After being ripped off and disappointed twice by shonky tour operators in Hạ Long city, I decided to try visiting Hạ Long Bay from Cát Bà Island when Katie, Hannah and Adam came. I found a tour company with rave reviews on Trip Advisor and got in touch with them - Mr Tung at Cat Ba Ventures. He has been extremely helpful, and on Wednesday morning we packed our swimmers and headed for the hydrofoil with Khánh and Xuân hoping for a much better experience than Katie and I had last year on Hạ Long Bay... AND WE WERE NOT DISAPPOINTED!!
They met us as we stepped off the hydrofoil
We walked across the esplanade to the Cat Ba Ventures office, where we met Mr Tung and found out all about our tour. We had chartered a private , six-berth boat for a two day, one night tour complete with kayaking, swimming, snorkeling, caves, grottoes, fishing villages, fresh seafood and Hạ Long Bay!
Just a little bit excited!
This is our boat - 2 three-berth cabins, a dining room and a comfortable upper deck for lounging under the shade or sun-baking (or looking at the stars...)
The cabins were small, but we were only in them to get changed and to sleep. the bathrooms were tiny, but all we needed. So we dropped our bags and headed up to the top deck as we began our cruise...
Life in these fishing villages is quite unlike anything we've ever experienced... The tiny houses are surrounded by fish breeding pens, oyster bays...
... even ducks!
But it wasn't long before we were the only people around... not another boat in sight! Magic! As we pulled into this little cove, our guide, Binh, handed us goggles and snorkels and told us we had plenty of time for a swim before lunch. Woo-oo!
The water was clear and balmy and we had a lovely time floating about ... although we didn't spot a single fish! The boys untied one of the kayaks and mucked around on it for a while as well. Then we got the call that lunch was ready.... and I mean LUNCH!
... surrounded by islands ...
So fresh and so delicious! We didn't leave much!
After lunch we cruised to visit Mê Cung Cave, and took turns driving the boat.
- which Hannah found out is not as simple as it looks...
The scenery was spectacular . It's such a shame that photos can't come close to capturing how amazing it is.
So easy to just soak it all up. And so fabulous to be all by ourselves on our own charter boat, doing just what we wanted to do!
After lunch we visited Động Mê Cung - caves...
These caves are small, but the really cool thing is that there's no-one else here!! Binh 'played' the shawl stalactites by knocking them with a stone ... like an eerie organ!
After looking through the caves, we climbed higher... That's our boat moored below. You can see one of the kayaks we've been towing (kayaking's next).
We stopped at a lookout - behind them is a lake formed in a basin in the middle of the island - huge and deep very still.
The higher we climbed, the more spectacular the view became...
I didn't take this photo... only Binh and Khánh climbed this high!
Then we hopped back on board and cruised some more...
We stopped at a place where there was a cave passing under the rock cliff face, and that's where we went kayaking... well Katie and Adam, Hannah and Xuân, were in two-man kayaks. Khánh and I had a double surf ski. It was easier for me to clamber onto, but hard work to paddle. Good thing my mate is so strong!! Binh led us through the cave into a series of hidden grottoes that were amazing. We were paddling through tranquil clear water surrounded by towering cliffs and jungle with not another soul within cooee. Couldn't have been better! We even stopped for a while to watch a troupe of wild monkeys eating and looking down on us. We also spotted a huge jellyfish lazily gliding through the crystal clear water. Wow. (No photos though... none of us were confident enough to risk taking our cameras on the kayaks !)
When we got back to the boat we cruised to the bay where we were to spend the night. That was the only time there was anyone around - another private cruise boat was there and their crew and our crew tied up together while they prepared dinner. Nevertheless, we swam for a while ... jumping off the roof of the boat... having a wonderful time!
Back on board for a shower and a drink while the sun set, then we sat down to a delicious dinner - fresh prawns and clams, rice, fish and vegies...
Drinks on the top deck in the moonlight on a balmy evening just topped off a perfect day.
Where's Khánh? Oh, there he is!
These basins are used by the local oyster farmers.
Then we transferred to a smaller boat so we could travel faster and further into Hạ Long Bay ...this is our day boat.
So Binh came with us, we waved goodbye to the crew from our first boat and settled back for the journey into the World Heritage listed part of the bay.
Plenty of room ... love this private charter gig!
We covered a stretch of open water that was a bit rough ... Hannah was concentrating very hard to hold onto her breakfast, but once we made it to the shelter of the next crop of islands it was much calmer. And we had it all to ourselves. The scenery continued to be spectacular...
It's fascinating to watch life going on in the floating fishing villages. These ladies are the local supermarket...
These small boats are home for some people.
We came upon a small shrine set on a tiny beach...
... and they anchored the boat so we could have a swim. While we were swimming, Binh and the boatman paddled to the nearby fishing village and bought fresh crabs for our lunch. Then when we got back to the boat, Khánh and Xuân went off with them to catch fish for the crew's lunch.
And came back smiling - Khánh caught two fish!
But we dined on fabulous fresh crab!!! Sumptuous!
Absolutely no complaints!
After lunch it was time to sit back and relax...
... or snooze... !
This lady with the bemused expression on her face lives in the tiny quarters behind her. Also behind her you can see her husband's foot ... he curled up in that tiny space for a nap!
It's not even a metre square, but he was dead to the world! Binh thought it was pretty funny that I wanted to take his photo.
We did more kayaking when the tide got low enough to paddle through caves under the cliffs, and got to explore more hidden grottoes. Fabulous. But it wasn't fabulous climbing back on board!! Unlike the bigger boat, the ladder on this boat sloped back away under the railing, so if you tried to climb out of the water all your weight was held by your arms and shoulders. The others were all agile enough to stand up in their kayaks so they only had to step up onto the top step of the ladder. However, with my bum lower than my feet sitting on the surf ski, there was no way I could manage to stand up... So I dived in and swam to the ladder. But by then I was too tired from all the paddling to haul myself up ... though Katie tells me I did manage to rock the boat with my efforts! Eventually Khánh insisted I give him my hand (which was not easy since I was desperately clinging to the side with both hands!). As soon as I did he just hauled me up and over the side! I told you he is very strong!! That's not the first time he has hauled me up ... seems that he has been doing it all year ... up waterfalls, mountains, steep climbs... And there is no way I would have enjoyed the kayaking and climbing on this trip if he hadn't got me started walking every morning several months ago. My darling Khánh.
All too soon the sun was going down, and it was time to head back to Cát Bà. It was a shock to see this oil rig !! Apparently they commenced exploratory drilling a couple of months ago. One can only hope they will be unsuccessful! It is astounding to think that oil is so valuable it is worth risking this pristine environment as well as the livelihoods of everyone who lives here...
We booked into a hotel on the esplanade with gorgeous views from both rooms...
A shower and a change, then we took the easy option and had dinner in the hotel restaurant . Then we went to The Good Bar above the Slo Pony and had a drink then went back to the hotel for more before turning in for the night.
Fabulous trip. We'd love to do it again next year... Xuân has the phone number from the boat owner so we might get an even better deal... Woo-oo!