We left Hanoi early on Nov 10th, one day after returning from Sa Pa. Already the constant honking of motorcycle horns was starting to get to us. Hanoi is a place to be taken in small doses: more scenic than many cities we've been to, but with sidewalks filled with parked motos, constant honking, and the ever-present likelihood of being run over by them no matter where you stand, it is a little hard to take. I've come to the conclusion that motorcycle scooters are evil, nasty things that must be wiped from the face of the earth.
Ha Long Bay is one of the most beautiful places in Vietnam, we were told, and knew we would spend time there. We booked a three day boat tour and would stay three extra days on our own in Cat Ba Town.
To get the negative stuff over with: the tour guide really just shuffled us on and off of buses like cattle, the boat trip technically didn't take us into Ha Long Bay, the food was mediocre at best, and we discovered by talking to our fellow travellers that we likely paid almost double what we should have for the trip.
Now, as I write this atop a boat floating between sheer-cliffed islands covered in lush green jungle forest, I realize the tour was simply a way to get here. A means to an end. As such, it was just fine.
Notable from our tour:
-First glimpses of the sheer limestone cliff islands raising out of the ocean like a thousand jagged teeth. Strange and mysterious regardless of the flocks of tourist boats.
-Our cabin toilet which flushed water onto the floor, then down the drain. Clean water, we thankfully discovered later.
-A gruelling two hour hike through the jungle on Cat Ba Island in the heat across razor-sharp rocks and up steep paths draped with strange jungle trees. Some saw monkeys, though I only heard them: they sounded like a waterfall moving in the trees.
-Swimming in the ocean as we anchored in a small lagoon ... I mostly just floated about in the salt water, relaxing.
-Exploring a painfully touristy cave (Hang Thien Cung or "Grotto of the Heavenly Palace") decorated with coloured lights and dotted with penguin trash cans (why penguins?!?!?)
-Being on a boat, which I enjoy regardless of the surroundings or conditions
Cat Ba town is a sleepy little town made up mostly of hotels and restaurants. Most appear to be empty, as I suppose we are in the off-season here (though I'm not so sure of that). Our first day on our own was a lazy one: we walked around the town and found some fruit in the market, searched for some tours we could take, and Laura had a long nap while I watched a James Bond marathon on TV. I guess we needed a relaxation day.
The following day we took a Ha Long Bay day tour ($10 each for the day including lunch). We visited two much less touristy and more interesting caves, went swimming in the warm waters of secluded bay (well I did while Laura watched), and saw more of the strange white cliffed islands jutting from the water. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of them, many no bigger than a few city blocks but towering twenty stories high at least.
On the way, we saw many of the fishing villages that are scattered between the islands here. They are basically floating houses with nets attached to keep the fish they catch fresh until they take them to market. I suspect the one we are docked at now as I write this makes more money from the tourist boats herding visitors aboard their fishing boats for a 20 minute tour than they do from fishing (I see eight large tour boats unloading people into this village now, probably 10 tourists for every house in the village). As our boat motored home from our first trip of independent travel, we noticed something floating in the water: it was one of the many dogs that live amongst the floats and nets of the village, sadly drowned.
With one more day of exploring Ha Long Bay before travelling back to Hanoi, I think we had received a pretty typical experience of the place: it was tranquil and interesting, but not really as unique as I expected: Ha Long Bay looks similar to Howe Sound but with unusual islands everywhere. I felt neither overwhelmed nor disappointed.
On our last day, we decided to be a little more adventurous: we had heard of a cave that you enter in a kayak at low tide which allows entry into a large saltwater lake. It sounded interesting, all the more so because no tours went there. We chartered a boat ourselves to go there.
As we ate dinner on the day before our kayak adventure, a man on a motorbike pulls up and approaches our table: it was the man from the hotel where we chartered the boat. We needed to leave at 11:30 the next day for the tides. We thanked him and he departed. How did he know to find us there at that restaurant?!? Strange.
We woke up and headed to the beach, wanting to at least walk the boardwalks teetering over the rocks and ocean before boarding our boat. The supports were rusted and Laura wondered when they had last been checked by an engineer: I suspect never. There were beautiful views though and it was a pleasant walk despite the heat. On the way back we saw thousands of little fish the size of anchovies laying on the rocks and sidewalk to dry in the sun. Rather smelly, but amazing how few flies or birds were nearby.
By noon we were aboard our boat, a large wooden craft resembling a tugboat with a diesel engine that sounded like either a machine gun or very loud and uneven drumming. After half an hour of purchasing fuel (it comes in plastic jugs resembling large juice containers) and finding us a double kayak, we were on our way (our destination was pretty close to Quan Lan in case you're following along on a map). The sun was high and warm in the sky but we were cooled by the ever-present wind. As we passed through the islands into open ocean, rollers rocked the boat enough to make it fun. We rested on the roof and held on to prevent our things being rolled into the ocean.
After a while, we spotted what looked like floats for a large fishing net scattered in our path. The boat slowed, I assumed, to find a way around the net. Instead, one of the crew excitedly hung over the side as the boat approached the float: it wasn't a float, it was a carton of cigarettes! The next 10 minutes involved occasional diversions to collect more cartons floating in the open ocean. A quick look showed there were likely hundreds of cartons bobbing in the water around us. After 6 (one of which looked like it had been bitten in half), we proceeded on our way.
We anchored in a small bay and slid into our double kayak. Stay to the left, we were told, the tide is going out so there will be currents. A little tricky maybe. Careful, we were warned with a point at our heads. Lucky we brought our hats!
Approaching the cave, we both were nervous. It was completely dark with barely enough room for our heads. Silhouettes of stalactites hung around us as I tried to navigate us through them. In front of us, it was totally dark. There was a crackling popping sound as the water lapped around our oars. I was just about to suggest we turn back when we saw a glimmer of light in front of us. Moving forward slowly, I had to lay down in the kayak to fit in what was probably less then 3 ft above the water line. We eased forward, the light increased, and a short turn brought us into the sudden light of a small lake surrounded by steep cliffs. It was an amazing moment.
The lake was maybe the size of a city block, but so quiet and peaceful that it had a magic perfection. We stopped paddling and drifted; a soft hush of wind in the trees and the calls of unseen birds were the only sounds. All around us, white limestone cliffs rose steeply from the water's edge, and thick vegetation grew from every ledge and crevasse. We paddled about slowly, enjoying this perfect place.
As we circled the little lake, we discovered another cave through which we could see light and the sound of waves. Another opening to the ocean? We eased the kayak forward into the darkness, the cave opening around us. It was huge. We couldn't see the rock above us, only darkness. To the right and left, darkness concealed its dimensions. I'm guessing it was at least the size of three tennis courts. We moved forward and emerged into another larger lake. It was about 1 km in length and surrounded with the same cliffs and lush greenery. We paddled slowly, pausing to listen to the water, the wind, the birds.
A sampan carrying another visitor interrupted our peace after a couple of hours and we knew it was time to leave. The caves were easier to leave now that the tide had receded. After a little exploring, we returned to the boat and its napping crew. The cartons of cigarettes had been stacked neatly in a corner.
An hour or so later, we were back in Cat Ba town having dinner. It was one of those magical days that are the reason we are doing this trip. I hope that cave remains largely unvisited and unknown to the tour operators. Thankfully, most will be too nervous to enter it. May it remain a tranquil paradise hidden from the world, connected only by a small dark and rather unsettling cave.
As I write this, we head back to Hanoi. I'll have posted this by dinnertime. Around me, the boat is filled with tourists who have had a nice, but unremarkable visit. I'm pleased that we managed to make it something special.
Our trip to Ha Long Bay began with a 3-hour bus trip out of Hanoi. We passed large garden plots in empty lots awash with various shades of green. It is nice to see that urban agriculture still thrives here and that at least some of the produce we eat must be local. The gardens are tended by hand and we see the people in their conical hats stooped over the rows of plants as we quickly pass by on the road. We also pass many factories with manicured lawns and motorcycle parking lots for the employees. I wonder how much of the stuff we buy at home comes from these factories and what the working conditions are like inside. The factory grounds are very nice, but there are no windows on the buildings and there appear to be living quarters located outside.
As we near Ha Long Bay, the rocky islands begin to appear and my excitement builds. I am very much looking forward to a few days on the water and some peace and quiet (Hanoi is just too loud for me!). As we board the boat, we meet Deanna, a fellow Canadian, and we began to chat about home and our travels thus far. She has just finished a year of working as a teacher in Saudi Arabia and then traveled through China. It is fun to talk with someone for whom English is their first language. We don't need to speak in simple sentences to be understood!
The views of Ha Long Bay from the boat are wonderful. Hawks soar above the cliffs and the blue of the ocean stretches off into the distance. The first cave we see is a disappointment. It reminds me of Carlsbad Caverns in the US - tons of tourists, hand rails, coloured lights and not one single bat. Our tour is really lame, but the chance to meet some other travelers and share a few cocktails over travel stories, makes it worthwhile. Our 3-day tour comes to an end and we say goodbye to our group and prepare for a few days on our own. It is just what we needed - a few days to rest, take naps (me!), and meander around town searching out Bia Hoi places (cheap beer stalls) at night (Matt).
We take another one day tour that leads us to some natural caves and this time I get to see small bats hanging from the roof (very cool!). It is so nice to be in a cave that has not been altered for the benefit of visitors. We spend the day on the boat with a Swiss couple nearing the end of their 7-month trip around the world. They give us lots of information about Laos and we are even more excited about the next leg of our journey. Also on this journey, we pass several floating fishing villages (essentially small homes on floating barges surrounded by nets). Each house has at least one dog (sometimes more). We wonder how they run and play? What if they fall in the water? How would they get back up on the barge? As we float by the dogs bark at us showing us their role as guard dogs, I suppose.
Our last day is spent walking the boardwalk over the ocean (spectacular!) and then visiting the tunnel cave. This is a highlight of the trip for me. A chance to float in a kayak listening only to the sounds of songbirds and water lapping gently against the rocks. I hadn't realized how much I needed this. The scary excursion through the two tunnels was worth it. There was so little room in the cave that I seriously wondered what the hell we were doing, but when the light from the other end showed us the tranquil view beyond, we paddled on. If there had been a place to go ashore and set up a tent, it would have been hard to convince me to leave! As we sailed back to town that evening, the orange sun was setting over an azure sea and I said to Matt "today was what this trip was all about..."