Cat Ba and Halong Bay

Halong Bay is situated off the north-eastern coast of Vietnam, and is one of the absolute must-see places in Vietnam. There are various organised ways of visiting the bay from Hanoi - day trips, overnight boats stays, alcohol-fuelled party trips (the notorious Castaway tour) - but I decided to take a more independent approach and make my way to Cat Ba island, the main inhabited centre in Halong Bay. It was nice and easy to get there, with a cheap moto to the bus station, then a $10 combined bus/ferry/bus ticket to Cat Ba itself (via Haiphong, about 5 hours). The views from the ferry on the way over weren't especially amazing, but the bus trip across the island to Cat Ba town were, as the bus wound it's way through the rugged forest and limestone formations. I arrived into town in the late afternoon and checked into the first hotel I came across - cheap, functional, and right in the middle of the harbourfront. The day was overcast, so rather than explore too much in the bad light, I found a cheap restaurant (there are tens to choose from), filled my empty stomach with rice and beer, and had an early night. The next day I woke early with plans to rent a scooter for the day , learn to ride it, and explore the island - or as much of it as possible from the four roads that constitute the island's road network. Sadly, I had some bad news waiting for me when I checked my email, as my Grandfather had passed away the previous day. He had been ill for some time, and I was prepared for the news to some extent, but it was still a shock. I spent some time that morning trying to decide whether to fly back home or not, but after a while realised that I would better serve his memory by carrying on, and using my time to the fullest - and learning to ride a scooter (at the ripe old age of 37) would be a good start.
Cat Ba Hospital corridor

Cat Ba Hospital corridor

The hospital front door. Not very welcoming.

The hospital front door. Not very welcoming.

Beach on Cat Ba island

Beach on Cat Ba island

Automatic scooters are incredibly easy to ride - just turn the handle and off they go. I almost crashed on my first attempt though, turning the handle the wrong way and nearly speeding into the back of a parked car, but after that it was a more controlled and sedate Rich who headed out of town. My first stop was the Hospital Cave, about 20 minutes ride from the main town. This cave in the limestone had been converted into a makeshift hospital with about 15 rooms - it's pretty empty now, but very atmospheric, and could definitely be turned into the lair of an evil genius. I then realised that all my camera batteries were flat. Oops - beginners mistake. I had to head back to the hotel for an hour to get one charged, and was only left with a few hours of scooter rental remaining. Undeterred, I completed a circuit of the island (or the half that has a road), and took in some fantastic views of bays, cliffs, and winding roads. The was a huge construction site at one point, looking hideous against the stunning backdrop, where I had to pull my bike off the road to let a JCB pass. A little further on, while trying to stay upright on the loose gravel of the temporary road, a random worker jumped on the back of the bike and indicated that he wanted a lift. He was presumptuous jumping aboard first, or perhaps foolish, not knowing this was my first day on a scooter - but I managed to deliver him to his bike about 1km down the track, with only one near-crash! I booked a boat trip into Halong Bay itself for the next day, and duly arrived at the harbour jetty bright-eyed and bushy-tailed early in the morning. The passenger roster was a fair mix - French, English, Croatian and American, of various ages - and I was happy that it wouldn't be a booze-cruise, although a beer or two during the day wouldn't go amiss, of course! The boat headed sedately out of the harbour, around a headland (complete with a horse head rock formation), and off toward Halong Bay. The trip to our first stop was very relaxing, and seeing the limestone karsts erupting from the sea was pretty awe-inspiring - a pinnacle, whose base appeared far too narrow to support it was particularly stunning. We stopped for a while at a small set of caves in the cliffside (where the guide was playing stalactites like a xylophone), and then headed off for some kayaking - hard work, but fortunately the sky was still overcast so it wasn't too hot. Snorkelling in the bay was surprisingly good, and though nobody else managed to see anything, I found nice shoals of fish by diving down - and got some more use from my new mask.
Halong Bay - face in the rock

Halong Bay - face in the rock

Halong Bay - face in the rock

Halong Bay - face in the rock

Halong Bay pinnacle

Halong Bay pinnacle

A tarn in Halong Bay

A tarn in Halong Bay

The final stop of the day was at Monkey Island (nobody understood my 'I wonder if it has a secret' references), which is a bit of a resort island with a restaurant/bar and some bungalows. The beach seemed nice enough, but it was full of drunk Vietnamese men, so a couple of French guys and myself repaired to the bar for an afternoon beer. The island's monkeys appeared to spend all of their time stealing food from people's plates in the restaurant, which was entertaining to watch, as was the ingenuity of one monkey, who would bite the bottom from water bottles and drink the water as it dribbled out. Clever monkey.
Halong Bay

Halong Bay

A fishery

A fishery

A monkey on... Monkey Island

A monkey on... Monkey Island

I spent the evening back on land chatting with a Dutch couple, and had a good meal and a few beers. I'd booked my onward route to Hue for the next day, so slept easy after a particularly active day (for me at least 😉
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