more fancy option you can choose if you feel like splurging).
Note that when you book a two day trip, people who are on a day trip will most probably join as well on the first day. We started our trip with 12 people but enjoyed our evening and second day with just one other couple.
Why visit Monkey Island?
Monkey Island is popular with many tourists since there’s a lot of monkeys to see from up close and a somewhat challenging climb to the viewing point provides stunning views of the islands sprawled along the bay.
I liked the climb up, but unfortunately the clouds did not allow us to see much further than the golden sand beach below us. As for the monkeys, I felt rather sad and frustrated seeing them on the beach. People have started to feed the monkeys and leave rubbish on the beach which has resulted in the monkeys now being quite aggressive in stealing food and drinks from tourists, and they drink from beer cans. Many of the tourists find this hilarious, but if you care just one bit for nature conservation you will not enjoy seeing this nor partipate in this.