Viêt Nam 05 p2

Cát Bà in Ha Long Bay

Hai Phong
After getting my visa for Laos, which surprisingly only took a few hours, I booked a seat on a bus for Vientiane and found myself with two days to spare. So I took a bus to Hai Phong, there to take the ferry for the island of Cát Bà. The road I walked from the station to the docks followed the river, where many boat-houses were moored. Entire families lived in the single room of those small boats, and peering inside I could see the regular TV and the occasional microwave oven!

The ferry was a venerable old thing used almost solely by the locals to take their goods to and from the island. I settled with my backpack in a room at the rear, where a small group soon formed around a rickety table to play cards. The trip would take 2 and a half hours and to kill time I started sketching the scene. A pilot whose glance fell on my sketchbook as he passed asked me, by signs, to draw his portrait, which he then proudly carried off to show the rest of the crew. A few minutes later a much older pilot bolted in, looking for me; he had fixed up his uniform and another man followed him, carrying his cap aloft before solemnly placing it on the old pilot's head. Still using signs, he let me know he wanted his own portrait done, so I complied. After that everyone was friendly with me, the players inviting me to come watch the game, the old man making me sit beside him to enjoy a nicer view…

A couple of my "ferry friends". Vietnamese working women wear scarves to keep their skin fair, as it is considered unattractive to be tanned by outdoor labour. Similarly men grow their fingernails to show they don't work with their hands.
Towards the end of the trip the view had become interesting indeed, as we were starting to navigate among the rocks that make Ha Long bay's fame. We were approaching Cát Bà, and I went outside for a better look. There I struck conversation with a native who told me the story of this Dutch tourist who has lived on the island ever since he got lost in the jungle, was luckily found days later by a village woman, fell in love with and married her. Interesting destiny!
Cát Bà, the main town in the island of the same name, is a funny place. It's tiny, of course, and when you approach it by boat it looks for all the world as if its houses were standing in a row and all staring at the sea. As tourism is on the rise, they created a wide seaside road and promenade between the town and the water; it looks way too big in proportion to the feeble traffic they get (and two-wheel traffic to boot). Without trying at all (I just followed the most perseverant hawker) I got a nice room with a view on the bay. All the hotels on this street put their tables out and it was pleasant to sit there and watch people pass by while working on my diary and sipping tea. It was a good way to meet people.

 In the hotel lobby was an altar, the kind you will find in every single Viêt homestead or business, with offerings (hilltribes have their own altars.) I was very amused to note the nature of the offerings: a few cans of Heineken, Coca Cola and Tiger Beer, a bottle of Hanussy, a box of Orion Choco-pie, a cup of coffee, a mango, a pack of Marlboro, a box of Oreo and finally some bank notes…

The view from my room
More Vietnamese chess!
 The centre of the island is the site of a national park, Trung Trang, through which I hiked with a small group. It took us four hours through the thick Vietnamese jungle, climbing and descending a total of 5 "peaks", to come out of it, by which time we'd made several sightings of large squirrels but nothing else. It's a really beautiful forest, surprising us now and then with giant leaves and knotted trees.

This tree looked like it was being hugged, so I joined in.
Stunning giant leaves...

A small village called Viêt Hai lies on the other side of the island amidst the fields, and we had lunch there. There's only about forty huts, and they all have a pool table on the patio. It must have been interesting to get them here given the village's only accessible by motorbike from the harbour. We made for the latter after lunch, another hour's walk after which a boat picked us up to bring us back to Cát Bà through the most amazing landscape…

This cute little girl was posing for me like a star.
The world's smallest beach (I assume), on a rock in the midst of the water.
Floating market. Legend says a dragon landed in what is now Ha Long bay,
and its tail smashed the landscape to bits into which the sea rushed…
A lazy boat trip to the mainland and another bus ride later, I was making in Ha Noi for just a few hours before leaving for a land that attracted me even more: Laos.

Next (to Laos)
Next (stay in Viêt Nam)