February 25th 2017
Should Tolstoy have had the opportunity to visit Cat Ba Island’s main town, he would surely have found a way to expand his famous “All families…”: Because all seaside towns, particularly during off season, are also dispiriting in their own way. As one who was born and raised in a seaside town I can immediately see how Cat Ba – looming out of the mist that has accompanied the dusk – fits in: The aged trees along the promenade strung with dim and dusty fairy lights; the badly lit seafood restaurants with uncomfortable chairs and the same mediocre menu; the thoroughly unwelcoming bed and breakfasts promising tepid water, thin toilet paper and damp sheets. This being Vietnam another layer is the battalion of backpackers currently changing guard at the bus station, one cohort moving out to be replaced with the second moving into the restaurants in search of dinner for less than a dollar. Out come the jungle drums, and within five minutes we are all congregated around a convivial table swapping travel tips (I have been enfolded to this elite group by virtue of inadvertently staying at one of the most dispiriting Stalinist era B and Bs in town.
My fourth-floor room may have a balcony that overlooks the sea, but I can’t see it through the mist and to get to it I must navigate the most uncomfortable bed in South East Asia, a faux tempurpedic that takes a full 8 hours to acknowledge the presence of my body; I have not yet been able to identify toilet paper). The backpacker contingent is a vast symbiotic organism that inhabits the even more rancid hostels. They know all the deals, all the scams, all the places to go and to avoid. If only I could remember a tenth of this information my travels would exist in a completely different orbit.
The next day a significant subset of my new BP friends, plus two other ladies of a certain age (a grumpy woman-splaining Swede and a fierce Spaniard) embark on a 9- hour boat tour of Lan Ha bay. Halong and Lan Ha bay provide those iconic Vietnamese images of massive limestone Karst towers thrusting out of the turquoise ocean, but while Halong is wall to wall Chinese tourists in obnoxiously noisy packs, Lan Ha, because it is only accessible from the more remote Cat Ba Island, remains largely unexploited. When the sun makes an unexpected appearance, our guide suggests a couple of hours kayaking through the caves and lagoons. I see him expertly weighing up his senior contingent, and not surprisingly he asks me whether I want to canoe with him. Fortunately, I can rebuff him for Grace a clearly capable 20-something from Berkeley who has taken me under her wing. We give each other a quick J and C stroke refresher, seize headlamps to ensure we don’t brain ourselves on the roofs of the caves, and we’re off! What a blast! The icing on the cake comes as (no thanks to me) we emerge expertly from one cave into a remote lagoon to a family of critically endangered Cat Ba langurs (current worldwide population about 70) sunning themselves on the beach. The guide too is ecstatic he tells us even he only sees them every couple of months. Poor guy, he has ended up with the lazy Frenchman who is preoccupied with Ambre Solaire, and who has put his feet up and refused to paddle. By the end of the day we are all even faster friends and they suggest ending with a night of karaoke. I regretfully decline in favor of my intransigent tempurpedic, and an early start tomorrow for Ninh Bin.