HCMC Dining Guide

Friday, November 4, 2011

Go East, my son

Our journey to Cat Ba Island via Haiphong began with a crazy, Amazing Race-style sprint to our bus. We ate breakfast at a 24-hour pub, since it was so early almost nothing was open yet, and the food took longer than expected to arrive at our table. I finished first, with less than 30 minutes before our bus was scheduled to leave from a station a few kilometers away. So, I hurried back to the hotel to collect our passports and bags, pay the bill, and ask the staff to call for a cab. The taxi arrived with maybe 10 minutes to go, but Tin, Rhona, and Jen still weren't back. I walked outside to put our belongings in the trunk, and saw them sprinting down the sidewalk. We piled in and took off, while Tin told the driver to ignore the red lights. Which he did. We got to the station in record time, where Tin ran in to get our tickets while the rest of us looked for our bus. We scrambled towards the one saying "Haiphong", threw our stuff into the storage compartment, and boarded just as it was pulling away.

As we moved away from Hanoi, the factories and construction zones of its fringe gave way to tidy rice paddies, shimmering green in the early morning light, crisscrossed by electrical lines. We were traveling through the fertile Red River delta, northern Vietnam's answer to the mighty Mekong down south. The rest of the 120km (75 mile) drive was enjoyable, with one exception: even though the road was smooth and our driver was behaving sensibly (things that can't be taken for granted in this part of the world), a Vietnamese woman across the aisle from me repeatedly vomited and dry-heaved into a small plastic bag. Gross.

After arriving in Haiphong, we switched to a smaller bus, which would take us to the boat to Cat Ba. This part of the journey took us through the industrial wasteland outside of Haiphong, a bustling port city. Smoke-belching factories and electrical substations lined a destroyed road, which was full of huge trucks lumbering through the dirt and dust into the city. The bumpy ride seemed to take forever, but we finally pitched up at a small pier, where a 20-foot boat was moored. 

The boat ride took about 30 minutes, and upon arriving at the island we had to board ANOTHER minibus; this time for the ride to Cat Ba town itself. After a 4-hour journey from Hanoi, we finally checked in at our hotel right on the harbor. The view from our room was amazing:
We ate lunch, and immediately rented motorbikes. Most of Cat Ba is covered in dense forest; almost all of which is protected as a national park. There are a couple of hiking trails that go into the park, and we headed in that direction. Along the way we drove down a simply amazing road - almost completely straight, flat, and empty. If I had been driving alone I would've opened the throttle the whole way, but Jen was riding on the back, and I'm more cautious with passengers. The hike was a bit trickier than expected, probably because we were wearing flip-flops, but it was nothing compared to what we had done on Fansipan. Plus, there was almost no mud! We came across a rickety, rusty tower standing atop one of the many hills in the park, and gingerly made our way up the stairs to the observation deck, where we disturbed the solitude of a lone German. The views were fantastic.
A sea of green in Cat Ba National Park
scary stairs
it may not look like it, but we're all secretly thinking the tower is about to collapse
The park is home to the langur, apparently one of the most endangered primates in the world, but nearby road construction has pushed them deeper into the forest, so we weren't able to see any. After finishing our two-hour long hike, we checked out Hospital Cave, a man-made structure built into one of the island's mountains. Built during the Vietnam War, the cave was used to shelter both civilians and wounded soldiers from the relentless American bombing runs taking place on the mainland. The structure was designed to hold 200 people, and contains 16 rooms, all made of concrete.
One of the entrances to Hospital Cave. I may have slammed my head on the concrete when I ducked into the door.

The great road through the island
The sun was setting, and before we returned the bikes we checked out one of the island's beaches. The broad swathe of sand was lovely, and we could see a few of the limestone karsts that the area is famous for just off the coast. A path snaked around the rocky edge of the island, so we walked around for a while before heading back to town.

dusk on the harbor
After having some great fish for dinner, we strolled around the waterfront promenade that runs in front of the hotels. A nightclub, floating on the water, blasted incredibly loud techno throughout the harbor. It wasn't clear why it was necessary to play the music outside of the establishment. Tandem bikes, mini-cyclos, and even those little electric Jeeps and convertibles that kids ride through neighborhoods all over suburban America were available to rent. Large groups of teenagers careened down the street on the bikes, as wobbly as ever; while children motored around the sidewalk, laughing ecstatically the whole time. I considered asking if we could rent one of the children's cars, but I quickly remembered that Vietnamese don't understand sarcasm. Or irony.

We turned in for the night, hoping to rest up. We had yet another early wake-up ahead of us, and the next two days would be full of adventure: kayaking, swimming, and rock climbing in stunning Lan Ha Bay.


  1. That looks really beautiful. Is there a faster way to get there, or do you have to do the awful long bus journey?

  2. It is beautiful indeed! There is an airport in Haiphong, so you could just fly there and take a boat to the island. But the bus trip wasn't really that bad - 4-5 hours is pretty quick for this part of the world, and as I said the road from Hanoi to Haiphong was pretty nice!