Lan Ha Bay is one of three areas off the coast of Northern Vietnam which has clusters of limestone karst islands, most with steep sea cliffs. The other two areas are Ha Long Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay. Lan Ha Bay, which is close to Cat Ba Island, is much less visited than the more famous Ha Long Bay and Bau Tu Long Bay because it is further from the mainland tour boat piers, however, its just as good as much more peaceful.
I took a very cheap and slightly unusual boat around Lan Ha Bay in September 2018 completely avoiding the crowds and importantly avoiding having to spend the day on a boat packed with young foreign travellers. I went with Vietnamese people from the local area and really enjoyed it.
My Boat trip around Lan Ha Bay
Boat trips around Lan Ha Bay depart from Ben Beo Harbour ,which is on the east side of Cat Ba island about 2 km by road from the island’s main town which is simply known as Cat Ba town on account of its being the only town on the island. You can also tour Lan Ha Bay on a boat trip from the mainland piers but only on 2 or 3 day cruise as it takes a while to get to Lan Ha Bay from the mainland. From Cat Ba Island you can tour Lan Ha Bay in half a day on a slow boat.
Ben Bao Harbour is in a beautiful bay and is full of boats of all kinds, some of which are tour boats but most are local fishing boats or simply boats that the people who live in the bay use for getting around.
As soon as you clear the bay where the harbour is located you enter an area with lots of the type of small islands you see in photographs about the famous Ha Long Bay. There are over 300 of these islands in Lan Ha Bay.
Our first stop on route was at the Lan Ha Bay Floating Market to buy an enormous local fish weighing 3 kilogrammes which my fellow passengers cooked on the boat. The floating market is a collection of wooden platforms with huts and fish tanks created with nets resting on empty plastic drums for buoyancy. There are lots of these small communities living in Lan Ha Bay making money from tourism and fish farming, whilst at the same avoiding paying rent or presumably any local taxes.
From the time we left Ben Beo Harbour we spent about 3 hours slowly meandering around different bays sailing past lots and lots of islands. The scale of Lan Ha is breathtaking and even more so when, at certain points, you glimpse the clusters of island across the sea in nearby Ha Long Bay.
Most of the bays in Lan Ha Bay have people living in them on floating fish farms making Lan Ha Bay was one of most permanently inhabited areas of the sea anywhere in the world.
As you cruise around Lan Ha Bay you see a few other tour boats. Some of these boats are long distance cruise boats with facilities for people to stay onboard overnight. The majority of the tour boats you see in Lan Ha Bay, however, are day trip boats with up to 30 people on board. All tour boats follow largely the same trip itinerary so will spot several in the area at same time. These day trips cost around 650,000 VND a person if you book them in Cat Ba Town. There are lots of agencies and tour operators on the sea front road in Cat Ba where you book a trip like this.
I booked my trip through the young local man working on the reception at the Lang Chai Hotel where I was staying. I didn’t want to go on a day trip with 30 or more other foreign travellers. Instead the young man at the hotel made some calls and got me a place on a trip with a very friendly Vietnamese family for the very reasonable price of 350,000 VND. We went in a smaller wooden boat with a comfortable inside seating area and an upstairs viewing deck.
After a few hours cruising around the smaller islands we stopped at Monkey Island. Monkey Island is one of the bigger islands in the bay with a some resorts where you can stay, the best of which is the Monkey Island Resort, and the island does indeed have monkeys living on it.
Other than sitting on the beach, swimming in the sea, taking in the scenery, eating and drinking, there are two activities to do on Monkey Island: climbing the hill on the island to reach the viewpoint, or hiring a kayak go around the island and perhaps visit a few of the nearer islands in the same bay if you have the energy.
After our visit to Monkey Island we sailed out into the middle of the bay and gently bobbed around in the sea for couple of hours whilst we ate lunch and drank more than a few Vietnamese beers, which are very cheap if you but them by the crate. Lunch was the fish we bought at the floating market made into a soup and also simply fried in thick fillets. Great food, cold beer, good company and brilliant scenery. Better than being stuck in a boat with 30 other foreign visitors for sure.
Location of Ben Beo Harbour
Ben Beo Harbour is located is located 2 km by road from the Lang Chai Hotel in the main town on Cat Ba Island.