A bit weary of the cramped chaos of Hanoi, a bustling yet very absorbing city, we were eager to strike again for the coast, this time towards Ha Long Bay. Famed for its remarkable limestone karsts generously dotting the aquamarine waters of the Gulf of Tonkin, this area of exceptional beauty was recently named one of the new “Natural Wonders of the World” and deservedly so. 95% of tourists opt for one of the 2- or 3-day cruises in the many wooden junk boats that ply the bay, but from the descriptions from our guidebook and after the advice of fellow travelers who had lukewarm experiences, we decided to skip the all-in-one tour and instead choose to DIY. This would give us maximum flexibility while avoiding the groups, regimented schedules and quasi-“cultural” trappings of a package tour.
Cat Ba Island seemed the logical place to start. Long the domain of backpackers, this largely unpopulated island is just south of Ha Long Bay and boasts its own La Ha Bay, equally majestic but far less visited than its well-known sister. Additionally the sleepy seaside town of Cat Ba was an ideal place to kick back between the many outdoor offerings in the area.