I open my eyes expecting to see blue skies and am somewhat disappointed that it’s another grey, misty day. Today we are exploring Lang Ha Bay with its high limestone cliffs, turquoise waters, secret caves and islets and fishing villages.
The bad weather is compensated by the fact that we are the only two people on the boat with our kayaking guide, the boat owner and chef. We have deliberately chosen to come to Cat Ba island instead of Halong City in order to avoid the plethora of tourist boats filled to capacity with partying humans of all nationalities, and it has paid off.
The boat chugs its way out of the small harbour and we pass fishing villages along the way. The people here live in small wooden houses, built on stilts above the water and make their living from fishing, fish farming and pearl farming. The villages are self-sufficient with floating petrol stations, food stores and schools. Most houses even have a couple of family pets, dogs or cats, running around the house and boats. It’s amazing to see how well adapted to their environment these animals are. Unfortunately, the down side to this human activity on water is the pollution. There is nobody sweeping the sea clean of all the discarded rubbish as there is on the land-based towns and cities.
The karsts are plentiful. They vary in size, height and width. Some are tall and skinny and are covered in plant life. Others are shorter and more squat and harbour white stretches of sandy beaches straight out of a travel brochure. The constant rhythm and beating of the ocean against the soft limestone cuts caves and crags into the base of many of them. I watch transfixed as the boat cuts a path between them.
With lots of anticipation and a fair amount of trepidation, we kit up with life jackets and get into our double kayak. I am more than just slightly concerned that my expensive camera equipment is strapped lightly to the top. We paddle out away from the boat, following our guide in his single kayak, and in less than 5 minutes, my arms begin to feel the strain.
Soon though, we are into a rhythm and moving evenly along the lagoon-like surface. Thankfully there is no wind nor waves to contend with. We pass along the oyster and fish farms scattered all around and make our way toward a high arch in one of the karsts. I feel so small and insignificant as we paddle our kayak through the arch and into a lagoon on the other side. We are surrounded by 50m high limestone cliffs. It’s eerily still and quiet and breathtakingly beautiful.
We paddle our way back to the boat which is anchored to one of the houses in the floating village. Whilst our lunch is being prepared on the boat, we warm up with strong Vietnamese coffee sweetened with condensed milk. The family allow me to hang up some of my wet clothing. Seems our paddling skills are not that great and I have splashed more water onto myself than necessary or advisable on this cold, grey day.
Over and above a couple of dogs, there are some birds in cages and a large brindle bass in a small pen alongside the fish being fattened up for onward sale. The bass has been kept as a pet in this small pen for 6 years for no reason other than the fact that its “owner” considers it lucky. I think it sad to have such a beautiful, large fish holed up in a small aquatic cage, but then I find it just as sad to keep fish in glass cages in aquariums around the world.
Lunch is a sumptuous affair. There are no less than around 8 different dishes, accompanied with rice, to eat from. We eat our fill and hardly make a dent. Some of the dishes have hardly been touched. I am horrified when they clear the table and the food gets thrown away into the bin. I would gladly have taken it with me in a “doggy bag”.
We say goodbye to our “anchor” hosts and make our way around the bay where we find another spot to anchor at. We get into our kayaks again, and this time I feel like a pro as we paddle along. I am sitting at the back and have the added challenge of steering, which entails pressing the right pedal if I want to steer to the right and the left pedal when I want to steer to the left. Sometimes I am concentrating so hard on paddling that I forget to steer. If someone had to track our progress, no doubt it would look like the meanderings of someone under the influence of some potent alcohol.
I have to concentrate hard when we navigate our way through a narrow cave with very shallow water in sections. We exit the cave into a large lagoon, once again surrounded by high cliffs. Our guide spots some monkeys, but they have heard us and hide away. I ululate and the sound echoes off the cliffs and bounces around and around until it dies down. We are in paradise!
The water is crystal clear and in a shallow section of the lagoon, we look for life in the water. There are some signs of little hard corals but no fish life. Surely this place should be covered in reefs and teeming with fish? We know that the area was heavily bombed during the war, and wonder to what extent the fishing villages and farming is having an impact on the natural habitat in this region. We do notice that there is no bird life. No fish means no birds, no birds means no mammals, and so on. We can’t help but think that the fishing activity and pollution in the area must be having an impact.
It’s late afternoon by the time we get back to land. I am wet and cold and cannot wait to get to our hotel and indulge in a hot shower and put on some dry, warm clothing. It’s a short bike ride into town and before long we are nursing a hot chocolate and re-living our magnificent adventures of the day.