Cat Ba Island wasn’t on my original itinerary for Vietnam, but seeing the world famous Ha Long Bay has been on my bucket list for a long time. I originally planned to skip Cat Ba because it was so far out of the way on my north-to-south plan and I had thought I’d be wanting to spend a week in each place on my itinerary. So far on my trip, I’ve found 2-3 nights per place to be the perfect amount of time, so I decided to wing it and see where I can get cheap bus tickets to and just make my way down. As long as I’m in Siem Reap, Cambodia by July 13, everything is golden.
The trip to Cat Ba Island from Hanoi was a 4 hour bus ride followed by an hour long ferry, and another hour on a bus. Most of the island of Cat Ba is a national park, so the bus drives us (very slowly) around to the opposite side of the island, which is part of the southeastern edge of Ha Long Bay. Ha Long Bay is famous for its thousands of rugged limestone karsts – I remember seeing a picture from one area of it years ago and knowing I needed to see it in person. Since most of the little islands of Ha Long Bay are uninhabited due to their steep, rocky cliffs, Cat Ba Island is where tourists stay in order to book tours and cruises around the bay.
Until we arrived in the little town of Cat Ba, the bus ride just took us along the southern
coast through some of the islands own limestone cliffs. It was a beautiful ride, and I was excited to see the even more beautiful bay. The town itself is very small and has a homey feel to it. There’s a main street with loop about halfway down where most of the tourist accommodation is. The main street was full of shops and restaurants with nice views of jungle-covered cliffs and the water. My hostel was located at the top of the loop (a large hill). There’s only one ATM on the whole island, down on the main road about 3/4 of a mile from my hostel, so upon arriving I had to make the walk down there to pay for my room (cash only). I took my time, trying not to sweat, and made mental notes of shops and restaurants I would want to return to later.
The “not sweating” thing didn’t work out, so I checked in, paid for my room, and took a shower. Every shower I take in Southeast Asia is the new best shower of my life. Still.
At this point in my trip, I’m second-guessing my desire to go to India. It’s still the #1 place on my list of places to see, but every woman, and some men as well, that I’ve met on this trip that has gone there solo has advised me not to. I know I’m perfectly capable of doing, but I’m also keen on following my gut and right now it’s telling me not to go. I haven’t totally given up on the idea, but I’m no longer planning my budget around stretching it to October to accommodate a month and a half in India. I’ve decided to be a little looser with my budget to allow me to actually experience and enjoy more of the places I’m visiting instead of missing out on things to save money. So in that spirit, I booked a tour for the next day – it included a cruise around Ha Long Bay, kayaking through some caves, snorkeling, swimming, and visiting Monkey Island (to see monkeys, duh). It wasn’t terribly expensive, and Ha Long Bay is on my bucket list after all, but I probably would have skipped it had I been set on sticking to my tight budget.
I explored for awhile and found that the shops didn’t actually sell souvenirs – mostly just cheap children’s toys – then chose a place for dinner. Being a lover of pho (vietnamese noodle soup) back home, I was SO excited to try the real thing in the real place. I chose a place that had big fans (sweating, you know) and sat at a table right under one of the fans. Once again, I must have underestimated my level of sweating, because as soon as the server saw me sit down he immediately took a smaller fan from a different table and set it up right next to me. Nina, party of three – alone with my two fans. Overall, I’m somewhat ashamed to admit, the pho was nice, but I like it at my favorite place back home even more. Probably because back home, I’m in charge of how much bean sprouts I can put in my soup (all of the bean sprouts please) and can put spice in it. In every other country I’ve been to so far, they bring your food, then bring you a dish of chili powder to make it as spicy as you like (I like really spicy food). There was no spice here. Nonetheless, I love a good noodle soup no matter what and it hit the spot. I went to bed early that night to make sure I was up early enough for my tour the next day.
The van picked me up at 7am the next morning and drove me and a small group to the port that our ship would leave from. It was a really rainy day, so I was initially bummed that that might put a damper in the day, but the disappointment was quickly replaced with gratitude for a break in the heat. The boat was filled with picnic table style seating and I sat at a table with a group of Vietnamese guys who seemed to be having the most fun playing cards and talking excitedly. Only one of them spoke English and explained to me that they are all on the same soccer team in Hanoi and were visiting Cat Ba on holiday. The rest of the people on the boat seemed to be down in spirits due to the rain and didn’t seem to care to look around as we cruised through Ha Long Bay. Obviously, it would have been much more beautiful on a sunny day, but the cruise was still absolutely amazing. There are so many limestone islands full of jungle – the trees literally look to be growing straight out of the stone all the way down the cliffs – and it was crazy me to see how long we could sail through them without running out of beautiful things to see. I took my malaria tablet while on the boat, which usually makes me nauseous every day for about half an hour, but combined with being on a boat and the strong smell of the sea, I was feeling especially sick about halfway through the cruise. They sold water, Pringles, and Oreos on the boat, so I bought one of each hoping to settle my tummy. After eating ALL the Pringles and about 4 of my 10 Oreos, I felt much better. Some day I’ll learn to do a my doctor told me and not take the medication on an empty stomach.
After about an hour of cruising around, we docked at a quiet area to kayak. Having sat with the soccer team and then spent the rest of the cruise walking around looking at the scenery, I hadn’t met anyone to share a kayak with. When I got off the boat, everyone had paired up and I looked for another loner. I overheard someone telling his friends “I don’t know who I’m going to go with” so I just walked up and asked him to share a kayak with me. Turns out a hit the jackpot, because he (Seth from Indiana) has a travel video blog and was actually on the tour to make a video for the tour company. He hasn’t finished editing the video yet, but once he does I’ll have the perfect video to show you everything I got to do and see on this day (:
The only downside to Seth was that I had to do most of the paddling… Everything would be going well until all of a sudden paddling would get a lot harder and I’d realize he’d stopped to video and I had to be in charged of steering us.
We were given an hour to paddle through the cliffs and inlets, as well as some awesome caves. It was raining pretty hard, so I only got a few photos – knowing me, having my phone out to take pictures would easily turn to disaster, and Seth was undoubtedly doing a better job of capturing everything than I would anyway.
One of the first things Seth asked me, after our initial introductions and “where are you traveling” questions, he abruptly asked me, “what makes you happy?” It seems like such an easy, obvious question, but I realized I’ve never been asked so bluntly, or by such a stranger. I gave him my most honest answer anyway – “I’ve found my happiness over the last year through travel and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. Right now, what makes me happy is going outside of my comfort zone, experiencing new things, new cultures, new ways of thinking; meeting new people from different places and hearing their stories and learning from them. But I’m still looking for something, the purpose I’ll find through my happiness. And that’s why I travel.” He immediately stopped paddling and told me he asks that question of every new person he meets, but has never heard such a perfect answer. People usually answer with material things, or vague answers like “my friends and family,” but never give the deeper answer he’s looking for. I asked what makes him happy and he said I described it for him better than he could do himself, and then told me a story about a Vietnamese lady in a coffee shop that he learned a lot from, who was the only person to ask him the question of what makes him happy before he had a chance to ask her. Another thing I love about traveling is finding the other weirdos who are following a similar path as me and remind me that what I’m doing is ok (:
When we returned to the boat, lunch was ready for us. I ended up with a table of Dutch, German and American people. Normally when “lunch is included” on something like this, it’s pretty disappointing, so we weren’t expecting much. When they brought out a plate of spring rolls, a plate of cucumber slices, a dish of peanuts, and a big bowl of rice, we assumed that was it, and shyly filled our bowls trying not to take too much (since we were sharing among 7 of us). But then they brought out the stir-fried tofu and vegetables. And then they brought out the eggs, and then the seasoned potatoes, and then the noodles, and then a big plate of fresh fish (literally, eyeball and scales still on it). Probably the best meal I’ve had included in anything ever.
I was skeptical of the fish, but seafood is Cat Ba’s specialty, and on our cruise we had passed many fisherman and houseboats, so I decided to try it. Not a fan of fish normally, it was by far the best part of the meal.
While we cruised to our next stop, the other American girl (Abby) kept eyeballing the Oreos and telling her friend (Caro from Germany) she wanted to buy them until her friend finally told her, “either buy them or shut the fuck up.” I remembered the leftovers in my backpack and offered her one – I had just enough for everyone still at the table so we all had one. The American girl was SO thankful, she immediately introduced herself and said “thank you so much for your kindness” (haha. for an Oreo.) and the three of us spent the rest of the day together. The next stop on the tour was a secluded beach for swimming and snorkeling. Everyone took turns jumping off the boat and swimming to the beach, but the three of us jumped in and then decided to stay at the boat. One of the other guys on the tour asked if there were good fish see, and the tour guide said, “no really, you swim and they swim away. Hard to see.”
We’d been talking to the tour guide earlier in the day (super sweet guy, introduced himself as “27 and single” and had a flirtation going on with Abby hahaha) so while everyone else was swimming, we were talking to him and he told us, “I am so scared, I forgot the things for snorkel” and we couldn’t help but laugh at how bad he felt about it. I asked him, “is that why you told that guy there are no fish to see?” and he just gave me a guilty smile. Caro and I tried to console him, saying it didn’t seem like anyone was interested in snorkeling anyway; Abby set to work trying to get free Oreos out of the situation, joking with him that she only came on the trip to snorkel and threatening to tell everyone about his mistake if he didn’t “rectify his negligence.” In the end, no one asked about snorkeling and Abby paid for her Oreos.
Our last stop was to Monkey Island. The island itself was EXTREMELY crowded along the beach, so we set out to try to find some monkeys. At the far end of the beach, there was a hand-painted sign in Vietnamese pointing up a very rocky, jungle path. Since my Nikes had been stolen in Chiang Mai, I was wearing my cheap slip ons that I bought at H&M and had taken them off on the beach so I didn’t get them sandy. I decided to try the hike barefoot, assuming it wouldn’t be much of a hike. Wrong. We were literally rock climbing before we knew it, using hands and feet to get over big volcanic rocks. The further we went, the more we joked about how hard it would be to get down, especially since it was raining and the rocks were becoming slippery. I’d spent a good amount of time getting the sand off my feet to put my shoes back on, so even though I was probably the clumsiest, most accident-prone human on the entire island, I was adamant we keep going to see some monkeys. In the end, it just kept getting harder and we gave up when Caro literally walked into a tree branch and cut her forehead. The way down was terrifying haha, but we made it. Never saw a monkey through the whole ordeal, but once we got back down to the beach there were like 5 of them just sitting there picking through trash.
When I got back to my hostel around 5pm, I didn’t have the energy left to do much other than find somewhere for dinner (read: pho) and laze around the hostel. The hostel I was in wasn’t a social hostel at all, which was nice for me because I LOVE my alone time, and I’ve had so much social interaction so far in my trip (a good problem to have, I suppose) that I was more than ready for a night where I didn’t need to talk to anyone or make any friends. I looked at the blackboard behind the reception desk to see the destinations they sold bus tickets to and Google image searched my possibilities. I settled on a town called Phong Nha, about halfway between Cat Ba and the next destination on my original itinerary, Hoi An, because it only became a destination for tourists within the last 5 years and has a lot of history from the Vietnam War, and some world-famous caves (including the cave ranked #1 most beautiful in the world). I bought a ticket for the day after next and went to bed.
For my last full day in Cat Ba, I decided to do some exploring and find some of the beaches. There are apparently 3 on the part of the island I was on, and some were more touristy than others. I chose one that I read would have the least people and walked to it. It was gorgeous, and there definitely weren’t very many people (granted it was somewhat cloudy). I posted up on the beach with my book and enjoyed some peace and good views before heading back to the main part of town for lunch. I found the perfect little cafe to have a Vietnamese coffee (best country’s twist on coffee with milk yet) and pho and could sit back and people watch. Cat Ba was the perfect change in pace to make up for my shitty start in Hanoi (: