Updated October 2017. People think we’re crazy when we tell them we spent a month in Vietnam without doing a Halong Bay cruise. Sometimes I can’t believe it myself – I mean it is at the top of most Vietnam to do lists. But then I smile and remember that we chose Lan Ha Bay over Halong Bay and loved it.
We didn’t miss out on Halong Bay, instead we saw what we believe to be a better version of it. From all accounts, Lan Ha Bay has less boats and pollution plus Cat Ba island has beaches, caves and restaurants to explore between trips out into the limestone green waters of the bay.
Made for Pinning
Why choose Lan Ha Bay?
- Halong Bay is polluted and crowded with boats as far as the eye can see.
- Lan Ha Bay is at the southern end of Halong Bay – well away from the boat crush to the north. It has the same karst limestone outcrops and in addition, it even has white sandy beaches.
- Hanoi to Halong Bay trips via Halong City are mostly mini-bus/Halong/mini-bus back to Hanoi. Only a small amount of luggage is allowed – the rest being left behind in Hanoi. These buses are notorious for stopping at tourist shops along the way. We wanted to continue on to Ninh Binh after the boat trip and not back-track to Hanoi, so we needed to bring all of our luggage with us.
- Hoang Long Bus Company had a service leaving from Cat Ba City to Ninh Binh our next destination. Everything fell into place – we decided to visit Lan Ha Bay instead of Halong Bay.
Asia Outdoors Cat Ba.
After scouring the internet for alternatives we found Slo Pony who have since changed their name to Asia Outdoors. This outdoor adventure company, which offers Lan Ha Bay Tours from Cat Ba Island, encourages independent travellers to bypass Halong City and go directly to Cat Ba Island.
On offer are experiences ranging from SUP and Yoga Retreats, to Rock Climbing and Trekking. We chose the One Day Kayaking/Climbing Boat Tour.
There are 300 karst limestone islands in the Bay south and east of Cat Ba Town.
Asia Outdoors made the trip from Hanoi to Cat Ba SO EASY.
They have intricate knowledge of how to get to Cat Ba Island and now offer an all inclusive Hotel to Hotel service for $16 USD (Good Morning Cat Ba).
You can read about both the Do It Yourself version we did and the Good Morning Cat Ba Island all inclusive deal here. We followed instructions from the website which worked perfectly for us.
Hanoi to Cat Ba – via Haiphong – Do It Yourself Option.
Hanoi – Hoang Long Bus Company.
We purchased tickets on the day of departure at the bus station, but it is possible now to book them on line. Hoang Long Bus Company is a public bus service.
Haiphong Bus Station.
On arrival at Haiphong, the Cat Ba contingent of passengers, transferred to a smaller bus before being dropped at a Hoang Long ticket office in a dusty commercial area on the outskirts of Haiphong. Although puzzled as to why we were there, the atmosphere was relaxed and it was possible to purchase food and drinks from passing vendors.
Afterward it became apparent that the stop was made to tie in with the arrival of the boat. When the time was right we re-boarded the bus and were driven to the jetty.
The Boat from Haiphong to Cat Ba Island.
Getting to Cat Ba Island from Haiphong.
Described as a speed boat, I was relieved to find ours was a decently sized passenger boat. The waters between the mainland jetty and Cat Ba Island were sheltered and calm, making travel sickness a non-event. Half an hour later we arrived at the deserted Cai Vieng Harbour where another mini-bus made a zippy cross country ride into Cat Ba town.
Good Morning Cat Ba Option.
This option has obviously come into being to make the trip easier. It is a little more expensive than the do it yourself version, but on the plus side, it picks up from your Hanoi hotel and smooths out the hassle of transfers. As far as I can tell it is not a public bus service.
Not being able to speak Vietnamese can make the Do It Yourself version a little more challenging, but it is cheaper and probably more stressful/exciting.
Both options take the same amount of time – 4.5 hours.
Cat Ba Town.
Cat Ba town is more interesting and enjoyable, than beautiful. Concrete hotels, four or more stories high, stand like soldiers along the Esplanade, the randomly painted ones bringing a tiny taste of Italy to the scene.
The atmosphere is endearingly gung-ho, with pushy pearl vendors shouting their cut-throat sales pitches, while pedestrians try not to break a leg on the uneven pavements.
At night, the dull daytime Esplanade evolves into a bright and busy neon-land and everyone comes out to play.
We found Cat Ba to be quiet during the week but noisy and congested with local tourists on the week-end.
Lan Ha Bay Boat Trip.
Our trip was a combined climbing/kayaking trip, but now the two are separate.
At 8.45 a.m. we boarded the mini bus to Ben Beo harbour about 2 km from town. Guide Jo, a friendly young American woman, mixed effortlessly, entertaining us with stories from her nine month stint teaching English in Hanoi.
Initially unsure of our Lan Ha Bay choice, it soon became obvious that it was equally, if not more, naturally beautiful than Halong Bay. In places it abounded with small local fishing craft and water villages, while in others it was just us, the islands and the gorgeous green limestone tinged water.
When the climbers and guide were dropped off at an island, the captain took the remaining eight passengers to a good kayaking area. I liked that the kayakers were not treated as an after-thought.
We paddled together through a rock opening into a peaceful lagoon, then back through the floating fishing villages, and briefly out into the open ocean.
Collecting the Climbers.
With the climbers back on board, the boat moored for lunch. The crew prepared sautéed potatoes, fried chicken, spring rolls, rice, tofu and omelette with individual (and correct) tabs kept for beer, soft-drink and bottled water. Groups of four gathered at individual cane tables on the lower deck, to share the plentiful communal platters. Both times we took boat trips in Vietnam we were blown away by the variety of food the crew managed to prepare with little more than a gas burner and a piece of deck space.
With the climbers dropped at their next location, we cruised to a new kayaking spot with a mini island temple and free kayak time in the maze of islands. This time everything was more relaxed with some kayakers choosing to stay on deck while others explored the temple and islands.
Lounging in bean bags on the top deck, drinking beers, swapping stories and watching the sun drop behind the islands as we cruised back to port was a beautiful way to end the day.
Previous rock climbing experience is not necessary and the guide instructs as you climb. It was possible to mix it up with kayaking one half of the day and climbing the other. One passenger switched to kayaking after completing her first climb as she found it so physically challenging.
On the way back to port we dropped some guests off for a romantic night at an island resort, and others at the Hanoi Beach backpacker island, which was all pumping music, beach volleyball and partying.
Review of the Lan Ha Bay Boat Trip
We were so happy with our trip into Lan Ha Bay. The scenery was out of this world – gigantic limestone pinnacles jutting skyward from the emerald green water – sandy beaches clinging to their bases – colourful floating villages – plenty of time and space to explore wherever we wanted – great food – good conversation. It was one of those magic travel days to think about years later.
Please Note: Check which trips are available currently on the Asia Outdoors website.
Cat Ba Island Things to Do.
On arrival we quickly chose a hotel so that we could organize a trip to the war-time hospital cave that very afternoon. In the side street near Noble House we walked into a shop with a tourist information sign out front, and negotiated the hire of two motorbikes with driver/guides. Taxis were also available at twice the price, which was still inexpensive.
I’m not a motorbike rider but it was an exciting 10 km ride, up and down hills, along bays and beside green cultivated fields. My pint sized driver spent his time nonchalantly on his phone, while I clung somewhat nervously behind. Whenever we went downhill I found I slid toward him on the highly polished seat. Awkward!
I did love the breeze and sense of freedom and could easily become addicted.
On arrival at the cave our drivers played pool at a nearby cafe while a guide led us up bamboo steps to the cave entrance. Just inside the cave he produced a fake machine gun (joke) before beginning his tour. With the machine gun prop disposed of we visited the operating theatres, movie theatre, bedrooms, kitchens and the escape route where soldiers could jump from a high up cave into a pool on the lowest level. The cave had three floors of rooms built into it and was in use until 1975. Who knew such a thing existed?
On the way home, after yet another phone-call, we made an impromptu detour to collect my driver’s child from school. Thankfully she had already left with a relative, although to be one of three-up on a bike would have been an experience.
Cat Ba Restaurants
Seafood is the speciality on Cat Ba. Restaurant tanks of live crabs and fish are common. We tried several places along the Esplanade Strip.
The Bamboo Hut, Huong Y, the Noble House Cafe (Western/Vietnamese mix), Green Mango (breakfasts) and last but not least the restaurant (name unknown) on the left of Bamboo Hut. There, we watched the cook prepare superb fresh crab and prawn spring rolls for us, after which he whipped up stir fried squid and vegetables. The squid was fresh, sweet and tender and is still the best I’ve tasted and I eat a lot of squid.
Restaurant food was only a few dollars but even cheaper food could be found at the markets on the way into town.
There were floating restaurants, accessed by boat from the main pier just near the welcome sign, but we were happy with the quality and price of those on shore. Call me paranoid, but I didn’t fancy being on a floating restaurant, reliant on another’s goodwill to get us back to shore.
Cat Ba Island Accommodation
Our first waterfront hotel had huge rooms but a neglected feel, with curtains falling from their hooks, and drain water that flowed from the claw foot bath, across the floor in front of the toilet before finally finding it’s way to the drain hole in the far corner of the room.
I think there may have been one other couple staying at the hotel, which I suspect would lift it’s game come peak tourist season. Our room had a great view of the bay.
The second night we spent at Noble House, which was clean and well-maintained with the same great view, but noisy from the music in the bar. We knew this would be the case and had ear plugs ready for action.
There are many accommodation bargains to be had on the island especially out of season.
Budget Option: Trang Anh Seaview Hotel. $18 USD for two nights in November.
We recommend the Lan Ha Bay experience. It worked well with our ongoing travel plans and was a low-key and budget friendly alternative to Halong Bay.
When we were planning this portion of our Vietnam trip it was difficult to find information on Hanoi/Cat Ba/Ninh Binh. We hope that this post fills that gap.
Answering your FAQ’s
- Kayaking Trip Cost 590,000 VND Approx. $26 USD
- Lan Ha Bay is part of a larger Halong Bay area that includes Halong, Lan Ha, Cat Ba and Bai Tu Long Bay
- Asia Outdoors cruise in junk boats to access adventure based activities in Lan Ha Bay – they don’t run conventional cruises
- All of their kayak trips are guided
- Dry Bags are supplied to keep belongings dry in the kayaks
- Life Jackets are supplied
- Lunch is included and drinks are available
- Apr/August is peak season. Sept./Nov. is more relaxed. Dec./Mar. is too cold to swim
- Cat Ba is known for its trekking, fishing, beaches, caves, kayaking, sightseeing in Lan Ha Bay
- It doesn’t have great shopping – except for pearls.
We have no association with Asia Outdoors and have not been paid or received any compensation for this post.