If you take a guided trip, your bus will stop in one of the communal tourist towns on the way to Halong. The stated intent of the stop is for a restroom break, but the restrooms happen to be in the middle of huge tourist shopping centers. If you really want souvenirs, go shopping, but if you want to get off the beaten path, leave this compound and walk through the local village. On my trip, I was the only one to leave the tourist area, and I got some great pictures, did some shopping for dirt cheap, and saw how the rural Vietnamese really live!
On the way to Halong City, the bus made a refreshment stop at the Dai Nghia Humanitarian Center. This is a craft, food and souvenir market that claims to use the proceeds to benefit children affected by Agent Orange and other people who suffered war injuries. A sign is prominently hung up to guilt people into buying stuff. The prices are expensive and I know of other places that I'm sure of where my money goes.
When you take the Bai Tho Cruise, the boat will moor in the early afternoon. You have a choice of activities: fishing of a small boat, swimming, or kayaking.
As it appeared to be too cold for swimming and fishing was not my thing, we chose kayaking. My colleague, H and I changed into our shorts and life jacket and clambered onto the brightly coloured kayak. The tour guide was pretty vague but pointed us towards a general direction.
We noticed a small opening in the rocks that could only be assessed by kayak or a small boat. During high tide, the opening would be concealed by the water. We paddled through this opening and wow, before our eyes, was a secret lagoon, with nary a soul in sight.
Surrounded on all sides by rocky hills was a perfectly round bay with seawater lapping the sand peacefully and the breeze blowing lightly. I asked my colleague to slow down and stop paddling. We paused, and in that few seconds, there was an absolute silence- even the waves were quiet. What a truly special moment that I will not forget for a long time!
I have since read Guell's tips and I am quite sure that he had visited the same secret lagoon. I didn't bring my camera onto the kayak and therefore the pictures of it are limited-thus the secret will continue to remain so.
The village of VietHai is peppered with awesome limestone cliffs. Now if you can, get your guide to lead you a nearby peak called Hai Quan, some 280m above sea level
Though only some 280m above sea level, the peak of Hai Quan proved to be a challenging climb. The view at the top compensated for all the hard work though. You can see Ha Long Bay from here and surprise, surprise, you'll find an old remnant from the "American War" - a broken-down fort
Now, you're at the top of Sung Sot Cave and after taking in a spectacular view of the bay, don't just gorge on an ice cream like the other tourists. Look around you and you'll spot a pair of stone "legs" dangling from the precipice.
You'll see more of these floating villages in Lan Ha Bay if you venture further south from Ha Long Bay. Take a peek at these villages if you're there, you'll notice square netted structures in front of the houses. Those nets holds farmed fish which are eventually sold to restuarants in CatBa Island.
Take a closer look at the local boats when you're in HaLong Bay. You'll notice that each boat is woven like a ratten basket and coated with tar at the bottom. Yes, this little thing is quite sea-worthy and can ferry up to 3 people sometimes.*
*This only applies to the petite locals. I think it can only ferry one fat foreigner.
Have you ever noticed that Vietnamese Children are always dolled up in colourful clothing? The cherubic kids of VietHai village is no exception..
Mother and son looks on with amusement at a small tortoise from a safe distance..
All around VietHai Village, you'll see cultivated fruit trees.The orange-coloured fruit is called persimmon
Plum and juicy persimmon hang from a tree. This fruit is actually native to China...
VietHai is a tiny seafaring village some 10km inside of CatBa National Park. Due to the surge of tourist in recent years, you'll see modern house (complete with satelite antennas) alongside with more rustic houses in Viet Hai Village. Take a closer look at the older houses if you're there..
Do you notice anything? Yes, the huts are made of mud, straw and wood. These simple materials are effective insulation against the cold in winter and heat in summer Now, that's truly ingenous...
Unlike other ants, Vietnamese weaver ants build their nests high up in the trees. When I first saw this, I thought it was a bird's nest until my guide told me otherwise!
Little weaver ant eggs are a good source of protein for the Vietnamese, Lao and Thai folk. Since they're found high up in the tree, they're relatively clean. These little ants also feed on caterpillars so, they're a natural form of pesticide!
Once you're in Ha Long Bay, you'll see lots of these elegant creatures high up in the sky and occasionally diving down for a fresh fish. These birds are actually ospreys but they're more commonly known as ó cá (Fish Eagle) over here
Soaring and gliding high above the sky, the ó cá waits for an opportune moment to dive for its meal
Here's another pretty fella spotted by our guide in CatBa National Park.
This attractive golden spider was the size of my palm. It's prettiness made me forget my arachnophobia for a while...
We saw a lot of interesting wildlife the day we hiked 6km into Catba National Park. Honestly, a daft city bloke like me wouldn't have noticed all these things, if not for my eagle-eyed guide.
Here's a wasp-like insect. Pretty ain't it? Yellow wings and matching feelers.. Well, avoid it you see 5 or more of these fellas. They have the ability to sting you to death!
This lagoon is inside one of the islands. The only way to see it is to kayak through a small opening during low tide. This is where is pays off having an experienced guide.