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Lan Ha Bay: A Hidden Kayaker’s Paradise In Vietnam

The beauty within Lan Ha Bay is breathtaking, especially at sunset. Photo by Tom Gaffey.

Northeastern Vietnam is home to some of the most breathtaking beauty on the planet, and Lan Ha Bay is an excellent example of this natural magnificence. Lan Ha Bay is located off the coast of mainland Vietnam, near the city of Haiphong. But this area of land and sea where emerald and turquoise waters meet towering limestone islands that are topped with miniature lush rainforests feels a planet away from an industrial city.

Ha Long Bay is the most famous, visited, and photographed bay in this region, but it is not the only one. Ha Long Bay has the claim to fame of being a new natural wonder of the world. It was, after all, the set for several Hollywood movies. But its next-door neighbor to the south, Lan Ha Bay, is the true gem of this region for those looking to explore this Vietnamese aquatic wonderland on a kayak.

Lan Ha Bay is home to some of the cleanest and best-protected lagoons and waterways in this Northeastern Vietnamese region. It’s perfect for those looking to kayak independently, with a guide, or even as part of a multi-day luxury cruise. There are countless beaches, hidden caves, and unique rock formations to discover. All of these sites are best reached (and sometimes can only be reached) by kayak.

Lan Ha Bay is far less popular than Halong Bay, but that is a big part of its appeal. This still under-the-radar destination has far fewer tourists and boats. This lends itself to cleaner and safer waters, as well as a much more authentic Vietnamese paddling experience. Its lack of popularity, however, also means there is some advanced planning you need to do, and some tips you should know before you go. If you are interested in visiting this one-of-a-kind kayaking destination, keep reading to learn all you need to know about kayaking in Lan Ha Bay.

Lan Ha Bay: Where It Is And Why Every Kayaker Needs To Visit

Lan Ha Bay, like Halong Bay, is located in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of Northeastern Vietnam. The closest city and airport is Haiphong, and Hanoi is located just over three hours away.

Lan Ha Bay is just south of the famous Halong Bay, and east of Cat Ba Island. Due to its strategic location and preservation efforts, Lan Ha Bay has become the preferred location for kayaking in this region.

When I inquired with the kayak rental company, Blue Swimmer Adventures, as to why Lan Ha Bay was the better choice, they said, “It's not safe to go kayaking in Halong Bay because of the strong currents and big wind, so Lan Ha Bay is the best choice.”

In addition to its safety, Lan Ha Bay is also much cleaner and more natural. When I kayaked through the area it was easy to find lagoons where you heard no boat engines, only the sounds of the jungle.

When you kayak in Lan Ha Bay you will paddle alongside fishermen and locals in floating villages. You are bound to see monkeys jumping from tree to tree, and at night the bay is filled with glowing bioluminescence. It is authentic, natural, and safe - what more can you ask for from such a stunning kayaking destination?

How To Explore Lan Ha Bay By Kayak

Kayaks are easy to rent from Cat Ba Island to explore Lan Ha Bay. Photo by Tom Gaffey.

Take A Self-Guided Kayak Tour

If you are an independent kayaker who prefers to venture out without a large group or a guide, a self-guided tour is the perfect option for you. I had the pleasure of working with Blue Swimmer Adventures when I rented a sea kayak to do a self-guided tour.

They are one of several kayak rental and guided tour companies located near the Cai Bao ferry port, where most boats depart. Blue Swimmer Adventures was not only a helpful and affordable option, but they also provided me with a detailed Google map and several paddling route options.

Having a route with hidden gems already highlighted on my map was a lifesaver. It kept me from wandering around aimlessly, which is very easy to do when you are on a small boat with towering islands all around you. I highly recommend this company (and the Google map route) for a self-guided, or guided tour.

Hire A Kayak Guide For A Half-Day or Full-Day Tour

You can also hire a local expert to show to guide you around. This option is a bit more pricey, but if you have a larger group it is a great option. Most companies (including Blue Water Travel) charge per guide, rather than per person. Therefore, the more people you have, the less it costs per person.

A guided tour is a great option if you can afford it, especially if you aren’t too comfortable in a sea kayak. Kayaks in Vietnam don’t tend to have the most luxurious seat cushions or extra gear and comforts that many Westerners are used to. Therefore, a guide will help make sure you are comfortable and feel safe. Best of all, you don’t have to constantly look at your phone while paddling to stay on track.

Take A Tour Boat Where Kayaking Is An Included Activity

Day cruises often incorporate a kayak excursion into their tours. Photo by Tom Gaffey.

If you are just looking for a quick kayaking session while enjoying Lan Ha Bay, then a day cruise is your best option. I took a very comprehensive and enjoyable day cruise. It was booked with Beka Travel which was coordinated through Lan Homestay, a lovely accommodation I stayed at in a tranquil village in the center of Cat Ba Island.

This boat cruise included kayaking through several caves and lagoons. It also involved a visit to a great swimming beach and even an interesting visit to a local fish farm.

Several cruise ship options leave from Cat Ba island, but make sure you book one that includes a kayaking excursion, as not all of them include this. This is a great option for those who have families with small kids, or older adults who don’t want to kayak for several hours but want to see all the beauty and authenticity of the bay.

Six Amazing Things To Do When Kayaking Around Lanha Bay

1. Explore Hidden (And Not So Hidden) Caves

One of the many caves that leads to a secret lagoon in Lan Ha Bay. Photo by Tom Gaffey.

Lan Ha Bay is filled with archways and small caves that you can kayak through in a kayak. The most famous caves are Bright Cave and Dark Cave, both of which are places where most tourist boats stop for kayaking. This means it’s easy to access them, but they are also very crowded.

There are, however, several other more hidden caves you can find when accompanying a local guide, or by inquiring with a kayak company.

The caves are stunning as they reveal tranquil lagoons that are enclosed by tall cliffs and dense jungles. These hidden lagoons are common places to spot exotic wildlife including monkeys.

2. Paddle Up To A Beachfront Temple

Kayaking up to a sacred temple is a highlight of paddling in Lan Ha Bay. Photo by Tom Gaffey.

Lan Ha Bay also has a tucked-away temple located on the beach of a small island. This temple can only be accessed by small vessels like a kayak. It is a rare and unique experience to land on shore, walk a secluded beach, and marvel at a preserved temple, which was built to protect the people inside the bay.

3. Explore An Authentic Floating Fishing Village

Passing by the famous floating village in Lan Ha Bay. Photo by Tom Gaffey.

Another fascinating aspect of Lan Ha Bay is its floating village. There are dozens of floating houses inside the bay, all with families who live and make a living on the water. It is fascinating to see how these people live.

The villagers gather water from rain, grow herbs and plants on decks, and even farm fish in large nets around the home. This type of unique and authentic lifestyle is not something you can find in Halong Bay and is a highlight of any Lan Ha Bay excursion.

4. Get Up Close To Iconic Towering Rock Formations

Lan Ha Bay has many uniquely-shaped rock formations. Photo by Tom Gaffey.

There are towering limestone islands all over Halong and Lan Ha Bay. But Lan Ha Bay has some truly unique rock formations. Some are tall and skinny, one looks like a resting Buddha, and some even face diagonally rather than vertically.

It is fun to kayak around and spot lots of these aptly named and unique-shaped islands that have become important natural landmarks throughout the bay.

5. Enjoy A Rest Amazing At Amazing Sandy Beaches

There are lots of relaxing beaches to relax on when kayaking in Lan Ha Bay. Photo by Tom Gaffey.

Another great thing to do when kayaking around Lan Ha Bay is to take a relaxing break or two at one of the bay’s many beaches. Lan Ha Bay has no shortage of white sandy beaches. Many of these beaches offer great views and swimming, while others are a nice place to sit and sip some water and relax your muscles a bit.

When kayaking in the area you will find several beaches with no people, which is another perk to kayaking instead of simply taking a cruise boat. It allows you some one-on-one time with this truly majestic piece of earth.

6. Keep An Eye Out For The Endangered Cat Ba Langur

There is a lot of wildlife in Cat Ba and the islands in Lan Ha Bay. There are lizards, snakes, and lots of monkeys. But there is also an animal that can be found nowhere else in the world - The Cat Ba Langer. This endangered primate exists only in this archipelago, and only about 70 langors are remaining.

Many of these langors are located near the caves you are likely to visit when kayaking. Kayaking is a quiet activity and a great way to see elusive wildlife like this endangered species without disturbing them.

When To Visit Lan Ha Bay And Where To Stay In Cat Ba Island

Where To Stay

The lush and relaxing entrance of Lan Homestay near Cat Ba National Park. Photo by Tom Gaffey.

If you plan to visit Lan Ha Bay you have a few choices as far as where to stay. You can stay in a floating homestay within the bay itself. These homestays are offered by several companies, including Blue Swimmers Adventures. Many of these homestays are equipped with kayaks, making it very easy to get out on the water at your leisure.

You can also book a one or two-night cruise in Lan Ha Bay. Some cruises also venture out into Halong Bay. Most Lan Ha Bay cruises leave from Cat Ba Island, and they vary in price and levels of luxury.

When I visited Cat Ba, I stayed in several accommodations. I stayed in Cat Ba town, which is convenient for those who just need an easy and affordable place to sleep on their way to Lan Ha Bay.

If, however, you want to experience the most beauty and authenticity the island can offer, I recommend staying in Viet Hai village, in Cat Ba National Park, at a homestay like Lan Homestay.

“Viet Hai village is the only place where visitors can admire the wild beauty of an old-style village in Cat Ba,” Nguyen Ngoc Trieu, manager at Lan Homestay. “This one of very few traditional villages you can still visit in the north,” he continued. The village has fewer than 300 residents, and several trails lead into the stunning depths of the national park. These homestays can be a bit challenging to get to but are very affordable, and the effort to arrive is rewarded with endless tranquility.

When To Visit

Golden hour at Lan Ha Bay. Photo by Tom Gaffey.

Lan Ha Bay and Cat Ba Island receive tourists every day of the year, but some months are much better for kayakers than others. According to Trieu, the best time to visit Cat Ba Island to enjoy all its outdoor activities, especially kayaking, is between September to mid-November. “That’s autumn time so the sun is less hot, the ocean is more calm, and the weather is cooler,” he said.

Late March through May is also a nice time to visit, as the weather has warmed up by this point, and there are more sunny days.

You can visit between December and March, but it’s cooler, with a lot more cloudy and rainy days. While this means less ideal kayaking conditions and photo opportunities, it also means crowds.

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