I started writing this on the night bus to our next stop..more on that later.
So, on checking out of our hotel in Hanoi, the owner asked us where we were off to next. We replied that we were off to Cat Ba Island. (Aside: I should mention here that he badgered us daily about taking a tour to Halong bay. We asked him about the price once and he didn’t seem to want to tell us. All he did was tell us about the different classes of accommodation on the sleeping ships. After that and how pushy he was we just told him I had a bad cough, which wasn’t a lie as it was bad for the first week, so would have to see. After that we decided to stay in Cat Ba town near the less busy La Han Bay). I asked could he organise a taxi for us. He replied that there was a bus going soon that could bring us the whole way to Cat Ba town for $15 each. The bus we were going to get from the station was $12 and a taxi maybe $2. We figured it would save us some hassle so went with that.
We waited for the 10 am minibus, that drove passed at 10.15 am but not before I guy popped out and shouted into our lobby, turns and runs off. Turns out we have to wait for a taxi. About 5 mins later a motorbike pulls up and a backpacker gets off and comes in. Then we are told our lift was here-pointing at the motorbike (instant confusion), turns out there was a taxi in front of it and the three of us piled in.
Our new travelling companion was Matt, a Canadian, who was on a 4 month trip after uni. We gleaned some interesting bits from him, travel tips and what not. The three of us got rushed through the busy streets of Hanoi and came to an abrupt stop at the bus centre office. We got back out and our “guide” beckoned us to follow him as he rushed off with the three of us scurrying behind him and on to a very modern almost luxury coach with free wifi! Within 15 mins we were on our way. The guide from this point until we reached Cat Ba town was from the Pineapple hotel, so this transfer was known as the “Pineapple Express”, the entire journey was estimated to be 4-5 hours depending on traffic. So we set off……..at a crawl…. The traffic wasn’t too bad but they had a ton of local pickups to do before we got on the open road. Then the traffic moved at a snail’s pace for over an hour! The air conditioning also attacked the tail end of my cough so I ended up having a few coughing fits which I was trying to keep under control with water.
After 3 hrs we arrived in Haiphong Port. Or so we thought. It was in fact the outskirts of the city but next to some sort of freight transfer area. At this point I had drank over a litre of water and was desperate for the toilet! We were then all transferred onto a minibus, which was supposed to be 25 min journey. After 40 mins of driving down dusty highway and through wasteland with man made water pools at the sides of the road (I didn’t really appreciate all this due to needing the toilet and the journey lasted what felt like an eternity) finally we arrived at the port- for Irish folks think smaller than Kilmore Quay, UK folks- West Kirby. Thankfully they had a toilet and thanks to the English girls who were very vocal about the need to use the facilities, I abandoned poor Gav with all my bags and ran off with the others. Quick pee stop and then grabbed the bags and headed for the boat. Did I mention it was a speedboat?? Well it was! 30 mins zipping across from Ben Binh Port (I think) to Cat Vieng Port. After this it was a quick transfer to another coach and a 30 minute ride to Cat Ba town. This was where the guide came into his own, cracking jokes and telling us about the island followed by a sales pitch for the Pineapple Hotel. Most people seem to rock up to the island and try find a bed once there. We had planned ahead and booked in at the Duc Tuan Hotel on the main seafront.
So we arrived in Cat Ba town (which Gav described immediately as being like Weymouth crossed with a classy Blackpool) and quickly found our hotel (2 mins from the Pineapple Hotel) and in comparison to the last place it was a palace. It’s a family run hotel and the owner was really helpful (but not pushy) and the room was so clean. It was also a twin room and that meant twin double beds. Now when you are in a couple and get offered twin double beds what do you do? Well have one each! Best night’s sleep since arriving in Vietnam!
On arriving we had a quick shower and then headed out to explore. We walked the length of the seafront and up the hill and found a little bar to watch the sunset. Once it was suitably dark we headed back into town. We ended up in the Green Bamboo Forest for some seafood. I had fried squid with pineapple and Gav had fried squid and shrimp with garlic. We also had a lovely dining companion (see below), price for the meal was quite expensive at ~$15.
On our first full day we managed to drag ourselves out of our comfortable, so, so comfortable beds and down for breakfast. We had quite a choice. I opted for the pancake with mango and honey and Gav went for bread and cheese (French bread with Dairylea) and a Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk each. I had a bit of a sugar coma after the pancake though it was very nice.
After that we asked the manager could we hire a moped as they were advertised for $4 on a little sign outside. He called his friend and 10 mins later we were on the road to the petrol station (the long way round!), the guy took the shortcut met us to escort us to the petrol station. 50K (about $2) lighter and full of petrol we were off…behind the guy while he showed us how to get out of town. 5 mins later we had lost our escort and were on the open road. Ahh freedom!
It was great, considering I am terrified of motorbikes we did quite well, zipping through towns and villages, avoiding chicken, and dogs making half-hearted suicidal attempts to cross the road. Once we got closer to the National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) there was an audible racket of cicadas over the engine. When you stopped it was almost deafening!
After 30 mins or so of driving we arrived at the National Park, paid the parking and entry fee and then went off hiking. I should point out it was now about midday and we met loads of people on their way out. Hiking at this time has its benefits, there is no one around you so you have the jungle to yourself, but there is a reason you have it to yourself it’s bloody roasting! We headed in surrounded by butterflies, up past some stalls and into the forest.
It was full of more butterflies, lizards, tiny frogs and we managed to spot some monkeys, 2 of them but didn’t get the camera out in time for a photo. It looked black and yellow but not sure it was one of the 65 langur’s left (http://www.catbalangur.org/langur.htm). So we hiked and hiked up into the canopy, the sweat literaly pouring off us- it was horrible and exhausting (and I felt a little bit sick!) but worth it when we came through the canopy to this view, and an amazingly cool breeze:
We continued up to a pagoda and on to the highest point on Ngu Lam Peak, stopped for a few mins and then headed on to a peak further up and the end of the line. then back down again.
On our way back, with a little detour to look at some rescued monkeys and some of the rare deer (not sure if these are the barking ones though).We stopped for a can of coke and a bottle of water. We got a big bottle of water and on closer inspection it looked like it had been refilled. I passed it to Gav to check who went and opened it. We decided not to risk drinking it and luckily we had enough water to keep us going, we lost only 10K or 30p.
So after that we hopped back on the moped and zipped back down the road towards the hospital cave. We almost missed it actually, as it is not really well signposted- the sign is right at it. So we parked up in the café and promised to get a drink after, bought our tickets and headed up the steps and the bamboo ladder to the cave. It’s a strange place, a huge big tunnel style cave with a multi-level building in it entirely made out of concrete. There were guys at the entrance making furniture which I guess would show what goes on in each room, as there used to be a cinema and operating theatre and a swimming pool in it.
After we had completed our visit we grabbed a quick drink (Gav had a coffee and I had a green tea). The owner came over and asked could he sit down to talk to us to practice his English. He attempted to teach us some Vietnamese (I love you- it brought in gender differences and everything- very complicated for a first lesson!). We learned that he used to be a farmer, growing rice and peanuts but he now has a café but still seemed to own loads of land. The café had this cool vine growing over it that formed a sea of roots over a trellis which he would trim to keep them off customers. When you trim them the new roots come out pink. It looks really cool especially when the wind blows through them. I should have taken a video but sadly I didn’t.
So after about 45 mins we said our goodbyes and headed on back towards town. We arrived about 3. It was far too early and we had half a tank of petrol so we drove around, found all three beaches, went to the next small harbour (gateway for Le Han Bay), drove from one side of Cat Ba town to the other (that took 5 mins) then went all the back streets and found the road up to the Cannon Fort.
We were planning on walking it at some stage but wanted to see what else was up there. So on we went and around the corner, out of the view of the road, we were confronted with a guard and a barrier. Turns out you have to pay! What for we wondered as we thought it was just a viewing point, turns out it was so much more. It was a centre of defense for north Vietnam airspace during the war. Full of bunkers, tunnels and some pretty impressive cannons. It was very steep though, I wouldn’t have wanted to walk it, even the moped struggled and I had to jump off at one point so Gav could get it up part of the hill.
Once we’d had a good wander and enjoyed the view, we were back on the moped and into town, drove up and down the strip once more and back to our hotel. The guy who’s bike it was picked it up like 3 minutes later. We reckon he was watching us drive up and down like loons.
So now back at the hotel, we checked our emails and Ronan had arrived at Cat Ba town! We emailed him back and 2 seconds later he rocked up and we went for dinner and beers. Was pretty good.
The next day we wanted to have a cheap day so we went for a walk to the beach. It was a bit of a goldilocks moment as the first beach was too busy and had jellyfish on it, then a long walk to beach number 2, that was too sandy and the third one was just right. We chilled out there for about 2 hrs and then walked back. Nothing exciting to report there. Met up with Ronan again for dinner (went to the sample place as the night before, 24h Restaurant), had a few drinks and then went back home to prepare for day 3 in Cat Ba – seeing the famous islands.
Remember when we got hounded in Hanoi by people wanting us to do a tour? Was going to be about $65 for one night and 2 days in Halong Bay? We are so, so glad we didn’t go on one. Ronan was staying at the Cat Ba guesthouse and the owner there was running his own tours for $15 each, it was $9 cheaper than the other tours and all it didn’t have in it was lunch. So at 10.15 we showed up at Ronan’s guesthouse and the 3 of us and a german girl called Inke piled in to a taxi to be driven to the port we had found the previous day.
Now when we rocked up there was a big Junk boat in with people getting off and for one split second we thought that was us. Then our little motorised fishing boat pulled up. We got on along with the guesthouse owner and his mother (? not sure there) and headed off into the bay. Passing all the little house boats and small fisheries and their guard dogs- yes you read right they have dogs, normally two on a space smaller than a basketball court.
Our first stop was Monkey Island, the boat got beached so Gav had to flex his muscles to push it off the beach. The monkeys were waiting for us plus our guide had cucumbers… Oh and a note on the weather it looks overcast which it was but it was quite sunny for half the day. Temperature was high 20s (oC).
Next stop was to a local fish farm- the dogs were adorable. They had two adults, two kids, 2 dogs living here and 3 sides of the dwelling have netted fish enclosures and the 4th room to moor a boat and for the kayaks. I asked what types the fish were and was told “just fish”.
So after some more cruising, we went swimming. I had no intention of going but when I jumped off the boat, I had underestimated the strength of the current and the coral beach got pulled from under me so I landed on my ass. So I went swimming- and spent the next 4 hours trying to dry my clothes! Luckily after this we went kayaking through caves sand had my Rash vest with me (thanks Kelan).
Unfortunately we didn’t bring the camera but it was a great hour and a half paddling about and looking at coral and avoiding the massive groups of tourists from Halong Bay tours.
Once complete and back on our boat we headed off into the sunset for home. On our way we went briefly into the shipping channel and rescued some poor fisherman who had rowed out too far and couldnt get back into the bay due to the currents. We towed him back in to the bay and our guide gave him some bread rolls they had as he hadn’t caught anything all day.
The next day, we awoke to a gloriously sunny day, alas we had already arranged to head to our next stop we we had one last wander, grabbed some supplies for our trip from the nearby bakery, grabbed some juice and had a wander around the market before getting on the bus back to the boat.
(p.s.- feel free to comment :))