Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Dragons in the Mist: Hạ Long Bay & Cát Bà Island

Probably one of the biggest tourists attractions in Southeast Asia (and certainly one of my reasons for wanting to visit Vietnam), is Halong Bay.

The karst islets of Halong Bay. I was here in March, in the summer, the gulf shows off it's incredible turquoise hue.

Located along the Northeastern coastline of Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin, Halong, or Descending Dragon Bay, is made stunning by the 1,600 karst islands and islets that dot it. 500 million years old and formed by 20 million years of erosion in a wet tropical climate, Halong truly is a marvel. It gets it's name from legends which claim that the islands were formed by dragons sent by the gods to protect the Vietnamese against invaders.

Looking outward from Cat Ba, the largest of the islands.
The most common way to explore Halong bay is by two or three day cruise on a (hopefully modernised) traditional junk boat. These cruises often include a stop at one or more of the incredible karst caves which riddle the islets, the opportunity for 2 or so hours of kayaking (at your own speed) around, under and through some of the islets at one of the floating villages, the chance to jump in for a swim (in the admittedly now polluted waters), excellent eagle watching opportunities and fairly decent food. Given the plethora of tours available and the range of prices and reputations, it's best to do a touch of research before you book. For the younger crowd looking for more adventure and a good party, Central Backpackers in Hanoi offers the perfect tour.

Fishing boats moored in a place we nick-named 'Pirate Cove' on Cat Ba. 
For the budget traveller, the cheapest way to get there is to organise a combined bus and boat ride out to Cat Ba Island from Luong Yen Bus Station in Hanoi (should be 10USD each way), or to get there by boat from Haiphong on the main land and to use Cat Ba as your jumping off point. Just be warned that there are several ports on the island and that if you arrive on the opposite side late in the afternoon, it might be difficult to find a ride across the 30km island into Cat Ba Town. The Island itself is stunning, the food there delicious (check out Hoang Y in Cat Ba town for the best there is), and the boat tours out onto Cat Ba or Lan Ha Bay, which boast the same landscape as Halong, much cheaper and less crowded. There is also plenty of cheap accommodation on offer on the island, beautiful beaches, excellent hiking, rock climbing and biking and, for those who want to get out on the water, the awesome Asia Outdoors offers kayak and deep water soloing trips. 

One of the beaches near Cat Ba city. Beautiful during the day, but arguably cooler by night when the algae in the water shoots off sparks of electric green bioluminescence in your wake.
Cat Ba is the largest of the 366 karst islands in the Halong area and, in addition to all of the activities above, boasts incredible scenery and biodiversity, with a national park comprising more than half the island. The park offers some great hiking trails, awesome rainforest insects, 1,561 recorded species of flora and fauna, and is home to the extremely endangered Cat Ba golden headed langur (of which there are only 68 left in the wild). It's easy enough - and well worth it - to just rent a motorbike or bicycle (be warned, there are lots of big hills) for day or two and explore on your own.

The view from the base of one of the trails in Cat Ba National Park.

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