Ferry scam, fresh seafood, and morning music

Trip Start Nov 06, 2006
Trip End Jun 15, 2007

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Monday, April 2, 2007

Ahhhhh...so when our moto drivers dropped us off at the cafe of the three fiendishly helpful women near the ferry office, and when these lovely sirens told us every lie imaginable in an unsuccessful attempt to charge us DOUBLE the fare, THIS is the type of situation everyone along the way had been warning us about. Scam central. Fortunately we didn't bite. When that familiar adrenaline hit began to arise during negotiations and we started getting cynical, we knew. These wonderful ladies are trying to rip us off. So while I watched the bags, Todd went in search of the real scoop, and in the meantime when I smiled and flat out told them they were lying to us and that we'd just wait for the next ferry, they suddenly started to slash their offered price until it was finally where it was supposed to be. Aw, too bad - Vietnam had such a clean record for us until we arrived here!

We took a short walking tour through Cat Ba town, stopped by a few restaurants to look at menus for dinner options. There was a floating restaurant that piqued our interest. We descended the steps to the sea, walked across the floating wooden boardwalk that bobbed beneath our feet. The menu looked good - shrimp, snapper, grouper, squid, lobster, crab. When the charismatic host asked if we'd like to go in back to see the selection, we thought "why not?" We ducked into the back. He began pulling up the wooden planks beneath our feet, like a character in a movie who's hidden a secret stash of something beneath a loose floorboard. And there they were. Big 2-foot-long live fish swirling around inside nets in the ocean below us. He lifted a few more boards. Gorgeous, octopus-like cuttlefish slowly rose into view, interested in the sudden access to sunlight, their eyes peering up at us.

As a scuba diver, I first fell in love with these graceful creatures when I watched two males competing for the attention of a female, all of them flashing their mesmerizing colors, reaching their tentacles out toward one another, changing from one brilliant hue to another as they slowly moved over the multi-colored rock and corals beneath them. The restaurant host announced, "squid." That was enough for me. I gave a polite smile and thanks and left.

We've eaten a lot of "squid" in Asia. But gazing into the open ocean aquarium and seeing dinner swimming around in there brought it home for me. These are intelligent, magnificent beings that I have admired and observed in the wild, and with one casual flip of my finger I could have it served to me on a plate. We walked back through town past all the restaurants, every one of them sporting tanks full of living creatures scraping their claws against the glass clearly trying to free themselves, and it all looked like one big awful horror movie. Put a whole different perspective on "fresh seafood." I've seriously considered vegetarianism, but since this is a "travel blog", I'll leave that topic for another time and place.

We took a day-tour walk through Cat Ba National Park. The terrain was more challenging than Cuc Phuong - lots of ups and downs and slippery rocks - and it was good fun to meet other travelers from Russia and Australia. Also enjoyed a boat and kayak trip from Cat Ba to Halong Bay to view the incredible limestone karsts and islands, but the beauty was tarnished by the floating plastic bags, garbage, and nasty oil slicks floating everywhere in the water.

Our biggest surprise in Cat Ba was that we accidentally timed our visit with the annual celebratory bash in honor of their beloved Uncle Ho's historic visit here in 1959. The day after we checked into our not-so-nice, somewhat moldy ocean view room, they closed off the main street below our balcony and set up a long line of curious tents which we soon discovered were hiding absolutely gigantic sound systems with VW bug-sized sub-woofers pointing directly toward our hotel, and for the next two days proceeded to attempt to blow us out of our hotel with base-thumping American house music and dance tracks, repeated over and over and over again, mixed with a bit of Vietnamese dance music, and a good helping of rip-your-hair-out karaoke sung by young men and women who wailed and screeched away like they were having their fingernails torn out and wanted to publicize their suffering over a public address system. The first night it wasn't so bad. We thought it was pretty cool that we'd stumbled upon such a nifty cultural experience. And we were pleasantly shocked when they turned the music off at midnight. But when the rhythmic sonic boom started up again at 5am the next morning, we almost start throwing heavy objects at them from our 6th floor balcony. At that time of the morning, there wasn't even anyone around! It was just the evil music junkies trying to prove who had the loudest system like a couple of teenagers (which they were) showing off. Ok - so all my whining aside, on the second evening the town really pulled out all the stops and put on an unbelievable show - fireworks, fantastic singers, flowing Vietnamese women doing folk dances with traditional conical hats. The whole program was being televised. Very impressive for an isolated island town!

The strangest part of the whole experience was that I didn't see a single person with a beer in hand and didn't smell a wiff of weed in the crowd. And there must be a zero tolerance policy here for public drunkenness - we saw two different guys over the weekend get hauled off by the police, one of them smacked hard across the face several times.

When we awoke at 5am again this morning to the deafening house music we were more than ready to pack our bags and move on from crazy Cat Ba.
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