Cat Ba Island

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November 2nd 2011
Published: January 26th 2014
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Jo woke me up at 0500 to catch the sunrise. I’d slept pretty well with only the hum of the generator at the stern breaking the silence of the bay.

The day broke with the misty haze that we’d become accustomed to since arriving in Hanoi – not a full on fog but just enough to take most of the colour out of the layers of limestone islands in the distance. Quite mystical.

Jo went and woke Josh (the kiwi) up as requested and he appeared on deck blurry eyed, almost immediately regretting his decision to ask for a wake up call.

Our boat was at anchor and slowly drifting around in circles so we followed the sunrise around the boat. About an hour or so later the sun peaked over the top of one of the rocks, the mist allowing us to look right into it without the brightness burning our eyes or cameral lenses out too much.

Slowly, the rest of the boat woke up and came up on deck. Breakfast was pretty basic -fried eggs with bread, muffins and small croissants.

We pulled anchor and took an hour or so to get to the dock at Cat Ba Island where our captain nudged us into an impossible small gap to allow us to disembark. We took the obligatory group photos and asked Tuan (our drunk mate) to sit in on the photo session. Dinner and impromptu entertainment – great value.

After a small disagreement with yet another hawker (I kept my cool as best as possible) we boarded a bus bound for Thien Long Cave – apparently a project that Kangaroo Cafe helped fund. The highlight was not the cave itself but the small boat trip we took to get there, through a very rural area with ponds and fishermen going about their lives. It was the first opportunity we’d had so far to get away from the tourists and into the postcard Vietnam that I’d been searching for.

It was a 40 minute bus ride back to Cat Ba Town and we arrived at the Green Mango Cafe for a lunch fit for kings. The opener was the highlight – papaya salad followed by sweet and sour fish, mixed seafood basket, spicy chicken and (just for the westerners) tuna sandwiches and chips.

Our hotel Ngoc Lan Anh was located a five minute walk away up a side street. On the way we passed a restaurant with tanks outside it. Giant prawns, crabs, clams and a variety of fish swam around awaiting their fate… the prawns took my eye and I suspected they had not long to live.

I took a quick shower in the room before dozing off almost immediately. In an ever increasing trend, Jo woke me once again at 1445 as we were to catch a bus then boat to Monkey Island.

From afar, Monkey Island stood out. It was the only one we’d seen that had a sandy beach and a thatched roof hut sat ready and waiting for the next boat load of tourists. I suspect it was all man made but in any case it was picture perfect.

Once on dry land we were taken to one end of the beach to some rocks where a group of monkeys (Khi Mat Do) played around. With camera in hand I was in my happy place and snapped away getting a couple of beauties that may well end up on the wall at home.

Most of the group went for a swim but I walked back to the hut where we caught a monkey sneaking it’s way into a rubbish bin – much to the displeasure of the staff. It was shooed away but not before a last second attempt to push the entire bin over, having successfully negotiated the lid removal.

There are moments in every trip where I’m embarrassed to be a tourist. A Russian (?) couple were taunting the monkeys, the pot bellied bloke in particular was getting great pleasure out of stepping in as close as he could then waiting for the monkey to react. After a few minutes my temper reached boiling point and I gave the international signal for self pleasuring – it seemed to get his attention. I raised my arms and shoulders in the international sing for “What the fuck do you think you’re doing” and our idiot left rather quickly. Asshole.

We were treated to more monkey play before reboarding our boat when a mother with her baby clinging to her fended off an aggressor.

Our trip back to the wharf detoured off into a huge fishing village. All the houses were on the water. Kids and dogs played amongst the nets as parents did whatever it is parents who live all their lives on the water do. Again, this real view – not put on for the tourists – is what I’ve been looking for in Vietnam. Just before berthing we saw tiny dinghys with kids in them – school had just come out and they were heading back to their homes – for a dinner containing fish I imagine.

We met the group downstairs at 1800 and headed down to the waterside main road. Cat Ba Town is a hard place to describe… imagine a tourist seaside town but slightly dilapidated and lacking tourists. Whilst the white faces in the cafes well out numbered the locals it felt like a town ready to burst out into something good but lacking the numbers to do so.

We ended up at “The Good Bar” (It wasn’t) for a few Bia Ha Noi’s (D22,000) before eating.

Jo and I went back up our sidestreet to the Ha Vy Restaurant to reinspect the currently living, but soon to be tucker seafood. The looks on the faces of our trip mates suggested they may have been looking for a slightly less currently living meal so they headed back to the Bamboo Cafe that our guide Quan had recommended. Jo picked out her crab – 500gms at D400,000 a kilo and the waiter grabbed me 7 prawns – 600gms at D350,000. As we were about to sit down, Josh showed up with my camera – I had left it at The Good Bar and (with some incredible luck on my behalf and goodwill on our waitresses behalf) it had been kept aside and returned to Chris when they walked past the bar on the way to Bamboo Cafe. I believe the chances of getting anything returned in Vietnam are virtually zero and I’m probably amongst the few ever have their gear returned. If the rest of the group had eaten with us I’d be cameraless as I type this.

The food was less than 5 minutes from tank to plate – not sauced, not spiced, just dropped in a pot and cooked – the way nature intended. The prawns were without doubt the best I have ever eaten. It’s impossible to get fresher. The D450,000 (NZ$30) was significantly higher than we’d been paying but was worth every cent.

We caught up with the group again at Bamboo Cafe where they’d enjoyed a good feed and a few Saigon Beers. Whilst there a local sparked up a bamboo bong with pipe tobacco in it (Thuoc Lao). Josh, Chris and I took a drag each. It was probably the biggest tobacco hit I’ve ever taken. Strong and tasty. We all coughed a little bit then sat back for the light buzz. Smokers who have gone without for any more than a few days will know what I mean by hit. Not drug type thing but a pleasant dizzyness. Julian (the Englishman) had a bloke come up at one point who started to massage his shoulders. Whilst I’m sure it as a pretty good massage, he quite correctly pulled away just before the point when it may have been proper to pay – smart bloke.

We hit the sack about 2130 and I tried to watch the Arsenal game but dozed off to the combined dulcet tones of vietnamese football commentary, the doof doof of a nearby nightclub and the woof woof of the local stray dog community.

A quick note about the group…

With only eight of us on our tour we really couldn’t have asked for better travelling partners. The conversation has been ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous and there have been plenty of laughs. We’ve swapped some great travel info and stories and have got on pretty well for what was a bunch of quiet strangers a few day ago. The last few days have been an absolute pleasure and Kangaroo Cafe have done a bloody good job… I’d recommend them any time.


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