Trip Start Dec 15, 2009
Trip End Aug 27, 2010

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Where I stayed
Bayview Hotel
Cat Ba Dream

Flag of Vietnam  ,
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

From Hanoi, most tourists book an excursion to Ha Long Bay where they cruise the bay and spend a night or two on a boat amongst the beautiful karst topography of the bay. We decided to go off the well beaten tourist track along a route forged by a rising number of backpackers. From Hanoi we bought a ticket for Cat Ba Island; this ticket includes a 2 hour bus ride to Hai Phong, a minibus transfer to the pier, a half hour speed boat ride and another minibus transfer to the town of Cat Ba, not bad for $9. The trip ran very smoothly with very little waiting in between stages and we were soon stepping off the bus in the small but touristy town of Cat Ba. When I say touristy, I don't mean it in the traditional sense of commercialized for western tourists as so many places are; this is set up primarily for Vietnamese tourists and by all accounts they flock here in the summer months by the thousands. The seafront is a mass of skinny tall concrete hotels all "same-same but different". It’s hard to understand how so many persevere due to the lack of tourists eight months a year. We were there at a pleasantly quiet time and on arrival it felt a bit like a British seaside town in January.

Our first port of call in Cat Ba was not our hotel, but the HQ of SloPony adventure company to make our plans for the following day. We booked our adventure and then checked into the Bayview Hotel. Our room was fairly simple, but clean with two large, but firm beds. By next morning we realized just how “firm” the beds were and decided that we couldn’t possibly sleep another night on them, so after a hurried breakfast we checked out and dumped our stuff at SloPony before heading out for a day of thrills and excitement.

A short minibus transfer took us to our floating base for the day…we boarded the SloPony boat and set sail into Lan Ha Bay. Many people are familiar with Ha Long Bay; a landscape of limestone “karsts” rising out of the South China Sea. Ha Long Bay lies to the north and east of Cat Ba island and falls under the jurisdiction of Ha Long City. To the South and East of Cat Ba island lies more of the same topography in Lan Ha Bay which falls under the jurisdiction of Hai Phong City. Ha Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay are very similar and all of it lies within the area declared a UNESCO world heritage site; Ha Long Bay is simply more famous as it was the first area developed for tourism and is now overrun with tourist boats with literally hundreds of boats touring through the bay at any one time. We sailed for 45 minutes through some spectacular scenery of karst islands rising majestically out of the ocean before the boat dropped anchor and two by two we boarded kayaks and set off for an hour and a half of exploring this mystical landscape. There were blissfully few other tourist boats around and after a while we found ourselves in a small lagoon, accessed only by a small tunnel in a karst and were totally alone, just the four of us and a few rather large jellyfish! As idyllic as it sounds and was, there is a downside. The areas around many of the karsts are full of rather ugly looking oyster farms (flotation for the farms provided by large blue oil barrels or blue tarp wrapped polystyrene blocks). Understandably, these people need to make a living, but what is most disturbing is the amount of garbage and pollution in the water, most clearly evident in the quietest areas such as the lagoon where flow is reduced and garbage accumulates.

After our fill of kayaking, it was time to refuel our bodies and we returned to the boat where the crew soon served a fantastic lunch. A full tank would very much be needed for the afternoon’s activities. The limestone karsts provide an ideal climbing environment and many experienced climbers are heading to Vietnam to try climbing the karsts. A popular activity is the sport of deep water soloing….climbing without equipment and finishing the climb with a freefall into the (hopefully) deep water. Sarah had read about SloPony in the Lonely Planet back in Alberta and having read that they run their introductory climbing courses on “Moody beach” it seemed that fate had set a course for us and so we signed up for an introduction to rock climbing. Once on Moody beach we donned our shoes and harnesses and eagerly awaited instructions with a group of five other climbers. We didn’t have to wait long before Derek was “volun-told” to be the test runner on the first climb….many of you may know that Derek doesn’t have a head for heights and so being first wasn’t quite what he had in mind. Still, he stepped up to the plate and made the climb look relatively easy. The hard part came at the top when he had to step off the rock and trust the belayer below to lower him down to the ground….it took an awfully long time to get those feet to move! The kids went next and made it look even easier as like little mountain goats their bodies seemed to almost skip up the rockface! Sarah brought up the rear for the Moody family and determined not to let the side down, ascended with less grace than the kids but more speed! Lauren & Alex had a great time not only climbing but playing on the beach in between climbs. Moody beach is a secluded spot with a shoreline of rocks, shells and sand and the kids built a sand and coral fort surrounded with a wall of rocks and decorated with beautiful shells. During the course of the afternoon we each completed three or four climbs of increasing difficulty. By the time we had to return to the boat, we did so with tired limbs and enjoyed relaxing on the deck as we cruised back to the mainland. Sarah has definitely been bitten by the climbing bug and the kids seem pretty keen too, so it looks like we have a new family activity to add to the repertoire when we get home….I’m sure we’ll have plenty of opportunity to test our new found skills in Canmore. (Editors note: Sarah put us all to shame… “Slo” the instructor felt that she was a natural)

Back in the centre of Cat Ba town we discovered that during the course of the day they had erected a rather large stage and were blaring out very loud music? Unsure of what was in store for the evening, we checked into a new hotel and set out to find some dinner. We didn’t find a restaurant with a view, but did manage to find out what was the celebration was in aid of; Ho Chi Minh visited Cat Ba island on April 1, 1951, and every year they celebrate the anniversary of his visit….quite why they were celebrating on March 30th wasn’t clear though. After dinner, Derek went for a massage with Mr Wu (who we had watched at work the evening before when we were having dinner; he provides what seemed to be a massage/chiropractic/boxing therapy whilst the patient sits in the victim chair) and Sarah and the kids ambled back along the sea front to the large stage (conveniently erected right across the street from the hotel) to watch the show. There was lots of singing and dancing, much of which seemed to be celebrating the victory of war and independence. We watched for a while from the hotel balcony and at about 10pm there were several presentations, followed by a speech and then very abruptly everybody left. Back in our room, we were surprised to hear music blaring again about thirty minutes later and after watching for a short while concluded that the second series of performances were actually rehearsals for the following night….these ran until at least midnight and included one performance that rather bizarrely seemed to sample “Microsoft Windows” shut down tune (or is it the other way round?).

The following morning we wandered around town waiting for our bus to depart. Lauren and Sarah were quite amused as they strolled past the stage and all of a sudden were almost deafened by “Feliz Navidad”….we had arrived on Cat Ba Island just before Easter and seemed to be leaving at Christmas…time sure does fly when you’re having fun!
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