Originally published on facebook – October 22, 2010 at 6:59am ·

 HANOI – day 9 & 10.

A quiet day sitting in a coffee shop with wifi and western food. Drinking a cappuccino, heaven. I updated lots for you folks and got my journal current. Mailed gifts home, (Dad and Sharman, expect them in about 2-3 weeks, but don’t open until Christmas)  and spent about $90 usd dollars doing it, oops, from now on I am buying only really small things and carrying as much as I can in my backpack so gifts might be a little slim on Christmas morning we’ll see.

Had been thinking I would join a tour of Halong Bay but at the last minute I got inspired to just go to Cat Ba Island (in Halong Bay) and do it myself so……

IN TRANSIT – day 11.

Got up early to get a bus from Hanoi’s Gai Lam station. 9am bus to Halong City which Lonely Planet said should take 3 hours. The 9 am bus left promptly at 9:20 and then broke down before we actually left the station. I am steered to another bus which ends up leaving at 10am (or thereabouts). The bus is small and dirty, when I toss my backpack onto the seat a cloud of dust rises, no surprises. Almost as soon as I get on, before the bus even gets moving, I hear retching noises and realize that there is a woman throwing up into a plastic bag a few seats in front of me, great. She hands the bag off to her neighbor in the window seat who promptly throws it out the window of the (still unmoving) bus. Her friend in another seat soon joins in the vomiting chorus once we are moving and I resort to wearing my ipod so I can’t hear the noises. They have stuck me in the very back seat, it’s very bouncy, and my big pack is crammed between my seat and the seat in front of me, no room at all for my legs, I’m traveling sideways for the next few hours. This is supposed to be a 3 hour bus ride to Halong city where I hope to catch a 5 hour tour boat to Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay. Except with the 45 minute lunch break we take (where I don’t eat thinking we’ll be in Halong any second) and the constant stopping and starting so the bus tout can try to get people on board it takes 5 hours.

I am waved off the bus at the side of the highway where a group of motorcycle taxis are waiting. I have no choice I have to get on one, no helmet for me. I tell him it’s my first time and to please be nice, he is. He puts my big pack between his knees, I wear my small one. He tells me to hold onto him so I do and we take off. I ask him to take me to the boats for Cat Ba but he mumbles something about low water and takes me to a hotel. There they tell me that there aren’t any more boats today, it’s 3pm. I ask about going to Haiphong and whether I could get a boat from there today and they tell me yes. So I pay for another taxi (car this time) and head to the bus station.

Once at the bus station I buy a ticket and get waved around a lot. There is not much attempt to talk to me, rather there is a wave over the shoulder for me to follow or a gesture towards some general direction I’m supposed to go in. It’s helpful enough but always leaves a question in my mind…am I going where I actually want to go? On the bus from Halong City to Haiphong I get put in the backseat again (do you think this is on purpose?) it’s very bouncy and my spine is feeling compressed from the day already. I watch a mother pull her 3 year old sons pants down and  wrap a plastic bag around his penis so he can pee, and yup…she throws it out the window of the moving bus. Mental note: be very, very aware of flying plastic bags when alongside buses.

I get to Haiphong around 5pm, another motorcycle taxi. I neglect to mention I am new to this and he is classically maniacal. I just breathe and think that if this is the way I’m going to go then it’s not so bad, I’m traveling, doing something I love. I become accepting of the idea of my imminent death and am calm. At least I had a helmet this time, maybe I’ll just be permanently maimed. I feel so sure I am going to die that I am surprised when he pulls up to the place I can buy a ticket for the boat. But I’ve just missed their last one, they send us somewhere else, I’ve missed it too. I am stuck in Haiphong for the night. I buy a ticket for the first boat in the morning and get the driver to take me to the closest hotel which happens to be listed in my Lonely Planet as being “a good deal, small but clean” both of these points turn out to be debatable. $14 and a funny smell, but it’s within easy walking distance of the boat in the morning so I take it.

I’m starving and venture out of the hotel in the dark for some cheap eats….street food please. I find a stall and ask for anything “an chay” (eat vegetarian). I get a steamed rice crepe/noodle thing, made fresh in front of me on a big pot of boiling water with a tight skin over top for the “pan”. They cut it up with scissors and give me a dipping broth of some sorts. It’s not bad but not really very healthy. I dig in anyways and sing it’s praises to the chef, for .50 cents I’ll eat almost anything and it’s the closest I’ve come to a real meal all day. A little girl of 9 starts practicing her schoolgirl English on me. She tells me her mother is the woman who served me and her grandmother is the cook, neither look old enough to fill these roles but I go with it and smile a lot. I finish my meal and beat, I head back to my room for the night. No energy to explore the city, I haven’t been able to sleep on the buses at all (unusual for me), maybe because it was so bouncy my head kept getting knocked around if let it rest on the seat back. I have cable and get good use of it, becoming like vegetable for the rest of the evening.

Cat Ba Island – days 12, 13, 14.

I almost oversleep but make it to the ferry on time, only to be told that it’s broken down. I’m on the next one an extra 45 minute wait which gives me time for Nescafe at a street stall. The ferry is only about 10 minutes late leaving (pretty good) but once we start out I quickly realize there is no way we are getting there in the 45 minutes advertised. I’m right, it takes 70. No biggy but it’s kinda dull as there’s not much scenery until the last 10 minutes or so.  We approach Cat Ba Island from the west, heading to Cat Ba town which is on the south of the island. Most of the karst formations that make Halong Bay so famous are located up the east and north sides of the island.The few karsts I do see on the way are like mounds of limestone rising straight up out of the ocean. The vegetation on them starts around midway up and thickens towards the top. At water level the base is eroded so the big mound stands on a smaller base, some of them look quite like they could topple over at any moment. As we arrive in Cat Ba harbour there are hundreds of fishing boats (trawlers I think, though perhaps squid boats, not sure, they have rows of lights on them). They are all tied up alongside each other, in rows of 10 or even more. Ahead of me the town is visible and the buildings are all tall and narrow, like everything else I have seen so far. Not too much to be excited about, the town seems run down and a little seedy.

Off the boat a woman hands me a card for her hotel, $6 per night for my own oceanfront room with a balcony and a shower. I take it, good deal. There is a posher guesthouse in town called the Noble House, I have to check it out because I love James Clavell. It’s very nice and has a restaurant and a bar upstairs with a pool table and foosball. It becomes a place I hang out in at night, meeting other travelers. Only 1/2 a block from where I am staying it is easy and safe for me to walk home at night by myself. I spend a couple lazy days, really tired for some reason. Updated FB and photos, the weather has not been playing nice, grey and rainy most of the time. No tanning here darn it. I meet a variety of people, among them, Freya and Kane who are Canadians who live in Grand Cayman (super nice, very cool people) and Alexander and Anders from Denmark.

View from my hotel room of Cat Ba Harbour….

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On day 14 I do a 1/2 day tour of Cat Ba National park. Unfortunately it’s pretty much a waste of time. The forest is uninspiring and overly trodden. There were upwards of 20 Taiwanese people on the trail up with us and tons more as we were coming back down. Didn’t see a single animal or bird, anything living has long been scared away. Once we got to the top of the trail the view was nice but we were stuck in a pretty small area with some loud, though very friendly Taiwanese. On the hike with me were Joanna and Pawel, travelers from Poland and we got along well. Their friend Titus was back on their boat recovering from a wee bit too much alcohol the night before. They were good company. After the hike while we were waiting for our bus to take us back Pawel brought out the Vietnamese version of hacky sack. It’s a bunch of plastic discs joined together with a feather coming out of the top. We played and lots of people joined in and out, great way to break the ice with the Vietnamese, something which is much harder for me as a woman to do then it is for a man.

Back at my hotel I take a little nap and take myself out for dinner. I end up getting a Vietnamese massage at my table by this funny little man. It’s not the best I’ve ever had but good and I gave him just over a dollar for about 15 minutes. Worth it, yup. I head to the Noble House after and play some pool with Alex and Anders and a guy I had met in Haiphong waiting for the boat, Jan.

Cat Ba Island – day 15

I booked a day long tour on a boat to see the karsts. A bus takes 5 of us early in the morning to where the boat will launch from. We definitely have the “junkiest junk” of the junks I have seen, oh well. I start the introductions, Damien and Ninnie(?) from Belgium, Natasha from New Zealand and Santi from Spain. The weather is not ideal, cloudy, and we’re sure to get rain throughout the day though the sun tries hard a few times. We cruise our way up the east side of Cat Ba Island, into Halong Bay, taking loads of pictures, the memory card with those photos was either lost or stolen but people have been kind and sent me some of theirs so I do have some pictures to share,. The karsts are really quite amazing, even through the fog and mist. Santi, Natasha and I get on well, the Belgians are a bit more reserved but very pleasant.

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We’re taken to Sung Sot Cave (Cave of Surprises). It is apparently the biggest and finest cave in Halong Bay, also highly touristed. It actually got its name from the French, who called it grotte des surprises, or grotto of surprises. It is located on Bo Hon Island, near the centre of Halong Bay. There is a small pier where boats dock to allow visitors down. From the pier, a flight of 50 stone steps takes us to the entrance of the cave. The inside of Sung Sot Cave is simply cavernous. At many places the ceiling is low, and takes on a wavy appearance. A profusion of stalactites and stalagmites cover the walls. Multi-coloured lights have been installed to beautify the cave and bring out its grandeur. Coming out of the cave, visitors get a panoramic view of Bo Hon Bay below. It is THE iconic view of Halong Bay that has appeared in many postcards.

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After our tour of the cave we head down to our junk for some lunch, it’s been prepared by our guide on board as we cruised. We have fried spinach (water greens) with garlic, prawns, clams in lemon, fish and fresh tomato and carrot with a super spicy chili and garlic sauce for dipping. Yum. We continue to cruise while we are eating and after everyone goes for a little lay down, some nap. We’re taken to a small, secluded beach on one of the many islands, it’s only accessible by water. The captain anchors offshore and we all jump in. I’m the first one in the water and quite proud of myself for not being chicken about jumping into deep ocean water. I realize that it’s my first time in the waters of Vietnam, and that I am swimming amongst the karsts, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Good feeling. I try to take it all in and almost forget to wish it was sunny. We all swim towards the small beach, the boys try snorkeling but the sea is too deep green for them to see anything. I’m the first one to the beach and once out of the water it’s a little chilly. But the sand is golden, we are the only ones anywhere nearby and it feels almost pristine and prefect except for the ever-present bits of garbage (shame). There are large and small rock formations gathered on the on the narrow beach. Rock walls climb up directly out of the sand, it looks impossible to climb. We theorize that pirates must have loved this place, almost 3,000 islands and karsts all with tiny caves, inlets etc to hide their treasures. I collect a few pretty shells and tuck them inside my bikini top for the swim back to the boat. Chuffed I swam in deep water with only a little fear and so appreciative of the natural beauty surrounding me.

Back on the boat we rinse off with a little “sweet water” from a big barrel on deck. Still wet, I’m a little chilly but stay in my bikini as our next stop is to kayak. Within about 20 minutes we are there. Santi and I are are teamed up in one kayak, the Belgium couple in another and Natasha is on her own. We start paddling and Santi and I are a terrible team, we can’t make our kayak go straight so we zig-zag our way through the islands. We are a source of much hilarity, to ourselves and the others, it’s great fun. Our captain has told us we only have half and hour to explore but we figure he can’t really leave without us so we decide to stretch it out a little longer. We paddle around, watch rock climbers soloing over the water and falling in once they feel the need to get off the rock. We paddle through an arch under a very bumpy and peculiar looking karst, we meander around the floating houses of a fish farm and get barked at by the dogs. We stumble into a beautiful little sheltered bay where karsts surround us on all sides except the one we entered and the only other way out is through a 4 foot wide gap over very shallow water. We pause here and all take a few moments to appreciate the gorgeousness of this spot and to acknowledge how privileged we all feel to be here in this situation, for maybe just this one time in our lifetimes. We’re all pretty blissed out. Santi and I discuss weather there is enough depth to the water for us to go forward, he doesn’t think so but I do and the others say go for it so we do and glide over easily, we’re getting a bit better at steering now, sort of. We are heading back to the boat and I realize I haven’t done the one thing I visualized when I first thought of kayaking amongst the karsts, I tell Santi about it and say it’s a silly thing but he’s all for doing silly things so we go for it. We glide up to one of the karsts and work our kayak sideways so that we can slide right underneath the overhang, as we paddle towards the rock wall I look up and see the side of the rock disappear above me, blocked out by the overhang, we are underneath the rock. I reach out to touch it, which is what I wanted to do and then notice that the wall is scrambling with sea lice. Ewww. Guess we should have chosen a spot further away from a fish farm, we’re both kind of grossed out but still I reach out a tentative finger and poke the wall, Santi does the same. We laugh at each other but technically it’s done. Satisfied we paddle towards the others and meet up with our junk who has come looking for us. We drop off the kayaks, climb on board and into dry clothes and then start the ride home. We all feel great, had lots of laughs with the kayaks and some incredible experiences throughout the day. On the way back we pass through a floating village of fish farms, fishing boats and houses.

Back at the dock I see a group of Vietnamese guys playing the feather version of hacky sack, I join them and they seem a little surprised because I’m a girl but the let me join and seem pleased when I hit it back to them. Santi joins in as well and we kick it around for about 15 minutes until our bus arrives. Later after showers we all meet up at an “expensive” restaurant where I treat myself to a $5 glass of wine. (big, big treat). After we head to the Noble House for some pool and drinks. We’re all pretty exhausted and by 8pm it feels like 11pm. The others fade off and I play some pool with a couple Vietnamese guys, we’re all mediocre so it’s fun and friendly. Alex and Anders show up, we chat a bit and realize we are all heading to Ninh Binh tomorrow so we make plans to get in touch once we are there. Soon I am off to pack and get to bed before I fall asleep standing.

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