Ha Long Bay is considered one of the “new” 7 wonders of nature and it was one of the areas in Vietnam that I was most excited about visiting. Our plan was to charter a boat from Cat Ba Island for 3 days and 2 nights. We worked out a transfer to Cat Ba through our hostel in Ha Noi that included a day trip through Ha Long Bay. Arriving in Ha Long City we immediately encountered a veritable circus of tourists. Our boat along with scores of others headed to the same cave along with a place where we could enjoy nature by kayaking…in a circle around the boats with dozens of other people. The karst rock formations were stunning but all I could focus on was the preposterous amount of trash in the bay as well as the thousands of visitors. I was shattered.
We arrived on Cat Ba late that night and were informed that the boat we had reserved for the morning was gone so we could only take a 2 day 1 night trip now. Things are going downhill I thought. After our disillusionment with Ha Long Bay the travel agent said we could cut it from the itinerary and go through “less touristy spot” of Lan Ha Bay. “Less touristy spot…Yeah right,” I thought as I digested the typical line of SE Asian travel agencies.
The morning after a day of exploring the picturesque island of Cat Ba on our own by motorbike we met our boat in Cat Ba Harbor. Aboard for the ride were an English speaking guide, a boat captain and a cook. We left the harbor and motored past some floating fishing villages towards Lan Ha Bay. The water was much cleaner and there were very few other boats as we cruised alongside amazing rock formations.
We kayaked to empty white sand beaches and into a water cave that opened up into a beautiful, secluded rock coliseum that appeared to have no entry or exit. That night we anchored in the middle of a quiet bay and reclined on the top deck. As we nodded off to sleep a shooting star illuminated the night sky above our heads. It was a stark contrast to the packed, miserable experience we had 2 days earlier.