Halong Horror, Cat Ba Paradise

We woke up at 4 AM to catch the bus out of town. I was having issues with my stomach, and running out the door at that hour required a large amount of Imodium Ad and determination. The owner had set up a bus for us, and he grabbed my bag and we crossed the road to catch the bus that was revving up to leave. Our bags were thrown in, and we were told to sit in two seats. Being super dazed, we really had no idea what was going on. We were told a price that seemed insanely high, but being so damn tired I could not focus, so I just went with it. Hours later I was kicking my self realizing that I had paid probably 6 times what I should have paid. This was the beginning of a horrible series of bullshit scams that had us shaking with anger. After seven hours we were dumped on the side of the highway where we had to negotiate with cab drivers to take us to a hotel.

Halong City is really a characterless place, which should never be visited. Tourists rip through there on day buses to do a tour, then head out of there just as fast. I’m not saying it’s a dirty town, it’s just a modern monstrosity is all. The prices of everything there were insanely high, for example $2.50 for a coke, which normally is 50 cents. We did not come across any good restaurants, and no bars. Strangely the whole town sat out on plastic tables at night and drank, but no one showed any interest in hanging with us.

There are two trips you can take on the bay, a four-hour boat ride around the Karsts in the ocean, or an overnight ride, which covers most the same ground. I read the guide book a bit too late to realize that we probably should be going to Cat Ba Island, not Halong City, and that the boat rides all seemed a bit cheesy and touristy. After a horrible breakfast, we had enough, and took a cab to the ferry where we sat for hours. Turns out there were not enough people today for the ferry to run, but for 100 bucks, we will drive you on a private boat. Yvonne and I were starting to get pretty frayed at this point, arguing over stupid things cause we were tired, and sick of scams. The woman would not budge on the price, till I held fifty bucks out, and said that was it. She stormed off three times, and I just kept repeating it. Yvonne said if the boat did not look safe, then there was no way she was going to get on it. Well, in comes a little speedboat, and I mean little. It really was made for three people, not including our huge bags. Yvonne’s face turned white, but I convinced her it was perfectly safe. I gave the hag our money, and climbed on board. Then the motor died.

We floated around a bit as he worked the engine, banging it here, yanking a cord there, cursing all the time. Our money was gone with the lady, so we had little choice now. After about five minutes he got the engine coughing, and I just smiled to Yvonne in a “No worries” manner. After all, for me this was what boating was all about. My brothers 1950’s Chris Craft boat never worked right, and breakdowns were just par for the course.
Well we were off, and beyond my concern for how much my girlfriend was going to kill me when we got to land again, I really could think of nothing else except how gorgeous the scenery was. The famous karsts rose out of the ocean like granite towers, and there were thousands of them. Some big, some small. Our little boat puttered through various islands, rising up above us jagged tombstones. The ride was only a half hour long, and we arrived to the docks of Cat Ba Island. A man waited for us there and grabbed our bags. Well, I might not have done my reading ahead of time originally, but I was not going to fall for this again. The book listed all the Halong scams, and a big one was at this very boat dock. Right off the bat he was giving us ridiculous prices to drive an hour to the other end of the island, 150 bucks, 200 bucks, ok my friend, for you, fifty bucks.

A bus leaves from the ferry docks 4 times a day. The reason we did not take the half-day boat trip, which could drop us off here, was because the bus does not run that late. Then you have no choice but to pay these crazy rates. I just kept repeating to the cabbies where do we pick up the bus. Finally he showed us a bench in what looked like a bus station. I had Yvonne sit there, while I wandered to the end of the lane. Well another cab driver chased me down, telling me that the bus picks you up where Yvonne was. He even grabbed my arm, which got a violent shake from me. I was not playing their games. Sure enough, right around the corner was the bus. I talked to the drivers, asking them if it was going soon, and they were like in half hour. I ran back to Yvonne, told her to grab her bag, and we ran back to the bus, which was pulling out. You see, they are all in cahoots, Vietnamese mafia, and it’s just disgusting. If we had sat there for five more minutes, we would have missed the last bus of the day, and had no choice but to pay these horrible prices. It’s really hard not to start hating a country after so many scams. We sat on the local bus grinning from ear to ear because this day we had won.

Cat Ba island is the only inhabited island in Halong Bay, and has a town at the other end. It is right smack in the middle of all the karst islands. It’s the best place to go in Halong bay, and so beautiful. If we had gotten off the local bus a town ahead of Halong City, we could have gotten the normal ferry, and missed out on all the scams. But now that we made it, life was good. The city is on a bay, and all the streets run up the side of a hill. It’s not a big city, but the views can’t be beat. It’s really magical. There are lot of restaurants and bars, and we got a great hotel room on the seventh floor for twelve dollars overlooking the bay. Twelve dollars, you can’t beat that ever. WE love it here.

That first night we wandered around the cliffs, taking a path that literally hugged the cliff, with the sea under us. We had not looked at a map of the island, so we had no idea what we would come across, but what we found was a nice little resort, with lots of bungalows in their own bay. We then went along another path, this one leading up the cliff and over, at one point there was one going along the water, but it clearly had collapsed in to the sea years ago, to a new resort that was being built in another private bay. You could see there used to be some rustic bungalows there, but that day was gone. It was time for fancy bungalows with air, tv, and all the fixings. On the way back we passed the first resort, and some of the workers were playing volleyball. I jumped in on the game, and even though they spoke no English, our team won a stunning victory. These guys could hit hard. It was so much fun, it had been six months since I had played ball.

We then got a drink on top of a cliff, and met an old British couple. After a few whiskeys we learned all the places to go on the island, where not to go, and made plans for dinner with them the next day.

We took it easy today, exploring around town, and headed up to the top of a hill to see an old fort from the war. There were numerous bunkers up here, and amazing views of the ocean and all the karsts. You could also see the floating fishing village and fish farms, all painted bright colors. There were numerous gun placements, and a underground bunker where soldiers stayed. There were rail tracks so munitions they could be moved around easily under ground. The fort was really cool, and was worth it just to see the views. I also stopped at Asia Outdoors, a rock climbing shop, and set up a kayaking/climbing trip for the next day.

That night Yvonne got pretty sick, so I went first thing in the morning to see if it was possible to cancel the trip. They gave all my money back with no hesitation, and gave me suggestions on doctors for Yvonne. The manager there was awesome, going way out of his way to help us get to doctor, for no gain of his own part. We caught a ferry to another city an hour away, and went to a hospital there. There were no English-speaking doctors, but one nurse spoke English, so they had her stay with Yvonne the entire time we were there. The nurses outfits here were all a pastel pink, and reminded me of nursing outfits from World War 2, with the funny hats, aprons, and pink skirts.

To help deal with boredom when Yvonne was gone, I pulled out my sketchbook and started drawing the nurses, and random other people in the hospital. Poor Yvonne was getting poked and prodded by a million doctors, and I just kept moving from one waiting room seat to another waiting room seat, depending on what room she was in. One nurse stopped and looked over my shoulder, than she waved to another one, next thing I know I have half the staff looking over my shoulder.

Nice art, beautiful, and various other comments were being said in broken English. Soon they were leafing through the entire book. Yvonne came out of the room with her nurse to find me with six nurses hanging around me. I see you are very popular here baby, would you like to stay longer. Lol. Hell no. We got her medicine, hopped on the ferry, and were back on Cat Bat island start to finish in four hours. Nothing in Vietnam happens that fast, it was amazing.20130227-112505.jpg


The next day I woke up early and headed out for the rock-climbing trip. We hopped on a traditional boat and rode through some amazing scenery till we got to a small isolated beach. We jumped off and the guides began setting up the climbs. It was a great time climbing the cliffs, nestled amongst so many gorgeous karsts. I had not climbed in decades, but was scrambling up the cliffs like a monkey. We were not doing any technical climbing; so even for a beginner it was ok, though my arms were useless after that small bit of climbing. This company sets up really cool climbs where you actually climb out over the water, and when you are done you just jump back in to the ocean.

Next up was kayaking, which was great. We climbed through a tunnel to a hidden lagoon inside the karst. I did not bring shoes, so my feet were cut up to hell climbing over all the barnacles, really painful. After that we kayaked through an archway. The waves were hitting pretty hard there, so we had to paddle hard to get through with out flipping. Our guide’s kayak got flipped there, which was hilarious once we realized everyone was ok. No matter how good you are a random unexpected wave still can catch you. I really had a super day with Asia Outdoors, a top-notch adventure group.

The floating villages are so lovely, painted in bright colors, each having their own fish corrals. They have dogs that patrol the floating docks because other fish farmers will cut their nets and steal their fish. The people live on the water their whole lives, go to school on it, get married, and raise their children on it. Its really impressive, and at this point, not ruined by tourism.

Last day on this lovely island was a great one. We rented a scooter and went in search of the Cat Ba Langurs, of which we had seen in the Vietnam Primate Center. There are only 73 left in the wild. The island is small, but their habitat is only in the National Park in the center. Our chances of seeing them were next to none, but I was still hopeful. By time we got to the park fog and a light rain had moved in. We hiked to the highest point in the park, which was a fire tower at the top of a mountain. We spent about twenty minutes waiting for a huge group of tourist coming down from the peak, and by time we could climb the narrow trail we were in a fog bank. I climbed up the tower, which felt like I was going in to the clouds. After the first level you could not even see the ground any more, it was so high. At the top I literally was floating, a surreal feeling that made me feel a bit dizzy. The rain hit hard so we hightailed it out of there, no Cat Ba Langurs, but still gorgeous.

On the way back we stopped at the hospital cave, which was a bomb shelter during the Vietnam war. The entire cave housed people, and had three levels, a swimming pool, and game area. It was really incredible. From the outside it’s a huge karst, but it’s completely hollowed out for living space. Our guide jumped out of the shadows with an AK-47 pointed at us, a bit of a startling feeling, but just a joke. Haha. This place is really worth checking out. Sadly, our time had reached an end, so we grabbed the boat out that afternoon and headed to Hanoi.

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