Cat Ba: Exploring Ha Long Bay without a cruiseship

“Well, it’s definitely cheaper. Instead of being locked up on a boat we can choose a new place to have dinner every night!” The speaker gestures at the waterfront strip of restaurants with his 5,000 dong beer*.
“And we get to do different things each day, like kayaking and rock climbing and motorbiking. Yeah, being based on Cat Ba Island is a better way to see Ha Long Bay than a cruise.”
“But of course you’d think that – that’s why we’re here on Cat Ba!”

Even so, Cat Ba Island is a good base for exploring Vietnam’s famous Ha Long Bay, particularly if you’re just not that into cruising. Cat Ba Island is famous for its spectacular natural beauty, so we explored the area in three ways: kayaking and rock climbing; hiking through the National Park; and motorbiking around the island.

Kayaking and Rock Climbing – Asia Outdoors

Asia Outdoors is the undisputed leader of outdoor sports on Cat Ba Island. Formerly Slo Pony, Asia Outdoors was founded in 2006 by two American climbers, Erik Ferjentsik and Onslo Carrington. While by Australian standards the $85 USD day (per person) of kayaking and rock climbing is decent, it was far above and beyond our average spending in Vietnam. But with something like rock climbing, where a cheap rope or an inexperienced guide could have you killed, we were very willing to pay for our safety.

The guides at Asia Outdoors are a mix of poorly paid but very enthusiastic workers (much like the industry everywhere), and volunteers who get free board and gear hire. Every single staff member who we met was brilliant. In the morning it was Nick from the UK, who was taking us on his first ever solo lead of a kayaking trip. Coming from an outdoor sports background, where I’m used to real sea kayaks, these locally made fibreglass versions felt sluggish and meandering… but then, so too did the casual paddle, and it was all the better for it.

We paddled through the epic karst formations of Lan Ha Bay, passing through rock arches and watching the decidedly brown Black Kites wheeling overhead. Nick the guide warned us not to paddle within a dog’s leaping distance of the floating fishing villages, since they all have several guard dogs on them!

The lunch back on board the boat was excellent, and then for rock climbing we were again teamed up with the Ohio couple who had been on the paddle. Nate and Sarah had already proven themselves excellent company, so we were very glad to see them again – they also have a beautiful and informative blog.

Our guides were Benson and Pete, and they were patient with our limited climbing experience, encouraging us up the climbs. They use the French system of grading, so we climbed 5as and 5bs, being somewhere around a 15-17 in the Australian grades. The limestone was much nicer to climb than I’d expected – all grip, but not as sharp as I’d been worried about, and even the small and seemingly fragile points of rock refused to break as I climbed them. It was really enjoyable climbing, particularly the 6a move on one climb, and we were disappointed to have too little time for the 6b climb. Yet such was the case, and we retreated back to Cat Ba.

Cat Ba National Park Trekking

Discussions over dinner with Nate, Sarah and two of their friends led to the decision to trek through the national park the next day, and impartial and useful advice from Benson at Asia Outdoors helped us along (he really is a gem!). As such, the next morning we took a taxi to the Park gates, paid our $4 (ish) entry fee and began hiking along the trail to the Frog Pond.

Hiking Cat Ba National Park

It was a lovely walk, though the rainforest was so dense that we had no view until we’d left the National Park. Instead, we had cute little trails, less cute but excellent rock scramble sections of track, and enough small pretty things to fill the dream of a macro photographer.

We reached the Frog Pond (a reflective lake), and walked onto Viet Hai, the oldest village on the island. It was full of dogs that looked like dingoes (probably not a coincidence) and their puppies, as well as the quintessential Vietnamese fields of rice and water buffaloes.

After 14kms in total we arrived at the coast, and needed to get back to Cat Ba town. We’d not organised a boat in advance, so it took a bit more negotiation than we’d expected, and we didn’t exactly have the upper hand. Even so, we had a fabulous sunset boat ride back, including our local driver hopping out at his own floating home, handing the boat over to his son(?) and waving us goodbye with his dog in his arms.

Motorbiking around Cat Ba

At 70,000 dong (less than $4) for motorbike hire, and another 20,000 of petrol, this is a great way to get around. We’d thought about hiring one to get around Hanoi, but decided that the traffic would probably kill us. (For a description of our experience of Hanoi, see my partner’s post, full of more of my photos!) So instead we hired one on Cat Ba, and used it to explore the caves and sights of the island.

The Hospital Cave was particularly interesting, and I may even have spent more time there than I spent taking photographs of butterflies.

And then it was the end of our glorious time on Cat Ba Island. We finished it by eating an incredible seafood hotpot, which included eating the infamous mantis shrimp. Turns out that the harbinger of blood-soaked rainbows is delicious.

*For reference, the ratio is about 1 US dollar to somewhere between 21-24 thousand dong. Which makes a 5,000 dong beer less than 25 cents.

For more photos, see my Flickr album.

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4 thoughts on “Cat Ba: Exploring Ha Long Bay without a cruiseship

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