On a Boat off Cat Ba

The Lonely Island has changed life as we know it.

On Friday night my boyfriend Daniel arrived and we slept a few short hours at the Hilton Hanoi Opera, just a few steps from the Grand Palais Theatre-styled opera house. We would wake up at 5 to go to Cat Ba island. With an unclear idea of what we were doing, we took one bus, one speeding cab (with a driver singing boy bands and J.Lo), one speedboat and one minibus to arrive at Cat Ba town to meet up with our tour operator Cat Ba Ventures. We were late but we had a private tour booked so they were forgiving. After some street coffee from a tiny metal dripper, we got into our boat, the Dolphin junk. For $163 pp we had a guide, chef and captain, a big bedroom for ourselves and above that a roof deck with a double chaise for lounging.

Our guide was a young guy named Hang who wore a puffy winter jacket and in the water, a turquoise pith helmet. He used to be an office worker in Hanoi but moved out to Cat Ba to be a tour guide, talking to foreigners by day and playing soccer by night. He was very friendly but gave us privacy and spoke good English. He was always singing pop ballads – he says the Vietnamese have a saying, it doesn’t matter how well you sing, only how much you sing. 🙂

We headed out of Cat Ba town, first passing a large floating fishing village. This would be our first glimpse of the aquaculture that is integral to economic life in the archipelago. Everywhere we’d see floating houses, lone little boats on the hunt for today’s catch, women scooting around rocks like crabs looking for oysters, squid boats with their hanging lights and in the floating villages grids of underwater tanks housing all the sea creature goodies. Fishermen in the area catch fish big and small, squid, octopus, cuttlefish, shrimp, oysters, blue crab, lobster, etc. It goes to market and ends up in Hanoi and other inland cities.

boats Local boat going by

Then off into the karsts! We spent the morning cruising Lan Ha bay, much less crowded than famous Halong bay. We sat on our roof deck looking at every strange karst island, each weathered differently by wind and water and covered in trees. We came at low tide which exposed the striated limestone being steadily worn by the ocean. We loved the striking landscape dotted by the fishermen and women in boats.

Exposed bottoms of the limestone karts

Lunch on the boat

All of our meals were amazing spreads prepared by our personal chef. Over our four meals on deck we enjoyed fried fish, squid with fruits and vegetables, shrimp and tofu scallion fritters, fresh fried dough pancakes (for breakfast) and much more. I felt like royalty! The food was all amazingly fresh (they got the fish flopping out of the water from a floating market) and I loved all the flavors. The tomatoes were so umami-rich and the dishes were often made zesty with the addition of starfruit and pineapple. Yum!

inspecting today's catch
Our crew inspecting a fresh catch. They procured some little fishes for their own lunch.

Kayaking around tranquil lagoons

Both afternoons we went kayaking through little caves in and out of secluded lagoons. We saw a group of big monkeys rumbling through the trees in one! With barely anyone around it felt so tranquil to kayak through the turquoise waters together, the only sounds being the splash of our paddles and the occasional rustling of an animal. We also did some swimming the second day when it was sunny – the water is quite peaceful everywhere – and snorkeling to see some very interesting coral. Both Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long bay also had little beaches at the base of the karsts but we didn’t have much time for a beach stop.

Sunset just outside Ha Long Bay

cat ba morning
Morning at one of Cat Ba island’s beaches

We were sad to leave our boat when we returned to Cat Ba at sunset. We strolled around the town, which has a nice waterfront walking areas around a bay of little colorful fishing boats and a strip of hotels facing this bay. We hunted for crab in the darker more local areas but were eventually told that in Vietnam you can only order crab in the morning. At one point walked through a little alley where families were all eating rice in front of the TVs in their shophouse ground floors which had been converted to living rooms (meaning you could see right into them, as they had no front walls). In the morning we also walked to Cat Ba town’s three beaches, deserted and beautiful, though colonized by resorts. If I were to do this trip again I’d spend a week in Cat Ba, which in addition to those karsty beaches has a huge national park, kayaks and motorbikes for rent and not many people at this time of year.

We endured another bus-boat-bus combo to Hanoi where we stayed at the Hilton again. I took Daniel around the streets and the lake. We enjoyed banh xeo, these savory coconut milk pork pancakes which you wrap up with lettuce and rice paper and dip in a broth, and bun cha, a rich soup with vermicelli noodles topped with BBQ pork, pork or crab patties wrapped in leaves and topped with the usual cilantro etc. Also some great, flaky fries cha gio, or spring rolls – the best I’ve had this trip.

Banh Xeo
Banh xeo
bun cha and cha gio
Bun cha and cha gio


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