I’m writing to you from the beach on Cat Ba island. Without us, there are about 5-7 people here, basically, its pretty much a private beach :) that’s the luxury you get in the low season. That, and the several times lower hotel and food prices. The sun is treating us to plenty of shine and the water is as warm as a cup of tea. The wind is quite strong from the sea though, endlessly blowing white sand in our faces.
On our first day on the island we jumped on a motorbike and buzzed off to explore the area. The one day was enough to drive through all (3) of the roads here, about 90km in total. First we drove through a windy waterside road, where the mountains climb straight out of the water. The other road divides the island in half length-wise. All along this road you meet endless mountains, covered in green trees and bushes, lots of nice sights. Most of the island is declared a national park, but that doesn’t seem to prevent anyone from littering all over the place. We did get of the motorbike once for a brief trek through the jungle forest in the national park too. That was great – all we could hear was the unfamiliar chirping of birds and the whisper of the unusual trees, punctuated by dead silence. On the north of the island we run out of the road and were met by an endless array of small limestone islets. This was one of the popular starting points for tourist boat trips around the bay in the high-season, but this time there was nobody around and we enjoyed complete peace and silence. On the way back, we stopped in the roadside village for lunch. All we could find was Pho – rice noodles and meat. I gotta be honest, I’ve had enough of it and would like to eat something else for a change, but sometimes that’s all you can find :) While we wait for out bowls of delicious broth, an old, wrinkled and mostly toothless Vietnamese woman joins us at the table and two of the local young girls demonstrate their command of English by asking us lots of questions. We take the same road down to Cat Ba town on the south-east corner of the island, but stop to visit the famous “Hospital Cave”.
Basically, its a huge natural cave, which was used as a hospital for soldiers during the Vietnam war (1965-1975). The hospital is comprised of 3 levels, with 17 rooms for patients, doctors, army seniors, cinema and a small swimming pool to help with reabilitation. The entrance to the cave was well concealed and virtually unreachable to the enemy.
In the evening we set off in search of dinner, and a few streets away from the main promenade full of tourists we came across a restaurant full of locals. While the place didn’t look all that great in our opinion, it seemed like it was very popular with the local crowd. Some of them were eating with their entire families, while other tables were full of guys drinking shots of vodka too. This joint was clearly worth visiting. Being in a fisherman town, you gotta eat what lives in the sea, so we copied others around us and ordered sea food hot pot (essentially a large but shallow sauce pan full of soup broth and vegetables and heated on a tabletop gas oven). The longer we waited for our food to arrive, the more disgusted we became about what others around us were eating – you simply couldn’t tell what it was. A few moments later, our hot pot arrives, along with a large bowl of rice and a bowl of fresh salad leaves, quickly followed, to my horror, by a large plate of raw sea creatures (we saw the waiter fish ’em out of the fish tank just moments earlier) – palm sized fish cut in half, squid, with all its dozen of tentacles, a handful of shells and stuff I didn’t recognise. Naturally we thought we basically ordered food poisoning for dinner, as we couldn’t even guess how long any of this stuff needed to cook for, but luckily the restaurant owner saw the panic in our faces and provided useful guidance throughout the evening. I have to admit that we thoroughly enjoyed the cooking process and having cooked our first serving we were excited to the point of seriously considering buying a bottle of vodka (we didn’t in the end..). And the creatures were amazingly delicious too! To add to the excitement, for the last serving we were given fresh cabbage leaves and noodles to add to the pot, turning it into a seafood soup! :)
Next day we walked to the pier to hire a kayak and after a brief round of negotiations on price, we were rowing through the bay. Here, we’re met by an entire floating village, of about 50 houses, each one floating on its own, surrounded by water streets and guarded by dogs eager to show passers by they’re not welcome. A fishing boat is parked in the water driveway. The sight is incredible, check out more pictures in Cat Ba gallery.
Once out of the bay, we start navigating through the dozens little islands (I think there are about 3000 of them here, but only Cat Ba, the largest one, is inhabited). On some of the larger islands we spot bright sandy beaches and decide to pull up ashore. Its hard to believe that this turquoise water, white sand and bright yellow sun is completely ours. This entire uninhabited island, this empty beach – heaven! :) Having enjoyed a healthy dose of the sun, sand castle building and swimming in salty water, we head off, enjoying quiet lagunas and fisherman houses visible in the distance. The silence here is only disturbed by water dripping from the rocks and occasional villager passing slowly by in their fishing boats. Somewhere in between these islets there’s a perl farm in operation, I already feel a surging shopping spree :)