I would not say that getting to the island of Cat Ba is precisely like trying to reach that island in the Pirates of the Caribbean (that can only be reached by people who have been there before using a magic compass) but I will say that one does not reach it… simply. Our trip there from Hanoi required two bus rides separated by passage on a small, rusty, clanking, ferry, packed so tight from stem to stern with tourists, motor bikes, bundles and backpacks that it rode, obviously, well below the little craft’s recommended minimum free-board – it was awesome! We had a nice place in the open air, mid-deck, between the motor bikes and the actual passenger compartment, sitting on little plastic stools the crew provided.
Once there, we spent a couple of days trying the local food and seeing some of what the main town has to offer but the definite high-lite was the day of kayaking in the bay and spending the night out on the water sleeping on the open deck of our tour boat. We booked a trip with Asia Outdoors and we have to say they provided a great experience.The day started with about an hour-long ride out into Lan Ha bay, navigating through the labyrinth of small islands and weaving passed the thousands of other craft constantly on the waters. The landscape was constantly changing as no two islands are the same and the waves were full of craft of all sizes and shapes and paint schemes.We boarded our kayaks about mid morning and bid the tour boat good-bye to follow our guide across the waters between the islands we were to explore. Amber and I are experienced paddlers, of course, having spent at least an hour canoeing in Maine just last April. The water was as calm as you might find on a large lake in good weather and the sun was shinning. Our fellow kayakers included adventurers from such places as Germany, France, South Africa and Israel!
We paddled over the water, past islands and boats, explored hidden beaches and left our footprints in the softest of sand.We paused in secluded lagoons long enough to slip out of our life vests and into the warm water for some swimming. We could not believe how warm the water was! I was sad when our guide told us it was time to paddle on.One of our favorite things on the trip was slipping under these little bridges of rock between larger formations. One such passage lead to a lagoon completely surrounded by sheer cliff faces and was only accessible via the little opening under the formation. Our excursion coincided with near high tide so it was a bit of a tight fit…
But we made it!!!
After a whole day of kayaking we rode the big boat, with our kayaks in tow, just at sun set, to our rendezvous with other adventures for dinner and to get anchored between islands for the night .After a dinner of grilled fish, shrimp, pork, delicious shredded green papaya and fresh pineapple, we did some more swimming. The sun has been setting here around 6 pm and it was well after that so the water was fairly dark. The crew shut off the exterior lights, so as we moved around in the water, we could observe an amazing phenomenon. The bio-luminescent plankton glowed blue-green all around our legs and arms as we moved them through the water! It was like having a super power. If we waved our hands quickly through the water, we appeared to emanate a glowing bluish-green aura that swirled away at our bidding! I wore myself out with all the extra flaying about trying to generate bigger and bigger auras! We slept on deck, out under the stars among the islands, cool breezes and the occasional passing fishing boat. And sunrise was spectacular!After breakfast, the boat began it’s journey back through the bustling bay to set all of us one day seafarers back on land. This is one group picture of about a dozen we have of our fellow adventurers. (If any of you happen to see this and would like more pictures of the trip, just leave a message with your email address and Amber and I will send you a boat load of additional pics we did not have room to post here!)Prior to our sea exploration we traveled northwest from Hanoi to the mountain town of Sa Pa. It has become a mecca for visitors wanting to see the small villages and rice fields in the mountains of Vietnam by trekking or motorbike. We were able to do a little of both.Motor bike rentals are everywhere. We found this one less than 20 yards up the road from our hostel. We could have one all day for 5 USD plus gas. We bought 3 liters from their handy dispenser.It turned out they only had automatics available at the moment – which was not our first choice since there would be two of us on one bike climbing winding mountain roads. Undaunted, we spent a little time confirming; the engine ran, the tires were solid, the brakes worked and the brake light did not. Needles to say, our scooter did not look just as nice as the one on the sign. It was perfect!After donning our helmets we headed out on the highway – looking for adventure!
The roads were a little challenging for our little bike but it took us every where we wanted to go – eventually. We had to stop often to take pictures of the beautiful mountain scenery. There was just so much to see! We saw more than just mountain scenery. There was wildlife too, like an entire herd of water buffalo crossing the road – slowly crossing the road.
And I think Amber’s bandanna really completes her biker girl outfit.
And now, to make sure you get a real feel for the open road in Vietnam, we have a few videos for you. When you watch the third one, see if you can identify two other things that did not work on our bike.