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  • Writer's pictureEliane Bowden

Kayaking Amongst Limestone Karsts and Plastic Bottles

Holding it together through Cat Ba National Park

Leaving Hanoi could not have come at a better time for us. We packed our bags and headed for the island of Cát Bà with the intention of exploring Lan Ha Bay, Hą Long’s lesser-known cousin. A bus, ‘speedboat’, and another bus ride later, we were dropped outside our homestay, just a 10-minute ride from the seaside town.

Walking up the path lined with towering banana trees on either side, roosters clucking in the distance, air thick with humidity, the smell of something burning, it felt like we were entering a landscaped jungled. And indeed our homestay was beautifully landscaped - our own little bungalow set in a garden with a mattress on the floor, AC (thank goodness), a roll down shade to cover the giant window into the bathroom, and tiny patio covered in tiling made to look like grass growing through pebbles. We got all of this plus a two-day scooter rental for just $11.70 each per night.

We spent that first evening discovering the sleepy town, combing it’s beaches for shells and adjusting to our new motorized life, i.e. trying for five minutes to figure out where the cap was on our scooter while filling gas (the attendant eventually twisted the key to pop the seat to uncover the opening).

Despite the dreaded traveller’s D finally catching up with us, we decided to explore Cat Ba National Park the next day. Soaked in sweat, we speed walked past several tour groups and managed to hiked almost alone through the thick jungle. At the top of the lookout we looked on in horror as Jared dropped his phone from the tower 10m onto the rock below. Quite shockingly, his phone came away relatively unscathed - and luckily so did we, our stomachs managing to hold out for the entire excursion.

That night, we were invited to have dinner with our homestay family. Promptly at 7pm we heard a knock on our door, and followed Tran Chau to the main house - an open air room with glassy white tiles, a large TV in one corner, wooden furniture pressed against the walls, and two industrial drink fridges in the other corner. In the centre of the room, three families had gathered on the floor: husbands, wives, and children clustered separately around an interesting style of hotpot and various dishes atop a colourful woven mat. This large metal pot fanned out into a three-inch rim to hold items fished out from the broth. We ate well: local seasonal veggies - including the most bitter of melons, deep fried chicken (perhaps from some of the chicks clucking around the gardens), pork knuckles, corn, and plenty of home brewed rice wine. The men eventually showed us how to properly eat the sticky rice: using one’s thumb, index, and middle finger grab a chunk of rice, dip it in the peanut salt, and eat. Chase with rice wine and a solid hand shake with a neighbouring male.

Cruising the bays

The next morning, we, 14 other travellers, and our tour guide ‘Ben’ set out for Lan Ha and Ha Long bay. Cruising through the oft-mentioned floating fishing villages and classically photographed limestone karsts. Ben took us out for a late afternoon kayak to a few secluded lagoons only reachable by a series of caves. It was hard to believe our eyes as we paddled under the rock, through the vibrant turquoise waters, past these towering monoliths covered in dense vegetation and buzzing with the sound of cicadas. The picture below basically sums up our experience that evening.

It was mentioned to us several times that King Kong was filmed here, and after kayaking through one of the lagoons to an isolated inlet where we could here the sound of macaque monkeys howling in the trees, we could see why. The whole environment felt eerily otherworldly - lush, yet lethal. The whole day ended in a stunning sunset as we cruised towards Ha Long bay.

The next day was more of the same, but in more polluted waters. It was unfortunate to see the amount of trash floating as we paddled, the bits of styrofoam washing up on the beach. We learned from Ben that it was mostly from cruises and tourism companies throwing trash overboard, no doubt also from trash exported from us in the West. Already Ha Long is much less polluted than it was a few years ago, the government finally shelling out some cash to help clean up the waters after it was shown to damage tourism. The truth is, Cat Ba and Ha Long are simply not set up to handle the amount of tourism that those areas see. Similar to much of the rest of Vietnam outside of major city centres, systems for trash disposal don’t exist, so trash either sits on the side of the road, gets dumped overboard, or gets burned.

Back on shore, we said goodbye to Ben and headed back for Hanoi to rest one final night before our motorbike trip through the north!


Tracey Wilkinson
Tracey Wilkinson
Oct 25, 2023

Wonderful post Eliane. Your writing your pictures your videos. Everything is just so beautiful.!


Chris Davis
Chris Davis
Oct 24, 2023

Another wonderful post Eliane. Your description of the surroundings at Cat ba and Ha Long made me feel as if I was there. I really liked when you wrote: The whole environment felt eerily otherworldly - lush, yet lethal.

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