So we took t
he wrong bus to arrive in Hanoi .. they had no clue we were on the wrong bus because their tourism network is still organized by phone .. with tickets being simple receipts indicating that we paid for “a” trip to “a” destination. We were on the wrong bus and we sort of knew it .. but it was a shorter ride and we arrived 3 hours earlier .. This also meant that our connection bus wasn’t there waiting for us and really, had no idea we existed. Somehow, our “receipt” got us on a tour van 3 hours later. This tour van was headed for a 3 day tour of Halong Bay and we were the 2 extras hitching a ride just to Halong city. We got some pretty good information from the tour guide .. a nice Vietnamese guy who had learned his routine pretty well. Bonus ! A problem is on the horizon ..
We were tracking our journey on our Blackberry maps .. Sylvie spotted a pier that would allow us to take a ferry to Cat Ba island. This van was headed to Halong city .. after an hour we realized that this van would be driving right by the pier. Excellent! So I waited till we were about 2-3 kilometers before getting up and asking the nice tour operator to let us off the bus .. Oh boy .. Full on communism strikes again and he says “no .. cannot stop .. driver .. cannot stop .. police .. Halong city..” .. so his English is not that good .. he just memorized his speech he gives for the tour. I show him the map .. I show him the pier .. I show him my GPS .. I whisper to him “ please … it’s right there .. “ and I point down the road as we are approaching the pier. He again says his jumbled words and attaches “no” at the end.. grrr … it’s another hour to Halong City .. a cab back to this spot will easily cost us 500,000 Dong .. and another hour .. the day is burning away and we still have to take a ferry and traverse an island to Cat Ba town.. We are 1 and half weeks into this trip and I am not letting him have this. Best tactic ? Cause dissent with his precious tour..
I return to my seat .. I ponder how best to do this. I turn around to address the other tourist.. I announce to them that I have asked to get off the bus and that the tour operator has refused my request. I tell them that we are being held captive on their tour bus. I ask a few foreigners if perhaps I am being unreasonable wanting to be let out and … a few agree right away .. others don’t want to get involved.. expected. But it’s working .. from behind me I hear the tour operator “Stop talking … stop talking..” .. I then say out loud “I am no longer permitted to speak .. quite the tour you guys signed up for.” A few more “Stop talkings” and I sit .. and wait about a minute before the French ( from France ) man sitting beside me starts making small talk about where we are from .. asking where Ontario was in relation to Quebec .. and then “Stop talking ! Stop talking !” .. lol .. it’s really working now! We should be off this bus shortly. The French man comes to my defence and says “ no no, we are just talking about our countries and such ” .. one last stop “Stop talking” .. then he hops on his cell phone. 3 minutes later, the bus pulls over and he let us out. The look he gave me as he handed me my bag .. As I explained before, it’s very difficult to travel through Vietnam.
Cab, ferry then how to get across the island. We followed an Austrian couple past all the taxi drivers and hordes of Asian tourist to an outdoor snack shack that had a bus pickup area as well. We chatted with the Austrians for a bit over a beer while we got hassled constantly by cab drivers and mini bus drivers to take us to Cat Ba town .. We followed the Austrian’s lead .. she was turning them down saying it’s too expensive over and over .. that we were having a beer and we were not ready to go yet ..that we will take the bus. Wow, she is good ! We are learning .. she is being very assertive, something I haven’t been able to do until I am trapped on a bus or something .. Another group of backpackers showed up and negotiated a bus ride for 50,000 Dong per person .. they had about 8 people. The bus still wasn’t full and the driver wanted to fill his bus before leaving. With us .. and the Austrian girl kept telling them “50,000 is too much” … she got them down to 30,000 and we agreed. We payed and got on the bus.
One of the backpackers already on the bus caught wind that we only paid 30,000 and then the revolt began.. wow !.. I thought I was bad on the bus an hour prior.. but this gang of travelers jumped off the bus with their luggage and started yelling and arguing with the driver about the price difference .. eventually winning .. So this is how you are supposed to do things ? We couldn’t believe it.. I felt much better about my little run-in earlier.. because of course, although I got Sylvie and I off the bus, I did feel bad ..
Cat Ba, we discovered, is a resort town/island for the Vietnamese.. there weren’t many foreigners here which is what we look for .. most of the time. This place was great .. we had a very nice hotel and easy access to Halong Bay .. which was the goal of this part of the trip. Most travelers opt for the 3 day tour from Hanoi in one of those prison tour buses and boats. You spend almost a full day of your tour just getting to Halong Bay and then it’s a regimented set of activities .. swimming at 6:00, supper at 7:00, Karaoke at 8:00, lights out at 10:00… and so on. Not for us .. From Cat Ba island, which is already in Halong bay, we were able to book a 1 day tour with about 15 other backpackers. There was swimming .. but we didn’t .. the water was gross. Halong Bay is soooo polluted. There doesn’t seem to be any laws for pollution control. Dead fish, floating bottles and other trash.. the water is green and murky with the visibility of Gillie’s lake. The swimmers all had a film on their clothes after they went swimming. We are headed to Indonesia soon, so there will be plenty time for good swimming. We kayaked .. this was amazing. Sylvie and I’s first time .. just awesome. We stopped at a 15 meter rock from which the brave souls jumped from into the water .. again, not for me, but it was fun to watch. As this was going on, I was checking out the neighbouring boat .. they are so cool these boats .. Water started pouring out of the a pipe at back .. neat .. bilge pump or something ? Then 2 light beige turds flew out followed by a healthy clump of stained toilet paper .. meters away from the jumpers. We chose wisely not swimming. I suppose being a water snob pays off sometimes 🙂 .. again, I like to paint to “problems” to make this more entertaining .. but Halong Bay was incredible .. we absolutely loved it and would recommend it to everyone.. just stay out of the water 🙂
The next day we rented a scooter ($6) and ticked off a few sights we found on the map. We visited Hospital cave, Cat Ba National Park, Cannon Fort and a floating restaurant. Hospital cave was a hospital complex the Vietnamese built inside a karst. Very cool. Cat Ba island was an artillery position for shooting at planes and boats during the American war. This hospital was safe from bombers and unseen by the Americans.. pretty cool. Very crafty at warfare the Vietnamese are.
Cat Ba National Park was a huge highlight though. We were able to climb a very tall karst .. lots of rocks and some make shift steps throughout the climb. About an hour to reach the summit .. and I mean “the summit”. On top of Cat Ba ! Maybe a 6 meter area with enough room for about 5-6 people to stand around and marvel at the view .. dangerous edges .. green everywhere.. Best climb ever with the best view ever. We had never been on top of a mountain before .. The photos really didn’t capture the height .. I need to learn how to capture more perspective from the surroundings.
Night time on Cat Ba was hilarious .. the Vietnamese come out en masse ..completely filling the streets .. complete pandemonium! Party !! Asian style .. So you can imagine pre-Katrina Mardi Gras in New Orleans but replace the “girls gone wild” and alcohol with My little Pony, Care Bears and street food. Scooters zipping through people .. expensive cars cruising the circuit over and over .. All we could do was find where all the foreigners were hanging out and sit and watch .. with beers of course.
Cat Ba was excellent … We highly recommend it if you plan on visiting Halong Bay. A break from the crowded tour boats and a very efficient way to visit the sea of karsts. Our last stop on our Vietnam adventure is Hanoi City .. the capital of Vietnam.. the resting place of Ho Chi Minh.