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.