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A Lan Ha Bay cruise – enjoying the less touristy darling of Northern Thailand’s oceanic scene. The same amazing limestone karst island scenery as its incredibly famous neighbour, Ha Long Bay, but with fewer boats, fewer tourists and way fewer monkeys.
Ha Long Bay cruises have been the hot thing in Vietnam for decades and these days nearby Lan Ha Bay is emerging as a quieter alternative. Especially the way we did it. We had already experienced our first Ha Long Bay cruise way back in 2008:
Thrilling boat jumping!
Fascinating cooking classes!
Serene rice field bike rides!
Sounds pretty amazing, right? Well, if that sounds like something you’d love to be part of, I’m afraid you’re going to be awfully disappointed in the Lazy Lan Ha Bay Tour ™.
No, this version is not your common, off-the-rack boat tour. Rather, it is a bespoke trip completely customized to meet our very specific needs, wants and timeline. Featuring all of the following highlights in various orders throughout the afternoon:
Sit in a chair!
Look at stuff!
So, if you’re looking to do more or less nothing, have roughly 3 hours at your disposal and your ideal day involves sitting in a chair, drinking beer and looking at stuff, well, this is definitely the Lan Ha Bay cruise for you.
The Lazy Lan Ha Bay Cruise: Details
The taxi from Cat Ba town to Cai Beo harbour is just a normal car. It gets more interesting after that, though. A friendly woman will show you where to stand (at the edge of the dock) for easy embarkation (stepping onto the boat).
The boat itself is old and square, rather barge-like, with peeling paint, well-worn benches and a chugging engine that sounds like the nautical equivalent of a 70-year-old VLT player outside for a smoke break telling a rambling story about the old days.
Your esteemed guide and driver (I don’t recall his name but he seemed nice) will greet you with a smile and direct you to the elegantly simple pair of lawn chairs propped at the front of the boat. Those are for you. Go ahead, try one out.
And off you go! Not quickly, of course. Puttering, really. Picture the slowest boat you’ve ever been on. Then picture that boat in slow motion. Altogether, very soothing, and – apparently – the perfect speed for drinking beer. I spilled far less beer on my clothes than normal. Still some, but less.
Lifejackets are available, which means you can really relax and fully lean into the alchoholism.
Plus, unlike those other hectic tours, you won’t be getting off. Or back on. Or jumping. Or swimming. Or paddling. In any form. And since it was just the two of us, there was much less risk of contracting any of the norovirus common to major cruise ships. Which is really the main reason we chose it.
Well, there are the chairs, obviously. And the benches. I think I mentioned those. Oh, there’s a table. But there’s nothing on it and nothing around that you might want to put on it. It’s there, though, just in case.
And, yes, there IS a toilet. Not a futuristic Japanese-style toilet with sophisticated equipment and confusing instructions, I’ll admit. More of a floating outhouse that funnels directly into the bay, just as Buddha intended.
However, this is still a very important feature if, as recommended, you drink several beer over the course of your Lazy Lan Ha Bay tour. Also called the “Three-Pee Lan Ha Bay Tour” in some circles. Feel free to customize the number to suit your needs.
There is also a fairly large hole in the wall of the toilet so it is easy to continue enjoying the view even while relieving yourself (for men) or right after relieving yourself (for women). And the hole is sort of shaped like a vagina, which is pretty cool, too.
For some people, the wealth of information provided by a gregarious, English-speaking guide is one of the main highlights of their cruise experience. Detailed history, geological descriptions, fascinating anecdotes, that type of thing. Well, this isn’t that kind of cruise.
However, you CAN look forward to learning two very enthusiastic – and somewhat alarming – pieces of information:
Both valuable bits of knowledge, not to mention admirably simple. And dramatically and loudly blurted without any advance warning, one of which resulted in me choking on my beer. More than usual, I mean.
The reason for this, of course, is that the driver/guide does not speak English. In much the same way that we do not speak Vietnamese. Same same, as they say in these parts. If they happen to be particularly annoying.
Not to sell myself short in the language department, though. As always before visiting a new (or not for a long time) country, I dedicated myself to a period of hardcore study to ensure I could converse to a respectful level and, hopefully, earn a few awed looks along the way.
Well, as the proud memorizer of not one, two or even three, but a full four (!!) Vietnamese phrases, I think it’s safe to say I’ve left a few locals awestruck yet again (knuckles rubbing on shirt motion). Especially considering how difficult it is to get the pronunciation right when speaking a tonal language like Vietnamese where each word can be said in 6 different ways, ith 6 completely different meanings.
“Xin chau!” – hello. This usually earned a friendly smile in return, almost certainly just because they figured out what I meant through context. And my helpful accompanying wave.
“Xin loi” – sorry/excuse me. Pretty sure not a single Vietnamese person had the slightest idea what the hell I was on about with this one. For one thing, nobody uses “sorry” as much or as unnecessarily as a Canadian. For another, I assume my pronunciation was completely off and I was probably actually saying something confusing like “checkmate”, “indubitably” or “frog dick”. I don’t know for sure, but I assume the Vietnamese have several words for “frog dick”, so it seemed like a reasonable guess.
“Dam biet” – goodbye. This one seemed to work, except for the part that – language aside – convenience store clerks and waiters around the world do not really see the need for formal goodbyes from foreigners they will never see again.
“Cam on” – thank you. This was obviously the most important one, being both polite and sort of expected. Unfortunately, the proper pronunciation bears virtually no similarity to the spelling, so, once again, my failure rate was right around the 90% mark. Which is why I usually followed it up with an English “thank you”, which of course everyone understood. Overcomplicating things is fun sometimes.
The point, I guess, is not to expect a lot of chit-chat on your Lazy Lan Ha Bay Cruise.
The scenery is main draw of the Lazy Lan Ha Bay Tour and, basically, the whole point. I mean, there are plenty of places in Cat Ba town where you can sit quietly while drinking cheap beer and occasionally peeing. But the views aren’t as good.
Lan Ha Bay is completely packed with picturesque limestone karst islands sticking out of the water like tiny struggling mountains or rugged new moles emerging from a smooth back. So the entire trip is one long photo op. But there are a few specific highlights, at least if our driver’s occasional frantic hollering was anything to go by.
And some fascinating geological marvels. I assume.
Lang Chai Floating Village
Starting right outside the harbour, these fascinating floating huts are mostly connected by ropes and docks, with all the residents making their living off fishing (much of which seemed to be taking place in netted areas connected to the huts themselves).
This is not some sanitized fake village designed for tourists – just a few hundred actual families living on the water as they have for centuries. Although I kind of hope tourism now plays a larger role in their finances, since having dozens of boatloads of gawking, photographing visitors passing by their homes all day long should be worth something, regardless of how delightfully we wave.
As a passerby, you have two choices:
1. Smile, wave and make a big show of how quaint you find their way of life.
2. Quietly stare into their eyes, expressionless and dour, like you know things, things they wish you didn’t.
3. Sorry, there is no third option.
You will pass a bunch of caves. Caves that probably have names. But you don’t need to know those names. Because you’re not going in. You’re not even getting that close. Because caves are only so interesting at the best of times and are much less interesting from a distance. From 30 metres or 300 metres, they are still just holes in a rock.
But what if we want to go in, you ask? No, you don’t get to, this is not that kind of tour. Take your spelunking ass elsewhere, keener.
It kind of looks like a turtle.
Unfortunately, this island does not look like a monkey. But it is, however, full OF monkeys. Many of which we saw up close and personal on our first visit to Vietnam. Not quite as up close and personal as the British guy in our group who got swarmed, bitten and relieved of his backpack, phone, passport, camera and one of his flip flops. But still up close and personal enough to give the monkeys the finger, at least, and, unlike him, we didn’t have to get rabies shots after.
Unless you schedule your Lazy Lan Ha Bay Tour for the middle of the night (which would be a weird choice) you will also pass a steady stream of other Lan Ha Bay boat cruises. From big day tripper boats with festive crowds and unpleasant music to stylish overnight ships with smaller, less frantic, groups of tourists doggedly enjoying brief periods of relaxation in between enforced bouts of merriment (kayaking, swimming, caving, fleeing from monkeys).
You might even see a few other puttering barges just like yours, also with pairs of smug tourists looking comfortably relaxed in their very own lawn chairs, even drinking their very own beer.
Feel free to wave. Or maybe just wait and see how it feels in the moment.
The Lazy Lan Ha Bay Cruise: FAQ
Is food and drink provided?
No, sir. This cruise is entirely BYOB. Lucky for you, though, Bia Hanoi can be purchased for just $0.50/can in any convenience store near you.
Is the Lazy Lan Ha Bay tour expensive?
I guess it depends on what you consider expensive. We paid 1,400,000 Vietnamese dong for 2 people. Which, understandably, does sound like a lot of dongs. Maybe TOO many dongs for just two people.
But once you convert that to $US 60 it sounds much less daunting (and less sexually unrealistic). One might even call that a rather ludicrously low price for a private three-hour boat tour.
However, those on a tight budget can join one of the big boat tours and find deals for as little 400,000 VND ($US 16) per person for a half-day tour or 700,000 VND ($US 30) for a full-day tour. Which means the full-day tour is basically the same price for a couple, just with more people, more activities and more stuff.
Will you get to talk locals in the fishing village?
Not unless you want to yell really loud from the boat. In Vietnamese. So, no awkward encounters or forced selfies, no matter how overdue you are for a new IG profile pic.
But what about the monkeys? Won’t you see the monkeys?
No. Yet, somehow, life goes on.
What if you really like kayaking?
Too bad. That’s a different trip. On the Lazy Lan Ha Bay Cruise, your heart rate gets to stay right where it was when you started – borderline unhealthy.
Please. Haven’t you been listening?
Will it be hot?
Depends on the weather.
The Lazy Lan Ha Bay Tour is the perfect mix of… actually, no. It’s not a mix of anything. It’s just you, sitting on a boat, looking around, maybe drinking beer, maybe taking some photos, maybe talking to your significant other, maybe ignoring them entirely. It is very much up to you.
Our kind of trip.
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