Blog // Tales from the trail
Prior to making our way to Halong Bay proper, our next stop was Ninh Binh which neighbours Tam Coc, said to be the 'Halong Bay on land'; steep limestone outcrops rising from the rivers and rice fields below. Rumours were that it was no less beautiful and some even went as far as saying it was more so! Suspicious but also curious about these claims we felt it worth a look, particularly as all we needed to do was hop off the night bus a couple of hours before it reached Hanoi.
Anticipating a silly o'clock arrival (the bus was scheduled to arrive in Hanoi before 8am), we pre-booked a guesthouse on the reckoning that at least one person in the 'very Vietnamese' town would be aware of our early arrival - and if we were lucky, be awake to let us in! However, as it transpired, the Ninh Binh tourist-bus stop was actually in Tam Coc, coincidentally (as it so often is in these cases), right outside the guesthouse of a gentleman now onboard our bus and welcoming those who were disembarking to 'Ninh Binh'. Seeing an open coffee shop, we didn't offer too much resistance, figuring we'd have a coffee, wake up fully and be in a far more capable state of mind to work out how to get the rest of the 7km.
Needless to say our new 'friend's' friendliness dried up after we politely declined his smarmy offer of a room for the night in Tam Coc, yet just about recovered enough to arrange an unofficial taxi (his mate) to take us to where the bus should have dropped us off, for a small fee of course.
Our early morning stop in Tam Coc did however provide the chance for us to visit the boat tour ticket office and discover the recent, extortionate price hike in the tour fees. This gave us the resolve to come back and do a self-tour of the area on bicycles later that day.
Fortunately, our pre-booked host (in the correct place!) was much more personable and after showing us to our quaint little room, organised us bike hire and a home cooked dinner for our return and even arranged for the public bus to come and pick us up the next day - without a fee!
It wasn't until we explored Tam Coc that we began to appreciate just how well Phong Nha (and the hollow mountains) had done at keeping nature natural and down to earth. Granted, Tam Coc is an easy day trip from Hanoi, but the bright signs tacked to each and every lamp-post and the general 'hard sell' around the sights - the likes of which we hadn't seen since Pub Street in Siem Reap - detracted so much from the national park. In an area such as this, nature really doesn't need to be sold or improved, in my book.
Nevertheless, it reinforced our choice of transport, as cruising into the first 'attraction' the nonsense started, with sellers literally running out into the road and attempting to have us swerve into their stalls. We calmly carried on peddling and left almost as quickly as we had arrived, stopping around the corner to appreciate from a safe distance.
Navigating our way around the park, particularly whilst weaving through the small villages, was great fun, although the highlight of the day was no doubt (at least in my mind) the climb up the 500+ steps to the shrine above Mua Caves. Even in the hazy afternoon light, the view down into the flat, rice-filled valleys was amazing.
Under strict instructions from Corallie that those 500+ steps were to be our last hill for the day, we cycled our way back through the sleepy rural villages before hitting a strange, empty grid work of roads; a template presumably laid for the outskirts of Ninh Binh to grow into. Also unfortunately we bore witness to some preparations for the local dog meat eating practices, not that I wish to pass any judgment on people, especially labourers on building sites, but once seen, some things can't be unseen.
The next day we woke to Vietnam's Independence Day and a big one at that being their 70th Anniversary, and for us it was on-on to Haiphong Bay, or rather Cat Ba Island, via the sneaky back route we had plotted to avoid having to enter and buy a super-touristy tour of Halong Bay from Hanoi (which we planned to visit last). Our first leg, on the public bus was sorted, but on reaching Haiphong much to-ing and fro-ing between the various small ferry operators was required, before we were proudly escorted onto the rustiest, oldest junker of the lot - apparently many of the sleeker lines opting to take their Independence Day off - still, if it was too easy I guess it would be the way.
Arriving on the island, along with the rain, we were greeted by the strange looking bay; floating villages in the foreground with a row of tall, skinny hotels lining the hills that flanked the bay and to top it all off, a giant neon-lit 'Welcome to Cat Ba' arch straddling the pier we were heading towards.
The strangeness, along with the rain, continued for most of the next two days, accompanied by an abundance of electricity in the skies and a lack of it in the hotel; us constantly having to decide whether to brave a lift with intermittent power or climb the nine floors of treacherously slippy stairs in the leaky hotel. We made it out briefly to book a day of kayaking/deep-water soloing (free climbing cliffs overhanging deep water) in the local adventure tour company and, in a longer break in the rain, to explore the nearby canon hill, a Vietnamese outpost during the War.
That night we were treated to a particularly loud and impressive storm, starting with torrential rain coming in as a wall of noise and water; scattering people, screaming for cover as it swept in across the bay in a few exciting seconds. Unfortunately the result of this meant the climbing cliffs resembled waterfalls the following morning and so we were on a full day of kayaking; not such a bad thing as we were duly informed, out on the water was the best place to be when it was raining.
We would also agree with this advice, as even in the rain it was difficult not to be impressed by the stunning scenery, paddling around the giant limestone karst formations, through the mad little fishing villages and occasionally ducking into breathtaking hidden lagoons around the national park. Undoubtedly one of the best tours we've done in a while, with the odd 'adventure' excursion to crawl through a sea-tunnel or swim-trek combo thrown in for good measure.
The strangeness however, promptly returned that evening as we started up a conversation with a Vietnamese gentleman whilst enjoying a post-adventure tour beer. Speaking in flawless English, something seemed intriguing about him, clearly educated, but also claming to be waiting for some people he was guiding. These turned out to be a trio of super-intrepid Geordies on their post-university travels (having biked all the way up Vietnam), and he was more a friend of a friend than a guide. A few drinks were shared and we shared interesting stories with our new companions, with Sonny (the 'guide') providing insights into Vietnamese culture through his tales and the hidden life he had clearly led, being homosexual in a very un-tolerant society.
With collective tummies rumbling the decision was made that food was required, somewhere during the discussions Sonny stood up and announced he was going to find us some seafood at one of the floating restaurants. About ten minutes later, under the glowing neon arch of Cat Ba, Sonny reappeared confirming our 'reservation' for the evening and led us down to a couple of what I could only describe as floating bath-tubs. Clambering down the wet, razor-sharp barnacle-encrusted stairs of the pier as we gingerly boarded, each of us was met by a mad cackle from the boat ladies, or rather our taxi-drivers for the evening. Two deft strokes with the oars and an engine, that had previously been hidden god-knows-where, kicked into action and we were speeding past the line of official looking floating restaurants visible from town and out into the darkness beyond.
Navigating, at speed, the rows of floating houses in the village we felt more like navy seals on some 'covert ops' as houses appeared and disappeared back into the murky soup-like night before even the tenacious guard dogs had woken to our presence, the second boat we left to trust was following us. Suddenly, the engine was killed and our driver shone a flash light towards one of the houses "AN OI!" (Excuse me!!), she bellowed at two guys sat outside their floating home smoking; after a brief exchange it appeared (from what we could work out) that they were shut up for the night and as the engine roared back into life, we caught a quick glance at the second boat just arriving in time to make a speedy u-turn.
The second place was no more promising, lights hastily flickering on and sleepy eyes craning through the bright torchlight to give a similar answer.
Third time proved lucky however and after the house owners had quietened the loyal guard dogs, an essential precaution against birds (or humans) stealing the fish from the fish farms bordering all the houses, we climbed aboard their floating house and were offered a welcome glass of tea. These houses were curious places; all following very similar formats of a central deck, the rear half of which contains the 1-room house itself for numerous people, complete with a big wooden bed for sleeping, a gas hob for cooking and bank of truck batteries powering the TV and (if you were lucky) sparkly karaoke system for entertainment, surrounded by fish farms and tethered boats. Living was conducted on benches under the canope of the front half on the deck, where we were now sat, and on either side were walkways enclosing the netted fish and crab pens that Sonny was now negotiating the prices of. Apparently they brought these as babies and placed them inside their mini fish-farms, waiting until they reached maturity before selling them back to town (or perhaps exchanging them for a new sub-woofer). Just how big and how many we wondered, as the men began pulling the nets up to identify a suitable fish for dinner; one of them hanging back with a net on a pole and rather big looking hammer once we had made our choice. Even with their experience, the size, number and strength of the fish thrashing around made tricky work for the men. Several failed attempts were made to scoop a fish out before it had managed to heave itself back out of the net. With one last speedy effort, a fish was caught and flipped out onto the deck and the hammer was out.
Bamm! The deal was done, a giant fish and 2kg of fresh crabs that they would prepare cook up with some rice for a delicious feast. Unbeknown to us, Sonny had also sent one of the boat ladies back to town for some of the local whisky; the after-effects we had witnessed first-hand the previous day following the Independence Day celebrations, seeing two particularly jolly locals stumbling down the street, tripping and then hugging each other in the middle of the road for a good 30 minutes, all throughout making high pitched noises somewhere between a laugh and a gurgle. That image in mind, combined with the hole-in-the-plank toilet situation on the deck, persuaded us to take it easy on the sauce for the evening. Interestingly the house owners also refused a drink, perhaps a testament to their hard working nature and something we had not experienced much during our trip so far, alcohol unfortunately being a strong vice for many south-east Asians (and western tourists alike!).
Dinner was served! A giant mat was spread out on the decking and a pot of gently boiled and beautifully fresh crab was served up with a zingy accompaniment of a chilli, lime, sugar and salt dip. After a few mishaps and a lot of laughter we were all taught how to crack crab shells using chop sticks as makeshift pillers, holding the skinny ends tight whilst squeezing down on the thick ends. Next came the fish, which had been filleted and deep fried in hot oil - equally fresh and tasty with the spicy dip. Once the ensuing mess had been tidied away, then came a delicious stew, made using the remainder of the fish and served up with a vat of rice. Finally what better way to end a fishy feast than tea, which upon first taste had quite clearly been made with the left-over water from cooking the crab.
Ok, not something we'd recommend, but in many ways this was a reminder about how tough life for these people must be, why waste a boiling pot of water when tea can be made - nothing went to waste.
They had been wonderful hosts, however now they were starting to look visibly tired; we tried not to think what time they had to be up to go out in their fishing boats the following morning and bid them our kind thanks for a wonderful evening shared in their home. Hopping back into our taxis for the trip back we hoped they'd had as interesting an evening as us!
The next day it was back to reality however, as we boarded a typically disorganised bus for our cruise back to the mainland; it got about halfway out of town before a panicked phone call and an aggressive u-turn; the driver had only forgotten half his passengers! Things calmed down somewhat when reaching the boats as we camped out on the top-deck, away from the loud euro-pop tunes beneath and enjoyed a relaxing cruise through Halong Bay proper.
After landing and a quick barter for a bus, next stop Hanoi, our final destination in Vietnam.
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