We waited in the lobby of Hanoi Old Quarter Hostel where we had been staying for the past few nights. The bus was running late. I was worried. What if the bus didn’t show up? What if it couldn’t find us? As an outsider, I found it so easy to get lost in the chaotic and narrow streets of old Hanoi. But of course there was nothing to be worried about. The bus came, and by the time we were picked up it was already full with travellers.
We made our way to Hai Phong – a major industrial port city about 120 km from Hanoi. The ride took less than two hours and it was a bumpy one. Somewhere along the way, we stopped and waited for a couple of travellers who missed the morning pick-up but somehow managed to chase after the bus.
As a city, Hai Phong was unimpressive. There was no scenery to speak of apart from shipping containers, yellow machinery and building materials stacked by the roadside. The port city served its purpose as an entry point to one of the most beautiful destinations in Vietnam. At the port, we jumped onto a boat that took us to Cat Ba Island – the largest and the only populated island that comprises the Cat Ba archipelago in Northern Vietnam.
A bus then dropped us off in Cat Ba town where the other travellers went their separate ways. We took a taxi to the Blue Swimmer Adventures office located by the Ben Beo pier. Henry – the Operations Manager – greeted us. He seemed surprised to see me. “You look like an asian man,” he said. Maybe he hadn’t seen too many asians going on adventures that his company offered or maybe because he was expecting two caucasian dudes from Australia. Either way, I made an impression on him.
Henry gave us useful information about the archipelago and the kind of activities we could do. He introduced Pham, a local guide, who would be with us for the next two days. We quickly became acquainted before Pham led us to the pier where our transport and accommodation was waiting.
The junk did not scream luxury, but it came with two crew and was modestly equipped. There was a toilet too. It wasn’t everyone’s idea of a vacation, but for us seasoned travellers, we adjusted to our new environment easily. For B and I, we travel to challenge and put ourselves out of our comfort zone. In fact, the prospect of spending the night on a boat and not in a hotel room, while being surrounded by nothing but nature, was exciting to us. With so much to see and do, sleeping was the last thing on our mind. Lunch was first.
Cat Ba archipelago makes up the southeastern edge of Halong Bay – Vietnam’s most famous tourist destination. The >26000 ha area is dotted with over 300 towering limestone karsts and islands surrounded by emerald-green seawater. White sandy beaches and hidden caves found in the area are heaven for nature lovers and intrepid travellers alike. Due to its unique topography and diverse ecosystem, Cat Ba archipelago was declared a ‘UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve Area’ in 2004.
So, it was to be expected that our adventure would begin simply by marvelling at the incredible natural wonders around us. Then we got our feet wet and had some fun.
Before we docked for the night we made one last stop.
Floating villages are a permanent feature of the archipelago. Hundreds of families live on these villages and the sea is their livelihood. They farm fish and other sea creatures.
Dinner was served by the time the sun had fully set. I was amazed with what the crew was able to whip up using very few kitchen utensils and a small cooker tucked in the pantry at the stern of the junk. The five of us enjoyed local produce while we talked about our travels, shared life experiences, and last but not least, a few shots of a Vietnamese spirit.
With our belly full, it was time to sit back and settle in for the night. It was dark, but that did not stop one of the crew from jumping into the water for a quick swim. Our first day of adventure was everything we had hoped for. My arms were sore after all that kayaking, exploring and swimming, but I felt good. We felt good.
I woke up several times during the night. The humidity got to me. The air was still and there was no breeze coming through the window. My throat was dry which was a clear sign of dehydration. I drank some water and slept till the morning.
The archipelago was bustling in the morning. The sound of birds and locals who went about their daily routine echoed in the air. Small boats carrying supplies and big boats carrying tourists left their trails all around the bay. That morning we learned that the locals didn’t just farm fish for a living, they were also selling much needed necessities such as fresh water to tour operators.
After breakfast, we went to a pier on Cat Ba island where hundreds of bicycles lined up to be used. If yesterday we had to utilise the strength of our biceps while kayaking, today we would give our legs a good workout on a bike. I couldn’t remember the last time I was on a bike but thankfully some life skills last forever. With Pham, our faithful guide, leading the way we cycled to a local village called Viet Hai.
Viet Hai is located just outside the boundary of Cat Ba National Park. Its most striking features are the unspoiled natural landscape of high mountains, and the thick tropical jungles that surround it. The streets are spotlessly clean and beautifully lined with red hibiscus and banana trees. The lush and well kept vegetable gardens at the entrance are hard to miss.
Despite its remoteness, Viet Hai is not immune to the rapid development of the modern world. Two-storey concrete houses are not uncommon. There are also restaurants and a karaoke bar, but remnants of the old way of life are still visible in Viet Hai. Mud-walled houses still stand strong. Although they are no longer used as a place to live in, they have a unique purpose for the villagers.
We cycled further into the village and headed for the National Park. We ditched our bikes and began trekking on foot into the wilderness. Our next destination was the Navy Peak, which sits at 280m above sea level where an awesome view of the archipelago awaited us.
The view from Navy Peak was worth the effort. The dramatic landscape of the archipelago sprawled into infinity. It was as if we were looking at hundreds of sleeping dragons that magically turned themselves into rocks and stones.
In the heat of the afternoon, we climbed down back to Viet Hai. Once we were back in the village we knew that it was the end of this incredible adventure. We were hot and sweaty, but we felt accomplished. We had done and seen so much within a limited space of time. Pity we had leave to this beautiful place behind, but we weren’t going to say goodbye without soaking in the sun, the blue sky and the beauty of the archipelago one last time.
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