Monthly Archives: June 2015

Cát Bà and Hạ Long Bay.



With the bikes and spare gear safely deposited at the hotel in Haiphong Steve and I set off to visit the island of Cát Bà (‘women’s island’)  and the surrounding UNESCO World Heritage site of Hạ Long Bay. Thousands of limestone ‘karsts’, the last visible remains of an ancient geological formation, have created an extraordinary natural spectacle. Cát Bà is the largest of over 350 islands in Hạ Long Bay. Much of the island is devoted to a national park and home to the rare ‘golden headed’ langur monkey. Although on a cycle tour we couldn’t resist a side trip to and around Cát Bà island. It was, to some degree, out of the way. But according to the popular guidebooks it is an experience not to be missed.

The public service ferry operated by the Thong Nhat Transport Co-operative at Ben Binh, Haiphong sails directly to Cát Bà Town. It follows the river Cấm downstream into the bay before navigating along the Western side of the island towards Cát Bà town. From our hotel in Haiphong it was a short walk to the quayside. In the street close to the quay a man approached us and appeared keen to sell us ferry tickets. I continued walking towards the terminal building thinking that he might be an opportunist tout (I had been warned to expect them)  but soon realised he was in fact the ‘official’ ticket seller. Please see Irene’s comment below this post.

The midday sailing allowed us plenty of time to walk back along Tam Bạc for another morning visit to the Giải Khát cafe for coffee and explore the street market before returning to catch the ferry.


The Cát Bà ferry tickets were emblazoned with ‘High Speed Boarding Ticket’ in big red letters. At just 150,000 Dong (£4.50) per person they seemed very good value. The hi speed hydrofoil moored alongside the terminal building looked as if it could complete the trip in double quick time. But this was not to be our transport. A little further along was our boat; a regular slow ferry. I was happy. I would rather a more sedate trip with time to enjoy the view from a deck than my nose pressed against a window on a super fast hydrofoil. The ferry had two big bright yellow engines and passenger entertainment was provided by a loud TV. One of the young hopefuls on the TV talent show warbled painfully out of tune. Local women brought food, drink and postcards on board to sell to the passengers.  Whilst watching the activities on the dock from the side rail I was given a big smile by one of the women and handed a free book of Halong Bay scenic postcards. It was all very exciting.


It would have been possible, with hindsight, to have taken the bikes. Cargo was loaded onto the roof and rear deck including a box with two live pigs wrapped up in a bag with just their snouts showing. I imagined that this would be their final journey.


The boat slowly chugged along the Cấm river towards the sea past towering cranes and huge shipping liners. One quick cargo stop and then we were out in the open sea. Amongst the distant mists the shapes of islands and limestone cliffs or ‘karsts’ came into view. It was not so spectacular but a lovely trip with good weather and calm seas. Increasingly the cliffs became a little more dramatic as we approached the island of Cát Bà and the ferry then turned into a bay towards the town harbour.




Once on the island we needed to find our way to the Whisper Nature bungalows situated some 7 miles away on the Eastern side and next to the village of Viet Hai. It is inaccessible directly from Cát Bà town except via the entrance to the National Park in the centre of the island. Alternatively it is possible to charter a local boat. We walked looking for the quay at Ben Beo. We walked uphill and then downhill without finding the road to the quay. Unperplexed we followed the road inland. This was to lead to the National Park entrance. We knew it was possible to approach the resort via this route but would take a bit of effort. It was a long road inland. Too long in some respects. We walked for miles. Steve wasn’t feeling too good on his feet and I worried a little about his health. I had promised his wife to look after him and this wasn’t going to help! It was getting late and the light was fading. Bad timing. We found the entrance to the park but by this time it was, in effect, closed to visitors. We followed the path towards our resort but was confronted by some park officials that advised us, in no uncertain terms, to turn back. We had already walked some way and returning to Cát Bà town seemed like a poor option when our booked accommodation was so much closer.

The park officials returned to the room in their building. Undeterred we pressed on with our torches lighting the well marked trail through the jungle. I warned Steve that the officials were likely to return to try and stop us. I figured that after some discussion they would soon decide that they could get into hot water should any travellers become lost, injured or bitten by a cobra on their watch.  Soon, and as anticipated, we heard the sound of a motorcycle heading towards us along the trail. The plan was to hide until the coast was clear. As they approached we dived into the bushes either side of the track. Steve was seen, stopped and questioned.  On their insistence he was dragged back to their office. He was interrogated and repeatedlly threatened with the police and ‘deportation’! They wanted to find me and get themselves off the hook. Getting nowhere they finally provided Steve with a lift  on their motorbike back to Cát Bà  town where he booked into a hotel for a very well deserved rest. We were able to contact each other via phone and confirm what had happened. Meanwhile I carried on along the trail. it took a good few hours to reach the resort. The trail was a little tricky and I had to cross several island ‘peaks’ with jagged rocks. It was serious stuff in daylight let alone at night with my Petzl headlight. But with a little determination I made it through the park and finally found a local boatbuilder at work in his workshop. He walked with me to a nearby shrine and showed me a room where I could sleep. But I insisted I find the resort which I knew was very close.  He gave me a quick lift on his motorbike and in return I gave him ‘petrol money’. I was glad that Steve had not had to spend those extra arduous hours walking and climbing. My own feet were suffering and had some nasty blisters.  I was very happy to find a bed at the ‘Whisper Nature’ bungalow.

The following afternoon Steve made his way to the resort and we booked our tickets for the next day’s activities via the hostel. We would tour the bay, transfer between boats, and then sail to Hạ Long City on the mainland. Then it would be a simple taxi ride back to our hotel in Haiphong. That was the plan.


I grabbed one of the shopper bikes provided by the resort in order to cycle to the village of Viet Hai and explore the local countryside. Much of the valley is used for cultivation and livestock by villagers and had, until recent years with the building of a new road, been fairly isolated with poor access. Viet Hai reminded me, in some respects, of small towns on the island of Hokkaido in Japan where I had cycled a few years before. Beyond the valley in every direction jagged limestone karsts stand proud amongst the thick jungle vegetation.  It is fairly unspoilt, peaceful and quite beautiful. I encountered the village refuse dump at one point which extends into a pond filled with floating rubbish. That was less appealing. No doubt some of it was the result of tourism.


The tour of the bay was fun. We were joined by a young German couple that had planned to do a little canoeing during the boat trip. We  stopped to visit Tien Ong; a cave which reveals evidence of early human (Hoa Binh Culture) habitation. A good lunch was provided on the boat and finally we transferred onto another boat heading in to Hạ Long City. Then we afforded ourselves the luxury of a taxi cab to whisk us along the coast road and back to Haiphong. Job done!  It was an excellent day out.


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Hải Phòng



By late Saturday afternoon Steve and I had cycled into Haiphong (Hải Phòng). Somewhat embarrassingly I had not even heard of the city before planning this trip! As the most important major port for the region and Viet Nam’s third largest city it is a bright and busy commercial centre. Once a nineteenth century French colonial acquisition it was fire bombed by the returning French navy following the retreat of the defeated Japanese forces at the end of the second world war. The ensuing first Indo-China war and negotiated settlement in which the communists took control of the region then provided the background to the US miltary intervention during the 1970’s. Haiphong, as the major port controlled by the Vietcong, was bombed heavily by the US army and navy. It was subject to a naval blockade and sea mines for much of the Viet Nam war. The museum in Hai Phong (pictured below) bears witness to these tragic events. The French architectural heritage now provides a charming backdrop to a modern vibrant city and deep water port. It lies on the Southern banks of the Cấm river which connects Hanoi with the Gulf of Tonkin in the China Sea. It also is the regional administrative centre serving the island of Cat Ba in Halong Bay with a connecting ferry service which brought Steve and myself there.

We checked into the posh looking but reasonably priced Bao Anh hotel a short distance from the Cat Ba ferry terminal. I figured a couple of nights stay to check out the city and take a ferry to the island.  I had initially anticipated taking the bikes to use on the island but given the timescale it was more practical to leave them at the hotel and stay an extra night on our return.






As night fell we hit the streets bright with new year holiday lights to explore and find food. Our search for dinner was less than successful as we found ourself at a street cafe with a limited and slightly expensive tourist menu. But the evening walk was fun. The city centre,roads, parks, trees and fountains are lit up in spectacular fashion for the new year festivities.  Kids were breakdancing in the park under the gaze of a statue of Lê Chân; the  female warrior general who led a successful battle against the mongols and, as legend would have it, founded the city.

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Up first thing the next morning I grabbed breakfast from street vendors close to the hotel before cycling to the early market spread out along Tam Bạc road next to the canal leading to the river Cấm. The local cafe scene would not have been out of place in Montparnasse in Paris. I couldn’t resist the fresh iced coffee at the excellent Giải Khát cafe that would, should I have stayed in Haiphong, have become my regular spot for morning coffee every day. Then on to the market that extends along the canal and the streets behind. Wow! Amazing displays of fruit and veg together with seafood and everything imaginable. I met so many wonderful friendly people along the way and found lots of happy smiles. It is a special place and a focus for the local community. Once again, and like Hanoi, whole streets were often devoted to particular trades or skills. I found the street (Ký Con) for bicycles repairs and parts with large displays of cycling kit spread out spilling onto the road situated between Tam Bạc and Hồ Tam Bạc lake pictured above.


IMG_3350..and coffee.




I made a mental note to return with Steve as he had said he needed to sort out a few things on his bike.

In the afternoon we walked and walked to take in a little more of the city. This led us to explore our options with regard the ferry to Cat Ba and then circle the old town partially via the disused railway line. Once again I was met so often by happy smiling people. Steve felt the urge to get back to the hotel and find some ‘relief’. At one point I was invited to join a small gathering by the railway line and eat but declined the hospitality to catch up Steve who had walked with some urgency ahead. But I couldn’t refuse a quick strong drink and a scallop. Some potential relief appeared for Steve in the guise of an automated public toilet but at this point we discovered that coins do exist in Viet Nam and we, of course, did not have any. He made a beeline for the hotel and I wandered a little more past stalls of flower sellers and partially back over the places we had walked during the evening before. A tidy little restaurant just along from the Bao Anh hotel provided our evening meal. It was pretty good and the staff were super attentive.












The hotel had an underground car park and attendant. I arranged to leave the bikes locked up there and gave the attendant a little money to keep an eye on them. The reception was kind enough to allow us to deposit surplus items in a small room behind the front desk. All we needed was enough stuff for a few days on the island of Cat Ba. I had booked a place to stay well in advance but we had not quite worked out the final details in terms of crossing the island to the resort’s location on the remote Eastern side. That would prove to be interesting. But with all the excitement of the boat trip ahead it did not seem to matter much.. and all part of the adventure. We would be back.


I would certainly recommend Hải Phòng as an excellent place to visit. Although often seen as simply a gateway for visitors to Halong Bay and Cat Ba I felt that in many respects, and like Hanoi, it holds a lot of attraction for anyone seeking a slice of everyday life in Viet Nam.


The Road to Hạ Long Bay


IMG_2969 With my bike loaded up I left my excellent hosts at Chez Linh Linh homestay in Ba Dinh and headed back into the old district where I  had arranged to meet up with Steve. This gave me another opportunity to look around Hanoi and the market in particular. People were already gearing up for ‘Tết’; the Vetnamese Spring festival and which coincides with the Chinese New Year celebrations. Given the short time I had to explore Hanoi I hoped to find my way back there at some point during this trip.  Maybe.. IMG_2825 IMG_2970 IMG_2972 IMG_2974

My journey was delayed a little by an overturned scooter that brought the flood of traffic to a halt.  I caught up with Steve just East of the Cho Dong Xuan; Hanoi’s oldest market. Once again we crossed Gustav Eiffel’s Long Biên bridge over the Sông Hồng or Red River. IMG_2979 IMG_2981 IMG_2982 I followed Steve’s chosen route out through Hanoi’s Eastern suburbs towards Haiphong via the QL18. It would take a day or two and involved some quite heavy road work along busy main roads. This in itself dampened spirits and not quite the bucolic journey that Steve had anticipated. Certainly Google maps aren’t always the cyclists friend when planning such things. Regardless the roadside cafes provided good food (Pho) and a cheap hotel magically appeared for an overnight stop. With heads down and a bit of determination we dropped South down via the QL183 and tackled the AH14 main road to Haiphong. It was altogether a bit crap and another heavy dual carriageway. But we did it without incident.. IMG_2996

Dinner! Oh yes. Delicious pho and cheaper than chips. IMG_3006

Back on the highway to hell. IMG_3002

The guy at the helm of this boat on the river Cầu near Bắc Ninh returned my wave. 🙂 IMG_3014

Cats and dogs remain on the menu in Viet Nam and so sad to see them caged by the roadside awaiting their fate. IMG_3015

Incense. I had a little supply of party balloons to give away and the little girl peeping around the door here liked them very much.IMG_3022

This scene reminded me of Sri Lanka: IMG_3021

.. and more incense drying in the sun. IMG_3019

The lovely AH 14. IMG_3037

Steve leading the way. IMG_3034

I had retrieved a discarded hat from a roadside ditch and a man had added a strap for me. For fun I wore it on my way into Haiphong. To her amusement I popped it onto the head of this lady who was running a roadside cafe by the main roundabout leading in to the city. I downed a very welcome celebratory Hanoi beer. Phew. IMG_3046

We had made it to Haiphong (Hải Phòng); Hạ Long Bay and the South China sea!