Monday, 8 December 2014

The Right Way to Halong Bay

Guest blog from daughter Genevieve who has just 'experienced' Halong Bay.

As the sun rises, we are finishing our breakfast on Cat Ba island - omelettes 
served with a fresh baguette on the side and strong black filtered coffee. Our 
hotel on the harbour front grants us views of the limestone karsts emerging in 
the horizon. Fishing boats are just sailing out - round coracles with flat bottoms 
made of bamboo and the carvel style junk boats which are usually used to ferry 
around tourists making a short trip of Halong Bay.

We opted to do something different with the famed Halong Bay - which was to 
linger longer than the standard dash-in-and-out tours arranged in Hanoi but 
the cost of cruising around on a boat for more than 24 hours was 
substantially higher than our £30 a day budget. Like most backpackers and 
tourists, we conferred to the same old cliche -  wanting to find ourselves 'off 
the beaten path'. We also grappled with the mixed reviews of Halong Bay - 
the scams, constant traffic of likeminded others and the environmental 
problems - pollution of the waters from the rubbish thrown out at sea. And so 
we faced the other direction - towards the smaller and lesser frequented 
sibling - Lan Ha Bay. We stayed for four days, under budget, on the largest of 
366 islands in the archipelago - Cat Ba island.

Cat Ba means 'Sandy Women' - and the tale goes that three women of the 
Tran Dynasty were killed with each of the bodies washing up on three different 
beaches. Fishermen built temples on each beach in honour of them and so is 
how the island thus became named. It is preserved by UNESCO, largely for the 
national park that protects one of the most endangered primate species in the 
world - the langur monkeys. There are only 68 left in the world and all of them 
reside here with us on Cat Ba.

The town itself is not pretty, captivating, bustling but its lack of pretence holds 
a charm in itself. The locals do not overexert themselves in plying for trade, the 
buildings are hacked and modern. There is a plentitude of beauty to be 
admired about the island but it is not thrown in your face. A quiet place, to come 
and go as one pleases, enjoy what one will - just what we needed and glorious 
warm weather after the constant chill of Sapa.

We hired a motorbike (that I am alive and kicking, Mum, should reassure you 
that Alex can handle one pretty well) and explored every road on the island. 
Butterflies float everywhere and in all colours, goats with bells round their 
necks skirt nervously past, a rocky path takes us between mangrove trees 
hovering just above the sea level. A smell of pine as we dip beneath trees, 
a bend of awesome valleys and limestone cliffs around every corner. Holding 
on to the man I love as the wind rushes through and everywhere.


Cat Ba Island is also steeped in a little history, heavily influenced by both the 
French Indochina and Vietnam Wars. As a bombing hotspot, there are caves 
dug into hills that acted as hideouts for the locals and for the Viet Cong soldiers 
stationed here. We stopped by the Hospital Cave, used all the way up to 1975 - 
reaching it by climbing a steep ladder made of bamboo and welcomed by large 
cavernous spaces. Rooms have been carved into the rocks and I was 
entertained by its echoed recantation of my singing the Who, much to the 
puzzlement of a couple of German tourists who were also having a look around.


Cannon Fort - a strategic look out point with bunkers and yes, cannons, was 
where we watched the sunset. This granted us a panorama of the karsts 
around us and with use of binoculars, a giggle at a few fat nudists on beaches 
miles away.

The unmissable part of visiting this part of Vietnam is, of course, going out on the 
water and seeing the limestone karsts up close. With Asia Outdoors, for £16 each, 
we booked a day's kayaking trip. A pickup by minibus and a motley crew of tourists, 
mostly ignoring one another, climbed on the boat at the harbour and onto the 
upper deck to lounge on cushions as the boat weaved around hundreds of little 
islands dotting Lan Ha Bay.


Around one corner, we were greeted with the sight of floating fishing villages, 
one of which held the kayaks we were to use. Half of the group separated to go 
'deep water soloing' - the term describing one who rock climbs as high as they 
can go and then, being able to go no further, throwing themselves into the sea. 
This had looked like fun, but we were being frugal, happy to enjoy ourselves at 
lower levels.


Alex and I, being as competitive as we are and not at all sportsmanlike (with each 
other), did not make an agreeable coxless pair on the tandem kayak. This is 
especially as I, without my hearing aids, had opted to go up front at first and 
was unable to have any two-way conversation for all of three hours. Grumpy 
and inhospitable to his attempts to steer, we made way through tunnels, caves 
and explored lagoons in a dogged effort at a straight line weaving through the 
water. The American guide with the big beard laboriously showed us how to climb 
in and out of the kayaks safely in order to swim in the lagoon and Alex managed 
to capsize it. Twice. He takes the prize for being the only one to do it unaided, but 
as he says "if you aren't capsizing you aren't trying hard enough." It was slow 
working back to the boat, with a kayak mostly submerged in water.

After lunch, the groups reversed except for us, choosing to stay on the 
kayaks. This meant that I was granted with the company of tall, toned and 
topless men from Bulgaria, Australia, Canada, Italy. And one fat American. 
Oh, and Alex.


The kayaking was more successful this time around, with my black mood 
having dissipated and with our tandem now much more in sync with me at 
the back. We all stilled to watch monkeys chattering on a cliff, rattling trees 
to send down a scatter of leaves from hundreds of metres high. We climbed 
out of our kayaks to wade through 'Spider Forest' (thankfully we did not see 
any) and to climb through sea grass back around the other side to our 
kayaks. By the time the sun was getting mellow, we were diving off the boat 
and clunking beers with our newfound friends on the upper deck.

As the sun sets, and the boat sailed back to Cat Ba, conversation stilled as 
everyone sunk in the majestic sights under the glow of the horizon. We were 
gloriously stiff, with sore arms and limbs, cheeks red from the warmth, hugging 
our damp knees in the breeze with one hand clasped onto a beer. Following the 
same route we had taken that morning, the length of the day and the sights we 
had seen stretched before us and we sat contented, people from near every 
continent, knowing that the money spent had been worth every single penny and 
more for the unforgettable Lan Ha Bay.

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