Published: November 12th 2012November 12th 2012
Our transportation to Cat Ba was simple yet complicated. Simple because we paid for one ticket that got us from our hotel in Hanoi to Cat Ba Town; complicated because it involved a number of modes of transportation. First we were taken by xe om (moto-taxi) to the bus station. It was about 7am so the traffic wasn't bad thank goodness. Next we hopped on a bus that took us to Haiphong. Haiphong was hit pretty hard by the typhoon; trees and electrical lines were down all over the place and some roofs were missing, but they seem to be sort of used to cleaning up and dealing with this sort of thing in South-East Asia. Everyone was working together to clean up the typhoons mess. From the centre of Haiphong (we had switched onto a new bus) we were driven to the port. We had to take a boat for about an hour and then one final bus took us from the docks on the island to Cat Ba Town. All of this took just over 5 hours.
Where the bus stopped in Cat Ba Town there were plenty of men anxiously waiting to take us to their hotel.
Rebecca tried to start a game to see who had the best hotel but apparently they are all the exact same and none of them were able to stand out. We followed the first guy that had approached us, not before getting handed five or six cards of other hotels with promises to take a look if we didn't like the first hotel. We weren't all that impressed with the first, second or third hotels we saw and were getting pretty exhausted since we had to walk up to the sixth floor most times for “best ocean view”. Since they don't count the street level as a floor, this meant climbing 7 flights of narrow stairs over and over. The rooms either had too many beds, didn't have a nice enough bathroom or just weren't what we were looking for. Then we came across the “no fun” hotel. We coined this term after reading the hotel rules... doors lock at midnight, no cooking or doing your own laundry, no prostitutes etc. However, the room was nice and came with everything we wanted including a balcony overlooking the harbour. We moved in, found some food and walked around a bit to
get a feel for the small town. Our first afternoon in Cat Ba Town was quiet and we were fine with that since the weather was still rather overcast, the last remnants of typhoon Son-Tinh.
The next day was much busier; we rented a motorbike so we could see more of the island. Our first stop was the hospital cave. During the war the North Vietnamese had constructed a hospital in a cave about 40m below ground, well out of reach of the American bombers. Cat Ba saw some pretty intense fighting during the war, and this cave was equipped with a kitchen, quarters for troops, another one for doctors and surgeons, an operating room, a room for injured troops, one for high-ranking officials and a strategy room, as well as some secret entrances and exits, including a pool that troops could drop down from a few stories up and land in during bombing raids! We decided to get a guide to take us through and explain all of this to us. After he opened the big heavy door to get in he disappeared into a room ahead of us, and as we approached he jumped out dressed as
an army commando with a fake gun and scared the crap out of Rebecca. Tyler thought it was hilarious and gave him a tip at the end for his antics. Exiting the cave half way up the other side of the mountain, we were rewarded with some spectacular views of the island and valley.
We jumped back on our motorbike and continued on to Cat Ba National Park, home to the Golden-headed Langur, the rarest primate on earth, with about 60-100 left in the wild. We decided to go for a hike that would take us through the jungle and up to the top of a mountain for views. The trail was pretty easy to follow for the first while, past streams and through gorgeous jungle. About 3/4 of the way along the trail we came to a fork with the option of the easy way or the difficult way to the top. Feeling confident we took on the difficult trail. It was a steep 500m climb up rocks and some rickety, rusted-out ladders and skirting some steep drops, but after our treks in Indonesia and China we have gotten quite used to this sort of thing. Reaching the
top it was well worth the effort and the views of the lush green jungle and mountains were amazing. We took the easier route back down so we could see more of the jungle and hopefully some wild life. Making it back to the park entrance we never got to see the Golden-headed Langur (which is practically impossible to see in the wild) but we were swarmed by dozens of species of colourful butterflies which is another main attraction of the park.
We climbed back on our 'Harley' with the intention of making it to the other side of the island for views of the karst peaks in Lan-Ha Bay. The ride through the island was great with smooth roads and no traffic until we came to a spot where the road was completely flooded and locals were rowing tourists across to where they could continue on. Since we were unable to get our bike across, we decided it would be a good time to turn around and head for the beaches while there was some good afternoon sun left. The Island has three main beaches called Cat Co 1, Cat Co 2 and Cat Co 3 respectively. We
opted for Cat Co 2 since it is the one that doesn't have a resort built on it. It was a beautiful beach, if a little rocky, and is sheltered in a calm bay with some islands off in the distance, perfect for a relaxing swim! We forgot how early the sun sets around here and it quickly ducked behind a nearby karst so we moved to a different beach that was likely to have sun for a little longer. At Cat Co 3 we found a warm spot on the beach for another hour or so before getting chilly and heading back to our hotel.
By this time we were quite hungry and went out looking for a cheap place to get good food. About 500m west of the main hotel strip/harbour there is a corner that is host to a number of “restaurants”. It is more like a tarp city where the colour of table and chairs identifies which “restaurant” you're dining at. This became our favourite spot to grab cheap beer and yummy food. By the end of our time in Cat Ba we were getting welcomed with a warm smile from our favourite restaurant owner
every time we approached. The couple that runs the little eatery was really cute to watch; the husband never took his helmet off because he was frequently sent off to get fresh ingredients for the wife who was always busy cooking for their customers. One time we ordered a mango smoothie and off went the husband to get some fresh mangoes, he came back in about 90 seconds and two minutes later voila
delicious fresh mango smoothie. Anyway, after our first visit here we were hooked and became regulars hence the warm welcomes.
For our third day on the island we had booked a tour on a sailboat! At 8am we met our fellow sailors (a couple from Belgium, a couple from Czech Republic and three guys from Germany) and off we went. A bus took us to a different harbour to get on our sailboat. After we all climbed on the boat, it was off but kept going in circles in the same harbour, we were all pretty confused and joked that this would be our “tour”. After about 45 minutes of this we were informed that the cook was missing but we set off without him, apparently
he would catch up with us later.
The boat cruised along through the dozens of limestone karsts that jutted out of the water, with no specific pattern, past numerous fishing villages of people that live on the water. Their homes are extremely small but still house a full family and we even saw some cats and dogs living out on the floating villages. With the karsts as the background, the colourful homes were something you probably can't see many places in the world. Around every karst there was something new to see. We stopped counting the little secret beaches that we saw and soaked up the warm rays the sun was showering us with. Our boat paused briefly at one of the villages to pick up our kayaks and continued on for another hour weaving in and out of the natural obstacles of Lan Ha and Halong Bay.
When we came to an open area we anchored and were given a full hour to explore the waters with our kayaks. The captain pointed in a couple of different directions to let us know where we could find some caves and off we went. Tandem kayaks are interesting; it
took us a while to get into the same rhythm but once we found it we were flying through the soft warm ocean en route to the first cave. It was really cool going through the first cave. We had to watch out for drips from the ceiling and swallows that buzzed around our heads. After the first cave we came into a bay. Not a sound could be heard other than our quiet paddle strokes and the birds flying around the karsts, it was one of those moments you don't need words or photos; it was simple beauty.
The rest of our hour was spent checking out the other smaller cave and other bays that we came to. When we got back to the boat we were the first to get back on and dive off for a refreshing swim in the turquoise Gulf of Tonkin. The Belgian's and Czech's came for the sailboat at the same time and while the Belgian kayak headed straight for the other couples kayak the Belgian dude said “sorry if we hit you, I don't know how to stop” and the Belgian girl said “We don't know what we're doing, we're from
Belgium”. It was really funny and the Belgian's humour continued to keep us laughing all day. Whenever they did something ridiculous they claimed it was “Belgian style” with reference to the new Gangham style
While we were out exploring the chef miraculously showed up and now that the whole crew was on board we continued on. The sailboat stopped at another picturesque bay for us to swim some more while our lunch was prepared. We were all really hungry after the kayaking and swimming and the meal was fantastic. There was a huge spread of fish fried with tomatoes and onions, spring rolls, fried egg and tomato, another fried vegetable dish, a chicken and pineapple dish and plenty of rice.
When everyone had had their fill we set off once again into the sunshine. The boat got really quite and everyone seemed to disappear into their own corners for a little nap or quiet time. The boat continued on through the gentle rolling waves and the only shade we had was from passing a tall karst. Our next stop was a cave described as the most beautiful in Halong Bay. We climbed off the boat to
find the cave was being excavated for some ancient human remains discovered there. Those must have been some pretty lucky cave men to have found such a beautiful spot. Creeping through the darkness we found some magnificent stalagmites and tites and cave walls sparkling from the different minerals running through them. After leaving the cave the three couples separated from the German's (they were staying on the boat for the night as they booked a different tour and would continue on for another day). The six of us got on a much smaller noisier boat and were taken to Monkey Island. We didn't come across that many monkeys (although one was hanging out on the beach drinking from a discarded beer) and with our poor choice of footwear thought it would be best not to trek all the way to the top for the views we had heard such great things about. We climbed about halfway up the mountain to get some nice photos of the sun going down over the karsts before joining back up with our now smaller group and walking the beach. We then got back on the boat and our new driver took us back to
the harbour at Cat Ba and our tour was done. It was about 5:00 so we went to our favourite dinner spot for another filling meal before calling it a night.
The next day was dedicated to working on our tans. We laid on Cat Co 2 all day long alternating with swimming, tanning our fronts, tanning our backs and catching up on our reading. It was a wonderfully relaxing day and just what we needed after the last couple of sight-seeing days. After getting fried we chilled out in our hotel for a short while before heading out to get some nice sunset pictures. There was a lookout point on the karst/mountain in the middle of Cat Ba Town that was actually used for anti-aircraft guns during the war. In true Rebecca and Tyler fashion, we climbed half way up the wrong mountain before realizing we were heading the wrong way. By now we couldn't see much of the sun but climbed down and then found the right path. When we made it to the correct lookout we were happy that we hadn't missed sunset but disappointed because it was a cloudy night and weren't going to get
the beautiful photos we were looking for. We sat at the lookout for quite some time. The darker it got, the more boats turned on their lights and we still got a really nice view of the harbour at dusk.
This being our last day on Cat Ba we had to go back to our favourite tarp city restaurant. Of course as soon as she saw us coming, she walked out to greet us and sat us at our table by the street. Tyler had been fighting the idea of carrying around a bulky sweater that had been taking up room in his backpack and decided to gift our new friend with it. Since he bought it in Berstagi (Sumatra, Indonesia) it was a bit small and we thought this woman would know someone who could use it. She was so surprised and thankful for the gift that she didn't want us to pay for our meal. We told her that it was a gift and insisted on paying for our food. It was sad to say goodbye to her but as we say every time we leave a spot that we love “See you next time”.
Ba is true natural beauty. We found some gorgeous scenery and obviously came across a couple of genuinely kind locals. It was a wonderful place to spend a few days and were sad to leave it behind.
There are more photos below