Ha Long Bay to Cat Ba Island

It was time to leave Hanoi, and up next was the touristy but beautiful Ha Long bay area. The bay is about 4 hours bus ride east from the Viatnamamese capital. Our initial impressions of the bay; breathtaking, awe inspiring, and… completely overrun by tour groups.

We knew this going in, so we made a point to book only 2 days boat trip in Ha Long and then get dropped off on Cat Ba island, a large sanctuary in the middle of the bay.

Our guide called himself “Happy” but was far closer to “Melancholy” or even sometimes “Miserable.” We referred to him as “Grumpy” for simplicity. Grumpy led the group from bus to boat to cave to kayak with the enthusiasm of a cow at a slaughterhouse. We did enjoy a view from the boat and our brief kayaking trip was interesting, but it was all less impressive with Grumpy barking the orders.

The live aboard boat was nice and the room looked top rate… until the diesel engine turned on and perfumed our cabin with the smell of dead dinosaurs. After some cave tours (very guided) kayaking and dinner, Grumpy proclaimed we could now go swimming (in the dark) or sing karaoke. Hmmm, we’ll go with option three, a beer and a book on the balcony. Which is what most of the other tourists did. Except of course for the two Americans on board, fellow Texans to be exact. They proceeded to get drunk and annoy the shit out of everyone on the boat well into the early hours of the morning. Just when we are getting a good name for ourselves these two Yankees come along.

Luckily, the next day we boarded a different boat with a less obnoxious group and drank coffee while we cruised for a few hours through the limestone karts encircling the bay. The rock formations are clustered so heavily together that they create alley ways to sail through. Millions of years have carved intricate patterns on each cliff and many have hollowed out archways, grottos, and caves. We met an interesting Danish couple who have travelled everywhere in the world. They proceeded to fill up our notebooks with tips for future adventures. It’s a strange phenomenon, but the more one travels, the more there is to explore.

We landed on the island of Cat Ba and enjoyed a surprisingly strenuous climb through the national park to a look-out tower. Lawsuits are not top of mind in Vietnam, as the tower was threatening to collapse at any minute. Nevertheless we enjoyed the view and creakily descended to the jungle below. (The Danish couple – 66 and 68) summated the mountain and tower too. we love them.)

After our hike we abandoned the tour and made tracks to our hotel in the harbor. Ten dollars is a pretty good deal for a harbor view on the fourth floor with clean sheets, aircon, and hot water. Unfortunately, no mice were available to fall on sleeping faces.

Next on the itinerary? Another rock climbing trip, but this time in the middle of tropical Lan Ha Bay. We boarded a small motor boat to a hidden beach then an even smaller basket boat to our climbing muse. Our group tackled several walls that went from fun to challenging to frustrating. The latter was a wall Cortney and I tried numerous times but could not conquer. Our guides showed us how easily it’s done, leaning into all the right places and effortlessly making it up and under a near horizontal overhang. We all started to make progress and as Cortney reached for the top of her line, 30 meters above the ground… “BOOM” we heard a huge explosion.

Looking down into the bubbling lagoon nearby, she was able to figure out the culprit. Local fisherman were bombing the reef to stun fish and collect them. Not a legal activity but something that apparently goes on quite a bit in Asia. At that moment, being up on a cliff turned out to be the safer place to hang out. (Try and find me stuck in a crevice in the picture above. The red helmet should give it away.)

Our final day on Cat Ba saw us build up the courage to rent some scooters and cruise around the island. It was a great way to get started as the traffic was light and the views were epic. We rode at a blistering 40k/hour through the national park, and past estuaries, lagoons, and rice fields to a famous site called hospital cave. A local man, who said he actually fought in the war, but looked about 35, gave us a tour of the cave.

Built over 50 years ago in conjunction with the Chinese, the hospital is actually a building embedded inside a cave. It’s a large complex with solid cement walls. The cave houses numerous rooms for dining, sleeping, medical operation, and there is even a small swimming pool and movie theatre. This was a crucial stronghold for the Vietnamese during the American war. They were able to operate on soldiers and offer some R & R without those pesky Americans discovering their secret hiding place. After the tour, the soldier and I made amends for the war by playing a game of pool. Beer was consumed and wounds were healed.

Cortney and I made it safely back to our hotel in time to accompany the local climbers to a valley in the middle of the island for a bonfire party. We sang karaoke, drank more beer, and toasted well into the night with local rice wine. Mawt, Hai, Ba – Yo! Thanks for the good times Cat Ba.