Climbing Cat Ba

by Helen Conway, Sep 30, 2002 | Destinations: Vietnam / Cat Ba Island

Few visitors to Vietnam miss a trip to Halong Bay, a World Heritage-listed area of dramatic limestone peaks thrusting out of the South China Sea. Many pleasure boats cruise the tranquil waters or pay a visit to Cat Ba, the largest island in Halong Bay. Its forested shores cover an area of over 220 square miles and the 12 000-strong population garners its living predominantly from the sea, although tourism is playing an increasing role in the island's well-doing. Most of the islanders live in the expanding Cat Ba town, with several villages providing a home to the remainder.

I visited the island with fourteen other tourists, traveling with Handspan Adventure Travel on a three-day trip from Hanoi. On the first night, we slept aboard a spacious and comfortable motor boat and on the second, in a hotel on Cat Ba. A bus waited at the wharf to take us to our hotel. Unlike most Vietnamese, the driver was alarmingly overweight but, just like his compatriots, he met us with a disarmingly friendly smile. His bus, on the other hand, was far from welcoming: its rusting bodywork barely looked capable of carrying our driver, without throwing passengers and luggage into the equation.

The hotel wasn't far but the bus didn't have an easy job. The narrow road inclined steeply over a pass before descending into the town. On several occasions, as the ailing engine chugged and spluttered up the hill, I wondered whether we would have to walk the rest of the way.

The road did not seem wide enough to hold two vehicles abreast and I hoped we would not meet a bus traveling in the opposite direction. Fortunately, the only oncoming vehicle was a motorbike although even that passing was a tight squeeze. Neither the bike's driver nor our (still smiling) bus driver looked perturbed although the large pig draped languidly across the bike's rear wheel guard looked slightly disturbed. Perhaps he wanted to avoid his inevitable fate just a while longer.

After leaving our bags at the hotel, it was back onto the bus to head to the wharf again. Our tour guide, an amiable young man, called Thuy, had recently arrived back from a tour to Sapa. He came armed with a bottle of rice wine which he shared with us and, rather worryingly, with the driver- small wonder he was looking so cheerful.

A beaming Buddha's face dangled from the bus's rear view mirror, which seemed to fortify our driver with impenetrable defenses. It failed to reassure us. One fellow tourist wryly remarked, "It's frightening having someone behind the wheel who has a completely different concept of death to us."

We then embarked on a 90-minute journey in a similarly aging motor boat which took us further around the island and into Cat Ba National Park. The clouds had been lowering all morning and now they decided to impart their weighty load. The rain sheeted through the loose, soft plastic windows; the wind evaporated it from our faces, resulting in a frigid after-effect. My husband and I were the only ones in the group not to have a raincoat, somehow remembering to pack an umbrella but nothing quite as practical as a poncho. An American lady turned to me and said, "At least you have proper walking boots." I looked down at her feet to see that she was wearing flimsy runners and her companion only had open sandals. I wasn't quite sure how they would fare climbing up a mountain.

From the small jetty, a bitumen road led to an isolated village, at one point passing through a tunnel hewn straight through a cliff. The rain had made the moss on the road slippery and even with good-gripping boots I looked like I was taking my first steps on an ice-rink.

The few houses in the village were tucked under the lee of a hill. They were roughly constructed buildings scattered around an area of red earth, which seemed to be the village square. Here there was an open-sided shelter with tables and chairs, where we enjoyed a brief respite from the rain. Nearby stood a large, barn-like building in which several women kept warm next to a roaring fire.

Thuy warned us that the track to the top of the mountain would be difficult, particularly on the way back, due to the rain making the mud path so slippery. Two members of our group decided not to tackle it and they very kindly lent us their ponchos.

Our group, colorfully bedecked in wet weather gear, wended its way along the narrow path beside the rice fields. Here, Thuy decided to explain the rice production process to us. Quite why he chose the field to do this, instead of under cover in the village shelter, was a mystery to us, particularly as he did not use the field for any visual demonstration. Unfortunately, I still have no idea how rice is made as the incessant drumming of raindrops on my plastic hood drowned out most of his oratory.

At the foot of the mountain, the path sloped sharply upwards almost immediately. There was little on which to get a foothold and any rock was slippery from the muddy boot that had gone before. A local guide led the way; he bounded up the path like a mountain goat, his tread sure and stable, whilst wearing only rubber flip-flops on his feet.

After 30 minutes of panting and scrambling, Thuy stopped at a level clearing for us to catch our breath. He informed us, with a cheeky grin, that we were only halfway up the mountain. We groaned and reached for our water bottles. I removed my poncho as more moisture was collecting on the inside than on the outside, the closeness of the evergreen forest creating humid conditions. One Brit was bitterly disappointed as he was experiencing the same problem with his expensive brand-name raincoat. He had been assured by the sales staff that it would not sweat; now, however, he realized this had merely been a sales pitch. Perhaps he should have stuck with a $1 poncho.

The path grew even more precipitous before we finally reached the summit. The mountain was only just over 300 meters high but the conditions made the climb feel a lot longer. Jagged rocks and overhanging branches crowded the summit and we struggled to find somewhere to sit and rest.

I would love to say that the views were sensational, that the visibility was ten kilometers or more, that we could see the emerald waters of Halong Bay stretching away to the horizon. But the visibility was not even ten meters; we were enveloped in thick cloud. We had climbed a mountain in the pouring rain to see...nothing. The very Vietnamese ludicrousness of the situation kept us all in good spirits.

The local guide had carried a watermelon in his pack, which he cut up and handed out to us. Its sweet, cool flesh was incredibly refreshing. Voices carried to us as a group of American tourists neared the summit. They looked particularly disappointed to see people already ahead of them. As there was not enough room for all of us, we squeezed our way past them, hoping that they enjoyed the views.

Thuy was right: the descent was more difficult than the ascent. As more feet had slid on the mud, so it was harder to find any grip. I stayed close to the ground, relying on the theory that if I fell it would not be very far. My hands moved from branch to tree trunk, wherever I could find a handhold. After a seemingly long hour, we gratefully reached the bottom and headed back to the village.

The two women who had stayed behind were a little cold although very dry. They saw the mud-caked trousers of those who had fallen on the descent and they were glad they had had the sense to laze in a hammock, reading. One woman had been playing pool with the village men. She said they were very friendly; we suggested they were looking for a wife. The two American women had made it to the top successfully in their runners and sandals although their feet were cold, wet and incredibly muddy.

A sumptuous lunch was served up to us at long tables in the shelter. It never failed to amaze me how the women cooked so many dishes, having them piping hot and ready at the same time, using only one wok and an open fire.

The boat journey back to the island's wharf further soaked and chilled us and sixteen people were ready to dive into a hot shower as soon as we reached the hotel. The poor laundry staff were suddenly faced with sixteen sets of dirt-encrusted clothes to wash and dry overnight.

Once we had all warmed ourselves through again, we enjoyed an evening of hilarious karaoke, led by the tuneful Thuy. Luckily for the rest of the town, we were safely enclosed in a soundproof video lounge.

The parts of Cat Ba that we saw beneath the blanket of cloud certainly looked beautiful and lush. I would tend towards it being more of a summer destination, however, if you want to fully appreciate all the island has to offer.

© Helen Conway 2002