Sunday, December 31, 2017

Cat Ba Cruisin'

After a four-hour journey involving two bus rides, one boat ride, and one more bus ride, we arrived in Cat Ba Town still seeking our first view of sunshine. With an afternoon to explore, we decided to rent two scooters and head into the cavernous interior of Cat Ba Island. Siera was confident enough to take her own scooter while Juli and I doubled up as usual. Our first destination was Hospital Cave, a 15 minute ride from town. All seemed to go quite well until the turnoff for the parking lot/restaurant when Siera ran into the curb and fell over - hey, you can't ride a scooter overseas for long before getting in an accident right? The women working at the parking lot/restaurant must have seen this scene before, because they were all over Siera with the first aid kit before Juli and I could even get off our bikes.

Not the first tourist they've had to patch up after a scooter crash!

Bandaged up and slightly hobbling, we made our way to the Hospital Cave, used during the war as a hidden, 'bomb-proof' facility for the Vietnamese Army. While there was not much remaining but solid cement walls, rooms, and hallways, it was still an interesting sight to see.

The solid concrete interior of Hospital Cave

We mounted up on the scooters again ready to head out, foolishly letting Siera drive her own scooter again. As she departed the parking lot, she revved the engine a bit too hard and barely managed to turn before running into the guardrails on the other side of the highway. With that, Siera's driving privileges were revoked! Juli had to assume command of scooter #2, relegating Siera to passenger status for the rest of the day. Siera can take another chance somewhere else, but not under our watch again on this trip! We visited a second cave called Trang Trung which was more typical, and quite unremarkable, before heading back into town. Exploring the downtown area and all the signs outside of the bars, we came to understand that balloons full of nitrous oxide were a local speciality, the only place in Vietnam that we saw 'whip its' so well advertised.

Siera and Todd scaling the walls at Moody Beach

The following day, we headed out on our next overnight adventure, the 'Seafarer Excursion' from Asia Outdoors. The day started with a boat ride into Lan Ha Bay, where we spent a few hours of rock climbing at 'Moody Beach'. It was just us three, with three guides, so we had the opportunity to do as many climbs as our fingers could handle, which turned out to be about six climbs each. We each gave the most challenging 'Barefoot Vietnamese' route a shot, but none of us could 'send it' (as they say). Siera did the best, Juli was right there with her, and Todd was just happy to be there.

Sun's not out, but guns are out!

Back on the boat, we had been joined by a few more 'Seafarers' and sat down to a tasty lunch of fish, spring rolls (naturally), veggies, and papaya salad. The next activity on deck was kayaking, which we started from a floating trading post. As with the scooters, Juli and Siera paired up while Todd was left paddling solo. Normally this might be a disadvantage, but Juli and Siera were about as out of sync as two can be on a kayak, constantly lagging behind and generally just getting in every other kayaker's way with their zig-zag directionality. We paddled around some of the floating villages, which apparently are quasi-illegal settlements that the government occasionally tries to sweep away. Seemingly every floating home has at least one guard dog, and we were cautioned to stay 'two leaps' away from any floating structure if we wanted to avoid animals in our kayaks. We even saw King Kong climbing a mountain in the distance!

Smooth water of Han La Bay, interrupted only by the spastic paddling of Juli and Siera

Back on our boat, we met two couples from Europe who would be joining us on the overnight. After dinner, we enjoyed playing some games together until it was about that time to crash. Although one of the last trips of the season, we all wanted to try sleeping outdoors on the top deck of the boat - a plan which worked pretty well for most, until the wind picked up at around 2AM. One of the couples gave up at that point and retreated to the lower deck, the rest of us bundled up and toughed it out. Not the best sleep, but waking up to a sunrise in the quiet of the bay made it all worth it - not only some beautiful colors, but proof that the sun does shine in Vietnam!

First sight of sunlight in Vietnam!

Our bed outside on the top deck of the boat

After breakfast, the boat chugged back to the harbor to pick up additional Seafarers. While not very happy about yet another trip out of the bay and back to the harbor, we were very fortunate on the way to see a group of five white-headed langurs, one of the rarest primates in Asia (their population is estimated at less than 70!). At the harbor, a huge group of additional Seafarers boarded. That day there were 8 people going rock climbing and 17 people staying overnight on the boat. While sometimes on these trips it is more fun to have more people, we felt quite lucky having had a smaller size groups the previous day.

Highly endangered Cat Ba Langurs (one on wall, more in cave)

On day two we went further into Lan Ha Bay for our kayaking session, checking out some additional remote beaches, templates, and arch rock formations. Juli and Siera even earned the "most improved" award for their paddling skills on day two...such overachievers! After our morning paddle and lunch, it was time for us to say goodbye to the boating life and head back into town. We kept our eyes peeled for langurs on the way back, but none were seen.

Most Improved Paddlers - Cat Ba 2018

Back in town and cleaned up at the hotel, we went out for an afternoon hike to Cannon Fort, a lookout point (and old military fort) above Cat Ba Town. The views were amazing, the mannequins stoic, and the ammunition as big as Siera is tall! We enjoyed one last evening in Cat Ba Town with a good dinner, a dance show on the stage at the main pier, and a few drinks. The next day, New Year's Eve, we'd be on the move again to Siem Reap Cambodia... 

Hiking down from Cannon Fort

Holiday lights on Cat Ba main pier

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