I was not sorry to leave Hanoi. In fact, I couldn’t wait and have no desire to return. The next day, I walked to the cafe that was the meeting point for the shuttle van I had booked to Tuan Chan, the port near Halong. My fellow passengers were all joining cruise boats there, but I was getting the ferry to Catba Island. The ferry information online was ambiguous, and I wasn’t sure when the ferries ran so caught an early shuttle hoping the 11.30am boat was going.
The journey was smooth and luxurious (by my standards!). We passed many rice fields and, as we approached Tuan Chau, the scenery changed to mangroves, lumpy hills and fish farms. Tuan Chau is a developing town with many hotels and resorts being built. In fact, wherever I went in Vietnam, hotels were being built in every available space. The driver dropped the cruise passengers at their respective boats. He looked blank when I asked for the ferry so I got off at a large terminal where they directed me down the road to the right place. As I approached, the ticket lady shouted at me to hurry as the ferry was just leaving. What perfect timing!
It was a small car and passenger ferry that arrived at the north end of the island where a local bus met the ferry and transported passengers to Catba Town. The 45 minute journey was stunning and I’m sure, as good as any expensive cruise. We sailed past the iconic limestone karsts for which Halong Bay is renowned and through sounds boarded by hills. The sun had appeared which added to the experience.
The bus on the other side was elderly but fitted in not only tourists but the school children it picked up along the way. It was a tight squeeze! At one point, the schoolboys staged a singalong. I don’t think it was for the benefit of the visitors but it was very amusing.
The trip took about 30 minutes and I had a short walk to my hotel along the waterfront. As I had suspected Catba is a backpackers haven. There were major roadworks in the main street but this didn’t deter the street vendors setting up around them. Some guests had to walk across a gangplank to get to the entrance of their accommodation. Health and safety was of no concern in Vietnam!
The hotel was new and my large, cheap room on the 8th floor had a fantastic view over the harbour. After checking in, I spent the rest of the afternoon familiarising myself with the small town. There is a busy fishing port besides the tourist area so was an interesting combination. Later that evening, I walked up the road away from the centre and ate in a local cafe. I have now eaten enough noodle soup to last for some time!
I spent the next day on a boat trip booked through the hotel. We were a small group of assorted nationalities. The bus delivered us to the harbour where we boarded our small boat. Luxury this was not! It was soon clear that two crew members spoke no English and our ‘guide’s’ was not substantial. Most of us went onto the roof deck to look at the view as we cruised.
At the start there was little conversation but as the day progressed people became more chatty. The weather was dreary and cool. Our first stop was at a bay to kayak. A dock area housed the kayaks, there were some tanks with assorted fish in them (one weighing 80kg!) and a boat with a lady selling snacks. Other boats had also docked. The kayaks were double ones, so I shared mine with an Ukranian man who was also travelling solo. This was fortunate as I might still have been paddling without his strength, kayaking not being my forte although I enjoy it. We followed the line of kayaks and went round the inlet and through a cave with stalactites hanging from the roof. On our return trip, there was a distinct smell of marijuana, something which did not escape my companion’s attention as he traded online in marijuana products!
Back at the boat, the crew were undertaking repairs on the engine. We had lunch whilst we waited and then waited a bit more. In the meantime, we pottered on the dock and attached ourselves to a guide doing real tours. There was little information forthcoming from our crew! I also amused myself listening to an argument between a guide and an Indian tourist who had broken his paddle. The kayak owner wanted a substantial amount of money to replace it and the Indian wasn’t happy. The guide was negotiating.
Our crew fixed our engine eventually, and we set off again. Next on the schedule was a swim at a tiny beach. The boat dropped anchor a little way off it and we had to brace ourselves for the cold water. It was further than I thought. There was some hesitancy among the passengers as someone had spotted a jelly fish next to the boat!
Monkey Island was our final stop before heading back. There were so many boats and people here that the boats had to drop passengers and wait offshore. There were monkeys, some of them aggressive as they were accustomed to being fed. Some of us scrambled up a hill to admire the view (and because it was there!). There were too many people at the top so I didn’t go all the way up and the climb was more difficult than they had led us to believe. Back on the beach, we waited for our boat to return whilst keeping a wary eye on the monkeys. I didn’t trust them.
Back at the harbour, the minivan met us and returned us to town after an enjoyable day. I appreciated the small group and the novelty of a local tour rather than a luxury cruise.
That evening, I had a walk around the port and stood and watched a boat unload an enormous amount of jellyfish. One of the other observers mimed it was ‘chow’ for the Chinese market.
The following day I spent strolling around the town. I went out late and walked along the waterfront and around the headland where there was a beautiful cliff path to the next beach. Big hotels were being built on both the beaches I saw. I then hiked up to Canon Fort which sits high on the hill above Catba. At the viewpoint, there were empty tables, chairs and a small bar awaiting people who went to watch the sunset. The view today though was murky.
Back down below, I was starving so bought a fried potato ‘thing’ from a street stall. It wasn’t enough, so I made my way to the local market hoping to find something else there. The noise in the fish area was phenomenal with the ladies calling out to each other as they worked. They were shucking oysters, splitting tiny fish in two and shelling clams. The variety of fish being sold was huge. I bought a corn fritter which came highly recommended by the cook’s mother! So much for eating fish…..
For dinner, I had thought of going to a restaurant at the port but decided they were too expensive. I went back to the cafe of last night and ordered fish. It was off! I had shrimp noodles instead which wasn’t quite what I was craving.