Cat Ba Island & Lan Ha Bay

The same morning that we arrived in Hanoi after taking the overnight bus from Ha Giang near the Chinese border, my friend and I caught a bus to Cat Ba Island near Ha Long Bay. The guide said that the town on Cat Ba wasn’t pleasing to the eye, but I have to disagree. It’s a nice little town. Sometimes when something you read or hear lowers your expectations it makes the reality is much nicer.

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We spent a total of 4 days on the island. The first day we rented a motorbike and went up the hill to a great scenic lookout called Canon Fort. There were huge anti-aircraft guns left over from the war with the United States. The next day we took the motorbike to see some of the beaches on the island, cleverly named Cat Ba 1, 2, and 3. Somehow, Cat Ba 3 is first in proximity to the town, then 1 followed by 2 being the most distant. Cat Ba 2 and 3 are the nicest. We went to the beach in the morning, to find it pleasantly deserted. After a midday nap to escape the overwhelming heat, we went back to the same beach at 4 pm to find it absolutely overrun by Vietnamese weekend vacationers. My hypothesis is that since to the Vietnamese in general being tanned is considered as being ‘low class’, they only came to the beach in the evening when the shade extended far into the water. In fact, I observed them sticking to the areas in the water where the shade was, with only a few venturing into the sunny parts. We took advantage of this by swimming in the sun and getting a slice of the water to ourselves while the sun held out.

We originally went to Cat Ba because we didn’t want to book a tour from Hanoi to see Ha Long Bay. We figured it would be cheaper to see the region from Cat Ba Island instead, and we were right. Instead of seeing Ha Long, we opted to take a tour of neighboring Lan Ha Bay instead. I’m not a big fan of tours. Usually they take you to various sites and lightly pressured to buy things. This tour, however, was great! For $15 each, we got a full day of activities that did not disappoint.

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We took a nice ride through the bay on the boat, enjoying the sites. It was only us and about 5 others on the boat. We got dropped off at a boat house and got into a kayak that we took around the cliff islands for 2 hours. It was the most fun I’ve ever had in a kayak. We paddled through dark, eerie caves, only to come out the other side to a beautiful, secluded area hidden by the surrounding towering cliffs. At one point, we came through a cave to the other side where there were Langur monkeys jumping from branch to branch on a high cliff above us. We wondered to ourselves how the ended up on this island. I’ve yet to google this conundrum to find the answer.  Through the next cave and into another secluded pool, we looked in the water to see dozens of jellyfish swimming all around us. They ranged in size and color, from a soft pink to brownish and from the size of tennis ball to a basketball. We paddled carefully, making sure not to hit any of them. After we made our way back to the boat, we got a nice breakfast with fried veggies, spring rolls and rice. We jumped off the top of the boat a few times into the water and swam a bit.

Next we went to a secluded island to swim. The boat stopped about 50 meters from the shore, and we jumped off the boat and swam with the others, each of us occupying a section of the beach to enjoy.  Upon swimming back to the bout I came across a bottle floating in the water, I immediately thought “a message in a bottle”. No.

The boat then took us to Monkey Island. It was a nice little stretch of beach, but other boats had stopped there so there were a couple dozen others. I only saw one monkey. He was running along the beach with someones shiny belongings in one hand that he held close to his chest as he ran. Cheeky little monkey. At about 5 pm we docked back on Cat Ba Island.

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Our final day there, we just enjoyed the beaches. The next morning, we took a bus to the dock, where we got a boat through Ha Long Bay to Ha Long city. Ha Long Bay has a bit taller cliffs, but I still enjoyed Lan Ha Bay more where the water is a nicer color and the islands closer together. We got to the city, and took a longer than necessary bus back to Hanoi where I purchased a flight to Bangkok. My time in Vietnam was over. I felt it in my bones.  I sold the motorbike, and boarded the plane back to where this trip began almost 4 months ago.

 

Bac Ha & Ha Giang, skirting the Chinese border

Sa Pa to Bac Ha was a pretty quick, 4-hour ride. The only hard part was that it was scorching hot. We were sweating bullets. We got to Bac Ha, a quiet frontier town devoid of all tourist activity. We stayed there only one night. The highlight of the town was visiting a mansion that was built in 1921 by the French to appease a local tribal chieftain. I miss European architecture, and felt right at home wandering around the building, not a soul in sight except the keeper of a small souvenir shop who was in the back messing with a sewing machine.

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From Sa Pa my friend and I decided to ride to Ha Giang, still skirting the Chinese border. To me it looked pretty close on the map. I would’ve guessed 5 hours max. I didn’t know that the roads would be filled with potholes most of the way, sometimes the road wasn’t even a road at all. We went at a snail’s pace through the most windy roads I’ve ever rode on.  Each curve, each bridge looked exactly the same. Each kilometer took several minutes, and each minute felt like an eternity. We stopped for food in a town that was like the twilight zone. Dreary, gray communist concrete buildings, no one was out, and all restaurants were closed. Luckily we found one open. We asked a couple there how far to Ha Giang, and we learned that we still had 100 km to go through that windy crap road. We passed the time, mostly me, by singing songs at full lung-power which helped occupy my mind. Despite the heat and horrible road conditions, the scenery was beautiful. Most of the time we were next to a small river that at times turned emerald green. With it being so hot, I was very tempted to take a dip but time was of the essence.

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Coming upon the next town off of Highway 1 (which signified we were almost to Ha Giang), was like finding El Dorado. We were so happy after the long, butt numbing ride through the mountains. We were only 30 minutes from our destination and the sun was going down fast.

There’s little to say about Ha Giang. We got a nice hotel with air con (an absolute must this time of year) for cheap, and I got my teeth cleaned for 100,000 VND ($5). We took a ride the next day to Tam Son. This area was heartbreakingly beautiful. The motorbike kept overheating from the exertion of taking 2 up such steep roads. We stopped twice for sugar cane juice, our favorite cool-down pass-time in Vietnam. There was a moment, riding through the mountain, when we went through a pass from one side of the mountain to the other. Once we went through, the view opened up to the other side, and we spotted Tam Son nestled amongst the tall towering karsts like a long forgotten city. Seeing the town appear like that, hidden in the mountains of way northern Vietnam, I felt like I was way off the map. In any case, we were definitely way off the tourist trail.

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Later that evening, we caught a night-bus back to Hanoi, arriving at 3 am. We couldn’t go to the hotel, so we rode around the lake, we read our Tarot cards on an app I have, and just passed time until we could finally grab our things. That same morning, we caught another bus to Cat Ba island. All in all that day was a tiring, but amazing day.

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Sa Pa

 

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From Hanoi, I took a 10-hour ride with a fellow motorbike traveler to Lao Cai, close to the Chinese border. After a night there to rest, we headed up the misty mountain to Sa Pa. Once we arrived in town, I knew this place would be one of the highlights of this trip. First off, the weather was actually cool there. After three months of sweating bullets and taking 4 showers a day, the drop in temperature was most welcome.

On my 29th birthday, two guys and I took a ride through the villages in the valley. We rode on a thin strip of concrete leading through rice paddies to a stream where we swam. Later we tried to find a village over the mountain. The terrain got more and more rough, and at times we were practically going off-road with our bikes. We never found the village we were chasing, but on the way down we were invited into a man’s home. He boiled kettles of water for us to drink, and we smoked tobacco out of a waterpipe that’s very common in Northern Vietnam.

After I was in Sa Pa for three days, my Laos travel companion decided to pay me a visit in Vietnam. I knew she would absolutely love it there, so I took a bus back to Hanoi to get her, and we immediately caught a train back. I took the motorbike on the train for a small fee. The next morning when we arrived in Lao Cai, we started on the bike up the mountains. Our ride up the steep roads was interrupted by the bike braking down, which was foreshadowing to the numerous other problems I was to have with the bike in the next week before selling it. A family on motorbike stopped to pick up my lady, and we got the bike to a mechanic to fix it up. Vietnam is full of helpful, friendly locals like them.

 

 

The bike fixed, we arrived at the Green Garden Guesthouse. It’s an amazingly cheap place to stay with a gorgeous view. We spent the next few days taking rides in the surrounding area. One morning we visited the Silver Waterfall. Further down the road after the waterfall we turned a corner, and the grandeur and beauty of the valley took our breaths away. In several places amidst the tall lush mountains on the other side, were thin, tall waterfalls that made the whole scene look like something out of a beautiful dream. We winded our way through the mountains, me trying keep a good balance between watching the road so as to not crash, and enjoying the raw, natural beauty before my eyes. I have never seen anything quite like that before.

After a few days we decided to move on to see more of Northern Vietnam. After being on the motorbike for over 2 1/2 months, and seeing much of the Vietnamese countryside, I feel that the beauty of the area around Sa Pa takes the cake.

Hanoi

Hanoi

My time in Hanoi has two parts. The first time I was there was for four days…

Upon arriving, my motorbike buzzing along after the short ride from Ninh Binh, I noticed two things: I liked the vibe of the city, and the traffic was crazy. I weaved in and out, between and around the hundreds of other motorbikes and the few cars that shared the street with me. After stopping a few times to check my navigation, I made it to the hostel I had in mind. I didnt do much that day, just walk around taking in the sights and sounds of the busy city. I was a bit overwhelmed by the sheer number of people honking. Add to that dozens of smells: Noodle and rice dishes being served, meats being boiled and grilled, the exhaust smoke from the vehicles clamoring the road, all cooked by the humid, sweltering heat of the city.

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The next day I visited the Hoa Lo Prison museum. Its a small, grim, concrete building used first by the French to hold Vietnamese revolutionaries, and later by the North Vietnamese to hold American prisoners of war. In the section about the latter, photos depicted Americans being well fed, well taken care of, and allowed to play games and decorate their cells for Christmas. I felt that this wasn’t very realistic. In my mind, during wartime most people treat their enemy inhumanely.

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In Hanoi I also had the chance to meet up with a couple friends I had made almost two months ago in northern Laos. We caught up over diner. Later while walking the streets we found a mini carnival, and decided to ride the carousel. It felt good to be the only adults on this ride. We were remembering what a day in the life of a kid looks like. In fact, we looked like we were having more fun than the kids.

5/15

My fourth day in the city, I couchsurfed with a local woman. She was extremely sweet and welcoming. The next morning an Englishman who was also on motorbike and I took a grueling 10 hour drive to Lao Cai, near the Chinese border. I spent a few days in the gorgeous mountain town of Sa Pa, which is for the next post… While in Sa Pa, a friend from Brazil decided to catch a flight from Bangkok to Hanoi to visit me during the last two weeks of her trip in SE Asia. Hence Hanoi part two…

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5/20

I loaded my motorbike on a night bus and made my way back to Hanoi. I arrived at 4:30 am, not a chance of checking in anywhere. I decided to drive to the lake to take a nap on the bike. A couple who arrived in Hanoi at a similar ungodly hour spotted me fixing a few parts that got loosened by the long bus ride, and the man came over to offer a hand. The man was Scottish, the Woman Basque. We got to talking and hanging out, waiting for the time to pass. After 5 am, people started showing up and got ready to practice Tai Chi and other group exercises. We joined the Tai Chi group. I ended up hanging around with the Scot all afternoon. They were a lovely couple.

5/21

My final day in Hanoi, I picked up my friend from the airport 60 km away from the city (really far I know). We left our bags at a hotel and walked around the entire day. We stopped several times to grab a cold drink and to get some respite from the sweltering heat and humidity. We meandered through the streets of shops all selling the same items. There was a shoe street, a flower street, a pots & pans and backpack street. Besides the heat, I really enjoyed the fluidity of that day.

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6/3

After 4 wonderful days on Cat Ba Island with my friend, I am back in Hanoi with the distinct urge to get out of here. I need to sell my motorbike and catch a flight somewhere. Anywhere that’s markedly different from here. Not because I don’t like Hanoi or Vietnam, but because I have spent 7 weeks in Vietnam. There is so much more to see in the region. I quote Tom Petty: “It’s time to move on, it’s time to get going, what lies ahead I have no way of knowing…”