We went on the best private boat Ha Long Bay. My expectations for Ha Long Bay were very high, but that didn’t stop them being exceeded. I had booked us on a three day, two night private boat trip with Eco-friendly Vietnam. The tour began from Hanoi where we were picked up in a plush, limo-van. It was a stressful two and a half hour drive to Hai Phong, as we weaved in and out of the traffic at breakneck pace.
Whilst I was learning the method behind the mad driving, there was more than one occasion that I held my heart in my mouth. Arriving at Hai Phong, we were promptly pushed along into a beaten-up hydrofoil boat, for our trip to Cat Ba Island. The boat was long and skinny and as we planed along the harbor it felt remarkably rocky and I began to look for the emergency exits of which there were few. Counting the life jackets, I found a similar result. So instead I hoped for the best and spent the 45 minute trip going through the various crash scenarios and what I would do.
Arriving, in one piece, at Cat Ba Island, there was a man with my name on a sign. He introduced himself as our tour guide, Kai, for our trip. After a brief sit in a café, we jumped in a taxi to get to where our boat was, and finally we boarded our charming wooden vessel. The boat was fairly large, with a sun deck with four loungers on the roof. Our cabins were comfortable enough, with a double bed and ensuite bathroom in each. I had a feeling I was going to be spending a lot of time on the loungers. In fact, the boat was barely out of port before we each claimed a lounger and cracked open a beer.
The boat began by going past the Cat Ba fishing village. There are 3,000+ people living in the fishing villages, which are all floating houses with small fish pens. The families feed the fish each day and then sell them when they are big enough. Each family had a dog that roamed around the narrow beams of the fish pens. As we turned the corner we entered the large bay with towering limestone cliffs. There were islands in every direction and it was amazing that the captain knew his way through the maze of rock.
Our first stop that day was a small floating shop, where we disembarked with our guide and got into kayaks. No life jackets were offered or were anywhere in sight. The guide led us on a paddle through a smaller bay. There were a number of other kayakers doing the same journey. As we neared what appeared to be a closed in rock wall, a small cave opened up before us. We paddled into the darkness, with the walls of the cave not far above our heads, and then the cave opened up to another bay which appeared to be fully closed in. We continued paddling quietly through the bay before coming to another rock wall. This time we could barely make out the cave, or the other side, and our guide disappeared into the rock before us. Nervously we followed suit and before we knew it we were through another cave into a bay all on our own. The bay was serene and we floated around, exploring the rocky walls. It was surprising to see how much trash littered the outskirts of the bays.
Heading back to the boat, a large splash occurred on our right, er, starboard side, 50m or so away. I called out to Kai and asked him what it was, as I could see him watching the splash curiously. He smiled back without a response. Later on the boat, I asked him again. He replied that there was no splash. When I asked him if there were sharks in the bay he smiled and said “yes”. However, his English wasn’t perfect and I later learnt that he had a tendency to say “yes” and smile whenever he wasn’t sure what we said, but at the time I didn’t know this and it made me a little uneasy going for a swim in the bay.
We swam in the bay a couple of times on our first day, jumping off the side and top of the boat into the water. Giant white jellyfish rolled by the boat, but we tried our best not to swim near them. The guide told us that the big ones were fine, that it was the little ones with long tentacles that you can’t see that you need to look out for. This was not reassuring. The boat motored into a little inlet and we anchored for the evening, with only one other boat in sight. The chef on the boat cooked up the most glorious feast, a mix of Vietnamese and western food. We had a selection of stir-fry, chilli fish, rice, fries and dragon fruit. That evening the chef was fishing for squid from the boat with the aid of a lightbulb on an extension cord. We joined him and were given basic rods, where you held a stick in one hand and the reel in the other. I was the fishing master, catching three squid. Unfortunately the last one got away because it squirted ink over everyone, they screamed, and I dropped the rod.
Waking early with the light streaming through the window and the tall limestone cliffs looming out the window was spectacular. I lay in bed just admiring the beauty, before heading to my favourite lounger. The second day’s activities began with a bike ride to a small village on Cat Ba Island. We biked along a narrow concrete road, through forest, for around 4km. The village was in the middle of the mountains. The grazing and crop fields were at the beginning of the village, followed by a single road with houses scattered either side. Families sat around a large bowl of soup, which they ate for lunch. We stopped at the house of a local man, the uncle of our guide, and sat in his garden for a rest. We explored the village, watching the kids play with the dogs and pedal past on their rickety trikes.
Later that day we went for another kayak. This time the guide didn’t come with us. He pointed vaguely in the distance saying there’s a nice beach over there and he disappeared. Anxious to be heading out into the bay with the many islands, we did as we were told. Each of us thought the guide pointed in a different direction. We paddled for 15 minutes before we spotted any sand at all, but it was only a tiny slither and it had trash on it. We decided this couldn’t be it. It was then we spotted a lovely white sand beach way in the distance. It would involve taking a few turns, which concerned us as to getting lost, but given our guides confidence that we could make it on our own, we decided to paddle towards it. After another 10 minutes we were getting close to the beach. A young Vietnamese boy ran down the beach towards us. We waited for him to greet us, but instead he yelled, “This is a private beach. You can’t come here. Sorry”. That was the moment I became furious at our guide for sending us out into the unknown yonder in search of a beach that clearly did not exist. Luckily for him he was miles away. We did eventually make our way home. By this point we were overheated and grumpy.
Our final night we stopped in a beautiful bay, which this time we had to ourselves. We swam again in the cool water at twilight. Another delicious dinner was made for us and we spent the evening on the loungers drinking gin with passion fruit juice and playing cards. The next morning we again woke to a glorious day in our secluded bay. We decided to go for an early morning swim, so floated around under the cliffs to the sound of the birds chirping. After breakfast we visited Monkey Island. We were all excited to see monkeys playing in the trees. It was possible to feed the monkeys and many of the other tourists did. One small monkey was in a bad mood and bit someone trying to feed it. With horror stories of rabies from our travel doctor not too distant in our mind, we quickly retreated and enjoyed the golden sands of the beach instead.
Sadly after two night and three days we had to get off our boat. This was thoroughly unpleasant, as I was quite used to the boating life, especially in a place as stunning as Ha Long Bay. We collected our belongings and said goodbye to our crew. The tour finished with a visit to an old military site from the war and a café with a spectacular view of the bay. We sipped a beer, before noon, and enjoyed the view. Shortly after we were taken back to the town for lunch followed by another terrifying forty-five minute boat ride and a two hour drive along a very new and curiously deserted highway to Hanoi airport.
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