So, I organized a trip to Cắt Bà Island, just off the coast of Hải phòng. It was a group of eight in total going for two nights and basically two days on a boat in the karst filled bay just to the east of the island. You’d think that the planning wouldn’t take too much effort, but if you want to do something fun that isn’t exactly by the book, you need to organize, organize, organize. And so, it took about two weeks of back and forth between the guy who helped me sort out the details on Cat Ba and the folks going on the trip to settle on a plan. That’s two weeks right before we left, but the initial planning started about four weeks before that … for a two-day trip.
After all that work, a crap ton of emails with specific requests, types of cars, when we were doing what … the driver showed up on Friday with a Ford Everest that had exactly seven seats for seven people. Except, if you try to cram seven tall Americans into a Ford Everest for a 2.5hr drive, you have a smelly cranky bunch. Why fuss? Oh yeah, I had asked for, and we paid for, a 16 passenger van. No blame – these things happen, but it doesn’t make them any less frustrating.
OK, a little blame. The driver seemed very nice, but when he talked to me, he said he called a car and it was close by. When the person who booked the driver talked to him, he told her that we refused to get in the taxi she requested him to pay for. First, I hate bastards who lie for money, which would apply to that driver. Second, it’s rush hour in Hanoi. Nothing happens quickly.
One hour later, the second driver arrived. At least it was a nice, clean car driven by a very conscientious man. He used all the signals, followed the speed limits, and stayed in his lane. He beat the other driver who apparently drove like a madman.
Unfortunately, the hour delay meant that when we arrived at the bia hoi in Haiphong – Cang tin 74 aka Vươn Dừa (Coconut Garden) – they had sold out of all the food I was looking forward to. No squid, no tofu, no sea fish, no pumpkin. Instead we managed to eat some beef, dirt-tasting river fish, different green vegetables vegetables, and some clams. It was tasty, aside from the dirt fish, but not the meal I had in mind. Ah well. So much for the plan.
At least the Hoang Hai hotel was solid. They had been super attentive in their correspondence with me, going over the room assignments multiple times, calling me on the phone multiple times. And we sorted the whole thing out in Vietnamese. Crazy that I feel comfortable doing that.
The next morning, the plan was that we’d be on the 45 minute fast ferry to Cat Ba. Unfortunately, we wound up on the 2hr regular ferry. Why? Because the people taking the tickets don’t actually care to look at them and point you in the right direction. Employees in the harried tourism business only tell you when you’re not supposed to be somewhere. In this case, the company operated two ferries, one slow and one fast. Either was fine with the ticket we had, but I suspect we overpaid for the service we did receive.
Luckily this slow boat to Cat Ba turned out to be a good thing. Folks enjoyed watching the port of Haiphong pass slowly by. The weather was nice, the sun threatening to peak out from behind the clouds. And we were able to be above decks to feel the humid river air rush on by.
Unfortunately, the hour delay (there seems to be a theme developing) meant that instead of being able to climb where I wanted to climb – Tien Ong cave – we stayed much closer to the Viet Hai boat landing. I suspect we probably could have made it to Tien Ong, but neither the captain nor the Cat Ba island organizer wanted to burn the gas. Who knows? Regardless, we had fun.
View Cat Ba (Aug 2012) in a larger map
See, the whole reason I wanted to go to Cat Ba was to recreate the climbing weekend I had in early July. I wanted to go with more of my friends and focus on climbing. As different friends joined and dropped out, made requests, and offered great suggestions, the trip morphed a little. Still, at the end of the day, we were going climbing. As such, I wanted to go to places that were easy for my sake – climbing with a moderately broken toe – and for my friends, most of whom have climbed little or never.
The joy of climbing around Cat Ba, from a boat is that you don’t need ropes. Just climb up, jump in to the water. It’s that fun. It’s deep-water soloing.
Unfortunately, the tides were a bit low. This made getting on the routes more challenging. The action of the tides has worn away the base of the big limestone karsts that we’re trying to climb. When you’re trying to get from a kayak that’s basically about six inches about sea-level onto something about four or five feet above you, you’re looking at something that’s pretty overhung to start with. If you’re not used to it, it’s a pretty tricky start. Which is why, a bunch of my friends were unable to get up at either Lan Da or Hai Quan climbing spots.
Viet Hai Village – Whisper Nature Ecolodge
Jean at VietClimb who helped organize the Cat Ba side of the trip recommended we stay at the Whisper Nature Bungalows/Eco-resort. Again, folks in this part of the world seem to throw the word resort around a lot. I think they realize Westerners have an idea of what a resort is – pampered living – and often the Asian ‘resort’ falls far short of this. Whisper Nature is a very cool place, but it is not a resort. Not that I wanted a resort, but I do find it amusing that it is called one.
The bungalows are concrete blocks that have wood-paneled interiors, thatch tops, a basic bathroom/shower setup, and an A/C unit. Most importantly, they have mosquito netting to protect you from the bugs that can come in during the night. The manager and his wife at the bungalows were super friendly and made a great meal for us. Basically, the husband talked to one of my friends and kinda asked him what he wanted, then he ran off to the market to buy it. What’s amusing is that the wife is about eight months pregnant, yet she is the one who needed to be in the kitchen and waiting for the last guests to arrive.
The next day, we road back to the pier. Did I forget to mention that the Viet Hai village is inside the Cat Ba National Park and is accessible only by boat at the pier, then a 6km bike ride, or by hiking through the park? We didn’t know about the bicycle part; for some reason I thought motorbikes were going to take us to the Bungalows. No, the motorbike was for all our gear. Luckily, we knew about the hills on the way back, so we could prepare mentally for the trip.
We headed to One-Pillar Pagoda, then onto the Fish Cave (Hang Ca). At One-Pillar Pagoda, the climb was easy enough that everyone could get up to a ledge to jump the roughly 15 feet into the water. We spent most of the morning here before heading to the Hang Ca climbing area. I didn’t remember Hang Ca being filled with lots of garbage a month ago, but it was filled this time. The climbing area just on the other side of the cave was scummy on the surface and had lots of debris floating around.
I tried the same route I tried the previous climbing trip. I climbed up no problem and even managed to jump into the water without too much difficulty.
And that’s about it. The ride home was pretty painless. We had a 16 passenger van, so we could all ride together. We stopped in Hai Duong for the original 9 Minute Chicken from the Ga Hoach Manh restaurant. Stringy because it’s gà đi bộ (a chicken that spent a lot of time walking around).
(All photos courtesy of Spencer.)