Cat Ba Island for some xmas fun!

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December 23rd 2009
Published: December 30th 2009
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Cat Ba Island

So we opted for a taxi ride to one of the many bus stations in Hanoi, unable to find a convenient local bus route and unwilling to face the traffic fumes for the 4km walk. This proved to be a good choice as it was further than we thought but also pretty cheap considering it was a 'proper' taxi and not a two stroke, three wheel monstrosity held together with string and paper-clips - ie. An Indian auto-rickshaw.

The ferries to Cat Ba island leave from Haiphong on the coast at the most inconvenient times which would require either staying the night at the lovely industrial city of Haiphong or a 4am start from Hanoi. Thankfully the good folk at Hoang Long transport realised the impracticality and devised a bus-boat-bus system that leaves from Hanoi at a decent hour for Haiphong, includes boat transfers to the island and then a bus to the small town on the south of the island. The coach ride to the port was fairly uneventful but getting out and onto the ferry, we were hit by the salty smell of the fresh sea air that we haven't felt in a long time (since Goa) and the realisation that we quite miss living by the sea-side.

The choppy ride on the speed boat/ferry was great fun and we arrived swiftly on the island to see the rocky limestone hills and the huge mangrove forests that littered the bay. The weather was cool but not cold and provided a more familiar feel for the time of year after escaping the heat of Laos. After the short coach ride through the hear of the island to Cat Ba town, we were immediately confronted with touts pressing their accommodation on us: the usual. One of them was actually trying to push a hotel that was recommended but at a cheap price of $6 a night for a big room with sea views and wi-fi. We agreed to have a look at the room and were pleasantly surprised so settled in for a few days relaxing over the xmas holidays. It was on the fourth floor and looked directly out onto the bay with all the old junk bots bobbing around, so was really a steal at the price and best of all it was off season so we had the entire floor to ourselves and there were only a handful of other guests staying at the place.

Dumping the bags, we went for a walk along the promenade in the last of the daylight and were amazed how quite the place was for the large numbers of hotels that were littered along the sea front. It became obvious that there was far too much tourist capacity for the time of year and the only people here were westerners. The town itself is set against the side of the hills with one main road running along the sea front, looking out onto a large bay with the craggy limestone cliffs that form the infamous Ha Long Bay. Strolling along, we noticed that many of the shops were selling Vietnamese red wine at about £2.50 per bottle- a treat that we haven't had since leaving Britain. It wasn't up to Australian or Californian standards but did turn out to be very pleasant so we decided to buy few more bottles to enjoy on our Christmas holiday by the seaside. The place also had an abundance of fresh seafood restaurants, many with live sea creatures in tanks including crabs and huge prawns just waiting to be picked out.

Our first day was spent wandering around the town and exploring the cliffs and beaches. There were two exclusive resorts further out of the town (one with a small water park) which provided more expensive getaways for some but they were both pretty much dead and we were pleased to be staying somewhere with some atmosphere. The cliffs and the bays were gorgeous and the sun even began to poke through the clouds for a brief while.

Our second day was spent on a rented motorbike exploring the island's few roads and peaceful countryside. First stop was 'Hospital Caves': a cave complex that can been converted into a bunker/hospital to avoid falling bombs and included several rooms, surgeries and as our guide was proud to announce, a swimming pool (which was a concrete water tank) and a cinema! Our next stop was Cat Ba national park for a short walk (or scramble at points) up a hill to 40 ft viewing tower for views of the surrounding hills and valleys. It was rusty, with only loose planks for a floor at the top and was sufficiently dangerous for Stacey to prefer staying at the bottom while I went up. We then drove up to the far northern tip of the island to a quiet port which effectively marked the end of the road. It was very beautiful with the limestone cliffs out to sea forming the start of Ha Long bay, with mangrove forests and floating pontoons on which people lived in small huts. The scenery reminded us of the far north of Scotland with its sea lochs and sparse population. We sat and enjoyed the isolation for a while before taking the coastal road along the west side of the island along the cliffs past some deserted beaches and small hamlets. The cliff road was pretty treacherous at times with sharp bends and no barriers so it was a good thing I'd learnt where the controls for both brakes were :-) On Christmas eve the local government had put on a display on a small stage which included traditional music, singing and dancing so we watched for a while before heading to the island's backpacker bar for some Christmas cheer.

The following day was Christmas day so we treated ourselves to a lay in, followed by a decent breakfast and Stacey's favourite movie, The Muppet's Christmas Carol. Despite that lack of anything interesting or even vaguely practical in Vietnamese shops, we each had a present of Christmas morning. Mine was a box of tasty Oreos and Stacey's was a bottle of nail polish and remover. We spent the afternoon sitting on the golden sand of a deserted beach reading and watching the waves roll in. The sun had broken through the clouds and the turquoise water was warm enough for an xmas swim in the sea. It was far from a traditional Christmas afternoon but was non the less very enjoyable. In the evening we headed out for some posh nosh at the Green Mango restaurant where we tucked into a seafood basket and fresh lamb rolls on the side- again not very traditional but very tasty. We had worn a pair of Santa hats, purchased in Hanoi, throughout the day and although we received our share of funny looks, we also got more than our fair share of 'merry xmases!' from passers by. Despite us both missing home a fair bit, it was still the best Christmas that we could hope for given our location and one we'll remember for years.

We'd booked a trip around Lan Ha bay for boxing day. Its basically the same limestone cliffs and grottoes out to sea that you'd find in Ha Long bay but on the south side of Cat Ba and less touristy. Setting off at 8am, we boarded a small boat with a dining area downstairs and a viewing deck on top. There were two other couples on board although they'd brought all their belongings with them as they very planning on staying on the boat overnight and we were just doing a day trip. We chugged around the amazing geological formations and the small sea based communities who lived on the floating pontoons and made a living from fishing. We went out kayaking in the bay before lunch, paddling in two person canoes in the sea through caves and into isolated grottoes surrounded by the cliffs. It was very enjoyable and a steal at only $15 dollars, but unfortunately it wasn't the only stealing going on.

Over lunch, one of the other passengers had noticed that their money belt which was in his backpack had be tampered with and that some money had been taken. The other couple looked at their possessions and found that money had also been taken. As it was only the captain and his assistant on board, it was obvious that they had been through everyone's bags whilst we were out in the kayak and had pilfered the money. We checked through our bags but since we were only there for the day and hadn't brought anything of value, we were okay. There was a big argument on the boat as the crew denied any wrong doing. Eventually the captain returned the missing sum to the couple making the biggest fuss, but nothing was done for the other couple. It really put a dampener on the day and the atmosphere became very unpleasant. We sat on the top deck for the remainder of the journey whilst the others sat below, watching their large backpacks. There was an opportunity to go kayaking to a beach later on in the day but, understandably, no one felt comfortable leaving the boat so we sat and looked out over the bay at the amazing cliffs and caves, trying to forget the tense atmosphere. Eventually we headed back to Cat Ba town and the two couples were transferred onto a sleeping boat for their overnight stay, although I'm pretty sure the whole fiasco will have ruined the remainder of their trip.

Back on land, we headed for the hotel and promptly informed the travel agent who organised the trip of the events and he got straight on the phone and summoned the captain for a bollocking. Whether anything formal happened is unknown but to anyone reading this who plans to take a similar trip, don't take any valuables on the boat. Overall, despite the untrustworthy crew and their antics it was an enjoyable trip with some amazing sights.

Cat Ba was a great place to spend the holidays and in a way we were reluctant to leave and get back on the road, but this was to be our last day here before heading back to mainland Vietnam the next day.

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8th January 2010

Sounds as though you have had a novel Christmas - pleased you are having such a good time. When your enjoying the excellent weather, spare a thought for all of us in England coping with heavy snow. Incidentally many, many congratulations on your engagement.

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