Tuesday 28 March 2023

From On Board: Not Ha Long Bay. Lan Ha Bay with Ylang

#expeditioncruising .

Here on Cat Ba island in Lan Ha Bay, local folklore tells the story of how a group of European tourists stumbled upon a village deep in the jungle valley and, mesmerised by its scenic beauty, decided to make the little hamlet a regular stop for future visitors.
Today, Viet Hai Village hosts guests seeking an escape from the bustling tourist activity elsewhere on the island as well as neighbouring Ha Long Bay. 

We arrived by tender from our delightful boutique vessel, Ylang, (main pic above) a traditionally-styled Vietnamese ‘junk’ with just ten superbly appointed and spacious staterooms operated by the luxury cruise company, Heritage Line.

Viet Hai village is a 3km cycle from the port of the same name on Cat Ba Ialand (RE)

Once ashore at the tiny port, little more than a hut and a jetty, we’re installed on bicycles for the 3km peddle to Viet Hai Village. I’m assured the road is mostly flat and I find it freshly paved with concrete, a luxury I’m sure the villagers enjoy over the muddy trail that once existed beneath cement.

It’s tempting to label Cat Ba island as one of those ‘best-kept-secrets’ you keep reading about. It certainly conforms to the requirement of being off the beaten tourist track and was recognized by UNESCO in 2004 as a Biosphere Reserve Zone. Cat Ba shares the same terrain as Ha Long Bay with its famous karst topograph typified by limestone mountains, stunning caves and silky white sandy beaches.

Guests from Ylang inspect a local fish farm on Lan Ha Bay (RE)

You can cycle to your heart’s content around the 285km2 island (fractionally smaller than Tasmania’s Bruny Island), rent a motor scooter or hike any of the many maintained trails. In fact, we did all of these things as well as kayak around the sheltered coves on Ylang’s own single or double plastic kayaks. My little smartwatch was pinging with delight.

Following our exploration of Ha Long Bay aboard Heritage Line’s charming Violet, it seemed appropriate to investigate the lesser-known neighbour, Lan Ha Bay. While it may not enjoy the UNESCO World Heritage notoriety of its northerly relative, it does not suffer from what some people might call ‘overtourism’. The vessels visiting Lan Ha Bay are not restricted in the same way they are in Ha Long Bay, but as of right now, they don’t need to be. I don’t see any of the pesky day boats that infest the waters to the north and the boats here are modestly sized with the largest perhaps around just 100 passengers.

Our universally acclaimed crew (RE)

(and her sister ship, Ginger) have just ten sumptuous twin suites and even though our sailing is full, there is not the slightest feeling of constriction. Dining is relaxed and of the same excellent standard we enjoyed on Violet. In fact, at our last dinner, the guests demanded chef present himself so he could be loudly congratulated by his adoring patrons. Yes, it really was that good.

My recommendation would be to sample both cruises if time and budget allow. Ha Long Bay demands you experience it by sheer dent of its fame, while Lan Ha Bay is more accessible and has so far resisted the swarms of tourists while offering more options for shore activities.

Consult your preferred travel agent or visit the Heritage Line website for more details.

About Cat Ba National Park
(Source: Vietnam National Parks)

Cat Ba National Park is located in Cat Hai district, Hai Phong city. The national park is centred on Cat Ba island, a 28,500 ha island, which lies 20 km due east of Hai Phong city and immediately to the west of Halong bay. The national park also incorporates some of the small islands and marine waters situated to the east of Cat Ba island.

Like Halong bay, the landscape of Cat Ba National Park is dominated by karst limestone islands rising abruptly from the sea. The topography is rugged and marked by steep outcrops and areas of bare rock. The national park ranges in elevation from sea level to 331 m at the summit of Mount Cao Vong.

As is typical in well-developed karst landscapes, drainage patterns are complicated by subterranean passages, which probably account for most of the drainage in the national park. The centre of Cat Ba island is no more than 5 km from the coast, and surface drainage is poorly developed and seasonal.

Biodiversity values

Cat Ba National Park supports a diversity of natural habitats, including forested hills, small freshwater lakes, freshwater swamp forest, mangroves, sandy beaches and coral reefs. The main natural vegetation type on Cat Ba island is limestone forest. To date, 839 vascular plant species have been recorded at the national park, including 25 species listed in the Red Data Book of Vietnam.

Due to the isolated nature of the island and high levels of hunting, the diversity and abundance of mammals at Cat Ba are low compared to other national parks in Vietnam. Scientists report that the only ungulates on the island are Southern Serow Naemorhedus sumatraensis, Eurasian Wild Pig Sus scrofa and Red Muntjac Muntiacus muntjak but that only the former is common.

Of highest importance from a conservation perspective, Cat Ba National Park supports the only known population of Cat Ba Leaf Monkey Trachypithecus poliocephalus in the world. The results of a detailed survey of this endemic primate in 1999 and 2000 indicate that the total population of Cat Ba Leaf Monkey is only between 104 and 135 individuals, including only 50 to 75 adults.

The limestone habitats at Cat Ba National Park are important for a number of invertebrate taxa. A survey in 1998, for instance, revealed that, because of an abundance of suitable moist niches within the limestone forest, the national park had a rich and diverse snail fauna.

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