Prior to leaving Da Lat our hostel was abuzz with rumours about Hoi An, our next destination; apparently it was underwater. Frenzied googling yielded not even a hint of the apocalyptic flood, so we set off with our fingers and toes crossed.
Having survived a harrowing night bus – in which the driver drifted and skidded along pitch black roads, at breakneck speeds, in downpour conditions – we were pleasantly surprised to find that the river had not burst its banks, and there was actually a break in the bad weather.
We borrowed some bicycles and set off exploring the old town. In between sightseeing and window shopping we had a quick round of hide-and-seek on the bikes. Whipping down the narrow roadways and alleys we flew in and out of groups of shoppers, whilst trying to outpace each other so we could sneak off and hide.
Hoi An is famous (so we were told) for its pottery; we gave it a go. After two hours and a steep learning curve (adding too much water to the clay resulted in Jade’s pile of mud flying off the wheel and splattering up a lady’s trouser leg) we had created 5 masterpieces between us. Jamie was proud to have created the heaviest (and plainest) handle-less mug in existence and Jade’s crowning achievement was an ornately crafted teacup.
Relaxing in reception on our last evening in Hoi An, Jade was the recipient of the friendly attentions of a merry drunk local. In between gulping down shots (he was kind enough to share, it tasted like paint stripper) he revealed he was the one who would drive us to the airport at 3am, a few short hours away. Alarmed and dismayed we went for dinner on the bikes, wondering what to do. We made it 50 metres before the road was swallowed by rapidly rising flood waters from the nearby river. Jamie tested its depth – by riding straight into it – and had to retreat with wet feet when his front wheel was fully submerged.
Not optimistic about being able to get to the airport in the morning, we arranged an earlier taxi, thankfully getting a new driver in the process. We franticly packed, shouldered our bags, said goodbye and waded along the road in search of the taxi. Sad about being left behind, merry-drunk-man caught up and insisted on showing us where we’d get picked up. We found ourselves wading through knee deep water, in the dark, following a drunken man who was the only one who’d not thought to roll up his trousers…
Asleep in the airport, we were sharply woken at 1am. A security guard informed us that the airport closed between the hours of 1 and 4; we would have to leave. Laying on the floor outside, sheltered from the rain if not the cold, we got our heads down. We woke up at 4 to find that during our slumber we’d been the guests of honour at a feast for biting insects. Every inch of exposed skin had been nibbled to pieces: our faces, wrists, ankles and feet resembled minute mountain ranges.
Hanoi has a street for everything; BBQ Chicken Street, Garlic and Onion Street, and most importantly, Christmas Street! We spent two hours wandering up and down, taking in the mesmerising array of posh and tacky decorations. By the end Jamie was actually enjoying himself (despite his Grinch-like nature) and we came away with a small bag of decorations for our Christmas home in a few weeks.
The Old Quarter of Hanoi is a maze of streetways packed with stalls and stands selling a dizzying selection of goods. The smells (and sometimes stench) of meat cooking, fish, and dried mushrooms and herbs hang like a mist over the warren of activity. During the day it was busy; come sundown the town exploded with human traffic. A well-used crossroad was transformed into a restaurant at night. Countless plastics stools came out of storage, filling the entire intersection before quickly being filled with bums on seats. An endless parade of food was brought out to serve the masses. The combination of punters, servers and plastic children’s chairs made navigating the junction next to impossible, every other step was met with a different menu being pushed into your chest or held up in your face by a hopeful waiter trying to get one more customer.
Following the bustle of Hanoi we headed to Cat Ba Island, which borders the stunning Lan Ha Bay and the more famous, polluted, and far busier Ha Long Bay.
On our first day on the island we hired a motorbike so we could explore. Presented with two scooters, one for 70,000 dong (£2.52) and the other for 100,000 dong (£3.60), we opted for the former. What we got for our money was a broken speedometer, wing mirrors that hung lifelessly and uselessly from their mountings, an engine that required crossed fingers and a prayer to start, and barely enough fuel to make it to the petrol station (not a big issue as we could just return it empty).
We poured a litre of fuel in the bike and hit the road. Winding up through valley bottoms, surrounded by densely forested mountains, we arrived at the entrance to the national park, and the heart of the island. We hiked uphill for an hour to reach the summit of a mountain. From the sun drenched rocky pinnacle the landscape dropped off on all sides to reveal a vast carpet of green with rolling peaks all the way to the horizon. We sat there for hours drawn in by the beauty of it.
Returning to town we took a windy coastal road, the sun slowly setting over the ocean on right with mountains soaring on the left. Whilst the panorama was spectacular the road was not. The gravel surface was pitted with depressions and cracks, more pothole than road. The road conditions, combined with our dwindling supply of fuel, and with no obvious places to refill, made the trip home very tense.
The next morning, running on fumes, we scooted up to a viewpoint overlooking Cat Ba Town and Lan Ha Bay. At the viewpoint was an out of service cannon fort which was used extensively during the Vietnam War. As with every high point on this gem on an island, the view was awe-inspiring. Looking out across Lan Ha bay we could set dozens of small islands, monolithic limestone cliffs thrusting up out of the water and topped with plant-life.
On the way back down the hill we ran out of fuel (what can we say, we’re cheap) and had to coast and push our way back to where we picked up the motorbike. Once parked we hastily handed the key back and made a quick escape before they attempted to start the bike. We did feel a little bit bad, but we did return it in roughly the same state they gave it to us.
An early start the next day saw us boarding a boat, ready to embark on a 2 day chug through Lan Ha and Ha Long Bay. To our surprise we were accompanied by two middle-aged Welshman. Initially very cold on-board, the day soon warmed and we spent our time kayaking and sun bathing. We were taken to what was described as a beach. After a cold swim, we waded up on to a 2 metre sq. patch of sand submerged under ankle deep water. We stood there awkwardly in the breeze, arms rapped around ourselves for 2 minutes before deciding it wasn’t for us and headed back to the boat.
Our last stop for the day saw us land on Monkey Island. True to its name there were lots of thieving monkeys in residence. We scrambled up huge boulders and traversed razor sharp ridges to reach the highest point – a feat made more impressive as Jade was wearing flip-flops. We met a group as they descended, who asked if we had seen any monkeys. We told them we had only seen them on the beach. Relief flooded over their faces as they said, “Great! This is where the monkeys ambushed us on our way up”. We did not hang around.
Saying goodbye to our Welsh friends, we jumped ship to our home for the evening. We cruised through Lan Ha Bay and moored at a floating fish farm. At the farm they catch tiny fish and over the course of years feed them up as they grow in size, they then sell them to restaurants. The owner excitedly pried up the floorboards of the dining room to expose a large net suspended in the water below. As he reeled the net in a gigantic fish reared out the water; this monster had been lurking under their floor for years.
After a cold night on-board we woke up at 7:30 to find our captain preparing a kayak for us. No words were uttered, but with much gesturing he made it clear he expected us to go paddling. Whilst initially hesitant – it was bloody freezing – we got under way and had a great time. The water was incredibly calm; it was like gliding across a sheet of ice. As the sun rose over the towering cliffs its heat radiated down and our coldness evaporated.
For our second boat-day we were the only people on-board, and were treated to our own private tour of some of the quieter spots in Lan Ha Bay. We kayaked through claustrophobic caves, hunted for shells on beaches and ate ridiculous amounts of delicious food, made just for us.
We watched the sun on-board before meandering back to port; a perfect end to our time on Cat Ba, and in Vietnam. Next stop, Laos.
Jade and Jamie