Vietnam 2010

A whistle-stop trip from north to south (and a hop next door)

DAYS 6-7: Cat Ba junk cruise

Posted by activeafrica on March 2, 2010

Day 6

Our train from Lao Cai arrived in Hanoi at 4.30 the following morning after a much more pleasant journey. The bone-breaking stops and cacophonic wheel noise that characterised the outward journey were mercifully absent. The most uncomfortable part of this experience was filling the time between arriving at the station and catching the bus to Hai Phong at 9am. We decided to take a taxi to the area we had stayed previously, hoping that at least one of the hotels or restaurants would be open and serving even basic (preferably caffeinated) sustenance at 4.30am. Despite being asked to drop us at the Metropole Hotel, the taxi dropped us at St Joseph’s cathedral and left us standing in the dark, deserted street with all of our luggage. I was cursing Chris for jumping into the first taxi that solicited us at the station (I prefer to approach the taxis rather than jump into the first one that approaches us, but Chris waved each protest off as irrational brain farts) and cursing myself for not refusing to get into the taxi in the first place. Then I cursed him again, for not correcting the driver and insisting that he take us to the Metropole, then I cursed myself again for not taking charge. The net result: we humped a duffel and three backpacks through the French quarter, around Hoam Kiem Lake, through pitch dark alleys to the Metropole Hotel where we knew we would at least find a cup of coffee. The handful of cars and mopeds that happened past all slowed to take in the sight of two idiotic gringos laden with luggage, pounding the pavement at some godforsaken hour of the morning. Even more idiotic was the sight of Chris lagging 10 steps behind me out of sheer defiance – I had expressed concern about the vulnerability of having everything of importance with us and accompanied this with a significant increase in pace. Determined to remain ‘cool and calm’, he deliberately slowed his pace. It was at that point, which happened to coincide with us entering a street that was thoroughly devoid of illumination, that I made the decision that it was every vulnerable, bag-toting soul for itself and stepped on the gas.

Our 5am arrival at the Metropole Hotel was as amusing as it was unusual. As we pushed open the glass doors, the bellmen, lying on their backs on the first landing of the sweeping central staircase, jumped to their feet rubbing their eyes. Now, if you find yourself in a situation where you are out of place, the success of the mission lies in the delivery of the argument. While the bellmen made their way down the stairs, we expertly dropped our bags onto one of the luggage trolleys, glibly explained that we had come for coffee and boldly marched into the breakfast room to the surprise of the wait staff who were preparing for their $400-a night paying guests. We sat down at a table and informed the approaching waiter that we would like a pot of coffee but we would not be eating breakfast (had nothing to do with the $23 a head cost – had everything to do with the fact that it was just too early to eat). The façade cracked as I happily mentioned that we had just come from the train station (Metropole guests don’t travel by train..) and Chris hastily tried to patch it up by mentioning that he had recently stayed at the hotel with a B&R group. The coffee arrived and we chatted further with the waiter (the name-drop worked), who then disappeared only to return with the plate of pastries. No charge, he hastened to add, because we bring so many guests to the hotel. Seriously not hungry, we had to oblige and since they were pastries, I couldn’t touch them, which left Chris with the task of climbing into the plate. It was time to hail a taxi to the bus station and the waiter brought the bill for the coffee ($9 for two cups – I hasten to add it was cheaper than Starbucks at Heathrow airport two years ago!). You don’t want a receipt for the coffee, right? Naa… Good, I thought not – as the money disappeared into a pocket in his shirt.

The next part of the journey was about to being. The taxi dropped us off at the Hanoi bus station and we bought our one-way ticket to Cat Ba island. The trip included a 2-hour bus ride to Hai Phong, with an endless, badly-dubbed Kung Fu epic blasting from an overhead TV. We arrived in Hai Phong and were dropped at a small depot where we waited for a second bus which took us to the jetty to meet the ‘high speed ferry’ to Cat Ba island. After a short game of musical ferries, we eventually found one that worked and we set off into the grey. Arriving at Cat Ba island, we jumped aboard another bus and travelled the last 30km to Cat Ba town, through villages, over hills, along the coast. As we approached the town, the weather brightened and the cloud lifted. The bus dropped us a short distance from the Slo Pony office at the Noble House hotel. We made our way upstairs to meet the owner, Onslo (Slo) Carrington, a climber from DC who, in typical climbing fashion, appeared to have dropped out of life to live and climb in paradise. Slo introduced us to Lieu, owner of the junk we were to call ‘home’ for the next two nights and we jumped on two mopeds and headed for the jetty. We climbed aboard the Eco-Friendly junk with ‘Captain Wuy’ and ‘Chef Do’An’ and chugged slowly away from Cat Ba.

Our first afternoon was spent chugging around Lan Ha Bay. We stopped for lunch in a pretty bay with a few local fishing boats and one other day-trip junk as companions, then headed towards a floating village where Wuy and Do’An dropped us in the kayak and sent us on our way pointing, smiling and nodding their heads. As we kayaked past the floating village, we remarked on how so many people could live permanently on boats with so few of the basic necessities. Some of the boats were nothing more than coracles with plastic dome roofs, others were motorised fishing vessels with banks of large-bulbed lights and stabilising poles. Dogs barked at us from most boats, running nimbly along the gunnels and gangplanks.

I was stunned at how dirty the water appeared. Thick layers of flotsam skimmed past the kayak, breaking into a soluble mulch that looked like the discharge from a sewage outlet. Ahead of us, a large opening led to a sea cave which opened onto a small bay surrounded by tall karst outcrops. Another small opening led to an open bay to which we paddled. The tide was out and with the moon almost full, the high water mark was at least four metres above us. Once again, I was stunned at the thick layer of muck that covered every inch of exposed rock and the few mussels and oysters that remained.

Overall, our visit to Lan Ha Bay and the outskirts of Ha Long Bay rates as the most depressing visit ever to a coastal destination. There wasn’t a single place we stopped that we didn’t see inhabitants of the area fishing, beachcombing or discharging waste into the water. All of the mussel and oyster beds were destroyed and broken and shucked shells littered the rocks. But most sad was the few remaining beautiful corals desperately trying to survive in water that was nothing short of toxic. All around, most of the corals had died, leaving bleached and broken reefs around the islands.

Then there is the issue of the large tourist junks from Ha Long and Cat Ba which apparently discharge everything from food waste to dishwater and toilet waste into the water. I felt desperate and helpless and bitterly annoyed that the issue is not being addressed with any sort of urgency by any of the stakeholders, despite Ha Long Bay’s World Heritage status.

As the tide turned and the water started to rise, we made our way back through the cave to the junk, stopping on a small beach to visit the temple which serviced the floating village. The temple’s two residents, a male and female cat, ran noisily down the beach to greet us. When they realised we had not come bearing gifts, they climbed into the kayak, giving it a thorough once-over before resigning to the beach to dig large holes with the occasional frustrated glare at us.

We returned to the boat as it was getting dark and prepared for dinner. Our first dinner was a delight of French fries (with sugar which we thought was perhaps mistaken for salt), fresh sand mussels, grilled fish, prawns and rice, followed by fresh fruit. Hungry from the long day of travel and kayaking (even though we had enjoyed a scrummy lunch of calamari salad and spring rolls), we tucked into the feast and emptied the plates. One of the things that impressed us was that even though we were clearly eating the least expensive food available, ironically it happened to be the most sought-after, expensive food we could have eaten anywhere else. Both days and nights that we ate on the junk, we had fresh fish, prawns and fresh calamari, prepared to mouth-watering perfection. That night we dropped anchor in a quiet bay, surrounded by a wall of karst, our only company a local fishing boat recognisable by the bright overhead light and throaty phut-phut of the engine.

Our junk

A floating village in Lan Ha Bay

Our first kayak trip through a floating village

Some blue sponges struggling to stay alive in the muck left by the receding tide

Day 7

We woke the following morning at 9am, an hour after Chris was supposed to be deep water soloing the local towers. Exhausted from the previous days’ travel and an acute lack of sleep, we were only too happy to lie in. Early that morning, Do’An had left to attend his son’s birthday party and the owner of Eco-Friendly junks, Hung Van Lieu, joined us as skipper. A quick breakfast was followed by a visit to a local fish farm where we were to catch our lunch. Lieu rolled a rice ball and attached it to the end of a hook, which was attached to the end of a piece of gut, which was attached to a bamboo pole, dropped it in the water between fish pens and within minutes, had hooked a small fish. He re-baited the rod and handed it to Chris who did the same. Clearly, neither of us is a descendent of fishermen. I watched Chris stand patiently for the next hour as his prey swam around the hook, nibbled at the bait and swam away. I spent the better part of 15 minutes rolling a rice ball and lasted all of 10 minutes with my hook in the water, before the activity got old and it was time to move on to something else.

We left the fish farm and relocated to an area east of Cat Ba island where we could kayak and climb for a couple of hours before another lunch of dumplings and calamari salad. Finally, after lunch, we were able to lie and read as the boat chugged southwards for our second night out in the bay. Lieu dropped anchor in an area just east of Titop island, where we did some more kayaking before heading back to our overnight spot, about 4km and several islands north of where we left Ben Beo pier. Our final evening, as we sat on the top deck until dinner, the sun setting and the full moon rising behind us, casting halos over the karst islands, we both felt extremely privileged to be able to travel and experience all that we have.

That night, we chatted at length with Lieu about his life as a fisherman, spending several months at a time at sea. Six years previously, he had decided to pack it in and became involved in tourism, running day trips in Ha Long Bay. For the past two years he and his brother had been running Eco-Friendly junks, with three 6–bed boats running almost continuously in the area and a fourth, larger boat under construction. Lieu’s hospitality couldn’t be faulted. A couple of issues with the bathroom in our cabin needed addressing (leaking pipes, salt water, wet floor) and the lighting was dim and dependent on the crew’s bedtime (both nights the lights went out at a particularly interesting juncture in our books), but for a two-night stay, it was nothing we couldn’t live with.

Overall, the weather could have been better – it was rainy when we set out, but cleared to cloudy the next day, with late patches of sun in the afternoon. The bay was very hazy and the wind a little chilly, all of which are important considerations when planning a coastal trip. But it was relaxing and exactly what we needed at that stage of the trip – and the seafood was a real treat!


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