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Published: July 24th 2013
Our journey from Hanoi to Cat Ba Island was something of a magical mystery tour. Other than our fellow tourists there were no other English speakers on the bus so once we reached the port town of Hai Phong a lot of guesswork was required. We had all expected to change bus there but it turned out to be a rest stop instead. We were then ushered back onto the bus which then continued for about half an hour longer to a rickety quay. No ferry arrived for us though. A hydrofoil pulled up alongside the narrow jetty and about half a million Vietnamese tourists poured out of it. We had to stand outside in the torrential rain whilst they filled our seats on the bus. Eventually we were all on the hydrofoil which sped off across the stormy waters. About 20 minutes later we emerged onto the lush, tropical island if Cat Be where another 30 minutes on a bus awaited us, this time through dramatic countryside.
We had booked a hotel through the Pagoda website. At only $16 a night we didn't have particularly high expectations but the Phung Mai proved to be a bargain. We were shown
to a room on the 5th floor with no lift and tiny stairs designed to accommodate delicate Vietnamese feet. We opted to pay an extra $3 a night for a sea view once we saw the marvellous scenes outside the window. The whole of Cat Ba Bay unfolded beneath us.
The next day we set about being tourists and walked out to the Cannon Fort. In high humidity and temperatures over 30C it was a bit of a sticky hike and the uphill sections definitely had us pausing for breath more often than anticipated. From the top the views over the bays were fantastic. The cannon itself and a few fortifications were almost incidental although these relics from the American War were interesting to see. It's incredible to think that they could launch a projectile 40km towards the enemy.
The plan for the afternoon had been to go to the beach. The weather dictated otherwise though and we had a good siesta instead. Later on we took one of the cheap 12-seater golf-buggy taxis out to beach number 2 where we discovered that the Vietnamese criteria for a day at the beach is remarkably different to ours. A
little rain is no disincentive to go for a swim. We found our way to the Cat Ba Beach Resort which was very nice indeed. We paid the far from outrageous price for a couple of beers and thoroughly enjoyed the views as darkness fell. Back in town we went to a typical rice restaurant where it seems foreigners seldom venture. It was noisy and chaotic, we had to shout at the waitress from time to time (which is what the locals do ALL the time!), but the food was wonderful. We had forgotten how delightful something as simple as spinach fried with garlic and soy sauce can be.
That afternoon we had made our onward travel arrangements and organised our boat trip to Ha Long Bay, possibly Vietnam's most famous sight internationally. If you've ever seen pictures of boats drifting dreamily through the mist around a thousand tiny rocky islands, it was probably Ha Long Bay, although apparently the government refused permission for James Bond to be filmed here so Thailand's Phuket had to stand in. First though, we had to endure a fierce late night storm which flashed for hours on end and produced more rain than
our windows could cope with. Flooded on the 5th floor!!
Our trip began at 8am when we were herded into a minibus full if tourists. We were taken couple of kilometres to Ben Beo where we boarded our boat. 9 Western tourists (representing England, Scotland, Italy, France and Canada) met their 2-man one-woman non-English-speaking crew and away we went. What could possibly go wrong?
We started off winding our way through the limestone kasts of Lan Ha Bay getting a close up look at some of the floating villages located there. The dogs gave a "friendly" yelp as we passed by. We were all in a dreamlike trance as the magical scenery worked its magic. Lan Ha Ba became Ha Long Bay and before we knew it we were being shepherded off the boat and into a dark cave to see some stalagmites and stalactites, as well as to be underwhelmed by the archaeological dig and its not very informative information boards. Maybe an English speaking guide would have been helpful.
From there we drifted back through the karsts until we moored up alongside a floating kayak station. Despite our protestations, Western sized life jackets could note
found. We carried on regardless and spent a wonderful hour paddling through caves, under bridges and exploring hidden lagoons. It was great. We got back to our boat just as the heavens opened. It's the wet season so it was no surprise but we had had such a good morning.
A feast of Vietnamese food was waiting for us back on the boat. It was a delight for the taste buds and by the amount of food in front of us, they had either overestimated the number of guests or had some very greedy ones in the past. Spring rolls, vegetables, fish, squid and, of course, mountains of steamed white rice were soon put away!
Half an hour of cruising later and we stopped at our swimming spot. Trish still felt too full of lunch and stayed on the sun deck but Russ took the plunge jumping into the warm sea. The biggest shame here is the amount of jetsom and flotsam in the water. Most of it is polystyrene and you occasionally see what looks like an ice berg drift by, or a bizarre white oil slick on the surface.
As our cruise continued amongst the
karsts, the storm clouds thickened. We all retreated from the sun deck and before long everyone was snoozing! The storm got worse and the rain was torrential as we were asked to disembark at Monkey Island. Again a guide would have been good as we had no idea what was going on. We joined the other Western tourists cowering under the shelter, all looking totally bemused and wondering why this part of the excursion hadn't simply been abandoned. The Vietnamese tourists just carried on enjoying the sea and the sand as usual!
Just as everyone was getting a little fed up there was a commotion. Word of the arrival if the boats had reached the island's monkey population. It was like an invasion and those who didn't hold on tightly to their snacks soon had them snapped away. It seems the monkeys have developed a taste for Oreos and M&Ms! Oh, and they also enjoy wrecking sandcastles.
After an hour we were "rescued" by our boat. A short 30 minutes later and we were being squeezed back into a minibus. What an adventure!
And so our time on this tropical island is over. Now we have a
bus-boat-bus-taxi journey ahead of us. That will get us to the train station where an overnight sleeper will take us to Hue.
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