Ha Long Bay…Wikipedia ‘facts’:
Hạ Long Bay has an area of around 1,553 km2, including 1,960–2,000 islets, most of which are limestone. The core of the bay has an area of 334 km2 with a high density of 775 islets. The limestone in this bay has gone through 500 million years of formation in different conditions and environments. The evolution of the karst in this bay has taken 20 million years under the impact of the tropical wet climate. The geo-diversity of the environment in the area has created biodiversity, including a tropical evergreen biosystem, oceanic and sea shore biosystem
Possibly the most iconic and well known of Vietnamese landscapes, we were set and excited to do our own exploration of Ha Long Bay. After Angkor Wat, this part of the trip was one of my most eagerly awaited sights-ever since my first encounter with Scaramanga’s Lair in The Man With The Golden Gun I have always dreamed of visiting these shored. Having perused countless blogs and travel magazines with their stories of wonder at this geological spectacle, it was now time for us to discover them for ourselves.
We had decided to go to the island of Cat Ba and explore the area from there, resisting the urge to simply organise a package trip from Hanoi and fly through someone else’s itinerary-we made our way to the superbly named Ali Baba’s and prepared for a few days of adventure.
Ali Baba’s was the top recommended guest house that we could find, with particular plaudits for the tours that were arranged by the owner. At just $5 a night with picture perfect views of the harbour from our room, initial reactions were positive to say the least , and soon we had arranged our boat trip for the next day-a tour of the islands, some kayaking, potential rock climbing and a cliff jump-it all sounded spectacular.
Wandering around the town of Cat Ba, and it certainly seemed like we were there ‘off season’. Many of the restaurants and bars were closed, and the town had the feeling of a place treading water until the next deluge of tourists. For us this proved to be little problem, we weren’t here to party and there were enough places open to give us quite the choice on food options, but the atmosphere lacked a little.
Next morning prepped and ready for a day out on the boat, the weather was a little overcast, but nothing to grumble about, certainly considering what we’re used to in the UK! Before long we were on a bus with about another 10 people who were on the trip, everyone quite obviously keen for the off-within 30 minutes we were on the boat and away-cameras at the ready.
First stop, the originally named Monkey Island. As you would expect, the clue is in the title and we eagerly disembarked to explore the island to see whether we could spot some of the resident primates. As is so often the case in Asia, don’t expect the route forward to be entirely clear, so we blindly followed our guide up a surprisingly challenging climb to the peak of the island. It may surprise you to know that neither Jo or I are blessed with the rock balancing ability of a mountain goat, quite the opposite. So as we took our time and made sure there were always three points of contact between the rocks and us-we were quite put to shame by those ‘more youthful’ teetering on the very summit for ‘edge of the world selfies’
Seemingly the weather had affected the monkeys, hidden away nowhere to be seen, but no bother given the stunning surrounding vistas to enjoy.
From here a meandering tour through various karst structures dotted all around us-we were heading to an area where we could take some time out to immerse ourselves in the surrounding beauty on kayak. The views were stunning for the whole of the journey, as you’ll be able to judge from the photos:
Excitedly we gallop down the gangplank to the platform where the kayaks were waiting for us-although the first thing that we encountered was something quite unexpected. the fishermen that also use the platform had caught an absolutely massive fish. I mean this thing was huge. It was being kept in a little area under the platform, looming to the surface of the water every now and again and eyeballing us-it wouldn’t surprise me if it was just mentally logging everyone’s faces for revenge purposes, with plans for an imminent escape.
Having been distracted enough, we got presented with our two person kayak only to realise that we would be having to accommodate one more. Don’t you just hate that in Asia, always room for one more?! Fortunately this time the plus one was a crab ‘happily’ tucked away by my feet. As long as he didn’t have any desires on my toes, we’d get along just fine.
A good couple of hours on the water, and the acquisition of another one of them old life skills! Our guide teaching us how to fish off the side of his canoe with a line and hook, using locally sourced mussels as bate to effortlessly pluck a fish for lunch from the waters. First time was great, but then we jinxed him-with all future efforts ending with failure. Still, 30% of the time it works every time….
Lunch was served back on the boat and it was a delight-as so often on these excursions it’s the meals where you expect very little, that you discover a lot-and this was one of those occasions.
Next port of call was a small deserted beach-and time for Jo and I to prove our metal as the only passengers willing to jump off the boat and swim over to the shore. The water was fresh, invigorating, made my skin tingle like I was in a bath full of Tiger Balm. as we looked round us we truly appreciated a special moment. The deep green water giving birth to the jagged rock outcrops around us, seeing the surroundings from a different perspective-it was an exhilarating feeling.
The next challenge proved to be something beyond us, the rock climb and cliff jump. I was quite bullish about the idea, and Jo was pretty pre-determined too-but when it came down to it I simply did not have the skills or guts to attempt the ‘climb and jump’! In fact the only person to do it was Ali Baba himself, treating us to a wonderful exhibition of his skills-scaling the side of the rock effortlessly, gecko like in his movement-before taking a moment, and leaping off-to our obvious glee!
By this point we had formed friendships with others on the boat, particularly a Canadian guy called George and a Norwegian lady called Ulla. Both had been travelling extensively, with some colourful and insightful tales to share, so the rest of the journey we enjoyed engaging conversation, blessed with the most picturesque of backdrops.
Somewhat exhausted we returned to shore, found ourselves a suitable spring roll vendor, and wrapped up the evening quick time. It was once again time to take to two wheels and explore our locale, we had found an easy hike that we could do, and the sights of ‘Hospital Cave’ and the Cat Ba Cannon Station-offering the most spectacular views on the island they say. I say ‘easy hike’, but like most things in Asia, nothing is easy in this heat. It was an odd entrance into the Cat Ba National Park, you enter down an avenue which eventually reveals that it is the home of a semi abandoned village-some people still there trying to sell you a drink, or a t-shirt, but, on the whole, deserted.
As we made our way towards the start of the hike, we intermittently passed by people on the way down….Who I have to say were a pretty grumpy and negative bunch! Most of them advised us to turn back, warning us how difficult and slippery the trail was. Usually I find that people are more encouraging and tell you how it’s worth the effort! No putting us off, and we increased pace a little to see what would be in store for us. As it turns out, it was absolutely fine-I do not know what ell the other people were on about! By good fortune we bumped into George once again on our way up-and promptly made dinner plans, always good to share your experiences with people. At the top and were once again bathing in views of misty mountains and jungle stretching out into the distance.
We descended from the peak like veritable mountain goats and mounted our trusty steed to hit the coastal road on our return to Cat Ba. Prompted by the recommendation of views that were quite spectacular, and that it was well worth going a little out of the way. Off we set with camera at the ready and high hopes for further enchantment from Ha Long Bay…..until we found the road to be blocked by a landslide-talk about anti-climax! Not that we’re complaining, we were still lucky enough to be scooting around a gorgeous Vietnamese island after all.
During the Indochina wars Cat Ba was a strategic look-out point, and as such was targeted by heavy bombing. Local residents were often forced into hiding among the Island’s many caves, and one such cave was to be our next stop on our route home. Hospital Cave was a secret, bomb-proof hospital during the Vietnam War and was also used as a safe house for VC commanders. I wasn’t really prepared for what we eventually found-I was expecting a cave with a few rooms carved out-what we actually encountered was a three story fortified hospital inside a mountain…No slap dash construction here-this place was extremely impressive.
It would be foolish to claim to fully understand the conditions that people had to cope with-but for sure here you get an idea of the ingenuity and adaptability of people in the most testing of times.
From the hospital we set about heading to Cannon Fort, quite the opposite in terms of function. Strategic watch point with four old bunkers, a helicopter landing station, a number of big ground-to-air munitions, as well stunning views from a peak 177 meters above Cat Ba town. From here you could get a 360 degree view of the island, a bird’s eye view of the town and the harbours, and of course the many limestone karsts that form the unique landscape found in Lan Ha Bay. It was the perfect way to draw our visit here to a conclusion. Now a hop, skip, jump (or bus, boat, bus, bus, taxi!) back to Hanoi, and then to make our return to Nha Trang to attempt our PADI Open Water Diving qualifications.