Saturday, 8 December 2012

Ha Long Bay: Cat Ba Castaways.

A lagoon in one of the islands in the Cat Ba Archipelago. 
I left Hanoi with Lars, my new German companion, and we took the public bus to Cat Ba island, in the Ha Long Bay area. I'd decided to head to Cat Ba on a bit of a whim. I had little information, aside from a brief report from a British couple I had encountered and quizzed who said it was nice, and the fact that everyone else in Hanoi were taking organised tours for two nights boat booze cruising in Ha Long Bay, for an extortionate $120. From Hanoi backpackers tend to make trips to Ha Long Bay, or Sapa, a place to trek in the hills of northern Vietnam. Sapa sounded good, but the weather was wet and having just trekked the Tiger Leaping Gorge the week before, I felt it may have been similar but with worse weather, so I gave it a miss. We took two public buses and then a boat and another bus to arrive in Cat Ba town, and there were about 8 backpackers altogether making the same independent journey. We all got along pretty well, clearly having similar outlooks to preferring the public transport to the private organised tours. 

We arrived by nightfall, and took a twin room in a hotel for $5 each, with a view over the bay. Two girls from London, Elly and Camille, who'd made the same journey from Hanoi also checked into the same hotel, and we spent the following two days as a four. 

The view from my hotel room.
We weren't sure exactly what to do on Cat Ba, but I suggested hiring some kayaks ourselves and going off exploring the islands and coves, and the group went along with this. We paddled through a fishing village, dogs ran along planks barking as we passed, and it was great to witness this way of life from the water. People nodded or waved as we passed, and fishing boats sped in and out to the open sea. We floated through a small cave to explore a lagoon the other side, before deciding to paddle off and find a deserted beach somewhere. We spotted a few strips of white sand around, and headed for the one which looked the most isolated. 

Ready for kayaking.
Paddling through the fishing village.
I decorated my boat with some flowers found floating in the bay.
Within two minutes of landing on the beach I was off collected materials that I could do something with, and within five minutes everyone was pitching in. It was never my intention to come and play castaways, maybe it was subconsciously, but it just seemed to happen. Nevertheless my new friends kindly indulged my fantasies and we had soon enough bamboo, frayed rope and rotting plastics to make something with. We put a little shelter together, that was more symbolic than practical, as we couldn't collect enough driftwood materials to finish it off. I would've organised a scouting party to raid other beaches but we didn't have time. Next on my agenda was fire, and it took a few attempts to get anything to catch. We tried using receipts from our wallets as the initial ignition, but this was useless. The final attempt of Chinese money and dried grasses from the rocks were the best cocktail for combustion, and eventually, after much huffing, puffing and stinging eyes, I had fire. As soon as I had fire, it was time to leave, if we wanted to make it back before dark. My behaviour that afternoon has earned me the nickname 'Robinson', from Lars.

Lars and I making fire.
Lars, Camille, me and Elly in our four star shelter.
I'm a fire starter, a twisted fire starter.
The following day we took an excursion out on a boat to visit a number of places in Ha Long Bay area. There were perhaps a dozen of us on board, a mix of nationalities, but all European backpackers. First we motored through the fishing village we had paddled through yesterday, and this time I was able to take some pictures, having left my camera in dry safety the day before. We visited a cave, which was full of semi fossilised coral, it once having been underwater, and then scrambled up rocks to get a view over a blue lagoon. After lunch on board the boat we kayaked again, but this time they were double kayaks, and I shared with Alex from Paris, and I was pleased he was competent and we powered through the waves. We went through a number of caves, and explored a tranquil lagoon. We were ahead of the group and spotted a Giant Black Squirrel in an overhanging branch, and watched this monkey sized creature forage for food until others approached and the squirrel was scared higher.

Ha Long Bay landscape, a bit like Yangshuo, China.
Fishing village.
The morning's catch.
Hot fisherman's wife does the washing.
The fishing village.

In the cave.
Lars and I up a peak.
One of the hundreds of islands. 
Back on the boat we passed the beach which had been our castaway home, the tide was up and I could see through my telephoto lens that our shelter had been washed into the sea. Good job we didn't sleep there like I had fantasised. We moored up in a place with a small pretty beach and did some swimming, I snorkelled for two minutes, and saw some soft coral and two fish, but there was nothing much to see and visibility not great. We jumped off the roof of the boat half a dozen times, and had a pleasant afternoon. We even got a vague glimpse of the sun as it set as we returned to harbour. Back on dry land we played some street football with the local kids until we were sweating and panting, and spent the evening playing pool and table football in the same bar as we had been in the night before.

Secluded beach for swimming,
Nice sailboat in the bay.

Party boat full of Bantersaurus Rex's.

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