Exploring the karsts of Ha Long Bay. Photo by Aaron Joel Santos.
While it’s possible to stay on dry land and make day trips out into Halong Bay, nothing beats spending the night on its calm waters, waking up to a serene sunrise and joining a Tai Chi class on the deck of a classic ship.
Cruises lazily sail emerald green waters among thousand of rugged islands and islets, stopping at some of the most spectacular caves through which visitors can wander, viewing impressive centuries old formations. Most boats also moor up at Ti Top island where those with the energy can scale hundreds of steps for a knockout panorama of Halong Bay.
Vietnam is fast becoming an outdoor sports playground, with mountain biking, trail running, triathlon, road cycling and adventure sports growing rapidly, and Halong Bay is no exception.
DWS, or deep water soloing, is a form of rock climbing that needs no ropes. Climbers get vertical before using the ocean as their crash pad, launching themselves back from the rock face when they can climb no higher.
There are enough different routes to keep climbing junkies entertained for weeks if not months, and newbies can also learn here with easier roped climbs available on some of the small islands.
Cat Ba Island lies just to the south of Halong Bay, its densely jungled interior offering intrepid explorers the opportunity to spot some of the 32 animal and 70 plus bird species that call it home.
Visitors are unlikely to spot the island’s most emblematic creature, the Cat Ba Langur. The Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project does sterling work to protect these elusive creatures which are rarely seen thanks to their preference for hanging out on remote, jagged cliffs. Those who trek in the island’s interior have a small but more realistic chance of seeing one of three macaque species, civets, deer and squirrel. Hiking opportunities abound, with the chance to climb to the island’s highest peak or trek to a remote village before taking a ferry ride back to Cat Ba town.
Another great pleasures of a Cat Ba trip is hiring a motorbike or bicycle and exploring. The small road network here means it is almost impossible to get lost, yet somehow it is equally possible to feel a sense of adventure when out on the road.
Head up to the Cannon Fort, not far from town for a slice of military history together with awe inspiring views over Lan Ha Bay and the island’s verdant interior. After this make the 10km journey to Hospital Cave for a fascinating and eerie insight into the not-too distant-history. Until as recently as 1975, the rooms carved out of the rock here were used as wards and an operating theatre.
Cat Ba also serves up some of Vietnam’s best rock climbing, with Butterfly Valley offering something for everyone, from total newbies to advanced rock smiths. Check out Asia Outdoors in the main town for equipment and lessons.
With just 24 hours, it is possible to take a day trip from Hanoi and cruise out among the bay’s fable limestone karst islands before arriving back in the capital in time for a nightcap.
Those with 48 hours to play with have a decision to make: indulge in an utterly relaxing overnight cruise on Halong Bay, or opt for the more active choice, splitting the time between some trekking on Cat Ba Island and a kayak, or perhaps boat trip out onto the waters of Lan Ha Bay.
The months of April and May offer sunshine and a refreshing breeze, while September to October are favoured for their cooler temperatures and clear skies.
Most visitors to Cat Ba or Halong Bay opt for the most relaxing and by far the simplest option of a package including all transport from Hanoi, but it is possible to travel independently to Halong City or Cat Ba Island.
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