On our first full day in Hanoi we barely leave the hotel room, and no it’s not what you’re thinking… I’m exhausted after yesterday’s stress, fumes and exertions on the roads (or perhaps it’s the culmination of days on the road since we entered Vietnam) and it seems the only cure is rest. As it happens, it rains for much of the day so it’s no great loss.
The next day, guidebook in hand, we check out some of the famous tourist attractions, starting at… Bookworm Bookshop, obviously. It’s a cute little English language shop stocking a great range of new and secondhand books, ranging from Booker winners and the Classics to a decent section by SE Asian authors. We accidentally spend two hours in here (which speaks volumes about how much we’ve been missing the written word) and walk out with no less than five books – just what our panniers need! To my relief (as no doubt I’d be carrying it) we resist the tatty charms of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist – all 800 pages of it – the digital version will have to do.
Other than that we cycle around a bit more, take ages trying to find a recommended restaurant (we find it eventually, after eating somewhere else), and then spend the rest of daylight hours queueing at the train station. It’s busy because of Tet, and it’s chaotic because the ticketing system for the queue has malfunctioned. Eventually, with the help of a nice young guy, I manage to purchase tickets for the sleeper to Hue, but am told that we have to return at 8am on the day of travel to check in the bikes. Sounds like fun.
On our second tourism day we’re a little more successful, checking out both the Women’s Museum and the Temple of Literature. The former is interesting and well thought out, although a little more on the transition to a market economy, and the role of modern women now, would have been good, rather than a whole floor dedicated to women’s fashion. A short film about some of the women street vendors of Hanoi, many of whom lead very difficult double lives earning a pittance trying to support families back home in their villages and with no State support, is the thing that really grabs us most, and makes us think that we should try and support a few more vendors where we can.
The Temple of Literature isn’t as “tranquil” as some have suggested (it’s basically a large traffic island), but its age and tradition is impressive; as a temple of learning, Hanoi dates back to the 12th century. The guy on TripAdvisor who said “very nice place but there’s not a whole lot to see” pretty much nailed it though!
The next day we’re ready to make a break for the fresh air and turquoise waters of Cat Ba Island. We take a pre-booked 9am train to Haiphong (the bikes go in a separate carriage, no problem) but on arrival torrential rain greets us, so we sit out the worst of it at a station cafe.
We then head to the quayside to try and make sense of the ferry system. As usual, it’s all rather confusing, but we learn that there’s a bus/boat/bus combo on offer for 150,000 VND (bus to a different port, then a boat, then a bus across the island) or, for 220,000 VND per person, a direct, fast (45mins) boat. The 3pm sailing is about to depart so we make a quick decision to go for it and follow the ticket seller down to the boat. At this point she attempts to charge us a further 440,000 VND for the bikes! We refuse and make to walk away and then, miraculously, she backs down and lets them on for free. A good result! We hop on just as the engines are revving up and then, because the boat is already full, take a seat at the top of the roof hatch, where we sit for the whole journey with the wind in our hair, taking in our first views of this spectacular landscape.
The road across Cat Ba is around 25km, but there’s a 35km loop you can do around the southern half of the island that takes in the national park, mangroves, sandy bays and fishing villages, which is exactly what we do the next day.
And what a great day it is, cycling along open, empty roads among beautiful scenery, then walking through thick forest to Ngur Lam lookout post for an incredible view across the bizarre “egg box” landscape, while also on the look out for rare Langer monkeys. The only thing there isn’t time for was a swim!
On the cycle back to town, we learn that even Cat Ba is not immune to the ubiquitous Vietnam roadworks plague. Around 10km of the road is currently being worked on, but fortunately the disruption this time is not enough to cause any serious problems to two experienced cycle pros such as ourselves (er, really?!)
Day two on the island is spent mostly on water, as we join a guided kayaking tour with Asia Outdoors to get a closer look at the spectacular coastal scenery. We have two long sessions in the boats, paddling our zig-zag way through secret bays, past floating fisheries and, at the end, a beautiful, huge cove, entered through a natural archway, and a full 360 degree circle once inside. It truly is an incredible place to visit, accessible only by kayak at low tide, so we are pretty lucky to be there and have it to ourselves.
It’s strange to think that this landscape has looked like this for thousands of years, only subtly changing as the limestone is attacked from above (acidification from rainwater and plants) and below (by molluscs and shellfish), eventually causing collapse.
There’s a surreal moment when our guide, Gabby, comes across a dead ‘baby whale’ in some shallow water. We spend a long time speculating what it might be, how it died, etc. By whale standards, it’s tiny (3 feet long) and it doesn’t appear to have any eyes, so the most popular theory (put forward by a guy who studied marine environments) is that it was aborted by its mother who was stressed in some way. Gabby dumps it onshore for the park ranger to collect later to examine. The sight of her paddling to shore with a miniature whale slumped across the back of her boat is a little unexpected, to say the least.
Overall, it’s a mentally relaxing, physically tiring day, with a fantastic fresh fish lunch in the middle and sunny weather almost all day (some sea mist rolls in at one point, but isn’t thick enough to cause any major issues). The other people on the tour with us, from the US, Canada, Sweden and the UK, are a nice bunch and the Asia Outdoors crew are as friendly and laid back as you like.
And so, farewell to Cat Ba Island. It’s low season right now, especially with Tet fast approaching, so we perhaps saw her at her best (and cheapest) – rooms for $6, empty streets, no traffic, not too hot, few tourists… the perfect tonic to Hanoi, then!