‘Let’s get breakfast and go for a walk on the beach!’ Amanda says enthusiastically. Her energy helps me. My first thought is ‘Is our boat going to depart?’ The storms have passed and the waters look calmer.
The breakfast is ok. When we ordered the chicken pho ‘An Chay’ or ‘Vegetarian’ they just picked off the chicken and served it to us. Vietnam is not easy for vegetarians.
The beach is quiet and nice except for a stone monster of a hotel going up next to the artfully designed Cat Ba Sunrise in which we stayed. Vietnam has boomed, but smart development is still a luxury concept. Amanda discovers a path up the side of the cove and we discover a beautiful walkway along the coast of the island. We stroll for a half mile, up to the next cove and go back.
“Mr. David, the boat will leave at 10am.’ he says “And I think you will be more comfortable in the secluded resort bungalow with AC than overnight on the boat.” ‘Wait, is this a trick?’ my mind says. But it doesn’t seem like it – I say yes to the bungalow, check out and head to town and the port.
We did it! Emma and Lily dance to the Dora the Explorer ‘We did it’ song. “Is this really all our boat?’ Amanda asks. It’s a full size boat for day trips that can take up to 30 people.
I bought this trip as a private boat. The three day – two night including the hydrofoil and a 3 hour car ride back to Hanoi was about a thousand dollars. He refunded me for the lost day due to weather, but it was still pricey. It’s their second boat and is a little decrepit but we love the space and privacy. Not as good as the Wonderpus (see Indonesia) but still great.
Within minutes all the stress and frustration of the last few days dissapears as we motor past the thousands of fish farmers that live in floating houses and cultivate fish. Cat Ba has about 16,000 inhabitants, about the same as our little town in the Washington D.C. Area. A quarter of them live on these floating villages as primarily fish farmers. Many of them left as boat people in the 70’s and 80’s.
We are sailing in Lan Ha bay, a part of the larger Ha Long bay area. It’s characterized by sedimentary limestone that formed under oceans millions of years ago. The oceans receded for a time, and seismic movement folded the malleable rock like an accordion and ocean waters came back in, filling the valleys with seawater. What is left today are a series of steep sided mini-hills and vertical rock islands in the sea, each covered by jungle alternating black-grey limestone and bright green jungle.
It’s an absolutely fantastic other-worldly landscape that is very very difficult to capture on photographs. I have attempted it nonetheless. But trust that what you see here is a hundred times better in reality. Amanda is all smiles. “this place is amazing!’ We all stay on the top of the boat where the light breeze keeps the temperature down and the bugs away. Perfect!
They serve an incredible number of dishes – Tofu in a light tomato broth, fried spring rolls, some chicken in lemongrass for Lily, sliced cucumbers, braised potato and carrot, fried egg, morning glory with garlic, whole steamed shrimp (that freaked out Lily,) and an amazing green papaya salad that was as good as any Amanda and I have ever eaten.
It’s a feast but poor Emma eats rice with soy sauce. This isn’t her meal. She accepts the travel deal: we accommodate her as much as we can, but we can’t guarantee she gets something she really likes.
She’s been a picky eater her whole life and though she has expanded her palette a few items a year there just isn’t anything here that will go down. Last summer she did really well in India because she likes curried chick peas.
“After your food goes down, you can jump off the boat and swim.” Chenz says. It’s about 20 feet into the water below, which is deep enough to dive but none of us are that bold. Jumping is a good enough thrill and from 20 feet. Lily has the most diving and gymnastic talent in the family by a wide margin, and she does a nearly perfect straddle pike jump.
“If you stare at the horizon you get a bigger woosh in your belly when you jump!’ I yell. Everyone does it and laughs more. We get salt water up our nose, down our pipes. I want Lily and Emma to jump together and post for a picture. The result is to the side. Lily makes the leap, Emma kind of panics. The result is the photo at the top of this post. More laughter.
The boat pulls up the anchor and sails for about 30 minutes to a protected park area for only kayaking. There is a little kayak rental and our guide, Chenz, who is extremely tall for a Vietnamese, pays a few dong for three kayaks and leads us through the area.
Lily and I are in one, Emma and Amanada are in the other. “Here is your headlamp, Amanda” Chenz says in English he taught himself from the internet. His accent is quite good and he has a good command of the basics needed to guide a trip like this.
We go into the first cave, it’s short, but pitch black in parts. I didn’t get a headlamp but Chenz stays close to me and points the lights where we need to go. The caves are only a few feet from the water. I have to duck in some parts, Lily chuckles with glee that she can touch the ceiling anywhere she wants.
Chenz paddles through several lagoons and some cool caves including one with hundreds of sleeping bats. It’s beautiful, and very popular. There are packs of kayaks that float by, each with different nationalities like an inverse ‘Small world after all’ ride: Italians, Australians, Chinese.
One thing that’s terrible is the trash. Chenz picks up a bunch as it floats by and puts it in the kayak, which we then copy. Together we pulled out at least a small trash bag full of stuff. Chenz says a lot of it comes from other places, including China. It’s not all local. Amanda, who works for an NGO that does programs to reduce sea trash, feels particularly aggrieved.
The rooms are new and well constructed. We take a walk on the beach and Emma and Lily play some Volleyball. A number of other families are here. A few packs of young European men play football in the sand.
It’s quite buggy. As Amanda and I head to dinner Lily comes back and asks for the Afterbite mosquito salve. “I had a panic attack at dinner because there were so many bugs and the food was terrible and I’ll just eat a snack bag for dinner and I’ll be fine,” she chatters anxiously. Lily has a big fear of bugs, as you might know if you are a reader of the blog.
Emma is alone at dinner eating some nasty french fries and enjoying the wifi, which is surprisingly strong for a secluded island resort. Amanda and I agree that dinner is pretty crappy luckily we had that huge lunch. They do try to make some spring rolls and tofu for us, which was nice.
We bring Lily back some chicken and rice on a plate in case she is hungry. As promised, the room has AC, which blows so cold we need to put on more clothes. Still better than the boat for sleeping.