10 Jan Escape to Cat Ba Island
A new year, a new destination – well, for a few days at least. After an unimpressive and exhausting Christmas week filled with teaching in Hanoi, we were looking forward to the New Year and the rare four-day weekend it gifted us. To celebrate the start of 2015 we took advantage of our time off work by escaping to Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay for some adventure and relaxation.
If you’re heading to Vietnam then you’ll probably need an invitation letter for your Visa On Arrival, we recommend Vietnam Visa as they provide a professional, efficient and transparent service.
Despite having spent the last four months living and working in Hanoi, when we arrived at Luong Yen bus station armed with a backpack we effortlessly slipped back into traveller mode. I felt like we’d been sucked back in time to our backpacking days and the memory of all those hours spent waiting at bus stops, train stations and airports came flooding back to me, along with the exciting promise of a brand new destination just hours ahead of us, waiting to be discovered.
In Need of a Break
It felt good to leave Hanoi behind us and head towards the sea. Aside from taking an overnight trip to Kim Boi, we hadn’t escaped the city since arriving in August and my tired mind was glad to be fleeing the intensity of life in the capital. The previous few weeks had been a struggle. Our hectic schedule of working most mornings, afternoons and evenings and then spending half the weekend lesson planning had caught up with us and we were exhausted and deflated after missing Christmas in the UK for a second year running.
Two weeks of end-of-term testing at school had also left me in a slump and I was starting to feel disillusioned with teaching. I’d spent hours administering individual speaking tests, many with grade one kids who don’t yet understand: “What’s your name?”. What was the point when I knew the language centre was going to up the marks anyway so no-one got less than fifty percent? The time could have been better spent actually teaching the children and having fun with them. I had also come to dread my Tuesday morning Grade One Classes From Hell. The school system isn’t perfect here, in particular, the classes are huge and there isn’t a disciplinary system we can use aside from pulling kids’ ears or whacking them with a stick – which we don’t want to resort to, obviously.
In short, a break was definitely what we needed.
Exploring Cat Ba Island
I was reminded of the island from Lost as I gazed out of the coach window on the final leg of our journey across the island to Cat Ba Town. Forested peaks and rocky mounds littered the countryside and in the distance, the sunlight glimmered off the paper-flat waters of Halong Bay. We disembarked along the short strip of hotels, cafes and restaurants that line the water’s edge as the late afternoon sun was turning the light buttery across the Bay. Ragged wooden junk boats, tiny fishing vessels and a few floating restaurants cast out their small silhouettes.
After checking into our hotel and taking in the view of the bay from our room we bounced downstairs to explore, invigorated by the fresh salty air and the promise of a beautiful sunset. I had almost forgotten how great it feels to arrive in a brand new place and taste the unknown. We took a short walk along the seafront to the end of a wooden pier, suspended out above the water with a clear view of the horizon beyond I heaved a sigh of relief to have escaped the never-ending bustle of the city back in Hanoi.
When we first arrived in Asia over a year and a half ago I was terrified of motorbikes. How things have changed. Now a motorbike is our main form of transport in Hanoi and we didn’t hesitate for a second when offered the chance to rent a bike and explore Cat Ba Island, a faded photocopied map marking the main sights tucked into Andrew’s pocket.
Our first stop was Hospital Cave, which was used as a safe underground shelter for the injured during the American War. We were given a short tour of the cave and its many claustrophobic rooms used to treat the sick and wounded; these opened out to a large cavernous space used as a theatre and training room for Vietnamese army troops. The cave was very similar to those we saw in Vieng Xai in Northen Laos, which were also used as shelter from American bombing.
Cat Ba National Park
We continued to follow a long, straight road to the National Park, which is home to the rare and endangered Cat Ba Langurs. It’s been a long time since we hiked anywhere and it felt great to be walking amongst the forest on our own in the quiet instead of along crowded, noisy city streets. We took the shorter two-hour round-trip climb up to Ngu Lam peak and breathless, we were rewarded with never-ending views of green-furred misty mountain peaks.
The French Fort
One of the last places to visit on the island is an old French Fort built to defend the island from sea-invaders. We wandered around the ancient stone ruins but were more captivated by the view; the fort was constructed on one of the highest peaks overlooking Halong Bay and we squinted through the afternoon sunlight, in awe of the glittering Bay beneath us dotted with islands, watching tiny toy boats slither their way across the water.
Sunset was drawing near once again and we spent our final hours of daylight exploring several beaches. We were gifted with bright, sunny skies that day but the air still had a cool nip to it, leaving the beach almost deserted. As we made footprints in the sand I realised that this was the first time we’d set foot on a beach in months; I’m a city-lover at heart but living in Hanoi has made me realise how much I also cherish the countryside and the sea.
There was time to watch the island locals do their evening exercises and meet a couple of harbour dogs before we settled down in a café to watch the sunset on the island one last time, knowing I could return to Hanoi the next day with a little bit of peace restored to my soul.