Cat Ba Island and Vietnam Finale

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June 20th 2016
Published: June 29th 2016
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I woke at 6 and a few minutes later there was a power cut. Our air conditioner died and there was no light in our windowless room.

We planned to leave for the train at 9 am so fortunately had plenty of time to pack and have breakfast in the candle and torchlight.

Breakfast was already laid out in the restaurant as a simple buffet.

The umbrellas we had been carrying for weeks were made use of for the first time on the way to the train station . It was only a 20 minute walk and that short distance made carrying them worth the weight. It felt so good for us to be self reliant. If we would have had to catch a taxi who knows how long we would have waited and the stress of running short of time involved.

The train was only 70,000 dong, free WiFi and padded seats. A very pleasant journey and the young girl across from us was happy to practice a little English for a while.

Whilst in Hanoi we had been deliberating on whether to go to Ha Long Bay as a tour based out of Hanoi or whether to base ourselves on Cat Ba Island to see the bay. We asked recommendations from many people and had decided on this option mainly due to the amount of time we had left before our month visa ran out. Other options were to back track and see Ninh Binh and Dong Hoi which we had missed because we hadn't wanted to get off the night bus from the south at a ridiculous time of night. The thought of back tracking wasn't appealing and our energy was running out so Cat Ba Island won the decision. We, especially felt fortunate to have found accommodation at such a good price for a weekend. I had been told that another plus with seeing the bay from Cat Ba Island was that we would get to see a more beautiful area of the bay that was less crowded than the area that we would have seen if we had done a tour out of Hanoi and Ha Long. The other advantages was the price and having the flexibility of exactly what we wanted to see and do rather than be forced into activities and places that the tours scheduled. I didn't really fancy a 2 night tour that gave me spring roll making or vegetable carving demonstrations and then spent day 2 not cruising the bay but on Cat Ba Island any way.

We arrived in Hai Phong at midday and walked straight passed all the people offering us taxis. 15 minutes later we got to the ferry terminal to Cat Ba and had just missed the last slow ferry for the day, which left at 12. This would have been only 70,000 dong and would have probably been quite scenic.

We walked the length of the terminal and assessed all the options. Each was run privately so none gave information about the others. We decided on the ferry bus option which cost 150,000 dong and 20,000 more on Fri, Sat, Sun.

I met some other Australians on board. When we arrived on the island there were many more westerners leaving but only a handful that had arrived. That may have been because the weekend was ahead. Everyone is warned to avoid Cat Ba on weekends because the crowds of Vietnamese tourists that book out the hotels.

The bus was a local bus with people hopping off most of the way. Once we got to Cat Ba town there were very few remaining on the initially full bus.

We didn't spend long in town before finding our hotel. The Cat Ba Central Hotel 2 and it exceeded our expectations. Not only had we been lucky enough to find cheap accommodation over the whole weekend but it was newly built fresh and lovely. We stayed in a dorm room because it was all we could get for the whole weekend, since we had booked late but it was the nicest dorm we had ever stayed in. Dorms must have evolved since we last used them decades ago. Each bed was a little cubicle, totally private with a curtain, lamp and power point for charging phones. A little like a capsule hotel would be but without a private TV. We met some French Canadian girls in our room and later a Dutch couple.

Our next mission was to find a boat trip to see Lan Ha and Halong Bays for the next day. Today was Thursday, we had booked our hotel through to Sunday morning, at this stage. We got side tracked from our mission when we noticed people walking into town along the roads in bathing suits with sandy feet so we followed their trail and discovered Cat Ba' s 3 little bays for swimming. They were absolutely packed with Vietnamese people. We later found out that the Vietnamese don't go to the beach early in the day. This would mean that we could go to the beach in the morning until mid-afternoon and virtually have it all to ourselves, or share it only with other Western tourists. At about 3 pm it starts getting flooded with Vietnamese. This was a very good tip to know about, especially on busy weekends. We also discovered that in was currently school holidays in Vietnam, so there really wasn't much of a light season on Cat Ba Island at the moment. Once we got to know this we shared this information with other Westerners that we met who had also been overwhelmed by the crowds on the otherwise beautiful beaches.

On our way back from "Beach 3" we found a beautifully situated Bungalow style backpackers accommodation. This ended up being Tomas favorite place to have a beer and it was so easy to talk to and meet people here. I managed to quiz a few people on the boat trip they had done or were planning to do. I wanted to make sure we weren't stuck on a boat trip without any other western tourists. One of my biggest pleasures in travelling was the other travelers that I met and if I couldn't speak to them this really defeated the purpose.

We returned to our hotel and booked the trip our hotel organized. He promised that there were English speaking guides and mainly Westerners.

Six people from our room were going on the same trip and this included us. We were collected by bus from our hotel after breakfast and then collected a few more people, mainly Vietnamese. They were large families that it took them ages to organize themselves for even the simplest task of getting into the bus. As well as being so disorganized they were also extremely loud. It was over powering and took over every situation. There may have been fewer of them but they were oblivious to anyone else but their own group. This was an observation and not meant to be offensive.

We were driven to another bay to catch our boat and all squashed into the indoor area. It felt overwhelming. There were 50 people on our boat- full capacity. Luckilly once we were all on the boat the upstairs deck was opened and all the western tourists escaped upstairs. The Vietnamese with their large families and noise mainly stayed downstairs. We met some great people, 6 of whom were independent motor cycle travelers. We hadn't met any others until now. So cool to meet such adventurous people and they had great stories to tell.

The water was calm and glassy flat and there was no wind with a light cloud cover. It was quite perfect as were wouldn't get too sun burned on the deck.

We cruised slowly past spectacular scenery. Sharp dramatic rock karsts jutting out of the water. Such a shame about the amount of rubbish in the water though and no Vietnamese seem to be bothered by it. It upset me enormously the extent that this country abused its natural resources and had no conscience about it.

One might notice that at this stage of our travels, our fourth week in Vietnam that I was starting to see more negative. At first my photos would look past the rubbish and the things that I didn't like but now they were starting to affect me and wear on me.

Our first stop was a 1 hour kayak through caves and natural rock bridges. Every cave was littered with trash. Tomas spotted some monkeys in the bushes. I only saw the rustling of the branches.

Straight after the kayaking we were served lunch. There was a great variety of Vegetarian food as well as a plate of fish. No one was left hungry and the hungry motorcyclist at our table pollished off everything left on everyone else's table as well.

Next we slowly cruised further through the bay. It was really very pleasant and spectacular. Some people were dozing off on the deck after the meal so a swimming stop was appropriate. The boat anchored in a spot where 3 beaches were accessible and we jumped off the deck into the warm water and swam to the sandy bays. There were stinger jelly fish in the water which we had to look out for and the tour guides stood on deck and helped point them out.

Throughout the day we kept meeting up with other similar boats. Most followed the same itinerary. We got to know an Indian guy travelling with his American friend. They were also motorcycle touring. The Indian had convinced his American friend to do it but their experiences of riding on busy streets came from different extremes. The Indian was very confident and the American very nervoud. Their cruise boat had hardly anyone on it as they had paid US$5 more for the same thing, which made it less popular but also less crowded. This would be a good tip to look out for if any one wanted a more private boat at a very small cost.

The French Canadian girls from our room had lost their Go Pro camera in the water which was 11 m deep. One was crying at the thought of all the memories she had lost and they were only a few days off from the end of a 4 month adventure. They made a big fuss because one of the guides had playfully pushed them off the deck and then no one had owned up to it. The story had a happy ending as someone later was sent to search for the camera and it was found. It had then been implied that they were to pay 5 million dong for the search but they managed to get out of that. Although young and pretty they were good at standing up for themselves. This is a strength that you have to learn when travelling independently in countries that try to take advantage of tourists. A good skill to have early in life. I was impressed.

The rest of the day was again spent slowly cruising. Ending with a stop on Monkey Island which was crowded and noisy and we only saw 2 monkeys sitting on top of the toilet block. There was a hot, sweaty and dangerous walk to the top of a lookout. It involved climbing over jagged sharp boulders to a steep and unbalanced lookout. I opted out only a few metres from the top and went swimming instead. We met the Indian and American again in the cafe and they asked what there was to do on the Monkey island. We told them about the walk up the cliff. None of the tour guides from the boats were terribly helpful with information. They just stopped the boat somewhere, didn't give you any direction and let you fend for yourselves. Tourists would then talk amongst themselves and then share information. If you didn't talk to others you would lose out.

Once back in Cat Ba we showered and then went to the beautiful Bungalow Backpackers for a drink and then to Buddha Belly for dinner. Buddha Belly had been recommended by travelers on our boat trip. This ended up being my favorite restaurant in Vietnam up to that point. It was a friendly vegan place that was cheap with very good varied food. For 30,000 dong you got a plateful of whatever had been cooked for the day as well as a green, leafy ginger soup. We ended up seeing most people from our boat tour there, as well as meeting a few new people.

We extended our stay in Cat Ba Island from 3 to 5 nights and our Hanoi Hotel was easy to change.

On our third day we had a slow start. Once I opened my email account there were about 6 emails that had to be dealt with in the real world. The day of the disappointing emails, I call this. One was the second of the two house sits that we had lined up in Sydney had been cancelled. We had already bought a flight ticket around the dates for this so were now left with tickets we might not be able to use and have to fork out for more. After real life was absorbed and dealt with we hung out at the beach and discovered a beautiful coastal track that wound between beaches 1 and 3 and then sat at the backpacker bar with the beautiful views until dinner time.

Day 4 we rented a scooter and went to the National Park where we scaled a peak with amazing views. Apart from this the National Park didn't seem to have much else to offer. I have no idea why the Vietnamese pay the entry fee. It seemed to be only the western tourists who climbed the peak while the Vietnamese wandered around the ugly, littered, weedy flats with nothing to look at except
Cat Ba BeachCat Ba BeachCat Ba Beach

Before the crowds arrived
caged deer and 2 monkeys in another dirty cage full of plastic bottles.

The evening was our best yet. We used the motorbike to scoot around town until all our petrol had gone. We stopped at the dock to watch all the day trip boats come in from the bay at 5 pm. It had been a much rougher and windier day than the day that we had gone on our day trip. People were coming off the boats and vomiting on the side of the road. I hadn't even thought that the water could have been rough enough for that to happen but I realized how lucky we had been with our weather. As well as the boat port we scooted around the beaches and lake and again to a beach late in the evening. Everyone had left the beach and we sat on a swing chair luxuriously enjoyed the breeze and moonlight.

A great discovery on the lake was a newly opened restaurant Buddha Garden, owned by the Buddha Cafe people. A German guy was sitting there and told us all about it. If it wasn't for him we wouldn't have got much information. The owners spoke little English but were extremely welcoming, kind, attentive, generous and happy to serve Westerners great vegan food. The German guy had spent 20 days in Cat Ba Town and practically lived at this restaurant.

Our last day in Cat Ba was again spent at the beach until just after 3 pm when it got too busy. We went back to Buddha Garden for dinner where we met and ate with the German guy again.

That evening we decided to get up for the 5 am slow ferry to Hai Phong the next morning. That turned out to be a waste of time because it didn't turn up where we had been told to wait. We went back to the hotel for breakfast, caught the 7 am bus boat combination and walked to the train station. This also turned out to be the wrong move as we just missed the 9 am train to Hanoi and the other 2 scheduled trains that were listed on the internet no longer existed. The next one was at 3 pm!

It was too hot and we were too tired to walk back to the bus station, which was back where the ferry had landed so we just sat under the fans in the waiting room of the train station and used the free internet from 9.30 until 3 pm when the train finally came. We were disappointed as we could have bought a boat bus package all the way from Cat Ba Island to Hanoi that would have cost the same but we had enjoyed the train ride so much on the way from Hanoi we hadn't thought that there would have been a problem doing it again. Nothing on the internet had given us the correct information regarding train times or advice.

It felt very nice to get back to our hotel in Hanoi with our own TV, double bed, free tea, coffee and water in the restaurant and luxurious shower.

For our last night in Hanoi we decided that we would stay by the airport, so that we wouldn't have to stress getting to our 9 am flight.

On our last day in the city we both wanted to spend our left over dong, so it was the only day we really spent shopping during the whole 4 weeks. I bought a North Face down jacket for the equivalent of about A$60 and subsequently had to throw away my fleece top that I had been travelling with until then to compensate for the extra weight. Tomas had less remaining dong so bought himself a Vietnamese coffee filter.

The local bus to the airport was cheap, relaxed and easy and the hotel was only a 10 minute walk from the International terminal and cost only A$14 for a lovely double room. The owners were friendly and helpful. We bought a take away Pho Soup for dinner. The lady at reception wrote a note in Vietnamese for us to give the Pho man, so he understood that we wanted take away. She supplied us with a tray and bowls and let us eat it in the empty hotel restaurant. I am certain we were the only people staying in their hotel. It was nice to spend our last night in Vietnam comfortable and relaxed but even nicer to have the next day relaxing in transit in Kuala Lumpur Airport. There I had to order a genuine Malaysian laksa while I had the opportunity.

When we were in New Zealand and had just booked the one way ticket to Ho Chi Minh City I had been quite nervous about what lay ahead.

In our twenties and early thirties we were both independently and separately backpacking through Asia. Tomas had come from Sweden and myself from Australia. We didn't know each other then.

We had traveled very simply, met so many other people who were doing the same on a shoe string budget and had amazing times. Months of socializing and partying and making friends and connections that lasted many years.

We needed energy to travel this way. It was essential to be outgoing, or learn to be in order to not be lonely and to make the most of the experience.

I wasn't sure that I had the energy for this any more and if I didn't, would the trip be boring and unadventurous?

From my experience travelling Asia required energy and tolerance. This is what made me nervous.

I resolved that we could take it much easier this time. We would stay in nicer hotels and not move so much. This made the thought of initiating travel here some what easier but after a while something inside me found this boring and unadventurous and I wanted to push my limits a little further.

We didn't plan too much in advance both knowing that the people we would meet would influence what we planned to do and see. By the time 2 weeks had passed and had spoken to enough adventurous people about their journeys it began to feel easier to take a few more risks. The trip started to become more of an adventure when this happened. From a personal perspective travel becomes a way of evolving and growing and this is multiplied when we get out of our comfort zone a little.

There has also been conflict for me in this experience though. The more adventurous I got the more of Vietnam that I saw that I did't like. Vietnam can easily look great from the window of a luxurious, pristine hotel room that costs a small percentage of what it would in the West and being served the same caliber of food. Some of my experiences made me feel disappointed with humanity. In a poor country people generally only have the ability to manage to care about their own well being and less about their action's consequences on others, the environment and other creatures on this planet. Gradually, the more I saw the sadder I got. I experienced a country so heavily populated with humans that chaos, pollution and selfishness became overwhelming. If a government can make people feel safe and secure then communities have the ability to look after more than just themselves. Here it is more a matter of survival so they are not able to do this. This is not a criticism, it is simply my observation.

I also had a resounding sense of guilt that I was in my shoes and able to be critical as I could have been easily been born as another creature or as part of a different culture and seen things quite differently. My perspective of what I saw was influenced by my experiences in life, my sensitivity for all living creatures and what I have learnt so far in this life.

What I loved about our travels was the inspiration from the adventurous travelers that we met.

As we grow we become more and more fearsome of breaking the mold of what is expected from us in life. We are put in boxes by governments and society so that we are easier to manage and can keep wheels turning for their economic machines. We live lives for governments and societies rather than fulfilling our own spirits, yet many of us have the means to let our hearts guide us, rather than governments. We live in a country very different to Vietnam and we have so many opportunities that we can grab hold of, unlike the people here. I love to meet people who break away from convention and let their dreams take hold of their lives. These are the people that inspire me and I meet so many more of these people whilst taking the road less traveled.

The more adventurous people I meet the more I think of to add to my bucket list. I become more eager to do them rather than dream about them. I start to wish that I had more years and energy up my sleeve but I know that what I have now has been a gift.

I definitely grew and learnt things about myself during this trip and we also learnt things about each other. The more Tomas and I experience together the closer we become. I can still say that we made it though this with relatively little conflict.

Before meeting each other Tomas and I had fairly similar, yet different, experiences travelling South East Asia separately. I know from my point of view, back in those days I had thought how great it would have been to do with someone else, as a couple. Twenty years later we are both doing this, as a couple. Our similar, independent experiences shaped us and brought us together and now we shape ourselves even more as we hold each others hands.

The other thing that is always said about travelling is that it always makes you appreciate coming home even more.

Sydney is not my home, although it is home for the next few weeks. I will feel safe here. That is what home is! Somewhere that we feel safe and not have to try too hard. It will also be a new adventure so it feels perfect for now.

I felt exhilarated when we arrived at Sydney Airport, even though it was raining. It had been a year since we had last been in Australia and I was so happy and relaxed to be back again. The winter air was fresh and crisp and it felt clean, uncrowded and familiar.

Believe it or not, as great as Vietnamese food is said to be, the noodles we had for lunch in Sydney from a lunch cafe in Mascot felt like one of the best meals we had had in a long time.

I think the message to myself is that at my stage of life a two week adventure holiday in a single country is exciting. A four week adventure holiday is exhausting. As difficult as it felt at times it still helped to shape us, grow and learn and that certainly made it invaluable.


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