Luxury Travel Blog + Vietnam

The Amazing Race In Cat Ba Island

The events that are to unfold, may I inform you, happened in December 2002. Things may be quite different now in Hanoi and Cat Ba Island, but the adventure is still quintessentially Vietnam.

Aching to escape the mildly chaotic city of Hanoi, my husband (then boyfriend) and I booked an overnight sea kayaking trip around Cat Ba Island with Handspan Travel, a reputable organizer of adventure travel in Hanoi. They had a cozy little café in front of the booking office called Tamarind, that was very popular with tourists and American expats alike. But again, this was how it was 6 years ago. Things change, even in Vietnam... Look above, Handspan now has a website!

After downing cup after cup of fruit shakes in bamboo vessels at the cafe, we were headed off to Haiphong the next day in a mini-van that held 5 of us plus our guide and a driver. As we drove north to Haiphong, there was a notable chilliness that crept in and prompted everyone to put on their sweaters. It was a good thing we stopped for lunch at a roadside pho place that served hot bowls of beef soup, because it kept everyone warm. That’s how we met half of our kayaking group mates: a Dutch couple and an Australian girl.

When we reached the jetty, we were appalled at what we saw. But soon, the shock turned to amusement when we realized that we would cross the bay to Cat Ba Island in a hydrofoil that looked like an airplane with its wings cut off. Inside, the passenger seats were even divided into airline-like cabins, with seats in gaudy patterns and portholes fashioned like airplane windows. And instead of flight attendants pushing their metal carts along, street vendors with their wicker baskets ply the aisle. I learned later on that these vessels are remnants of the old Soviet bloc’s maritime engineering efforts. Apparently, the Russians had a sense of humour.

Once on land, we were herded to a waiting bus that would take us to the other side of the island for the boat ride to our campground. This is the view from the doorless bus as we drove along dirt roads.

We reached the other jetty for boat ride #2. This time it was on a Vietnamese-style junk boat that would take us to our island campground. The journey was fantastic, even though the sea was not as clear as I had hoped. Our boat chugged along Tonkin Bay in between tall rock formations covered in vegetation. Then, we spotted a hint of gold in the distance. Tents were lined up along the upper section of our tiny private beach, and to the middle, the kayaks were parked beside our dining tent. And coming out to greet us were three cute, barking dogs. Here we met our other group mates – a couple of American girls and a couple of “Kiwis”.

After we were settled, we paddled out on our first kayaking trip. We went around our protected cove to meet the billowy sea in the open. Working past this, we finally arrived at a rather peaceful part of the park, and there, we all took time out for photos.

On our way home from the first kayaking adventure, we were astonished to see that the tide ebbed so far off the shore. Our guide explained that in the afternoon, the tide gets very low and the shoreline is pushed farther into the sea. It was amazing how a couple of hours ago the floor was covered in sea water, and now it was a sandy beach that we can walk on. In the early evening, the tide receded to where those two rocks are in the picture below.

Night fell and we got ready for dinner. By me saying that we got ready, I meant that we all rested while a cook prepared our meal. Note that the island did not have running water nor electricity, so the ambience was pretty amazing. Everybody brought their voracious appetite to the table and even if we were sitting under a gas lamp that attracted mosquitoes and flies, dinner went on without a hitch. The same could not be said for what transpired after, though. Everyone went to their private tents to sleep and all lights were out by 11 pm. But sometime between midnight and god-knows-when, I heard voices. Was I the only one hearing this? Was anybody else awake? Then I heard the swish of a paddle slicing through water. What was happening? The hairs on my body stood up.

I might have fallen asleep a little later on, only to be awaken by noises outside. Whatever it was, it was rubbing against the tent. It must be the dogs, I thought. I looked outside and the moon was still floating in the sky. I needed to go to the outhouse to relieve myself. But I was afraid. There was only blackness everywhere and I'd have to go around a big bush and step out onto the crashing waves of the beach to get there. And judging by the loudness and clarity of sound, the tide had come in again. No way, I would wait until tomorrow even if it meant kidney stones or UTI.

Early the next day, we went out once again for a paddling adventure. This time, we came to a pearl farm enclosed by beautiful rock formations in the middle of the sea. As we were paddling lazily, we heard screaming in Vietnamese. Our guide’s face turned pale and he told us to just paddle slowly out of the farm. In an instant, I had a flashback of the Danny Boyle movie, The Beach. They have guns pointed at us. They are going to kill us, I thought! This was just like the time Richard, Etienne and Francoise stumbled across the marijuana field in the movie! No way, I am not going to die today, I thought, emulating Richard during the shark attack story. Bye-bye pearl farm, and we made our way out of the cove.

We had the rest of the morning to swim, but it was too cold. After lunch, we kind of just sat around the shore and chatted while waiting for the boaters and their help to load up. During our conversation, our guide told us that the park’s national guard came to the island last night and informed him that effective immediately, group overnights were no longer allowed, as the islands were designated as protected environment. And the midnight paddling? That was our guide going it alone to the mainland to phone Handspan Travel about the change, and to visit some of his friends.

It seemed like it’s one misfortune after the other when, just as we were ready to go catch the ferry to Haiphong, the boat that would take us back got caught in a fast-moving low tide. Look at the photos below and you’ll see how we tried to pushed that big boat out. Did we succeed? No!

Our group was split into two – those who had flights to catch the next day and needed to get out now, and those who did not have to rush out of the island. The Dutch couple and one of the American girls needed to get out and so were picked up by a tiny speedboat to catch the hydrofoil back. The rest of us had to kayak to a small boat out in the water and then brought to another Vietnamese junk ship moored in the middle of the sea.

By this time, we were exhausted and over-adventured out but this was not the end of the race to get home. We were told to board a motorbike each, without a helmet, and hold on to the driver for the trip across Cat Ba island. We were taken by speeding demons up the crests and down the troughs of the island’s undulating landscape. The drivers had gone absolutely nuts! I felt like I was in a suicide race of some sorts and it was just, literally, an accident waiting to happen.

When we finally reached the jetty, the hydrofoil / airplane was just about to leave. “Wait!” we all screamed and ran like madmen! The Dutch couple and the American girl were actually inside the ship screaming for the captain to stop, but to no avail. The ship waits for no one. It was the last crossing of the day to the mainland.

Our guide had a plan. “We have to chase the hydrofoil," said he. We could take the faster motorbikes and go to another dock and meet it there. There were some screaming and hand gesturing around, mainly from the Australian girl. It was decided -- there was no way we were going on those bikes again without helmets. So, we took the slow bus to the other dock. We were dropped off a smelly harbour, only to be transferred again to a tiny speedboat. I guess we missed the hydrofoil. As you can see in the photo, we were all squeezed in the compartment. I was scanning for the fastest exit, in case the boat sinks, you know. A few minutes later, we reached another smelly dock, but at least we were on land. Our guide, who was with us, said that he would phone for our mini van to come pick us up on this deserted country road, but he needed to walk into town. “Just wait here,” he said. We begged him not to leave. We were all afraid that we might get robbed, or worse, massacred in the middle of nowhere…but we still managed to smile for photos, as you can see. So, our trembling group waited inside a condemned cargo ship. No sign of our guide. It smelled awfully like pee, so we got out and started walking along the dark, lonely country road. Where was the van? From the distance, two spots of light appeared. We were saved!

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The Amazing Race In Cat Ba Island + Vietnam