Cat Ba Island

So I’m back with another entry and one step closer to finally finishing this blog. Just a forewarning – this post has a LOT OF PICTURES! Writing this entry made me realise just how brilliant the last 5 weeks of my trip was – as some of my favourite parts of my entire time away are coming up in the next few blog posts. I absolutely cannot wait to go back to this part of the world again in a couple of months time, and relieve some of the things I did once again…

Anyway, after a whirlwind few days in Hanoi with some great people I departed the city early in the morning, bound for Cat Ba Island. I’d chosen to visit Cat Ba for a number of reasons. Firstly, a visit to UNESCO World Heritage Site Ha Long Bay is an absolute must of any trip to Northern Vietnam – and Cat Ba Island is the largest island in the bay, making it a great base to explore Ha Long and the neighbouring (and less visited) Lan Ha bays. Secondly, the Island has a huge national park and hundreds of acres of jungle to explore. Lastly, at this point in my trip I felt like getting away from the chaos of South-East Asian towns and cities for a little while – Cat Ba Island just has one small town on it making it a great place to relax for a while.

So, I paid my 210,000VND (about £7) and hopped on a stylish coach from Hanoi to the coastal city of Hai Phong (seriously, the intercity buses in Asia are so much nicer than what we deal with in the UK). I slept for most of the journey and before long we pulled off the main road and headed for the port. The bus journey became a little more interesting when we took another turn and went down an unbelievably bumpy dirt track – offroading in a 60 seater coach, interesting! Thankfully for my spine it was quite a short track and we reached a little jetty where we all crammed on a small ferry to the island.

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The boat that took us to the island. It went so fast and kicked up so much spray that sitting near a window meant you’d get absolutely soaked…

The boat journey was pretty unremarkable but soon the mountains of Cat Ba loomed above us, and we docked at some flatlands to the North West, where another coach was waiting to take us the remaining 40mins across the island to Cat Ba Town. As I was exhausted, I didn’t really take much in, so just wandered up a couple of streets until I found my hostel, checked in, and then crashed out for a few hours. That afternoon I set out for a stroll to have a look at the three beaches accessible from the main town – all were horrible, and absolutely rammed. Cat Ba is not famed for the town’s beaches, and for good reason.

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A view of the town on the cloudy day I arrived. Not the most photogenic coastal town I’ve seen! Note the floating restaurant in the foreground.

I quickly realised that the town is pretty miserable on the whole – it’s just a functioning cluster of streets all designed with tourism in mind – Cat Ba Island is a massively popular destination for the Vietnamese and Chinese. Still, I had a really enjoyable evening regardless, heading out for some drinks with a couple of people from the dorm, ending up in a karaoke bar until 2am where our company had swelled from three of us to about 20!

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Good times in the Karaoke bar

The next day though I woke and headed out on an all-day boat trip around Lan Ha and Ha Long bay. It was absolutely magnificent. We sailed past floating villages, kayaked into lagoons and through caves in the limestone rock faces, ate fresh fish caught that morning by the crew for lunch and all the while were surrounded by one of the most beautiful landscapes in the entire world. The pictures I took don’t come close to doing the place justice – for a better example of what it’s really like just google ‘Ha Long Bay’ and take a look. Anyway, here’s a few I took anyway:

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It was cloudy, but still a nice and humid 35 degrees.

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Kayaking – we headed through a cave that went right through the rockface on the right and emerged into a beautiful lagoon.

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A bit of sunshine

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Moving away from Lan Ha Bay and into Ha Long Bay

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One of the many floating villages we passed

One of the highlights was stopping off at Monkey Island, named due to the colony of monkeys living there. Here, we swam to shore from the boat and then I set about climbing to the top of the Island where I had an amazing view over the bay. Sadly I couldn’t take my camera or phone from the boat as we had to swim quite far, but the view was truly incredible and well worth the very sketchy climb up over sharp rocks.

Another highlight of the trip included a great secluded beach that we stopped at, and the day was rounded off by the other people on board – we were a mix of all ages and from all around the world, everyone got on great. I’d recommend Ha Long or Lan Ha bay to anyone, it really is absolutely stunning.

Back at the hostel that night I got talking to Aleks, a girl sharing the same dorm as me. We got dinner at a great vegetarian restaurant – ‘Buddha Belly’ – which was probably the best food I had on the island (no surprises that we went back the following three nights, it was that good). The food on Cat Ba is pretty poor (bar the fish) so finding a decent restaurant  was good news.

I woke up early the next day and took a bit of a risk by hiring a motorbike for the day to explore the island properly. It’s astonishingly cheap – just $4 a day to hire, plus about $1.50 in fuel. Having never ridden one before, it was pretty nerve-wracking getting on for the first time and figuring out how to ride the thing. The guy pointed out the throttle, brake and ignition, then disappeared back into the shop and left me to my own devices. Unfortunately, the rental place was situated at the top of a hill so my only option was to point downwards and try to figure it out as I went down the hill. It was a lot ‘heavier’ than I expected (nothing like the motorised bicycle I’d basically been hoping for), so steering was very sketchy at first and I was so scared to use the throttle that the engine cut out halfway down the hill and I had to start it again while going along. Turning the corner at the bottom was a bit sketchy too, but I made it fine and then worked out how to use the throttle.

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My bike!

After that, it was honestly fine – incredibly easy to ride and really, really good fun. There wasn’t too much traffic on the island so that wasn’t an issue and the road rules were really easy to get the hang of – basically use the horn every 10 s and follow what everyone else does! I filled up with fuel and then set out to explore the rest of the island, which is basically uninhabited, incredibly peaceful and unbelievably beautiful.

It really looks like you’re in Jurassic Park for most of the time. Everywhere is covered by a dense jungle with peaks towering above you, the road winds in and out and around every corner lies a view that seems to improve upon the last:

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I rode for hours, right to the north of the island where the road enters Ha Long Bay and then just……. stops…..

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I rode to the west, where the flatlands stretched out with their mangroves and rice paddies…

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I went off road, past quarry’s and along the cow-filled coast road….

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And rode right up to the Cannon Fort, a Japanese WWII base with astonishing panoramic views over the southern part of the island……

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It really was one of the best days of my trip. The sun was shining, I had the breeze rushing past me and keeping me cool; it was great. That night I met up with Aleks again, we got on really well and decided to rent a bike again the next day so we could both go and explore. It was really interesting hearing how she’d been living and studying at Uni in China, Ghana and NY over the past couple of years, I was pretty jealous.

The next day was more of the same, but it was even more fun exploring with a friend riding pillion on the back. We visited the same spots I’d been to the day before, then checked out the incredible ‘Hospital Caves’ – an amazing construction from the American War, where the Vietnamese built an entire hospital inside a cave, which kept it hidden throughout the conflict.

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More like a jail than a hospital!

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The entrance to the hospital

We then stopped off at the national park, where an hour long hike took us to the top of Ngu Lam Peak – the views from the top were just ridiculous and we spent a good hour up there, taking them in and soaking up the sun.

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Chilling on the edge, our hard work in climbing up providing a just reward

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Unbelievable views!

We did have one small mishap when we took a wrong turning and were met by an incredibly aggressive guard dog. With thoughts of rabies flashing through our minds we tried to turn the bike around before it bit one of us, but in our panic toppled it. The dust it created made the dog back off long enough for us to get the bike upright, climb back on and drive off, but when it fell over the exhaust pipe had landed on my leg and burned it very badly, leaving a scar which I still have now, 9 months on. Aleks was completely unhurt luckily, and once we’d escaped we enjoyed the drive back into town. Bloody dogs!

That evening, we had another great meal at Buddha Belly and a few drinks at the seafront – one of the nicer spots of the town, with a great sunset view over the mass of floating restaurants and fishing boats that cluster around the town. I was staying in a different hostel that night and leaving the next day, so it was a little sad saying our goodbyes – you meet so many people when backpacking and make so many new friends, so saying goodbye to them so quickly is always pretty hard. Over the course of my trip I made hundreds of friends but probably 4 or 5 really good ones who I’ve stayed in touch with – Aleks was one so hopefully we’ll meet again.

Leaving Cat Ba the next morning, I returned to Hanoi for another night or two via the same bus-boat-bus combo that had taken me there. In Hanoi, I spent the days chilling and wandering the streets with people from the hostel, sampling the street food and sifting through the market stalls. It was another great few days in one of my favourite cities, but before long I was on the road again, headed for the mountain township of Sapa and the might Mount Fansipan, Indochina’s tallest mountain….

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