The xe om ride to the Hue train station marked the beginning of a continuous twenty hour period of travel, in which we utilized six different modes of transportation. It's true - the overnight extravaganza from Hue to Cat Ba city took us by: moto --> 12 hour train --> taxi --> bus --> minibus --> speedboat --> minibus
We would have felt more like James Bond had we not endured half hour intervals of awaiting the train or bus here and there. Or perhaps if some paragliding or jumping off of a helicopter was involved. Alas, we made it to Cat Ba on Christmas eve, snagged simple accommodations with a fantastic view of the harbor and took in the overall quietness of the island. There is something about Cat Ba city, a friend recently mentioned, that feels like a small Florida beach town. It happens to be pock-marked by women selling strings of "pearls" and tiny shells shamed into the likeness of owls or similar oddities. There is the inevitable food mark up, and a small but pervasively growing skyline of bright, skinny and awkwardly tall guesthouses. However, there is also - everywhere outside the town itself - the beauty of the simple island and surrounding bays. While we were there, it seemed that half of the businesses were closed up for the chilly season and we couldn't have been happier with this. Happy low-key holidays to us.
For Christmas day itself, we decided to rent a moto and zip around the island, exploring, stopping for prettiness and enjoying the practically vehicle-free roads (a real gem of an oddity in Southeast Asia). We did exactly this, but it was intervals of zip inside of relaxing cruising, as the island itself is quite small and we would have been all done by noon had we zipped entirely. There are just a few roads that lead over to one port, past some caves and the national park, or along the coast. We made it to the north side of the island and parked the bike just in time to watch a young man's moto tip over under the weight of that mornings sea harvest. Thanks to Eli, he got it balanced again and was able to take off without anything collapsing. Since we didn't spy him on the road back, we assume all went reasonably well. The dock where that mini-drama unfolded was the point of a fairly picturesque and standard view of the magical bay from shore. Small basket boats with lacquered bottoms were rowed by little women in big hats, large boats lazily made their way somewhere, and the undulating hills of the islands in the distance faded gradually to a misty grey. Everything from the barnacles on the boat ramp to the silence was enthralling for more than a few moments.
On the ride home later in the day, we stopped at a stalactite cave where a ten year old boy was our guide, armed with two clunky torches and no fear of the dark. Pitch black, warm and filled with bats it was, well, a cave. Yet, still fun to romp around with a sweet little friend for ten minutes - and a real roadside attraction steal a little more than $2 for the two of us.
The views from every angle and shore are basically full of local fishermen (or fisherwomen, hosting small children in their boats), folks combing for crabs, oysters or mussels in the low-tides and various goodies drying out in the late afternoon sun. All accompanied by incredible quiet.
The next day was the real adventure treat we gave ourselves for the holiday. An all day excursion into Lan Ha bay, the morning and afternoon full of sea kayaking and lunch on the boat. Others in the group did the same or spent the day rock climbing, as this is the main place for that in Vietnam - in better weather you can even deep solo, which is to climb up a cliff and jump into the sea! Neither of us has ever sea kayaked, though it was fairly similar to a lake, as the bay itself is incredibly calm aside from the ripples created by the larger tour boats or liners sweeping by from time to time. We were set on exploring a cave, but were only able to find some coves. Not a problem, since the coves were possibly more interesting - the ecosystem inside was lush, host to tropical birds and protected from the lives and happenings outside the arches. Amazingly, there are many small floating houses and fishing set-ups throughout most of the bay and along the edge of the islands. Guard dogs, surprisingly, abound on these floating villages and hearing barking while floating mid-sea with nothing but water and sheer cliffs rising above you is mildly surreal. Equally so is the fact that these folks, mainly men, live and work out here for weeks or months at a time, as we gathered from our Vietnamese guide. To have the open space around you be a deep void of water must be a strange mix of freedom and half-imprisonment. At least, that is how I felt viewing it all.
Some chilly beach trips, relaxed town market excursions and a hotpot experience rounded our island adventuring out. As per the recommendation of the organization we went kayaking with, we got our hotpot on at Mr. Zoom's, an unassuming place under some tarps in a row of Com-Pho-Thit Cho (rice-pho-dog meat, no kidding) restaurants on a back street in town. A good sign of freshness is when your shrimp leaps off the table behind you and is found later under foot - which is exactly what happened to Eli. Luckily, a kind woman gave us a brief lesson on appropriate hot pot orderliness and behavior, or else we would have been a hot mess. (sorry, I couldn't resist)
Though we were tempted to stay a few more days and enjoy more of the pace, the ebb and flow, and quiet, we departed towards Hanoi a few days before the new year in hopes of wrangling a sense of the city prior to any wild celebrations. The same transportation hustle, minus the train, ferried us towards the capital with relative seamlessness. The complexities of reaching and leaving Cat Ba only add to its being a special place to spend some time, a reward at the end of the game and a token to keep close when things seem all too accessible.