Saturday, 21 May 2011

Cat Ba Island and Ha Long Bay, Sunshine and Hapiness, 18-22 March 2011

The boat rocked from side to side as it's engines opened up and we steamed through the bay towards Cat Ba Island. In true Vietnamese style, there were too many people on the boat so I was one of a group that were sitting on plastic seats on the back, clinging on to the railings to prevent the stools from moving. It was still overcast and I began to give up on the sunshine that I hadn't seen for a fair few weeks.

Cat Ba Town
The boat moored in a tiny port on the Island and we transferred to another bus that drove us to Cat Ba Town which is the main settlement on the island. The view was spectacular despite the grey sky that hung above us. I plugged into my MP3 player and increased the volume to full as the girl sitting opposite me began to casually throw up into a plastic bag like it was the normal thing to do. Surprise, surprise, it was raining again as we pulled into the make shift bus station in Cat Ba Town. I had already decided where I was going to stay and made my way quickly down the street and checked into Bay View Hotel. The main row of hotels are, as the name of mine gives away, on the front and look out over the bay.

The bay in Cat Ba Town
My main purpose for staying on the island was to take a boat trip into Ha Long Bay which has become extremely popular since Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond visited Vietnam on there Top Gear special that finished of with them taking their modified amphibious motorcycles across the bay. I was a little concerned that the karst scenery wouldn't be as impressive as I had been to Yangshuo and Xingping in China where the scenery there blew me away. It turned out that I would have to wait to see the bay a little longer as the immensely heavy cloud above gave way to a liquid bombardment that lasted well into the evening. This made me think about what I should do the following day, should I book on a boat tour around the bay or should I hire a bike out to see the island. I decided to wait and see what the weather was like on the day before I made any decisions.

Me and my bike for the day
The day arrived and I looked out of my window and although it looked out the back of the hotel onto a cliff face, I could tell that the sunshine was finally out. The bad news was that I had missed the boat trip but I went downstairs hurriedly ate breakfast and rented a motorcycle. The man whom I rented the bike from handed me a map and told me what route I should take. There appeared to be only two roads on the island, so it seemed to be impossible to get lost. I got on and headed out of Cat Ba Town on the coastal road with a lot more confidence and feeling more comfortable than I did when I was on the bike in Hanoi. The road was very quiet and in good condition so I could take my time riding with no fear of people appearing from all angles.

The road out of Cat Ba Town
As soon as I left the hubbub of the only major settlement, the road became winding and ascended up through the cliffs opening up on the other side to a straight road with water either side of me. A bit further on, the road hugged the coast and at this moment a smile immediately appeared on my face. This was a perfect moment, riding around a very quiet island in the sun and fantastic breathtaking scenery. There were many times when I had to pull over, take off my helmet and just stare at the view in front of my eyes hoping that the scenery would be engrained in my memory. The problem with stopping is that the sun immediately heated my body up to sweating point and the removal of my waterproof was instantly required to save me from melting.

Breathtaking scenery
The island is tiny but absolutely beautiful, it's got it all; green vegetation, rice fields, the sea, cliffs, mountains. Any where you look, there's something jaw dropping to see. Once I hugged the coastal road for a while I took the road towards the centre of the island where you can visit the National Park or head further north. I took the man's advice and initially took the road to the north and headed through tiny villages where the inhabitants shout hello to you and you have to dodge the lazy dogs that lay asleep in the middle of the road. The road ended at the port where boats leave for Ha Long City. The condition of the road at some points becomes a matter for serious attention as random pot holes and rocks that have fallen of the adjacent cliffs litter the road.

Dodgy ladder into cave
On my way back down to the south of the island I stopped in the national park area and visited the hospital cave where people were treated during the American War. I parked the bike up on the side of the road and paid to go in. The chap handed me a flashlight and just told me that I couldn't go to level 3 as it was unsafe. I thought he was going to come in with me but he promptly pointed to the direction of the entrance and said 'enjoy'. I got to the entrance where a small rotten wooden ladder led into the cave. I climbed the ladder whilst making sure to test each step with a bang of the foot before putting my full weight on it and was thankfully when I reached the top in one piece. There, in front of me stood a heavy steel door hung ajar on a reinforced concrete entrance. I peered in through the open doorway and was immediately struck by the depth of the darkness within. I tried the light switch that hang to the left of the entrance, but there was no electricity as the whole island loses power each day from 7am to around 7pm for one reason or another. I flicked the flashlight on and pointed it down the corridor hoping that it was strong enough to reach the end but it wasn't. My heart began to beat faster and faster as the unknown forced adrenaline around my body.

Entrance to the hospital
“HELLO!”, I shouted out only hearing my word repeated and repeated until the force of my voice was not strong enough to echo any longer. This cave is big! I moved further down the corridor into the complex of rooms, shining the beam of light into each room to my left and right I I went. The place was cold, the rooms big surrounded by undecorated grey concrete walls that you'd expect in any bomb shelter. There was a small passageway to the right but I bypassed it and continued on to the end of the corridor which opened up to a stairwell. I climbed the stairs to the next level where there were endless more rooms and a locked passage way which leads up to the next prohibited level. Having been up the stairs, I turned around and headed back down to explore the passageway I previously walked passed. I walked down it, passing more rooms, an operating room with it's concrete surfaces, a small pool for bathing in and suddenly I came across some steps that led up into a huge opening which was apparently used as a theatre and recreation room. The whole hospital cave is inspiring, hidden within a small outcrop the engineering feat is outstanding and I can only say that if there was a war on, I know where I would go.

Looking out from the cave
I found my way back out and waited a minute for my eyes to painfully reacclimatise themselves to natural daylight again before climbing down the dodgy ladder once again and heading back to my scooter. I decided not to get straight back on my bike but to sit down and have a cold drink first. I asked how much it was for a Coca-Cola to which the guy, who I had paid entrance fee to, responded 15,000VND (just under 50p). I did the equation and thought this to be an OK price and dutifully paid for the can knowing that I had paid a little too much as we tourists always do, but it's the price of home so it's not too bad. After talking with him for a while and having his dog forcing its way between my legs, a lady who seemed to be his boss appeared and he immediately got up and said, “Coca – 15,000” with a grin and a small laugh. The lady returned a similar grin and laugh. I then understood that they were laughing about the price I had paid for the can of Coca-Cola. Fine you've overcharged me which is not fair but expected, but to laugh in my face is just unfair. I politely said goodbye through gritted teeth and headed south along the road towards Cat Ba Town.

Fantastic roads hugging the cliffs
I hadn't got very far down the road until I was forced to stop as the road stopped dead. Well actually the road turned into sand and construction vehicles were sitting idly on it waiting to work. I had to turn back and retrace my steps, which I didn't really mind as the view is tremendous and the road almost perfect. After a few kilometres, I arrived back on the south coastal road that goes from Cat Ba Town to the southern port. I took a right towards the port, it was the road I had travelled on the day before on the bus in the rain but this time the sun shone and reflected magically off the waves. The road weaved in, out and around the cliffs similar to the Amalfi Coast (but perhaps less turns) and is the most dangerous road I have been on for a long time, not because of the road condition or other drivers but purely because the scenery immediately forces your attention away from the road. Having reached the port, there was no where else to go, so I headed back to Cat Ba Town and for a refreshment break at my hotel before travelling to the last road terminus on the island, the beach.

The beach
Once I reached the beach, it looked like paradise. Crystal clear blue water gently lapping onto the smooth golden sand. I got into the sea and celebrated having my first swim since I began the journey. There were not many people on the beach, just a group of young travellers on the other side to me. I sat down and got 'The Sorrow of War' out of my bag to continue reading. It's a tragic book about how war affects innocent people that are forced to take part in the brutal killing and clean up operation afterwards. This book is not a normal novel, it's not a diary, it's not in any order and neither does it need to be, it is a collection of memories written by a North Vietnamese Veteran called Báo Dinh who went to the war with another 500 men but was only one of ten who survived. His pseudonym, Kein, is part of a team collecting the corpses of dead soldiers after the war and this evokes memories. The memories show how lives are tragically affected by war, the horrors that he witnessed and took part in during battles, how is one true love, Phuong, got gang raped by his 'comrades' as they were under attack. The non-linear text is extremely effective in representing how the mind of a veteran is constantly battling against memories of war. If you want to read a book on the Vietnamese-American war, read this it's gripping as all the shocking details of the life of a soldier are laid out in front of you. This is one man's story but must be a mirror of so many other men who have fought in wars. It was initially banned by the communist government for obvious reasons but it was a book that couldn't be hidden for long.

After around an hour at the beach, I decided that I needed to leave because I didn't have any sunblock with me and I was beginning to feel the sun slowly burning my skin. I rode back to the hotel and was greeted by the man whom I rented the bike off, he said I had a lot of fuel left in the tank and as I paid for the fuel, I stubbornly wanted to use it all up before returning it. The sun had begun to lower itself in the sky creating a red tint emanating out of it. I opened up the throttle and headed back out of the town. It was an absolute pleasure to ride along those roads, I could have spent days just cruising around the island soaking up the beautiful landscape. My last stint I really went for it, mainly just wanting to waste as much fuel as possible. I know it's not good for my carbon footprint but I was not prepared to give the man any more of my money!! After travelling half of the southern coast again, I decided to turn back towards Cat Ba Town and watch the sun set over the bay.

Feeling excited and exhilarated by the day's activities, I went straight to the tour booking office next to my hotel and booked myself on a Ha Long Bay cruise the next day feeling confident that the sun was there to stay. Well I was wrong, I woke up early the next day and the clouds had come in and seemed as though they were there to stay. Despite this my fellow passengers and I remained confident that by midday the sun would shred through the grey clouds and bless us with blue skies and fantastic views. This was not so, it remained overcast all day, it didn't rain but just stayed grey.  But the overcast skies created an air of mysteriousness around the bay.

My camera is not good in this light!
The boat tour was still great though, although I do still think Yangshuo and Xingping in China is better. The vastness of the bay is astonishing and the karst outcrops that must go down a long way under the sea level are awe inspiring. As part of the trip we visited two caves, the first was magnificent and had a huge opening to a enormous vault where they had strategically place atmospheric light to accentuate the features inside. The second cave was a lot smaller and had us crouch down to avoid smacking our heads on the stalactites. The view from above the cave was amazing. It looked out over the bay and a lake that was completely enclosed.

Back on the boat, the driver/chef had been slaving away cooking a meal for us to enjoy when we returned. We didn't begin eating until the boat relocated in a little bay with a small beach around one outcrop. The meal was absolutely delicious, we had fresh fish, spring rolls and other vegetable things. It was one of the best meals I have had on my trip. After the meal we had the opportunity to jump over board into the bay and swim around but the weather didn't encourage us to do so as it wasn't all that warm. Despite this, one girl, who was an English girl from a group of girls that had been travelling together for a few months and were about to head home, and a French man decided to take the plunge and jump in. They were enjoyed their swim around and the girl actually made the long swim to the beach but on the way back we all looked on in horror as a huge jellyfish homed in on her and stung her arm as she was getting back on the boat. Luckily the sting wasn't too bad and was just a little irritation for her.

Floating villages amongst the outcrops
The last thing we did that day was kayaking and it was one of the best things on the trip. I shared my kayak with a Canadian girl who was travelling for a while but also looking for work. She has an interest job in prosthetic design, designing artificial limbs and had been working a while in Canada before leaving her job to come travelling. I'm sure she would be well sought after in this war ravaged part of the world where many people lose their legs and arms to unexploded land mines. We paddled our way round an enormous outcrop watching local people in their oyster farms and fishing from their floating houses. It was fantastic and for some reason I ended up completely soaked which amused the other passengers but it was actually really cold when the boat began moving again. What a difference a day can make when it comes to weather. Yesterday it was blissful sunshine and today it's completely overcast. This concluded our trip around the bay and we headed back to Cat Ba Island where the minibus collected us and sped us back to our hotels in a fashion that had us clinging onto the seats.

As we arrived back in Cat Ba Town, the sun was setting again and left us in complete darkness as the daily power outage went on a bit longer than usual. It finally came back on around 8pm after an hour of darkness and the sound of the numerous generators on the front ceased leaving a calming silence to the bay for my last evening.

Cat Ba Island was one of the highlights to my trip so far, so peaceful, so beautiful.

 Next Time, Hué and maybe more...

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