Byron and I have a goal to hike in every country we visit, and we still needed to check off Vietnam. The Cat Ba National Park was misty and thick with hanging vines, limestone rocks, and mossy trees. The top didn’t have much of a view because the fog was thick and dense, but we enjoyed a nice rest at a tiny pagoda on the peak. It wasn’t the most rigorous hike, but it was cool and peaceful on the trails.
On the ride back to town, we wanted to stop at The Hospital Cave, which is an underground hospital built into a mountain to evade American bombers during the Vietnam War.
Unfortunately it was closed due to Tet, but we had a fantastic experience at the restaurant across the road. Bo, the father, ushered us to his picnic table to enjoy New Years tea and chat with him to practice his broken English. He was the most jolly, friendly man we’d met and kept our tea cups full and offered us candy. We ended up ordering food here, and his daughter was the best Vietnamese cook I’d encountered. Even though we had simple meals of fried beef noodles, shrimp spring rolls, and chicken fried rice, it was amazing. We stayed for a while playing with their newborn puppies and teaching a few English phrases before heading back to our hotel.
One of the best ways to experience Halong Bay is up close and personal in a kayak. This morning, Byron and I went off with a tour company, Asia Outdoors, to do just this. We piled onto a “junk boat” and putted around the harbor, past the floating fishing villages and many other boats carrying tourists. Byron decided he wanted to do some rock climbing first, so we dropped him off to a smaller “basket boat” with the rock climbers as I continued on the boat with two girls from the United States, a couple from Montreal, and an Irish man.
Our guide, Nick from the UK, taught us some basic kayaking techniques and assigned us partners for the tandem kayaks. Having such a small group meant we were able to explore all over the bay: underneath rocky archways, into dark caves, and through peaceful lagoons. We formed some camaraderie amongst our group and by the end we were racing across the bay and joking around as we crashed into each other. Apparently you can sometimes spot the endangered langur monkey at the tops of the limestone cliffs, but there were none to be seen today. After a few hours, we were all hungry and ready to pick up the rock climbers and enjoy traditional food cooked by the boat crew.
They served us heaping plates of fish, potato, spring rolls, egg and rice. Refueled and ready to get out on the water again, we hopped into our kayaks and explored a different part of the bay. This area was scattered with floating fishing homes with guard dogs on every dock that apparently had been seen jumping onto kayaks that veered too close. I stayed several dog-leap-lengths away from them.
The bottom of the water (tinted green, but clear enough to see through) was covered in large buckets and pots, apparently for harvesting oysters and other seafood. We played the “find the lagoon game”, which Byron and I lost horribly trying to explore in the opposite direction of the secret entrance. The afternoon kayaking group was much bigger, which meant we had to wait for everyone to catch up, or take all the photos they wanted, or use the bathroom ten minutes after leaving the junk boat. However, it was still enjoyable and we got to see the most incredible views and see what life on the water is like. After a few hours, we loaded up the kayaks, put on our bathing suits, and jumped off the roof of the junk boat into the chilly water. It was refreshing and exhilarating, but I was shivering the whole ride back. We stopped at one floating house that stored the kayaks for Asia Outdoors, and we got to see their pet “lucky” fish. It was the largest fish I’ve ever seen and weighed 135lbs. Apparently someone tried to buy it from them for $5000, and they refused.
Back at the hotel, we relaxed our sore muscles and then went out for dinner and drinks at The Good Bar, as recommended by our kayaking guide. In most tourist bars here, they offer a range of alcohol, just as any USA bar, but unlike back home, they offer (and advertise) latex balloons filled with laughing gas. We saw the signs and were intrigued. Our Vietnamese bartender kindly explained the process and gave a demonstration by inhaling and exhaling into the balloon. I could tell from the sleepy grin on his face that he was immediately affected by the substance. Now it was our turn. Almost instantly after placing my lips around the balloon, a warm wave of sunshine overcame me. But like any wave, a moment later it receded and my perception returned to normal. I can’t say I would need to try it again. The bar was mostly empty, which meant Byron and I had control of the sound system for the whole time and we played pool until late in the night.