September 25, 2013

Ha Long Bay and Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

Don't worry...this isn't another post about bags of cats. Cát Bà is the name of the next destination we visited in Vietnam. I hope you had a chance to check out Steph's post about Phong Nha. It was definitely one of the best parts of our trip. After we left Phong Nha, we took a train up to Ha Noi and spent a few days there before bussing it to Cát Bà Island. We'll tell you more about our time in Ha Noi later, as we actually visited it twice and want to share it with you all at once.

When we decided that we were going to Vietnam, we kept reading about Ha Long Bay. Ha Long Bay (meaning "Descending Dragon Bay") is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been a popular tourist haunt for years due to the limestone karsts jutting out of the ocean. It creates an otherworldly scene, especially if there is some mist rolling in off the ocean. It's easy to understand where the name comes from. The typical tourist thing to do is to go on a 1-3 night boat trip around the Bay. Since we had already done an overnight boat trip in India (read here), we decided to skip the overnight option and do some day trips instead. We've mentioned several times that the best choices we have made traveling were based on the advice from other travelers so, based on the pointers from other Vietnam backpackers, we decided to head to Cát Bà Island instead of the busy, touristy Ha Long Bay. Cát Bà has the same karst formations and topography as Ha Long Bay, without the mass tourism, and actually borders Ha Long Bay, so we got to see it anyway! We booked lodging at Cát Bà Homestay, which is one of the great choices we made on the trip.

Floating Fishing Village, Cát Bà Island, Vietnam (our view from a kayak)

On our bus/ferry/bus to Cát Bà, we met the most amazing, inspiring, crazy family. This American couple had moved from NYC to Israel years ago and were now backpacking with their 5 children for 2-3 months in Vietnam. Not only were they traveling in Vietnam for several months with their 5 children (all under 11 years old, the youngest of which was high-functioning special needs and required constant assistance) they were fully Kosher. This meant they could not eat at any of the restaurants, had to buy all their own food in the markets and even cook the food in their own pots (which they lugged around in a suitcase). We were absolutely blown away by them. Meeting people like this on the road is great because it makes you realize how other people make travel a priority in their lives and the lengths they will go to make it happen. While traveling with our future hypothetical children will probably never be that difficult, it inspired us to keep traveling long after we have kids.
Cát Bà Traffic (our view from a kayak)
The best thing about our time at Cát Bà was our homestay, where we slept in the general family area of the home - without a private room, but really part of the family. It was run by a mother, father and their 20-something son who worked in the tourism industry. As soon as we arrived, the son gave us a tour of their village. He took us down to the local jellyfish processing "plant" located in a parking lot with giant tarps taped down. About 40 Vietnamese women were squatting down shaving, slicing and boxing giant jellyfish that gets sent to Hanoi and onwards to China to be eaten as a delicacy. While we were standing there a giant dump truck backed up and unceremoniously dropped tons of jellyfish onto the cement parking lot, splashing jellyfish juice everywhere. We, unfortunately, didn't have our camera with us but it was an amazing sight made even more enjoyable by all the Vietnamese workers teasing us in a friendly way. 

Bun Cha Dinner!
The son then took us to the local bar to have a few beers and talked about his life growing up on the island, going to college in Hanoi and the stress of his long distance relationship. We eventually headed back to his house to have dinner outside with his parents. The first night they made us Bun Cha which is a Vietnamese specialty (see above. You take several ingredients from the different bowls and make your own roll - it was amazingly fresh and delicious and definitely one of the best meals of our trip. Not only was the food great but it was nice to spend the time with the family and learn about their lives on the island (the son translated for his parents and us).

The next day we rented kayaks and headed out to check out the karst formations. The limestone in this region is estimated to be 500 million years old! What are karsts?

From Wikipedia: Karst landforms are generally the result of mildly acidic water acting on weakly soluble bedrock such as limestone or dolostone. The mildly acidic water begins to dissolve the surface along fractures or bedding planes in the bedrock. Over time, these fractures enlarge as the bedrock continues to dissolve. Openings in the rock increase in size, and an underground drainage system begins to develop, allowing more water to pass through the area and accelerating the formation of underground karst features.

We passed docks where local fishermen and their families have created little communities and, at times, would find ourselves isolated among the mystic rock formations, surrounded by shimmering green water and the still, humid air. We paddled until we came across a deserted beach to hang out on. There were a few empty cabins on the beach with workers doing some maintenance - one of them walked over and invited us over to have lunch with them. We sat on the floor and had lunch with them as they served us rice and fish. None of them spoke any English so we made conversation with our eyes and hand gestures. It was a very basic meal but another unique experience that we just stumbled into. The kind of thing you hope you'll find on your travels.

Our private beach, Cát Bà

Lunch spot, Cát Bà Island, Vietnam 
Cát Bà Langur
On our final day in Cát Bà Ha Long Bay, we joined a tour on a large boat to see more of the area. While on the boat, we stopped at a few places to snorkel (disappointing) and swim (cold) and also spent several hours kayaking into caves and hidden coves. We were fortunate enough to see the elusive Cát Bà Langur, one of the most endangered primates in the world. (There are only an estimated 68 of these creatures in the wild!) We also stopped at a few completely undeveloped caves in the area and climbed around in them. The caves weren't as impressive as Phang Nga, but there were some seriously tight squeezes!

While Cát Bà and Ha Long were definitely beautiful, we were a bit disappointed by the sites. Maybe it's one of those things where it might never be as beautiful to our naked eye as it is in the professional's photos. Or maybe it was the pollution from the massive boats and tourist garbage left in the water. Or maybe we were just in a rut. So we weren't in love with Ha Long Bay or Cát Bà, but we did love our experiences there: kayaking, dinners at the home stay, meeting the Israeli family, and lunch on the beach with locals.

Check out all of our pics from Cát Bà/Ha Long Bay here. A few more of our favorites are below.

Getting kayak directions

A roadside shave in Cat Ba

Our amazing hosts, Cát Bà Homestay, Vietnam

Check out all of our pics from Cát Bà/Ha Long Bay here.


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