Leaving the frantic pace of Hanoi, we hop a bus to Vietnam’s third most populous city Hải Phòng (which doesn’t feel very busy by comparison). Arriving late in the evening we find cheap accommodations. “This place smells about right” Scotty declared upon detecting the familiar mildew smell that greeted us at the entrance, indeed!
In the morning we head out to find the hydrofoil to Cat Ba, the largest island in spectacular Halong Bay, but end up walking in circles instead. Eventually a taxi driver that seems to understand what we are seeking takes us to a ferry landing; but it is closed for the day and we are instead greeted by 2 pushy women ushering us to a small collapsible table to buy bus tickets. To an island? Bus tickets? We feel some skepticism and the women seem annoyed by our apprehension.
Their bad attitudes, coupled with an incredibly high price tag, causes Scotty to storm away, outraged. I follow, but promptly return to ask questions and clarify what service it is that they are actually providing. 1) Bus to the boat launch which is way out of town, down an area that may reach road status when the construction is actually completed 2) A boat ride to Cat Ba 3) Another bus ride from the remote part of the island we will be dropped off at to the actual town. Ok, but the price tag is still an obvious scam, set high for the tourists and the women show no sign of remorse or budging for negotiation. Scotty doesn’t want to go on principle. I do not want to waste a day in this town to find out if there is an alternative. Outraged or not, I pay the money (300,000 Dong a piece or $15) and get on the bus. We ride the bus, boat across and the next bus to Cat Ba Town in relative silence; Scotty still fuming.
Once in Cat Ba however, the mood changed relatively quickly. First we find a nice, clean room high up on the 5th floor with views of the bay for a mere $6. The air is cool and dropping our bags we head out to explore. At one end of the island we check out Cat 1, 2, and 3, three separate beach areas providing stunning views of the tall limestone hills jutting out as far as the eye can see. Two of the beaches are connected by a long elevated walkway that goes right along the water. The place green and gorgeous.
We spend our first full day on the island on motorbike. The island is not very crowded and the roads make it perfect for motorbike exploration. The first place we stop is Hospital Cave, a cave used by the Viet Cong army during the war in the 1960’s as a hospital and a military training facility. Expecting a rudimentary, natural cave environment (closer to those we visited in Laos) we were completely floored when we entered. The cave was amazingly developed, completely covered in concrete. The chambers echoed eerily as the guide showed us along and our imaginations sprung to life as he explained what each room had been used for.
Our next stop is to the Trung Trang Cave. When we pull up, we see the attendant locking the gate, but he forgoes his lunch to show us around. The cave is much more natural and we have to crawl through some of the tighter spots to get through. There are bats throughout the cave, but they are especially concentrated in one area. Our guide gets so excited about the bats, that we cannot help but reflect his enthusiasm and he takes over my camera and snaps shot after shot of the creepy, little, smelly creatures.
Back on the road we explore many routes around the island and Scotty even ends up on a boat where a bunch of people are working moving bricks. He tries to “help” and the ladies laugh as he ungracefully pitches in.
The next day we head out on a boat tour, on the Bon Mua 06. The day is slightly hazy and it lends to the magic and mystical feel of the jutting green hills popping out throughout the bay. As we move we see some really remarkable floating villages on the water. There is house after house on the water and it is strange to see a whole community operating and going about their lives out in the middle of the bay.
We stop, disembark the large boat and get into a much smaller vessel. Kayaking allows us to get a much closer look at the formations and we even find a great spot for an impromptu photo shoot (too many years of watching ANTM has gone straight to me head). Realizing that we have no idea when we are supposed to be back on the big boat, we head back only to find that the boat is gone. The guys on the floating dock tells us to paddle around for an hour and the boat will be back. We start to paddle off and soon see the boat doing a u-turn to pick us up.
The next stop allows us to explore a very large cave system. We walk up a bunch of stairs and head deep down into the cave. When we emerge we are greeted with jaw dropping views from our elevated position. I am so excited when, back down close to the water, I see some ladies in boats with buckets full of various creatures. I am excited and saddened to see a big octopus. Don’t worry, I didn’t tell Chorizo.
Our last stop off the boat is to Monkey Island, unfortunately it was already late in the day and too cold to swim in the cool blue waters. Instead we took a hike up to the viewpoint on the island. On the way we are greeted by the king of Monkey Island, a huge macaque, calmly seated on a rock just off the narrow path. I feel nervous walking past the monkey. He is so close on the path but continues to calmly chew whatever it was that he was chewing and pays no mind as we pass. At the top we are shocked as our view is dominated by the construction being done on the other side of the island. So much for preserved park land.
Besides our boat driver hitting a small concessions boat and almost causing it to capsize, which the lady operator was none to happy about, the boat ride was serene and relaxing and absolutely beautiful.
Leaving Cat Ba, we realized just what a gyp the first ride was. It only cost us 120,000 Dong a piece ($6) to get back to the mainland. Oh well, Cat Ba was spectacular and worth every dollar spent, even those scammed out of me!