An old Vietnamese legend tells of a great dragon living in the north, a dragon with a particularly bad temper. No-one agrees on what may have pissed him off, but the end is the same: he took a flight and lashed the seashore endlessly with his spiky tail. The ravaged ground was quickly filled with seawater, leaving weirdly shaped chunks of rock jutting out here and there. This is how Halong Bay, one of the spectacular examples of marine karst on this planet, came into existence. What started as a hapless victim of a reptilian rage became the most popular tourist destination in Vietnam easily. The most common approach is to book a tour either from Hanoi or Halong town and explore the bay by cruise boat. But one worthwhile alternative is to use Cat Ba Island in the middle of Halong Bay as a base and launching day trips from there.
Arriving in Cat Ba Island and setting foot in its faceless tourist hub, Cat Ba town, might tempt you to run for the same ferry that brought you there. The huge popularity of Halong Bay caused a massive haphazard development boom, filling the shoreline with concrete boxes designed to store visitors like files in a cabinet. In all likelihood, you will have to join their ranks, staying in one of the uniform hotels. But this is just a base - the island is quite large, and most of it is still perfectly natural. For swimming, sunbathing, or a seaside stroll, head to one of the Cat Co beaches - they are numbered from 1 to 3, the second one is the best of the lot. This is also where, on moonless nights and in good weather only, you may see a luminescent tide, the wave sparkling with glowing plankton as the crash on the sand. Otherwise, look for other coves and beaches around the island, most of them are wild and untouched. Fort Cannon on a hill above Cat Ba town is a viewpoint boasting a good panorama, but again, it is a tourist hotspot. It may be better to climb one of the small peaks further afield.
A worthwhile terrestrial addition to the marine attractions of Halong Bay, Cat Ba National Park covers most of the namesake island. It is a good area for jungle hiking, and wildlife is plentiful, including the extremely rare golden-headed langur. Most trekkers, however, look for less mobile and elusive sights: landscapes, wild beaches, and caves. Of the latter, Hang Trung Trang is the easiest to find and navigate. It is still wild and relatively untouched - quite a rarity in Vietnam. A number of high points can be climbed for views, some requiring skills and equipment, some are walkable.
Numerous agents in Cat Ba town offer cruises in the bay. These vary in general inclination. Some of them are aimed at sightseeing, some at aquatic activities, and others at drinking and partying till your eardrums burst. Various marine activities on offer range from kayaking through semi-submerged caves to explore the inner lagoons of karst islands to stand-up paddling in still coves. The best tours combine some of those with a full day of visiting various spectacular attractions - pillar-shaped rocks, chains of dramatic-looking islets, and floating villages. Finally, the best way to see the daily life of a floating village is to hire a boat at Ben Beo pier for a trip to Lan Ha - a large cluster of raft houses and shrimp farms squeezed between Cat Ba and a couple of small neighboring islands. The locals are well accustomed to tourists here. Technically, it is possible to negotiate a boat charter in Ben Beo for a custom-made trip around the bay, but the range would be shorter than with a tour - local boats are slower than cruise cutters.
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