Christmas on an Island!!

Trip Start Oct 19, 2010
Trip End Jul 23, 2011

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Sunday, December 26, 2010

It took three hours to Cat Ba Island, two buses and a fast boat. It was a bit awkward to get on the boat as you had to get on a car ferry and climb over the railings onto it, with our backpacks and rucksacks this was challenging.  Finally, we took another one hour ride on a bus across the island to Cat Ba Town.  The whole journey was not bad at all, we got to chat to other backpackers from France, Scotland & New Zealand picking up some hints and tips.  When we arrived in Cat Ba Town, our hotel was almost immediately opposite and again we were on the 4th floor (getting used to those stairs at bit more).  We wasn’t expecting much as we only paid £4.30 per night but the room had two double beds, it was clean with a shower room, wifi, cable TV and a sea view if you looked over the rooftop of the building next door. 

The harbour was filled with boats and the streets  were lined with restaurants, hotels, pearl sellers and cheap massages (not the seedy type though).  After freshening up, we grabbed a bite to eat and took a stroll along the harbour until we found the bar (called the Flightless Bird)  run by a New Zealander who was on our bus. We met up with him and sipped loads of beer and chatted to him all night about Vietnam and it’s history and it’s customs.  It was a great night, we learned a lot about the Vietnamese wars and their relationship with China (didn’t realise they did not get on that well!).  We also met up with Mr Tong, recommended by Graham, the Kiwi as the best tour operator on the island so we said we would pop in and see him the next day.

The next morning, we were a little worse for wear (too many Tiger beers) and it took us a while to recover but we managed to get to a nice restaurant called the Green Mango for breakfast.  Waffle went for the American breakfast and I had delicious French toast made with brioche (big door stop wedges of brioche soaked in egg, fried and topped with cinnamon and icing sugar).  Great way to make us feel better!  We walked right along the harbour to a small beach in front of a large hotel,  As the sky was hazy, you could not see much of the karst landscapes but it looked a nice spot to wind down.  We had dinner at one of the Vietnamese restaurants by our hotel.  It was nice but we felt that the size and quality did not quite match to Hanoi and it was slightly more expensive.  We decided not to drink that night.

One day till Christmas so after our second breakfast at the Green Mango (because it was so nice and filling) we went to find Mr Tong’s tour shop (Cat Ba Ventures) and booked a boat excursion around Halong Bay for the next day and got him to book our train tickets to the Sapa Mountains (an eight hour journey by sleeper cab through the night from Hanoi) for the 28th.  As there isn’t that much to do we ventured off to seek the secluded beaches.  There are three that are accessible walking from the town so we sat ourselves down on one of them.  Ahh...Christmas Eve and we were sitting on a beach....and to top it all we were going to spend Christmas Day on a boat around one of the World Heritage Sites, Halong Bay...As the night drew in the lights on the boats were turned on and filled the Harbour, not quite the Christmas lights we were used to but very nice all the same.

Christmas Day at last. 

We got up early and walked to Mr Tong’s office, we were a little early but his shutters were down and we remembered he told us he was going for a Christmas Eve buffet night the night before.  We wondered if he was hung over and wasn’t coming.  Eventually he did arrive, he was a little worse for wear but at least he made it.  To get to the boat we had to saddle up with two guys on motorbikes so we zipped along the island to Cat Beo Harbour...that got some fresh air in our lungs. We walked a plank to join about a dozen people already sitting on a smallish wooden boat.  The boat cruised past a floating fishing village and loads of the small striking islands this area is famous for.  The guides/crew could not speak English at all so as we pulled up to one of the larger islands (we presumed it was the surprise caves Mr Tong told us about) we all guessed we had to get off.  It turned out to be the caves which were very big and lit up with different coloured was full of stalagmites and was very beautiful. 

Getting back on the boat, lunch was served.  An array of tasty Vietnamese dishes cooked by a lady as we cruised the islands.  We went a little further and stopped again to get into kayaks to go round at your leisure for about an hour then off again to Monkey Island!  We were told not to get on that island as the monkeys (which are not native and have just been put on there for tourists) bite and scratch.  Remaining on the boat we watched the others get off and stroll along a small beach looking a little bored but no monkeys.  We were more entertained by our boat crew arguing with another boat crew as the two boat banged into each other.  

The tour finished at about 5pm so we had time to get ready and go for dinner (at the Green Mango again!).  Waffle ordered...wait for it...burger and fries, chocolate fondant with raspberry coulis, crème anglais and ice cream...and I had deep fried seafood with chips, mango sticky coconut rice with a mango shooter!  I know that doesn’t sound like a typical Christmas Day dinner, but it was delicious and we enjoyed every morsel!! 

We checked out at our hotel and did the reverse journey back to Hanoi (bus...boat...bus...bus!).  We didn’t pay much attention to the journey as we had done it before with the exception of our first witness to two traffic collisions on a major road.  Both involved motorcyclists.  The first was with a lorry, the cyclist was lying in the central reservation but we could not tell how badly he was injured.  The second, less than 30 minutes later was definitely serious.  The motorcycle was wedged, still upright in the back of a bus, and there was blood and stuff on the road...Waffle saw the man/woman’s face covered in blood and looked messed up.  He was sure that he saw the cyclist weaving between all the traffic some minutes before. An hour later we arrived back in Hanoi and to be honest, we have grown to love it already and were excited about being back.  Our hotel was more up market than the last one as we booked through laterooms and got a good deal on a 3 star hotel the other side of the lake.  We were on the 4th floor again!  Paying just £5 more a night added the luxury of a softer (enormous) bed, tea/coffee machine, buffet breakfast, better toiletries, a large shower cubicle and a lift!!  If we were just on holiday we would be happy to pay this and more every night but we are on a tight budget so every penny saved helps us extend our trip (here’s the accountant in me...£5 extra spent on accommodation each day for a year is £1,825!!) but it is nice to take advantage of the facilities occasionally and it was Boxing Day. 

We collected our vouchers for the train tickets to Sapa and went to a seafood restaurant for dinner.  Another budget blowing meal at £25!  Unknowingly to us we ordered a strange selection of food apparently.  I was told by the waitress and again by the head waiter to order 2 of my appetisers instead of 1 as they were very small and no-one ever had just one.  Waffle had a very puzzled look by the waitress when he ordered fried rice with his garlic scallops main course.  As usual the food came in no particular order, we are getting used to that.  Stranger still, I believe that every member of staff including the chef came out to watch us eat!  One by one they walked around and peeked behind corners smiling before the next one did the rounds!!   We realised after our soups that Waffle had ordered an unnecessary portion of fried rice to his non-Asian meal (it sounded Asian on the menu) and I got my starter during his main course. ( As it turned out 1 appetizer for me would have been big enough so I didn’t understand the problem there). Waffle finally got his rice when he had finished eating.  It is going to take a bit of time getting used to the menus here, it is hard to decipher what comes with what and how much is enough...Getting quite handy with chopsticks though I must say! 

Tomorrow is another long day, checking out of the hotel after breakfast and our night train to Sapa isn’t until 9:50pm, we arrive in Lao Cai 40km south of Sapa at 5am the next morning...hope the beds on the train ain’t too hard!! 

Merry Christmas...

(more pictures on our Flickr pages)
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