As I mentioned previously, when researching Ha Long Bay Sam and I found that people recommend going instead to Lan Ha Bay, an area south of Ha Long proper with the same magnificent limestone karsts. Pretty much any guesthouse on Cat Ba Island can book you kayak trip into the bay. We ended up going with a company called Asia Outdoors, which was slightly more expensive than some other options but had glowing TripAdvisor reviews.
The full-day trip consisted of boating into the bay, kayaking in the morning, stopping for lunch, kayaking some more, and cruising back. The food was remarkably good for this sort of thing, and the boat ride was very pleasant. The kayaking itself was varied. In the morning the boat took us deep into the bay, and it really was gorgeous. The water was clear, there were few people around, and we saw some beautiful sights (including a lagoon hidden in the middle of one of the karsts). In the afternoon, however, we kayaked closer to Cat Ba in an area dominated by floating fisheries. Not only was the water choppier there, but it was disappointingly polluted. Still, we enjoyed our day out and definitely don’t regret not doing an all-inclusive day trip from Hanoi.