It’s a bus, bus, ferry, bus ride to get to Cat Ba island from Hanoi. We are off to see the limestone karst formations that have made Halong Bay famous, but have opted for a quieter version to Halong City, which apparently is filled to the rafter with tourists and hundreds of boats.
Cat Ba island is the largest island around Halong Bay. It is a rugged and jungle clad island and we look forward to some awesome adventures here.
It takes us the bulk of the day to get to the island, but from the minute we step off the ferry and onto the bus that takes us to Cat Ba town, we are mesmerized by the scenery. It’s overcast, drizzly and grey, but somehow this only manages to exaggerate the natural beauty of the large limestone cliffs reflected in the small rice paddy fields. The effect is eerie and beautiful.
Our hotel is magnificently situated right on the main strip overlooking the small bay which is filled with fishing boats, large and small, that have docked for the evening. Our room, situated on the 6th floor offers an incredible view and we are as excited as children in a candy store.
We stroll along the promenade, cameras in hand, but night is fast approaching and the photo opportunities fading with the setting sun. It only serves to enhance the excitement for what’s in store for us tomorrow.
One of the best ways to familiarize yourself with any new place, is to walk the streets and to, literally, get lost. Every turn holds a new surprise, there are no pre-conceived expectations and there is complete freedom in not having to follow a map or schedule. We walk along the promenade, past the fishing boats, along the windy road, onto a dirt track which leads us down to a large resort on a secluded beach.
The resort looks to be fairly empty and we attribute this to the bad weather. We continue our walk along the beach and onto a walkway which hugs the cliffs, with spectacular views out to sea and the limestone karsts standing guard like sentinels in the grey fog. Regardless of the slight drizzle, fishermen in small boats are out to fish for their daily catch. We watch in amazement as an old man rows his boat with his feet, at the same time preparing his fishing line with bait, and making sure he doesn’t row his boat onto any rocks or other boats coming along.
Our walk takes us onto a second beach in a secluded bay, and this one too hosts a large resort undergoing some construction work. Again the resort is empty barring a bus load of Asian youngsters who have a ball posing against the backdrop of the sea and cliffs for photographs.
Unfortunately, the walkway along the other side of the beach has seen better days and is no longer walkable, so we return to the town to arrange our boat and kayaking trip for the following day. I have to confess that we have a coffee too in the process, but you’ve probably guessed as much by now!
Keen to see some of the sights on the island, we enquire about hiring a motorbike, but are advised against it and are sold a “motorbike with driver” package for each instead. I promptly get given a bicycle helmet for protection and jump onto the tiny bike behind a man half my size in height and weight! I laugh heartily as I catch sight of our reflection passing the shop and restaurant windows along the way. I would like to say that we speed off with the wind in my hair, but the truth is that the poor motorbike can hardly make it up the steep climb and I could have walked faster without trying too hard.
Eventually the little bikes make it to their destination regardless of their heavy loads. We had been told by some other travelers in the town that Hospital Cave is a “must see”, so here we are. During the Vietnam war, a huge cave system was used as a bomb proof secret hospital and safe – house for VC leaders. Our guide takes us from one chamber to another, 17 in total, including an operating theatre, cinema and a number of wards. The cave system is 3 stories high and housed over 200 patients. Complete with emergency evacuation and secret exits, it is an amazing feat of engineering and we are glad to have taken heed and seen it.
Our steeds and drivers are waiting for us and swiftly transport us to the entrance of our next site visit – Fort Cannon. From the entrance at the bottom of the hill, it’s a long 20 minute uphill, windey walk to the top. The uninterrupted views of the harbour, the karsts and sea from the top are sublime. Cannons and tunnels were placed here by the Japanese during World War 2 and were subsequently used during conflicts by the French and the Vietnamese. Given that the sun is well hidden by lots of cloud, there is no sunset to be appreciated but, regardless, we stay as long as possible before heading down and back into town.
Tomorrow we spend the day out at sea, kayaking in and amongst the karsts. For now, it’s time to find some coffee and maybe some noodles or rice.