“Charles! It doesn’t look too good”, I addressed our host at Lan Ha Bay with a disappointed look on my face while trying to fight the chill as much as I can with the skimpy stole.
“You worry too much! I’m telling you, it will get better! And you’ll be sailing on your kayak soaking up the sun before you know it”, said charming Charles flaunting his dimply smile and mischievous eyes!
“You promise”? I demanded a verbal oath from Charles.
“Yes, my dear…I do! Just wait for another hour”, he promised without a hint of doubt while refilling my coffee mug.
Heavy downpour all night and cloudy chilly morning. Today was supposed to be our very own Kayaking debut and if this was going to be the weather, we would have to leave without this much-awaited experience and with too much regret!
But Charles made a promise. On what basis, I don’ know. He wasn’t a clairvoyant…or maybe he was! Who knows! He’s way too charming to be believed!
Let me begin my story from the beginning…the moment when we first entered the Inner X Stay at Lan Ha Bay!
The Grand Welcome To Lan Ha Bay
There were precisely three different kinds of transport we availed on our adventurous journey from Hanoi to Lan Ha Bay:
-Hanoi to Hai Phong (4 hours bus ride)
-Hai Phong to Cat Ba Island (10 minutes Speedboat)
-Cat Ba Island to Cat Ba Town (40 minutes bus ride)
-Cat Ba Town to Lan Ha Bay (30 minutes Sampan or small boat ride).
We had started at 8:00 AM from Hanoi Bus Stand and reached Lan Ha Bay at around 4:00 PM. There is a spectacular change in the landscape when you reach Cat Ba Island. The vertical inverted ‘U’ shaped mountains, the deep blue sea and the clear sky…that’s exactly the kind of nature escape we were looking for after two days of Hanoi city bustle!
Our first welcome was by a very sweet (though non-English speaking) Sampan driver who took us to our floating house. Charles had WhatsApped us his photo so it wasn’t difficult to spot him! Most of our communication was through signs and smiles!
That Sampan journey left us speechless. We were sailing amidst the ocean and mountains away from the coast towards the deeper waters. Our driver took the most exciting routes through narrow gorges leaving us wide-mouthed (quite literally) the whole time.
Finally, when we arrived at our destination, the Inner X Stay, we were welcomed by smiling faces! Other than Charles the owner, there were a bunch of other fellow housemates, who all seemed pretty pleased to see us! Once, Charles gave us a tour of the boathouse, we all introduced ourselves.
A German couple Linnie and Patrick offered us some watermelon that they bought from the floating supermarket (that’s right!), Charles cooked us some instant noodles (which wasn’t a part of the package) when I told him we were starving; an English couple promised to show us bio-luminescent planktons at night and Ruffino- the solo traveller from Illinois filled us in with all kinds of fun stories about the place…they all greeted us like we were the newest members in this huge family! It felt warm. It felt like home!
Important tip: Bring required cash preferably from Hanoi. There aren’t any ATMs beyond Cat Ba and cards aren’t acceptable on the islands.
From Sunset to Star Rise
One of the highlights of this floating house was the dining area where you could watch the sunset from. Ruffino specifically asked us to wait and watch the sunset – claiming it’s going to be one of the best vistas we’ve ever seen! Somehow, we already had enough reasons to believe him! The place had bewitching powers. We just couldn’t move.
Just before the sunset, our host added another icing on the top. “Hey, we know you come here to enjoy the peace & quiet and all this construction noise must be ruining it for you, right?” (which, we’d hardly noticed). “So, as compensation to your troubles, today’s beer and water are on the house for you two! Enjoy”!
Charles and his brother Duc arranged all the essentials and keep enough stock on the basis of the number of guests. And whenever they needed fresh meat, fruits, veggies, or some other items, they would wait for the floating market for shopping! Guests could buy their beers and water bottles from the huge chiller. We toasted to our first sunset on the boat with chilled Saigon Beer while witnessing one of the most stunning sunsets of our lives. Ruffino was right…it was pure magic!
As the night crawled over the sea, the sky lit up with millions of stars. I spotted Venus and Mars (I think!!) but had a really tough time convincing everyone. They kept blaming the special Saigon beers (don’t remember how many cans!) for my suddenly attained “superpowers”! We all enjoyed the scrumptious chicken curry, freshly caught squids, and Vietnamese rice like a big happy family…laughing, joking, drinking, and sharing travel stories from across the world!
Important tip: Buy a few instant Pho (Vietnamese noodles), fruits or chips from the floating market just for the fun of it! It’s a unique experience after all!
Rowed through the Ocean Roads!
“You worry too much! I’m telling you, it will get better! And you’ll be sailing on your kayak soaking up the sun before you know it”, I smiled to myself remembering Charles’ promise while my partner & I kayaked our way on the calm Pacific Ocean! We had almost given up on this dream!
After a great sleep, we woke up to an overcast sky and shivering chill. It rained all night and kayaking looked like an impossible thing as of now. But Charles assured us. Even when it rained in the morning, it usually brightened up later in the day. We must not cancel our first Kayak trip and just go ahead! Other than the breathtaking views from the floating houses at Lan Ha Bay, kayaking on the Pacific Ocean was one of the major attractions for travellers.
“But there is one tiny problem Charles”! I confess. “Neither of us have ever been on a kayak before”!
“Don’t worry, you’ll survive”! Again, with the charming smile and super chill confidence, he tells me. So, he gave us a quick tutorial on kayaking, the existing routes, handed us a laminated map, a dry bag, life jackets and we’re off…before we realised, he’s waving at us while we moved farther away from the boathouse!
We spent the first 15 minutes simply appreciating ourselves on the sheer accomplishment of rowing a kayak. If you followed the instructions and maintain a harmonious partnership, it’s really not that tough. We couldn’t help feel proud of our newly mastered skill!
We had hardly started to enjoy the victory when suddenly our bubble was burst by a loud blare. An angry ship actually was honking at us for coming in its way. We felt like total amateur drivers who had just received their learner’s license and every on-road driver considers them a nuisance! Somehow we managed to get away from the main “highway” and decided to steer clear of the “big brothers” way!
Important tip: For first-time kayakers, row along the mountains and not throughout the middle of the sea (unlike us!!). This will give you your freedom to row at your own pace without disturbing the big ships.
Lost then Found Lagoon
Among the multiple stops that were marked on the map, ‘the lagoon’ was the most beautiful and “absolutely not to be missed” spot, as per almost everyone who’d already been to this kayak trip. “You must go to the Lagoon, it’s insanely beautiful”, Rufina had reminded us the previous day. So, our search for the Lagoon begins.
We’ve been rowing for an hour now. Exploring the sea routes, discovering Lan Ha Bay’s fishing villages, greeting people and fellow kayakers, and of course, managing to stay away from the speed boats and ships! Amidst all this, we somehow lost the sense of direction and couldn’t figure out our way to the lagoon (which was supposedly quite easy to locate). There was no point in asking anyone because people rarely spoke English.
There were times more than once when we found ourselves arguing about the way to lagoon right in the middle of the sea only to be disrupted and disoriented by a honking speed boat! We were kinda stuck in a loop!
Finally, we decided (I don’t remember on what basis) to follow the broad way which looked like a new path. The moment we turned our kayak and were about to row towards the decided way…Voila! We spotted the Lagoon entrance right behind us! Mocking us all this time while we fought like fools!
And boy, were we pleased to have found it! A secluded bit of paradise with crystal clear green water. The silence and the serenity of the place made us forget every wrong step we took. Made every little effort totally worth it.
Important tip: Try sticking to the map, it’s quite helpful. Otherwise, you can hardly get lost, as there are only a few route options. You will eventually locate the lagoon if you pay a little attention!
The Final Lap
After the mesmerising lagoon, our next stop was the shipwreck area. The place particularly reminded me of old pirate stories. The skeleton of the ship, the scattered shell fossils everywhere on the muddy beach…there was something very mystical about this spot. Like there were hundreds of untold stories waiting to be heard.
On our way home, we revisited those fishing villages where they cultivate clams in huge cages on the seafloor. It was getting dark and we were hungry. Once again, after much discussion, map references, little arguments, and confusion, we finally found our way to Inner X Stay, where Charles was waiting with his smile and beer (like always)!
Important tip: There aren’t many eating options on your kayaking route so it’s advisable to bring some water & snacks along with you.
The Last Supper
The food we had at Lan Ha Bay needs a special mention. Charles being an excellent cook, made sure everything was fresh and delicious. He showed us their personal seafood-inventory where there were clams, sea mantis, squids, and fish swimming around! Our last dinner at the floating house was super special. Charles cooked his mom’s recipe of pork curry which was absolutely lip-smacking. And there were 6 big bowls of sea mantis! It took us a while to crack the eating code using pliers and scissors. But soon everyone became an expert! We even had a contest on who can eat the most! The mantis was a huge hit!
Charles wasn’t just a great cook, but also a fantastic company. He would tell stories, crack jokes & entertain us all the time with his warm hospitality!
“Everyone told me to up the price of beer for guests as they’re stuck here and don’t have an option but to buy beer from me,” Charles was telling me while cooking in his open kitchen. “But I said, I can’t do that! I understand the value of beer…as I’m a beer lover too! I would never make my guests feel trapped here…they must have a great time”, he winks!
And we most certainly did! On our last night, while sipping Saigon Bia and star gazing, I told Daniel (one of our fellow housemates from Wisconsin), “I wish we stayed here for a few more days. It got over too fast”! Daniel replied, “it’s always best to leave a place wanting a little more”. How true I contemplated. That feeling of incomplete fulfillment would lead to my dream of coming back here again! My stay at Lan Ha Bay would always be a dream that I lived but I woke up too fast!
So, next time when you’re binging on virtual travel stories, think of adding Lan Ha Bay and Charles & Duc’s Floating House to your future travel bucket list. The one major point of difference between Lan Ha Bay V/s Halong Bay is, the former is way less crowded and therefore much more gorgeous for travellers who look for off-beat destinations! If you’re looking for some luxury, explore Lan Ha Bay cruise packages from Hanoi for a romantic honeymoon experience. Make new friends, spend a few days off the internet. Just the starlit skies above and luminous planktons below you. Get to know a new kind of heaven that will make you leave a piece of your soul right there!
I would love to hear the travel stories that made you feel like you never want to leave the place! Share them with us in the comment section!