Cat Ba

Trip Start Nov 30, 2009
Trip End Jun 01, 2011

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Flag of Vietnam  , Hải Phòng,
Friday, May 7, 2010

Our time in Vietnam seems to be flying by far quicker than anywhere else we've been. I guess this is perhaps because we are working to a fixed timeframe for the first time in ages as we have a flight booked out of Hanoi on the 17th May.  This only gives us three weeks to travel the whole length of Vietnam, from South to North.  With Cat Ba Island, Sapa and Hanoi still to see in just 8 days it was time to get moving on from Hoi An, despite the call of the cheap beer.

A bit of a mammoth journey to get to Cat Ba. We started on a normal bus at 2pm from Hoi An, a 3 hour drive up the cost to Hue.  It was then a change to a mini bus to take us across town to the main bus station before getting on a sleeper bus for another 12 hours to Hanoi.  As part of the sales pitch for the sleeper buses they make a big thing of the on-board movie.  For this particular journey we were treated to what looked like Vietnamese Strictly Come Dancing, but with the added twist that the dancing couples sang along to the music.  You may not be familiar with the Vietnamese version of Tom Jones, Delilah, but take it from me that it isn’t what you want to hear at 10.30pm when you’re trying to sleep!    On arriving in Hanoi at 7am it was the usual drop off in some none descript part of town where some 'helpful’ touts offered to put us in a taxi (at our own expense) to go to a local travel agent to book our onward journey to Cat Ba Island.  This would have no doubt cost us 5 times as much as it needed to and so decided to go it alone instead.  Took us a frustrating hour of walking and eventually having to resort to a taxi (which took  us all round the houses and tried to charge us 3 times the right fare) before we finally made it to the right bus station to take us to Haiphong. From there we hoped it would be simple.  Famous last words!   Arriving in Haiphong we were yet again at the mercy of a taxi driver in order to get to the port.  This one stuck to the agreed fare but then tried to hit us with another scam by dropping us at his friends who had a small table and umbrella in the street selling tickets for the boat.  She informed us that we had missed the last slow boat of the day and that our only option was to take the fast boat for the not so bargain price of 250,000 dong.  Our guide book told us 100,000, so we pointed this out and she tried to explain how there had been 2 big price rises recently.  Hmmm, I don’t think so.  I decided to go off in search of second opinion, and low and behold the ticket office at the port itself had tickets for the slow boat going in half an hour for just 80,000 or we could wait an hour and catch a fast one in an hour for just 130,000.  Scam number 3 of the day averted and it was only 11.30am!  These Northern Vietnamese folk really are the worse we have encountered for trying to rip off the tourists.

The slow boat was great, just a local ferry full of families and men transporting just about everything you can imagine across to the island.  Interesting watching them hurl things from the back of trucks and up onto the roof of the boat, although not wise to think too closely about the weight being put on board.  Had a very sweet little boy sit beside us and watch our game of Scrabble.  Tied to get him to join in by picking out my letters but he was too shy.  He just kept reaching over every now and again to touch the board and point at the letters, very cute, and then hide behind his mum when we spoke to him.

We finally reached Cat Ba Island 26 hours after leaving Hoi An.  Seems slightly ridiculous to have taken so long as the distance can’t be more than 5 or 6 hundred kilometres.  Viewed  3 dodgy hotels before  finally finding one that looked like it was clean, had hot water and WiFi and would do for a few nights.  We had a balcony and great view across the harbour which was great. It was however one of the strangest rooms we’ve had as it had a large poster of a scantily clad couple perched up on the wardrobe (the picture, not the couple)  There were similar posters in the stair well and hallway as well.  Gave the place a bit of a knocking shop vibe, although it was run by a family complete with toothless grandma so don’t think anything untoward was going on.  Perhaps they thought the pictures were romantic!

To save ourselves from an early start on our first full day on the island we opted to hire a motorbike for the day and save the boat trip to Halong Bay for the following morning. Yet another motorbike fuel scam as the bike was totally empty when we got it and so we were forced to go straight to the nearest petrol station to fill it up.  You have to pay before filling up in Vietnam, so we handed over 50,000 dong and having learnt from our previous mistake stood by the pump to watch how much she actually put in.  After less than 10 seconds of filling she stopped and announced it was full and her friend quickly zeroed the pump.  We told her it wasn’t and asked her to put in what we had paid her for, at which point her English suddenly failed her and she no longer knew what we were talking about!  We refused to leave, and eventually told her we’d fill it up ourselves if she wouldn’t do it and she finally came back over, apologised and filled the tank up.  Thank you!  If you ever hire a bike in Vietnam definitely watch out for the petrol stations.  All thieving little scam merchants.

The island itself is beautiful, hundreds of amazing shaped Kast Mountains that are covered in dense green forest.  Lots of the mountains contain caves, which we were able to visit whilst out and about on our motorbike.  The first cave we reached was converted into a Hospital during the war, and we had a little old guy show us around and explain what each of the rooms were.  There was an operating theatre, dining rooms, bedrooms, small swimming pool and even a cinema set up under the caves huge cavernous roof.  The rooms themselves were made out of really thick concrete walls and there were two huge steel doors to protect the entrance.  Outside the caves entrance there were dozens of dead butterflies for some reason, have no idea why.

The second cave we visited was slightly more impromptu.  We spotted a little hand painted sign and turned our bike down a little narrow path.  The next minute 5 young boys appeared from nowhere swinging a key on a piece of string.  Turned out to be small padlock on the gate to the cave, which they then offered to unlock for us for 50,000 dong.  We haggled for a while and got them down to 10,000 with the promise of an extra 5,000 if the cave turned out to be a beautiful as they were telling us.  They reluctantly accepted, pulled out their flashlights, unlocked the cave and lead us inside.  It was pretty impressive, lots of sparkling rocks, stalactites and they even pointed out which ones looked like elephants.  Felt a bit odd having a guided tour from 8 year olds, but they seemed to be having fun, clambering over rocks in their flip flops and showing us fossilised teeth and bones!  In case you’re wondering we did give them the extra 5,000, although Kev did take some prompting!  Final stop for the day before handing back the motorbike as to the national park for a short trek up to a lookout point.  I say short, in fact it was a couple of hours all told, in heat and humidity that made it seem far further than it really was.  The lookout tower was very high, very rusty and very nerve wracking to climb.  Well worth the effort though as the view from the top across the island was fantastic.   Managed to see some great wild life on our way back down, including a huge black snake, a giant centipede and a really cool lizard.  Kev missed the snake as I gave out such a shriek when it slithered away from my feet that it disappeared into the undergrowth before he could spot it.

Cat BaTown itself wasn’t much to write home about.  Lots of places to eat, but mostly of the Formica top table and plastic chair variety.  Only place that seemed to have any atmosphere or customers was the Bamboo Cafe, where we ended up eating every night.  A few interesting sights around town including a great food market and lots of shops selling all sorts of dried animals and plants that we can only presume are used in traditional medicine.  We witnessed a lady gutting live lizards with a pair of scissors one morning while out for a walk before breakfast.  Lovely!

Made it back to our hotel before the biggest lightening storm I have ever seen started.  Sat on our balcony for an hour watching the lightening illuminate the bay – huge forks of lightening and constant flashes with very little thunder.  Took some great video footage, which I’ll try and upload to the blog if I can find a fast enough internet connection. 
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