Vietnam – Halong Bay, Cat Ba Island
Instead of travelling to Halong City from Ha Noi, we decided to make our way to Cat Ba Island, which is in Lan Ha bay, a little further on but part of the same limestone shoreline as Halong Bay. We were so happy we did – even though the island is absolutely full of Vietnamese tourists cycling around on hired tandem bikes and whizzing off to the beach in tourist shuttles which look like overgrown golf carts, its incredible beaches and coastal views are unbeatable. In the bay, the huge limestone Karsts tower over the fishing boats, looking like huge mossy boulders or small forested mountains that have been dropped into the sea. They actually look almost exactly like the floating islands from the movie Avatar because the sea has eroded the base of each karst, so the sides seem to fall away and suggest that the islands are floating just above the water line.
Through our hostel we were able to book a one day boat tour through Lan Ha Bay and into Halong. Boat trips from the mainland can cost hundreds of dollars, and have a bit of a bad reputation for being overcrowded and overpriced, so we definitely got the best deal with ours, plus the itinerary included ‘kayaking’ ‘beach swim’ and ‘climb up and jump off!!!’, which pretty much sold it for us, even though we weren’t really clear what we would be climbing up or jumping off of.
It turned out to be a lovely boat with a small ish group of other tourists, mostly backpackers, and we hardly saw any other boats the whole time we were out there *high fives*. It was actually pretty surreal to cruise through the ‘floating’ Karsts and tiny stilted fishing villages, and being in the middle of the bay surrounded by the huge boulders was kind of hard to take in.
It was gorgeous weather so we sunbathed on the top of the boat (Abi found a patch of shade to curl up in) and every so often the boat would stop and we would leap off and swim to the beach or clamber into kayaks, or ‘climb up and jump off!!!’ with great enthusiasm. The thing to climb turned out to be a smallish Karst, with a scramble over the back of the rock to the top that annoyingly turned out to be treacherous for anybody not wearing shoes sturdy enough to prevent toes from getting sliced in half. Some guys swam around to the front of the rock instead and after each of them had tried and failed and declared it ‘impossible’ to climb the sheer rock face, Abi swam up and climbed to the top, casual as you like, while I sat on the boat and took photos and said ‘that’s my sister’ a lot, to everybody.
Later, a couple of lads in our group somehow managed to sink their kayak which is actually really impressive because those things are almost unsinkable. Although, as one of of them pointed out in a later dramatic re telling of the story ‘I guess that’s also what they said about the Titanic’. This particular dramatic retelling focused on their heroic salvage of their kayak, and somehow skipped right over the part where they were screaming for help and had to be rescued by a man in a speedboat 😉
We had such a good day- the best thing was all the little beaches which formed along the sides of the larger Karsts, creating deserted coves for us to swim and dive in, and of course being able to spend all day out in the proper sun, one of my favourite things ever that I can never get enough of back in England.
The next day, we hired a motorbike and headed for the National Park in the middle of the island. Abi drove first to get some practise in and it was so weird being a passenger rather than driving – I was gripping onto the sides of the seat until we were well out of the town, when my instinct to grab my camera and start taking pictures of the beautiful green scenery made me forget everything else. We parked the bike and headed into the National Park on foot, following a shady path that soon turned into a steep climb up huge steps as we made our way up the mountain. It was so humid under the canopy, a proper jungle with vines and huge butterflies and green leaves dripping with condensation – it actually was a lot like the tropical greenhouse in Kew Gardens, except imagine that there are lots of steep steps which you can’t see because there’s sweat in your eyes. We somehow strayed onto the ‘adventurous’ trail, so, covered in sweat and totally exhausted from the trek, we ended up climbing and scrambling up through rocks and plants until we finally, finally, reached the top. Except that it wasn’t the top, and after we’d collapsed for a rest, weakly high fived with our weak arms and starting taking pictures of the view, we realised we still had to go down a little way and then scramble up some more to reach the summit. We did so, cursing and panting, but reached the top and had the most amazing view over all the mountains and out to the coast, it was incredible. We each drank about a litre of water and then headed back the way we had come. Going downhill should have been the easy part, but our legs were shaky from all the climbing, so we stumbled quite a bit and emerged at the bottom, our hair tangled with leaves and cobwebs, covered in cuts and mosquito bites, dripping with sweat and looking so worse for wear that the security guard had to look at us quite closely before he recognised us and let us have our bike back.
Back on the bike, we raced through the National Park and down to the coast, enjoying the breeze and the long deserted road. Turning a corner, we found ourselves speeding along beside a beautiful shoreline, with the limestone karsts silhouetted in the distance. We passed through a small village where the kids ran out to stare and wave at us, and then along more incredible coastline, through farmland, dodging cows and goats, and finally back to Cat Ba town where the buses, cars, bikes and tourist shuttles all jam in together on the narrow roads, and we had to get right jammed in with them, occasionally screaming a little for good measure.