Cat Ba Island (mostly)

The next morning, we took a very efficiently run bus-bus-boat-bus trip to Cat Ba island in Ha Long Bay with the Hoang Long bus company. We bought some horrid greasy doughnuts for the journey and when we found we couldn’t stomach them, tried to satisfy our hunger by having a gwadzerr (sunflower seed) eating competition. You should try it. You count out an agreed number of seeds, then race each other to de-shell and eat them as quickly as possible. It is quite stressful, possibly not a sport for those with a weak heart. I don’t like to brag, but in case you were wondering, I won.

On the subject of games invented whilst travelling, I will here take the time to introduce the ‘onny offy’ game. This game is best played in a subway carriage, and would be perfectly suited to anyone bored by their London commute on the tube. You could play it alone, but a sense of competition heightens the excitement. Select a door on which to focus your attention. At a point between stations, you must either say or hold up fingers to indicate how many people you think will board and how many will exit at the next station. For instance, 2,1 would stake your bet as two people boarding and one getting off at your chosen door. Any participants must stake their bets on the same door, which should not be altered for the duration of the journey. The same bet cannot be placed twice in the same round, although one of the numbers is allowed to be the same. All bets must be placed prior to the announcement of the next station. If someone places a bet you were planning to place, you must alter your bet, as the earlier bet takes precedent. As you can see, there are pros and cons to staking your claim early and also by delaying until the last second, when rustling of passengers may give more clue as to their point of disembarkation. When you know a city and its stations well, it becomes all the more interesting and you may find yourself judging people by appearances. On arrival at the station, you count the number of people getting on and getting off. If you get it exactly right, you have a ‘turn up’ and score zero points. The person with the lowest score is the leader. If you stake a claim on 2,1 and the actual number is 3,1, your score would be 1 point, as your prediction deviates by 1 person from the actual number. If the actual number is 4,4, you would score 5 (4-2 plus 4-1). As you can see, the game also helps to hone your mental arithmetic. I do hope that in sharing this thrilling pastime, I can alleviate some of the drudgery of underground train travel.

Ha Long Bay is a stunningly beautiful stretch of coastline in the north of Vietnam, notable for its fascinating karst scenery, where craggy, forested islands jut out of the water and picturesque junk ships ferry visitors around the bay. We did not visit Ha Long itself, having forgone the classic but touristy vistas for the more laidback atmosphere of one of the larger islands. Ha Long Bay is a World Heritage site, and the Cat Ba island archipelago is a Biosphere Reserve, home to numerous endemic and rare species. As our final bus wove its way along the bumpy track that led to the main town of Cat Ba, we passed steep slopes of thick jungle, small clusters of houses peeping out of the greenery and close to the coast, farmers tending fields of bushy plants in knee-deep water, which we later learnt to be mangrove fish nurseries.

Our hotel room, a real bargain at £4.50 a night, commanded wonderful views of the harbour, where colourful little fishing boats manned by fishermen in conical hats bobbed in the water. Behind the boats, limestone outcrops carpeted in lush vegetation reared chaotically out of the sea. Eager to explore the reserve, we went in search of Asia Outdoors, a company that organises treks, climbing and kayaking trips. We signed up for two days’ worth of adventuring: one 6 hour trek and a full day of kayaking.

Not having a plan for the rest of the day, Luke somehow managed to persuade me onto a motorbike. There was very little traffic on the island, the weather was good and the man we hired from had new, automatic bikes and spoke good English. Neither of us had ridden a motorbike before and so he gave Luke a quick lesson. After a short ride around the block to get petrol, Luke was feeling confident enough to take me as a passenger. First of all, we took an uneventful ride to a small beach, where we had a quick dip in the sea, and then Luke drove us on a partial loop around the island. The coastal sections were especially beautiful and the roads were nice and quiet, which was good for my sense of self-preservation! I have to say I was very impressed with Luke’s biking skills, but loathe to try it myself – I just don’t trust myself, particularly on winding, hilly roads! We arrived back at the bike hire place just as it was getting dark. Having spent half a day on bikes we felt a little stiff, but the shop had thought of everything, and we were immediately offered shoulder and foot massages for an additional fee, which we gratefully accepted! It is quite rare for businesses here to specialise in just one thing – the more you can offer, the more customers you are likely to attract, so massage parlours, hairdressers and guesthouses often go hand in hand.

The next morning we woke later than planned, and had to rush to get ourselves ready for the kayaking trip. After a hurried breakfast at the café where Asia Outdoors had their home, we piled into a minivan alongside our companions for the day and were driven a short distance to another harbour, where we boarded a small wooden ferry. The cruise through the bay was spectacular; the karsts were swathed in morning mist and we passed settlements of boat people, whose homes consisted of wooden vessels painted in sky blue and minty green, linked by pathways of floating planks. The washing lines hung with clothes added a colourful splash of decoration and the dogs that guarded each home trotted along the planks watching us intently as we motored past, ready to bark and snarl if we were to come too close. It must be a strange life for a dog to be perched on small floating island like this. Four of our party were picked up by another boat to go climbing, leaving just us and an American called David, for the morning kayak trip.

Our guide for the day was a lovely young English man called Matty. He very much looked the part of the outdoor pursuits instructor, with his dreads and that particular kind of sunglow that comes from spending a long time out on the water. It always seems to me that those in this line of work are particularly lovely people, and Matty was no exception. We clambered into our bright yellow, double kayaks – I in front and Luke behind taking on the responsibility of steering. Matty led us around the karsts, into sheltered bays with quiet lagoons. As we entered them, we all felt the necessity of being silent, the only sound being the gentle splash of paddles and the whirr of insects in the trees. In one we were lucky enough to spot a Cat Ba langur, one of the rarest primates in the world. It was very far away, but it was still a very special moment! There are only 65 left and they are only found on Cat Ba. Apparently they can drink sea water, so their kidneys must be rather impressive! We paddled on, stopping a couple of times to explore secluded coves; one where there was a cave and another where there was a small wooden temple on the beach for the boat people. Every now and then we would see a black kite swooping majestically through the blues skies above.

We returned to the main boat and waited for the climbers to return to join us for lunch. Not wanting to pass up the opportunity, we filled the time by leaping off the boat into the sea for a pre-lunch swim. We were pretty shivery afterwards, but lunch made up for it! It was a fabulous spread and no doubt tasted all the better for the fresh air and exercise. Two of the climbers, a Danish couple, left us after the meal, but the Swiss couple stayed to kayak with us in the afternoon. We were relishing the peace and quiet and enjoying the gorgeous scenery, when we were rudely interrupted by a booze cruise party boat from Hanoi Backpackers, with loud music pumping away and scantily clad drunken young tourists gyrating on the decks. We managed to lose them and entered a final lagoon via a low tunnel. Matty told us it was good for swimming, and game as always where swimming is involved, Luke and I decided to take the plunge. Stupidly, we had changed out of our wet swimming things, so we had to contort and wriggle our way back into them whilst sat in the kayak. No one else swam, so we felt all the more conspicuous as everyone waited for us to perform this feat! We succeeded in changing, swimming and getting back into the kayak without capsizing, although I cannot say it was very glamorously done and I think the other kayakers probably had a rather unflattering view of my behind as I launched myself back on board! We paddled back to the ferry and as we were changing, the awful party boat went blaring past again. A half-naked man was stood on the roof thrusting his pelvis at us and whooping. I don’t really understand the mentality of going to a beautiful, peaceful place and ruining the atmosphere with pumping house music. It’s not so bad if it’s in a building as people can avoid that building, but to drive around and foist your music on other people at deafening volumes is inconsiderate. As Matty pointed out, the boat people have this every day – it must drive them mad! He told us that the tourists on the boat have paid for three days on a small island. It sounded like hell to me – trapped on a scrap of land where the main form of entertainment consists of drinking games. Matty said they sometimes have groups from the island – they are either drunk (and so not allowed to do the activities), hungover or simply desperate to escape!

As we motored back towards the harbour, the rosy glow of the late afternoon sun dappled the water with peachy reflections and the karsts, now dressed in varying shades of blue and purple, seemed to be easing themselves in for an evening dip. It was gloriously beautiful, still and calm; a perfect end to the day.

Back at the headquarters, we thanked Matty and gave him Luke’s body warmer. He was very pleased as he had come to Vietnam with no warm clothes and outdoor pursuits instructors don’t get paid very much! Luke was very pleased as his bag would be lighter. We were well aware that we were heading to warmer climates and were carrying an awful lot of clothing we wouldn’t need – I was carrying crampons for walking on ice for goodness sake! I couldn’t bear to throw them away though as it seemed like such a waste, so I decided to shoulder the weight until such a time as we found a willing recipient or got around to posting them home.

We had dinner with the other kayakers later that evening. David didn’t stay long, but we had a lovely chat with Christophe and Marika, the Swiss couple, and got to speak some French, which was fun. They were halfway through an 8 month trip and told us about their favourite places in South America – they said Bolivia was incredible. They had also been to the Galapagos Islands, a place that I would love to visit, but is notoriously expensive. They said it is worth it though and their stories of swimming with sea lions made us feel like it was a must do! Now we just need to figure out how to make it happen…

The next day was trekking day! Now that our arms had had a thorough workout, it was time for our legs. We were picked up by taxi and joined by two other trekkers, a German man, Marcel, and a Taiwanese girl, Erin, who were good friends. We were driven down winding country roads before stopping outside a house with a bamboo veranda, surrounded by plants. Our guide, Tuwon, came out with a big smile to welcome us. He has been running treks from his family home for several years, so knows the area really well.

A man was ploughing part of the field behind the house with a buffalo. Tuwon led us across the meadow and up a steep slope along a goat trail through the jungle. The karst landscape really made itself known, as the path we took was riddled with limestone escarpments, and for much of the trek we were clambering up jagged rock faces or picking our way carefully over a latticework of sharp spikes and deep holes. Physically it wasn’t particularly demanding – climbing is pretty easy with so many handholds – but mentally it was exhausting. If you were to let your attention slip, you could injure yourself very nastily on those rocks! As if to illustrate this, Tuwon showed us a place where he had fallen when a rock gave way; he gashed his wrist and knee and couldn’t work for eight months! Luckily the worst we got were a few scrapes and bruises and we all thoroughly enjoyed scrambling through the rugged terrain. As we moved amongst the rocks, we were reminded of their origins by the occasional fossil shell, and I was very excited to see petrified wood as evidence of ancient trees. Most of the time we were moving through thick jungle and the trees and vines were quite close around us, but now and again we would emerge onto an outcrop with views of the canopy below us. Many of the trees were embraced by lianas, some of which were long and thick enough to swing from like Tarzan! One banyan tree had numerous prop roots extending from it, which formed a bizarre cage-like structure at its base. It looked like something out of a folk tale, and I could imagine an angry tree spirit imprisoning a hapless human there.

After 4.5 hours of hiking, breakfast felt a very long time ago and I began to feel shaky and low on energy. We had thought lunch would be midway and hadn’t brought any snacks with us. I was a bit worried I might stumble and lose my footing if I didn’t eat soon and impale myself like Tuwon had! Luckily, Marcel had a spare chocolate bar and that gave me a much needed energy boost.

We tramped back over the field to Tuwon’s house a couple of hours later and were greeted by a chorus of frogs, and more importantly, dinner. Tuwon’s mother certainly knew how to reward exhausted hikers! There were several delectable dishes and her spring rolls were deliciously crispy. It goes without saying that we polished everything off! Matty had told us about Tuwon’s homemade honey rice wine and I asked if I could try it, thinking I might buy some. It was pretty potent though and not something I felt I could stomach!

The next day was supposed to be our last on the island, so in the morning we dutifully packed our things in readiness for check out. Heading downstairs, we were unable to find a member of staff, so decided to have breakfast in ‘The Like Café’ next door whilst we waited for them to return. The café was a relatively new establishment, owned by a young couple. They had an extensive list of coffees and smoothies on offer and in the evenings were always buzzing with local Vietnamese. I chose an egg coffee with my breakfast, which the owner assured me was very special. It was sweet, but tasty, with a whipped egg white mousse on top of very hot black coffee. Luke got out his sketchbook as usual and set about drawing a motorbike. The café owner spotted him and got very excited about Luke’s artwork. He asked if we would paint the front of their café for Tet. That wasn’t an offer we felt we could refuse, so we decided to stay one more day!

We spent a peaceful day happily painting the outside of the café with the traditional seasonal blossoms in yellow and pink and the new year greeting ‘Chuc Mung Nam Moi 2015’, with ‘Happy New Year 2015’ in English on the other side for the tourists. The local Vietnamese found our employment as artists rather entertaining, but they seemed to approve of our artwork! The café gave us free meals and lent us bicycles to go up to Cannon Fort to see the sunset.

I hadn’t cycled far before I had to get off and push as the road to the fort was so steep! The bunkers there were built during the French occupation but the location was also used during the American war. There were a couple of large cannons manned by model soldiers and some marvellous views across the bay. We bought a beer just before the shop closed and wandered around the fortifications. The sunset was rather underwhelming due to the cloudiness, but the seclusion made up for it. We mounted our bikes just as it was getting dark, but not before I had tripped over mine and bashed my legs on the pedals – more bruises to add to my collection!

On returning to the café, we made a few finishing touches to the paintwork. I then discovered that I had got some of the myriad Vietnamese accents wrong, so the following day I corrected my errors with help of Google translate and supportive thumbs up from watching customers. The owners invited us to have lunch with them before we left the island, and we were treated to fish eggs, steamed fish and shellfish – it was a test for me, not being fond of seafood, but one I feel I passed! After breakfast I had gone to try and buy sleeper bus tickets to take us from the mainland to the city of Hue (pronounced Hway). I was told by the travel agent there were only two left and after getting money, I planned to return and buy them, as I was worried the bus would fill up quickly due to Tet. However, over dinner, the café owner assured us we needn’t buy the tickets beforehand as there would be plenty left. He told us the cheapest route to take and kindly arranged for a bus to collect us and take us to the port. I still felt we ought to buy the tickets on the island and pay the commission, but Luke and the owner were convinced it wasn’t necessary and would be a waste of money, so I reluctantly conceded.

An hour later, the bus arrived and we were driven to the port on the other side of the island. The small passenger ferry that awaited us was rickety looking to say the least. We were among the last to board and found the cabin seating area full, so sat on plastic stools on the deck with around ten other people and piles of luggage. I thought this was bad enough, but then they began to load the motorbikes. There must have been at least fifteen of them. Every inch of space on the battered boat seemed to be occupied by something very heavy. We set off with a sinking feeling (quite literally), and spent the journey mentally plotting our escape route. I noted that the lifejackets were helpfully tied up on a shelf. However, the journey was short and we were never that far from land, so I figured we could swim if it came to it! As the ferry hauled itself into harbour forty minutes later, we heaved a sigh of relief. We then boarded a second bus to the town of Haiphong from where we were to make our connection to Hue. The short walk through Haiphong we had been promised was rather longer when carrying big backpacks. We walked along the riverside, which you would expect would be nice, but the banks were full of junk. Luke suggested playing a game where you had to think of something that couldn’t be found on the banks of the river, and it was rather depressing to think that this was a viable option. The people there were really friendly and welcoming though. It is a pity that they are forced to live surrounded by their own rubbish like this – Ha Long Bay surely must have more rubbish production than here due to all the tourists, but because of the tourists and its World Heritage status it is kept pristine. A little further along the coast and it is a different matter entirely.

We arrived at the bus station feeling somewhat drained, and then, to cap it all, guess what? There were no tickets left on any of the buses that night! We were magnanimously told that we could pay the same price and sleep in the aisle. There would be no discounts for the inconvenience. I felt that flash of anger and self-righteousness that comes with a true ‘I told you so’ moment. We were desperate to move on before New Year, and so we grudgingly had to pay the money for the privilege of sleeping in the passageway. I couldn’t stay cross for long though as Luke was so mortified, and after he had ensured I was well fed (because a full stomach always alters your perspective), we quietly resigned ourselves to an uncomfortable night and decided to try and make the best of it!

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