Dazzled By Cat Ba
Dazzled by Cat Ba By [/home/search.html?s=&authornamef=Australian+Associated+Press Australian Associated Press]
Published: 23:04 GMT, 15 June 2015 | Updated: 23:04 GMT, 15 June 2015
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Travellers I met in Vietnam who had already visited Halong Bay all echoed the same refrain: "It's beautiful, but ..."
They regaled me with horror stories of what should have been dreamy trips on Chinese junks floating through those stunning UNESCO World Heritage-listed karst formations.
There were accounts of food poisoning, falls requiring hospital visits, aggressive touts, rip-offs, and an overcrowded bay filled with tourists being shepherded to the same sites at the same time.
Don't even bother going, an Israeli woman said, showing me the scar on her knee inflicted by a fall while rushing to the bathroom to throw up after a less-than-fresh seafood meal.
But how could I not?
When UNESCO uses words like majestic, spectacular and outstanding, it would be crazy not to see what all the fuss is about.
With a bit of research, I decided to dodge the touts and package tours, and instead headed for Cat Ba Island to the south of Halong Bay.
About six hours from Hanoi, a trip requiring two buses, a boat and a minivan, Cat Ba turned out to be the best way to see the bay.
Or not quite: it sits on Lan Ha Bay, the southern part of Halong, and is a ruggedly beautiful island tour hạ long 2 ngày 1 đêm in its own right.
Almost half of Cat Ba is a biosphere reserve, along with 90km2 of its waters.
The main town has the dilapidated feel of a 1970s pastel beach resort gone to seed, but is still entirely appealing; a string of strangely narrow, disco-look high-rise hotels with mirrored walls of windows jut up in front of Cat Ba's main peak, overlooking a wide promenade and a beautiful bay filled with bobbing fishing boats.
A cliffside path winds its way out of the small town along the coast, past karst island outcrops.
The pathway leads to three small coves with clean white sand and clear water for swimming.
It is very inviting, despite the morbid legend: kynghidongduong.vn Cat Ba means Women's Island, allegedly named for three Tran Dynasty women whose bodies washed up one by one on the three beaches.
You can luxuriate on the sand, but the best way to see the beautiful bay is from the water, and so bright and early the next morning I join a daytrip to sail out into the bay before hopping into twin kayaks.
A gentle rain is falling, lending the bay a misty, otherworldly air out of which loom floating fishing villages.
Dogs teeter at the edges of pontoons to bark as we pass, their owners untangling nets and presiding over breakfast fires.
Paddling out towards open water against the current is arduous, before our guide leads us straight at a karst wall.
At the last moment, I lay back in my kayak and drift through a tiny gap, my nose almost scraping the rocks due to the high tide.
And then were inside a completely circular karst island, lush vegetation cascading down the sheer walls.
It is perfectly quiet in the soft morning rain, a far cry from the loud, relentless Halong Bay tales Id been so scared by.
We spend the rest of the day circumnavigating the formations.
Some give way to deep U-shaped lagoons, with squirrels leaping along stunted trees that cling improbably to the rock walls.
On another island, we pull our kayaks up onto a small beach to pay our respects at a tiny temple, before plunging into the water to soothe our aching muscles.
By the afternoon, the clouds have cleared, and we are blinded by the sun, a glowing orange ball as it silhouettes the floating villages before vanishing, leaving a streak of amber along the horizon.
But Cat Ba offers as much on land as it does from the water, I learn, as a local guide pops me on the back of his motorcycle the following day and whizzes me through drowsy villages up towards the national park, where we hike past houses abandoned by locals during the American War of the 1970s.
We see mouse deer grazing calmly in a clearing, picking our way up steep mossy stone pathways, the walkway intertwined with vines and tree roots.
A sweaty clamber to the top rewards us with spectacular views of the island's rugged interior, layers upon layers of jutting green peaks swathed in the remaining trails of morning mist.
There is no sign of any golden-maned langur; the island natives are one of the most endangered primates in the world and the subject of a concerted conservation effort.
On our way back down, we stop at the hospital cave, used by Vietnamese troops to hide from the Americans.
The enormous complex is made up of vast caverns, a far cry from some of the other, cramped hideouts dotted throughout Vietnam.
How many of them housed a swimming pool and a cinema?
Home to about 200 people at a time, the extraordinary hideout has stone-hewn wards, a surgery and pharmacy, bathrooms and kitchen, and was never discovered by US troops.
As my bus-boat-bus heads back towards the smoggy skyline of Hanoi, I wish I could say the same about Cat Ba.
IF YOU GO
* There are no direct flights from Australian capital cities to Hanoi, but all cities have direct flights to Singapore from which connections are easy to find.
Jetstar, Virgin, Singapore Airlines, Qantas, AirAsia and Scoot all offer connecting options starting at about $900 return from Sydney $1100 return from Melbourne and Brisbane, and $700 return from Perth. For more information visit website style="font-size:1.2em;">* From Hanoi's northern bus terminal several bus-boat-bus connections depart for Cat Ba Island.
They cost about $AUD12 one way and take about five hours. Your Hanoi accommodation can help you to get there, or can organise your tickets for you, likely for a commission.
* Asia Outdoors are a well-regarded company that offer a variety of experiences, from kayaking, rock-climbing, trekking, and overnight boat trips.
A full day of kayaking and boating, including all gear rental, costs about $AUD30. For more information, website style="font-size:1.2em;">* The writer travelled independently.