A stay on Cat Ba island (Ha Long Bay cruise, Part 2)

Day 2 of our Ha Long Bay cruise and we awoke early from our comfortable beds and started the day with a huge breakfast of pancakes, fresh fruit, eggs, toast, traditional vietnamese noodles, and lots of tea and coffee.  After eating as much as we possibly could, we then immediately headed off the boat for an explore of one of the nearby tiny islands. The plan was to climb to the peak of the island to look out across the bay for its amazing picturesque views, and then finish off with an early morning swim. An early morning climbDespite being only 8.30 am, the ascent to the peak was hot and sweaty, and by the time we had taken in the stunning views, had the obligatory photos taken, and clambered back down, a swim was just what we needed!

Once back on board, our junk boat then set sail for Cat Ba island, which is the biggest of the 366 islands that make up the Cat Ba archipelago, on the southeastern edge of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. The sail took a couple of hours and it was wonderful to travel through the islands at such a lovely pace, enjoying the scenery as we gently sailed through. People talk about how the Ha Long Bay area is over populated now. Depending on where you sail, there can be a lot of passing boats, but because of the nature of a cruise, it isn’t a brash and noisy place, and the boats slink past each other with barely a ripple.

The sad thing we did notice however, was the sheer amount of rubbish floating in the water. This has been a common theme in all of the Asian countries we have visited, and unfortunately, despite being UNESCO protected, Ha Long Bay suffers the exact same fate. Empty plastic bottles, bags, wrappers and other discarded rubbish litter the water and rocks on the surrounding islands. This is the tragedy of the place. My impression is that the Vietnamese operate a pay-as-you-throw rubbish collection system, so lots of people either opt to burn their rubbish in the streets, or find other ways to discard it; and it’s often by disposing of litter into rivers, streams, the sea and disused areas of land by the roadside. It’s hardly surprising that this happens, as it means one less thing to pay for for those already living in poverty. But it also means that few people take responsibility for rubbish: and this is spoiling the beauty of Vietnam, Bali and much of south east Asia.

Cat Ba islandArriving on Cat Ba island, we were collected by bus and taken as a group to an area of the National Park. Our guide said we would be taking a one-hour ‘walk’ into the parkland, after which we would be collected and driven to our hotel in time for lunch. We were able to leave the majority of our luggage on the bus with the driver, but we all brought our handbags and day packs. Like most of the others, our family was dressed in flip-flops and pretty casual clothing. Little did we know what was ahead.

The ‘walk’ started off on a newly laid, concrete path, leading up into the forest. There was a shop / cafe at the end from which we stocked up on a bottle of water and bought some ‘same-same’ Oreo biscuits (‘Cream-O’s’). All very civilised. It was super-hot, because by now it was nearly midday and the sun was almost at its peak. As we ambled on toward the jungle trees, the nicely laid concrete path suddenly disappeared, and within a few paces we were trekking. In flip-flops.

Funnily enough, Rosie the girl who normally claims that she hates walking anywhere, marched ahead and was happy enough, busily spotting unusually coloured butterflies and pointing out the biggest spiders I have ever seen, dangling from their webs above us!

Even when the going got really tough, and we were having to traverse what felt like sheer rock faces in order to reach the peak of the national park, Rosie and Ruben were both cheerfully helping to guide the lesser-able members of the group about where to safely place their feet and how to get a good grip in order to pull themselves up to the next ledge! At one point Ruben had to

This is the only bit with a handrail!
This is the only bit with a handrail!

practically pull me up part of the cliff. My excuse? The handbag I’d brought with me on the ‘walk’, full of passports, an iPad, phones and other high value, precious items, was causing me a bit of a handicap.

At this point in time, we were all wet through with sweat – there wasn’t a dry t-shirt on the mountain. My flip-flops had all but given

up, so I decided it would be easier and safer to trek in bare feet. Despite all this, we weren’t about to give up. The remarkable official female guide, who must have been aged about 65 and dressed fully in several long layers, including white jeans (I kid you not!), a t-shirt, a long-sleeved hoody (with hood actually pulled up), sun hat, face mask, socks and birkenstock style shoes, every now and again would shout, ‘Just 5 more minutes!” She hadn’t even broken a sweat. The funny things was, after this point, we didn’t see her again! Maybe she was frustrated that we couldn’t keep up?!

Finally, after sweating, swearing, climbing, hauling, grabbing, pushing, reaching and yet more sweating: we reached the top!
Aaron at the peak of Cat Ba national park

Was it worth it? Yes. The views across the island were spectacular and once the happy-hormone endorphins from all the exertion were released, we were actually smiling. We were just aware that we had to make it back down again. Barefoot. With the handbag. Whilst avoiding getting bitten by one of those huge spiders! Eeek!

Of course we managed it, although it had taken much longer than expected. Our guide, who had waiting for us at the base of the mountain, was anxious that we were now running late for the lunch that was ready and waiting for us at our hotel.

He needn’t have worried though. Vietnamese drivers always drive as though they’re late for something important, and today was no exception. We were across the island within minutes (!), ready to check in to our hotel and eat some of the behind-schedule, much-needed lunch.

As we checked in, I was excited to know : would our family be allocated one room or two for the night?

To be continued….

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