Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Cát Bà Island with Xuân and Đạt

I just got back from a beaut trip to Cát Bà Island, with Xuân and his brother, Đạt. I had church class in the morning. We cannot use the church classrooms for a couple of weeks so we met at Madame Tra's house - she has an old classroom in the back. After that Đạt went home for a change of clothes while Xuân and I put together some lunch. We caught a taxi to the ferry expecting to catch a 2pm hydrofoil, only to find that that one is only available on the weekend, so we had to wait till 3pm.

The boat was fresh and new and our seats were comfortable. Neither of the boys had been to Cát Bà before, or even on a boat so they were a little anxious the first time we crossed the wake of a freighter when we rocked  and rolled a bit.
The boat ride took about 70 minutes and there were blue skies and a pleasant breeze when we disembarked. I was looking forward to experiencing the view I enjoyed last year when I came here, so we booked into the same hotel - Cát Bà Dream Hotel - right on the esplanade overooking the bay. I got the room with a view and the boys were in the room next door. The first thing we did was change into our swimmers and head for the beach. The lock jammed on the boys' room and they couldn't open it again, so we reported the problem to reception and headed up and over the hill to Cát Cò 1 - the closest, most popular beach. There were lots of people swimming, so we to walk around the headland to Cát Cò 3 which is usually a lot less crowded.

From this lookout, you can see Cát Cò 1 down there behind Đạt. The beach was crowded and even though it was late afternoon there were plenty of people still swimming.

We are at the south end of Hạ Long Bay, so there are many islands and rocky outcrops and the scenery is spectacular.

As we looked down on Cát Cò 3 we could see that it was much less crowded than the main beach.

Clean, white sand and balmy, warm water... Đạt didn't feel like swimming, so he watched our stuff while Xuân and I swam.  It was just beautiful in the water. Some friendly people wanted to say hello, so I got to practice speaking Vietnamese a little bit. It's very thrilling when people actually understand what I'm trying to say!

This lass spoke English pretty well and we chatted for ages. Then when we were getting dressed for the walk home, she wanted a photo with us... 'This is a random foreigner I met swimming on Cát Bà'...

The sun was setting as we walked back around to the town. The harbour is so picturesque, we just had to get some photos...

When we got back to our hotel,  a man from  reception came up to unlock the door to the boys' room  and I jumped into the shower in my room. I realised when I was getting dressed after a leisurely shower that I could hear banging... it was nearly an hour later that the guy managed to get their room open, and he had to replace the lock to do so. By then, Xuân had had  a shower in my room and we were ready for dinner.

This is the view from my window as the lights came on in the floating restaurants out on the harbour... gorgeous, eh?

... and that's the wharf lit up down there with the red arch. The guests on our floor used this balcony for a drying area.

Once we were all sorted, we walked back along the Esplanade to the first floating restaurant back at the east end of the harbour, which we had passed on our walk back from swimming. To get to it, you have to walk along floating gangplank that rocks and rolls alarmingly with every step. Next to the building are pens with live fish and shellfish and you choose what you want to eat ... can't get fresher than that!!

We shared a table with a couple on holidays from Beijung, China. Ricky's from California and he's teaching English over there, and Elizabeta is Italian, and she's at university there, studying economics in Chinese! They were great company and we enjoyed comparing notes on life in our respective countries. We ate crab, some large prawn like creatures (flipper lobsters?), and clams. It was a bit odd, for there was nothing else... no rice, nor vegetables... but what we had was delicious.

As we made our way back towards the hotel, we sat for a while, and this lady rowed up and wanted to give us a 'cruise' around the harbour in her little boat... it looked way too small and unstable to me, so we declined.

By then it was after 9pm, and we walked along looking for a bar for Xuân was keen to go dancing. We found a bakery instead, and bought a variety of cakes for dessert.

We checked out a couple of tour guides for a cruise including Monkey Island, a cave, and snorkelling that we could do in the morning. We couldn't do a day trip because we were booked on the 4 o'clock boat back to Hải Phòng. We agreed to a tour that was for 4 hours for 300,000d each and would leave at 7.15am (!) and paid a deposit. Since that was going to be an early start and it was already nearly 11pm and there was only one incredibly loud bar in sight, we headed back to the hotel.

Xuân went down to the desk to find out about check-out times etc and came back with the news that they were offering a cheaper tour - 3 hours for 200,000d each - and they insisted that the tour we had booked would not be 4 hours, but 3...   So we discussed it and he went down to book with them then came back with an even more economical plan... we were to go to the departure wharf, Bến Bèo, by xe om at 7am (10,000d) then buy our own ticket on a boat going to Monkey Island (30,000d) and sort out our own tour. Sounded good, so we agreed to do that.

When Đạt knocked on my door at 5.55am, this is the view that greeted me... stunning, eh!

We checked out of the hotel and walked up the hill to find a place for breakfast ... combination fish soup...
Very tasty!

Blue skies, and a perfect morning... we had no trouble finding a ride to Bến Bèo where the boats leave from. We paid our 30,000d dong each only to be told that we'd have to pay another 100,000d each when we got on board ... hmmmm... and the boat wasn't leaving for 45 minutes. No problem, we found a place to sit in the shade and wait.
On board, we made ourselves comfortable sitting on the deck of the roof of the boat and enjoyed the scenery as we tootled past a very extensive fishing village... much bigger than those we saw last year on our Hạ Long Bay trip. Everything was very picturesque and peaceful.

After half an hour or so we could see Monkey Island in the distance.

We disembarked on the beach and joined the other tourists (mostly nationals) milling around on the sand. Our boys weren't sure how long we were going to be there, or whether we were going to any other islands etc so I didn't know if there was time for swim or not so we paddled a bit and sat in the shade.
How cool is Đạt's colourful sombrero?

There were several large umbrellas set up on the beach where you could buy your own custom brew of seafood wine.... First a selection of exotic sea creatures are chosen. In this case, seahorses, sea snake, gar fish, starfish, crabs, various shellfish and sea cucumber. The sea cucumber is slit and emptied of all it's insides so just the skin remains, then everything is placed in a large plastic jar and filled with rice wine.

Apparently this brew makes men very strong.

It's called monkey island for a reason.... the terrain is too rugged for bush-walking, but we could see the monkeys frolicking in the trees behind the beach. Eventually a couple came close enough for the people to see up close. One young monkey was down in a tree quite close to the ground and a crowd had gathered oohing and ahhing and taking photos by the time we got there, so I pulled out my camera when a man started throwing things at the little monkey ... trying to make him move, I quess. Idiot. Of course it moved... straight back up into the leaf cover!

A larger monkey appeared, so they started chucking things at it, too. But this one was older and wiser. It caught this coke can and drank the dregs before throwing it back down.

After a while the other people from our boat stopped swimming and began to congregate in one place, so we hung about on the fringes until our boat re-appeared. I reckon we had about an hour on the island, then we climbed a steep narrow gangplank back up onto the boat, resumed our positions on the roof and tootled back to Bến Bèo. Again we took a xe om ride back into town. This time we scored some cowboys, so the trip was very fast. My driver was really competent, so the ride was thrilling. Poor old Xuân must have had a bad driver... he got off exclaiming how dangerous that was, travelling at such breakneck speed.

So we were back in Cát Bà, already checked out of our hotel, with tickets booked for the afternoon ferry at 4pm and it was only 10.30am! So much for  our three hour cruise with swimming and snorkelling! We walked along the harbour till we found a pleasant looking open-air restaurant and ordered some lunch:  clam soup, squid and fried prawns and vegetable stir-fry ... yum.


Even though we lingered over our lunch sitting in the cool breeze of a fan it was obvious we couldn't stay there as the lunch time customers began to roll in. So what to do during the heat of the day when everyone is having a snooze? "When in Rome....."
We pulled up a patch of shade on the esplanade right on the water where the sea breeze was blowing and settled down to while away the time.

A couple of small boats putted over to try and convince us to take a ride around the harbour and one grubby old guy (who had been drinking by the smell of him) came and harrangued Xuân for ages. Xuân is such a nice guy he didn't tell the guy to go away, he kept talking to him. I moved over to the shade on the other side of the tree and lay down for a bit of a snooze. Eventually when the fellow wandered away Xuân revealed that he had found out heaps of information for next time. It seems we can hire one of the small boats (they take about 10 people at a push) for 100,000d for as long as we want and it will take us wherever we want to go... and the best place to eat seafood is out in the floating village away from the tourist centre...  next time!

By then it was 12.30 and Đạt noticed the hydrofoil was pulling in at the wharf so he went and arranged for us to swap our tickets to this earlier trip back home. We picked up our bags from the hotel and found comfortable seats and had a relaxing ride back to Hải Phòng.
This is Xuân's 'on a plane' photo                

Although we were only gone for 24 hours, we felt like we'd had a holiday, and Xuân and Đạt can now say they've been to Cát Bà Island. Đạt had to get on home to help his father, so they took off, and I enjoyed a long shower, a nap, and a relaxing evening playing Ba's guitar..... aaahhh!

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