Cát Bà, Vietnam: Learning to SUP + top activities on the island
There’s something about food poisoning that will quickly convince you a vacation from your vacation is a must.
Arriving on sleepy Cát Bà in the shoulder season was exactly the reprieve we needed after twice extending our stay in Hanoi due to some less than ideal health conditions and general fear of leaving the room. Glamorous, I know.
Gallons of water and Emergen-C packs later, we finally set foot on the little oasis that would quickly steal our hearts. Set in Lan Ha Bay, just south our tourist mecca Halong Bay, Cát Bà offers those same jaw dropping karst landscape without quite as many day tours cruising through. If you’d rather have an adventure than spend the day lounging, this is the place for you. And for us. Which is exactly how we found ourselves negotiating the road with cows and negotiating the waters with jelly fish (again).
Leaning to SUP with Asia Outdoors
Launched from a love of rock climbing and expanding ever since, Asia Outdoors is a must-visit Cát Bà destination for anyone ready to get active. Countless operators will gleefully sell you a leisurely cruise through the archipelago, full of craggy, skyscraper-high limestone giants, but Asia Outdoors stands out among the pack for its adventure-fueled offerings.
For these intrepid Canadians, the mission was simple enough: try something new and find something tall from which Ryan could jump into the water while keeping Anne dry. We would succeed and fail spectacularly well.
The full day Stand Up Paddleboard and Kayak tour was on the agenda and our day started with a peaceful cruise before being dropped off in the picturesque bay to get kayaking. Our guide, Lực, skillfully guided us through the maze with the kind of relaxed approach you want when floating through such idyllic settings. So relaxed in fact, that we almost didn’t believe him when he mentioned we’d be hopping right out of the kayaks to swim them under a teeny archway to make our way to the lagoon. My hopes of avoiding cold waters were quickly washed away. The view, luckily, was well worth it.
More than 1,600 islands and islets make up Ha Long Bay, giving the surrounding area a distinctive silhouette as limestone pillars jut straight out of the water. The resulting maze, a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, is the home to much lore as well. We learned that the bay’s name, Ha Long, means “descending dragon” – based on a dragon that descended into the area to help locals fights against invaders. The dragon thrashed, creating the many islands that would leave the invaders incapable of navigating the large bay. Of course, like any lore, variations exist. A quick search of Lan Ha’s etymology will tell tale of a family of dragons sent down to protect the Vietnamese, releasing jade and jewels to create the islands and intercept invaders, then settling down in the area. No matter which version you lean towards, one thing is certain, Lan Ha is a very special place.
From there, we paddled our way back over to the junk boat to enjoy a delicious lunch on board, forever praising the love of tofu and fresh fruit in Vietnam. For Ryan, this was also the moment he’d been waiting for. “Can I jump off the side of this boat?” he asks an unsuspecting instructor whose response perfectly captured the attitude of the Asia Outdoors crew. “We strongly encourage it.”
As the afternoon rolled in, we pulled out the stand up paddleboards and got ready to, well, stand. I expected this to be a front row seat at comedy hour, attempting to put be me – a spectacularly awkward, uncoordinated spaz with little balance – on a board over water. But guys, I DID NOT FALL IN. Sure, my life flashed before my eyes as I paddled over a couple of the biggest jelly fish I have ever seen (we have a history), but I took no plunge. As it turns out, SUPing is pretty easy and falling is quite hard. Bless our guide Miha who patiently answered my myriad questions about the logistics of not falling before realizing all this. In the end, SUP had claimed a top spot on my list of favourite activities.
With the sun starting to set in the distance, we paddled back to the boat, just in time for Ryan and co., to take a few more leaps off the boat as we all soaked in the last few rays of a great day.
If you find yourself washed up on Cát Bà – and we sure hope you do – make sure to visit the fine folks at Asia Outdoors to book a tour.
Find Asia Outdoors at No. 229, 1/4 Street, Group 19, Ward 4 Cat Ba Island, Vietnam
Top things to do on Cát Bà Island
Scoot around on a motorbike
With paved roads and less traffic than bigger cities, Cát Bà is a great place to hop on a motorbike and see the sights for the day. Drive by the national park, spot rogue animals around the island and maybe even stop into Mountainview for a swim way up high.
Visit the Cannon Fort
Since you’ve got the motorbike anyway, drive yourself up the hill to the Cannon Fort and take in the breathtaking panoramas. The view of the bay from the fort is the best around, but don’t stop there. Walk around to discover gun emplacements and tunnels dating to WWII.
Head to the beach
The aptly named Cat Co 1, 2 and 3 are the three beaches found on the south end of Cát Bà Island, not too far from town. Spend the day hopping from one to the other before deciding on your perfect beach to call home for the day.
Where to stay
We opted for something a little different and booked a few nights at Cat Ba Ancient Homestay. Set way back from the hotels of the main road, the traditional house is a big, airy space unlike any we’ve come across on our travels. The addition of a homemade breakfast and a pair of friendly guard dogs made it all the better. This was a hard home to leave.