Cat Ba climbing

With two days left of our Vietnam stay we decided to take a trip to Cat Ba island. For many people they take a tour on a modern junk boat, stay overnight and see one of the Worlds new 7 wonders branded Halong Bay area. The weather forecast was average and we have spent enough time sleeping on boats that it didn’t really appeal to us. So we arranged independent transport and got to Haiphong and caught the hydrofoil across to the island. The boat is fast, it takes about 50 minutes to cross and is ‘driven’ in a similar way to the taxis and coaches, i.e flat out and slightly scary. The boat itself has seen better days and I definitely wouldn’t want to be on it if it collided with one of the many large container ships in the harbour area. The good thing is it arrives right in front of the town jetty.

Cat Ba town is not pretty, lots of old hotels and buildings so on arrival it doesn’t look much. It was quiet being off season and we could have the pick of most of the hotels, we found a sea view room at the Song Chanh hotel for 7 USD for the night. It was pretty basic but clean and run by a family, the boss of which rode up and down the strip on a BMX bike looking for business.

We went for a long walk to see the 3 main local beaches Cat Co 1,2 and 3. All of which were deserted, two of them have resorts on them but you can still get to the beaches. From the town you can walk around the headland to the first beach and get good views of the beaches and fishing boats.

Our main reason for coming to Cat Ba was to do some rock climbing, so we met up at the 6pm meeting with the Slo Pony climbing company which is located in the immediate hotel/building when you get off the boat. Very relaxed and laid back to the point we were not sure what was going on, but in the end we got on a half day trip the next morning.

We have almost given up on taking trip advisor suggestions for restaurants, as at least 2 top ranked places recently visited have not been, the rankings can be so easily wrong with just a few reviews. So we just picked one of the street front vendors and sat down on the usual tiny plastic seats for some Pho, fried potatoes, onions and carrots. Possibly one of the best meals we have had in the month, and all for around 3 pounds including a couple of beers.

Slo Pony got going at 9am the next morning and 3 of us, along with a couple of instructors got on a boat and set off for one of the islands. Great views of the bay karsts on the way and we edged out through the working fishing harbour for 20-30 minutes. The climbing island looked very picturesque with great karst cliffs, if it was sunny it would have looked amazing. We were joined by a couple from Taiwan and that was it. All very relaxed, no time pressure, and both of the instructors were excellent. We did around 3-5 climbs each of varying difficulty. KT was very proud to have done one of the tougher ones which was quite an achievement. By the end we were all tired out, returned to the boat and had lunch. We then got taken back to a different port, grabbed a couple of xe oms (motorbike taxis) and got back to relax before our ferry left to start the process to get us back to Hanoi.

It was an excellent way to finish our month stay in Vietnam, an adrenaline packed morning with a good friendly bunch of people.

Cold again in Hanoi

Hanoi was chilly and drizzly, around 12 degrees so for the first time in a month we had to get the coats out again. We had booked a cheap hotel near the church in part of the old city, which worked out ok, although our taxi driver from the station clearly had a rigged meter, but its difficult to argue especially when they drop you in the middle of a mad street.

With only a few days left in Hanoi we wanted to see the sights, principally Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and a couple of museums. So we spent all day walking and looking around. The museum was average, and so out of date in terms of style that it was amusing. Needs a refresh please, those museum designers reading this.

We couldn’t get into the mausoleum due to the opening hours, so we went back at 8am the next day. Its a very formal affair, no cameras or phones allowed. You walk very stiffly with hands out of your pockets, and no hats. The special army guys watch your every move, and you follow the white line very carefully. You file round the room where he lays, but you cannot loiter as they move you along, and there he is, looking very embalmed . He is seen in such a reverential light that the lady behind was sobbing. An odd experience but worth the early start. Considering he liked living the simple life and wanted to be cremated we are not sure he would appreciate what has occurred.

We also dropped in at the womans museum which has an excellent floor dedicated to their role in the wars. It is in a surprisingly modern building and worth the visit.

Hanoi feels very different to Saigon, lots more cars and quite a few more top end vehicles like Bentleys and Range Rovers. There also is a more organised rubbish collection than most other cities, less shines and altars in shops and restaurants. The old city is more compact and has tightly meshed congested streets. It feels dirtier and more dusty than Saigon.

The lake in the middle looks nice, and many wedding couples go there to get their picture taken. Not a very personal moment as everyone watches.

Hanoi sleeper

We left Hoi An by train on the overnight to Hanoi. Unlike our previous train we booked sleeper seats, in the same design as the Chinese overnight train we took. Four berths to a compartment, we had the bottom two bunks, and a guy got on for a few hours and got off at an early one of 8 stops on the way, then we had it to ourselves.

The train itself was clean, no rats mice or insects to report, and because it started at Danang it was a little quieter. Total journey time was around 19 hours.

The great part about this train is the route it takes for the first few hours. It winds itself around the bottom of the Hai Van pass which we saw from the motorbike a few days ago. It takes the route all along the coast and there are many sections where it is a shear drop down to the sea. Darkness then came along, so we had our noodles, vegetables and rice we bought with us, having seen the train food go past on the trolley on the previous train we wouldn’t be touching it, so we had come prepared with dinner and breakfast.
Both of us slept well, and our only bugbear was the air con which could not be altered, and was noisy. Occasionally the train rattled and shook very violently which was a little disturbing but the best solution was to sleep, which we did.

It arrived in Hanoi at 11.10am winding its way through the streets and numerous crossings. The houses and shacks go right up to the side of the train, so you get glimpses of people’s rooms and life as you go by.

My Son

Our last stop on our bike tour took in China beach and the My Son ruins. China beach is another long lovely stretch of sand which just keeps on going. It’s remarkably undeveloped still, but is slowly being built up. Danang itself doesn’t have much going for it, but this beach on the east side is pretty good. There were red no swimming flags on it for most of it, and it wasn’t warm either.

Both of us were pretty sore from the previous days riding but we wanted to see the My son ruins so we rode for about 50k out into the country. They are sort of trailed as the Vietnamese version of Angkor, but unlike Angkor they are largely ruins. However the site still worth a visit, and because we were not going at coach tour times was very quiet. We expected Laura Croft to jump out at any time, but KT stepped in and reenacted some moves.

After a good walk around we rode on back to Hoi An and dropped the bike off. We had racked up around 550k in 4 days. Great fun, and both us and the bike returned in one piece.