Day 4 (11/08/2010)
I awake early, around 6:15am early. Not early enough to catch the sunrise but I am able to snap a photo out of my window in the soft morning light.
Breakfast comes later and proves lively as the two couples plus myself make for an easy conversation. I have no idea what was for breakfast though. I’d guess fresh fruit. Deigo and Carla have a day of kayaking scheduled, smooth waters and minimal blisters I hope. Oh, we were joined by a French couple at breakfast who did the all day kayaking yesterday, so we didn’t meet them until we all sat around the table. All too soon we say goodbye to the kayakers (and luckily for them the rain let up early so they didn’t have a drownedrat day on the water) and the Halong Phoenix Cruiser to clamber aboard a smaller tender and head off for Cat Ba Island.
Alas, we are joined by 2 French dilettantes who are the embodiment of spoiled Parisian Eurotrash. As long as everything went precisely their way, ‘c’est magnifique’ if not, ‘c’est terrible.’ (Please use an appropriately snooty French accent there, the type that makes most of the world want to punch the French right in their ‘bouche.’) They’re not travelers or even tourists… just… “‘orrible!”
This boat trip is the highlight of Halong Bay. The first day was like an oversized bathtub filled with a cluttering of toy boats. Now, setting our own pace and path, we wind and wend our way amongst the karsts, marveling at how the limestone bases are continuously nibbled on by an insatiable sea. None of these 3000 islands are permanent. In time, all will succumb to the relentless waters. Even Cat Ba Island. In the intermediating millennium (from the conception of Halong Bay to the unforeseeable demise of Cat Ba Island) some karsts will collapse into the sea, top heavy and overbalanced while others will split apart cracked by waves and wind and human intrusion (observation) along miniscule fissures.
The karsts reveal surprises and secrets. Unexpected fauna (monkeys) and topography as the style of them can change. All are similar in shape, roughly rounded limestone stacks. Some seem like lumps of grey-green clay plonked down in milk-emerald waters, others seem to have been heaved like a haunch of meat exposing a dun coloured core. Some beckon with shining, yellow-sand beaches. All though show the timeless and ceaseless efforts of the tide to lap away the karsts at the waterline.
Yes, this is how to see Halong Bay on a small craft as it meanders around a stately maze of islands and waterways.
All too soon we make it to Monkey Island. There are a score of semi-tame plump monkeys lazing about looking for free, fresh bananas.
I’m not impressed.
Wandering the beach and looking for shells or laughably trying to aid Mattias disembark prove for more entertaining. That and wading in bathtub warm water and smiling at how cool it feels when compared to the hot summer morning.
Sand between my toes remains one of my simplest pleasures.
On to Cat Ba Island.
The amount of sea-homes delights me, even as the number suprises me. Whole communities of floating fish farm shacks dot the coves offered by the karsts. Sometime it is a single shack ducked away somewhere, but near Cat Ba harbour hundreds of them cluster and float. No cars, but a myriad of boats in varying shapes and sizes. Some with motors, others requiring oar power. Most will likely have a few cages for fish farms and nearly all will work on the water. Fishermen, ship captains, floating convenience stores. They live six inches above the waters of Halong Bay, safe to say most earn their livelihood on it.
The Hotel View Hotel in Cat Ba Town is not a 3 Star hotel but a trussed up gulag. Do NOT stay there! Hard mattress, bland set menu, cluttered and dirty corridors. The bathroom on the Phoenix II was more deluxe than the Hotel View… and the toilet worked better too!
The sole highlight was one decent photograph of the harbour at night. I’m certain I could have snagged that photo elsewhere.
Mattais, Kirsten and I rent scooters. Why do I do this again? I dream of owning one and zipping along back roads in strange lands. The reality is I’m an unnatural biker at best and having my legs straddling or my ass resting on a motor never ends well for me.
To wit, as we try to find a gas station to top up the tanks, I hit a patch of sand, the wheels slip on me and I lay the bike down.
I’m fine, but I know the gasgirl will have called the guy who rent it to me before we make our way out of Cat Ba Town. And Cat Ba is not a big town. One ‘main’ road of hotels and restaurants and a few streets that branch off to supply more hotels, souvenir shops and clubs. That’s Cat Ba Town.
But we do escape the ‘traffic’ and then there is nothing but open road and wind whistling through my hair, because my Giant Kerr Head means the Vietnamese helmet doesn’t come close to fitting.
Cat Ba is the biggest of the karsts and runs 30kms long and 20kms wide. The eastern half of the island is a national park with some rare, nearly extinct primate, but we’re not interested in invisible monkeys, we want to scoot around and go fast.
So we do.
Outside of the Greater Metropolitan Cat Ba Region the buildings shrink and disperse and soon the tropical plant life takes over.
Once again I’m 5 and dreaming of dinosaurs. Except now the appropriate foliage is provided and all I have to do is supply the triceratops, stegosauruses, pteranodons and Tyrannosaurus Rexes.
Done and done.
We race to the end of the island, skipping the Hospital Cave (I wasn’t leading and it was too near the start of the trip), pausing at the Frog Pond (well, we heard them) and not stopping until we’re at the end of the ferry dock at the northern tip of Cat Ba.
Then we reverse course, racing along softly curving flats and slowly marginally as we ascend hills. At the one fork in the road, we turn roughly west and aim for the next ferry dock.
Matthais revels being on the bike, racing ahead so he can then return, flying buy us before doing a 180 and dropping in the back, before passing again in a rush of speed again and repeating the process. As we near the second ferry terminal my attention is caught by the fisherwomen laying out shrimp on nets and then pounding them into grainy pink powder to make one of Vietnam’s signature shrimp pastes.
Alas, the scene captivates Kirsten too and she stops… in front of me… just as I’ve turned my head to watch the women. I see Kirsten in front of me and swerve. Yanking on the breaks but the scooter lurches and jitters forward. Naturally, this occurs on a bridge and I’m jerking towards the railing.
So I lay it down when I hit the cement curb. I’m fine, a scraped elbow is all. My ego is the bruised bit.
I feel like a fool.
Now, in retrospect I think the big problem may have stemmed from the fact that I released the back break instead of the front break. Instead of halting the forward momentum with a power break, the front hand break encouraged the scooter to dance spastically towards the bridge railing.
I’m fine, the bike is scratched but rideable. Again, Cat Ba is a small island, chances are before we make the ferry loading zone the guy back in Town knows.
We’d planned to have a drink at the dock but some dredge work kicks up a cacophony so we double back and stop at a cool place I’d spotted on the drive out. I almost stopped there prior to the spill, but I’m glad I didn’t. I would trade nothing about my life because all of this was leading me back to Hanoi and a very special girl.
We sip Cokes in the sun-drenched serenity before making our way back to Cat Ba Town along the coastal road. Cruising along past one scenic spot after another until making it back to town just before the sun sets.
We do a perfunctory ‘reccy’ of the 3 beaches and snap some sunset pictures.
Back at the hotel, the Cat Ba hits the fan. The guy who rented me the bike arbitrarily decides I’ve done $80 US worth of damage to his scooter.
After rides to a mechanic shop (all 3 of us,) calling my tour guide, haggling, threatening, the near tears of the owner (probably crocodile tears), we settle on about $35 US. I know I’ve overpaid but at this point, I just don’t care. I did have to get Mattias to lend me 100 000 Dong. Getting into arguments, in foreign countries, without losing your cool can be heaps of fun and make for great memories.
Oh, and I *so* wanted to pop the monstrous zit on the side of the scooter owner’s nose.
To thank Mattias, Kirsten and our guide, we go to the excellent Green Mango restaurant; 4 people, 500 000 Dong (about $25US) and I happily pick up the bill.
A positively exorbitant 1.2 million Dong on the day ~ which totals at under $65US. That’s a low key day of touristing it in major European or North American cities.
Mattias and Kirsten helped me out, not letting the motorcycle touts isolate me and bully me. Our guide played arbitrator to me, that’s worth a dinner at least. Remember that 1.2 million Dong pricetag on the day… is 300 000 Dong less than Zitty the scooter owner’s initial demands. (Also don’t rent from the motorcycle touts outside the Hotel View in Cat Ba Town. Up the street you can get much better deals.)
Mattias and Kirsten leave early tomorrow, whereas I’ve booked an extra day on Cat Ba to do nothing.
I bid them good night and I hit the… one night club I can find. I’m offered a lot of ‘boom boom’ at very reasonable prices. The Blue Club is forgettable and after one beer I head back to the hotel, miraculously managing to avoid more ‘boom boom’ offers.
All and all, I’d say that counts a very good day.