All passengers are seated on the lower deck with very limited view of the outside. The hydrofoil picks up speed and starts pushing its way through the waves. The front window of the lower deck gets opened from time to time, until a big wave hits the boat and everyone inside gets soaked. The door then gets closed, but only remains so for a few minutes until someone opens it again and the cycle repeats itself.
We arrive to the western pier and get picked up by a new, air conditioned bus. Well, at least the woman sold us real bus tickets. The drive follows what seems to be the only proper road through the island. We pass many construction sites for future hotels, resorts, and so on. The Cat Ba island is being massively transformed due to tourism.
After 45 minutes we arrive to Cat Ba town. The good news is we’re finally here! The bad news is that Viet Hai is located on the eastern side of the island. It is accessible only by boat or a several-hour long trek through the hills. It is almost 18:00 and it’s getting dark fast. Since neither of us is Rambo we rule out the trekking option.
We’re approached by some people offering private boats to Cat Ba for 600,000 dong. This sounds expensive, although we have no point of reference. We try to find a number for the Viet Bungalows to get an estimate of a fair price from them. However, no direct number is listed on their website or the email voucher we’ve received. Come on, are these bungalows operated by the CIA?
We decide to ask about boat prices at some nearby hotels and restaurants. This is where we stumble into one of the most helpful people we’ve met in Vietnam. Katka walks into a random hotel called Duc Tuan Hotel. She approaches a guy sitting at the table and asks him about the boat prices. It turns out the guy is Mr. Tuan himself, the hotel’s owner.
He tells us that we can expect up to 600,000 dong for a private boat. Alternatively, we can wait until tomorrow morning and take a public boat instead, which would be significantly less expensive. We explain that we have already paid for the bungalow in Viet Hai and would like to spend the day there tomorrow.
Then Mr. Tuan pulls a rabbit out of a hat. Well, not literally, although that would have been pretty awesome too. He calls up his nephew who lives in one of Ha Long Bay’s floating houses. Turns out the nephew is now on the island and is leaving shortly. Mr. Tuan arranges for the nephew to take us all the way to the Viet Hai pier for 200,000 dong. He also finds a number for the Viet Hai Bungalows and calls them up to inform them of our arrival. Finally, he finds a scooter driver to help him take us to his nephew at the pier.
Mr. Tuan and the other driver take us to the pier on their scooters. We give a tip to the driver, but Mr. Tuan himself refuses to take any money from us. He has a short conversation with his nephew, after which he turns to us and firmly tells us to only give his nephew 200,000 dong upon arrival and no more. He leaves us his number and says we can call if we run into any trouble. Then he hits the capital “S” on his chest twice with his fist, extends his right arm upwards and flies off into the night to fight crime.
There are three other people apart from the nephew on the small wooden boat: an older woman, a kid of around 15 and a very young boy who we figure is the nephew’s son. The boat leaves the pier and soon we’re treated to a beautiful view of Ha Long Bay. Limestone karsts rise up of the water into the slowly darkening sky. The sun can still be seen in the distance and leaves a rippled reflection in the waves. We’re surrounded by floating villages gently rocking on the sea.
We make a stopover at one of the floating houses to drop the elderly woman off. A bit later we make a similar stop where the teenage kid is dropped off at his floating house. Finally, we stop by the nephew’s home where his son is left with the wife. The nephew turns the boat around and directs it into the open sea. At some point he changes position and starts steering the boat with his foot, while looking over the boat’s roof.
The sun sets rapidly and the sea loses its calm. The boat is rocked quite noticeably by larger waves. After about an hour we’re completely submerged in darkness. The only hint of civilization are a few scattered lights from the floating houses in the distance. We cannot see any land and begin to wonder how we’ll find the Viet Hai pier at all. Also, we wonder whether anyone will meet us or if we’ll have to find Viet Hai village ourselves in the darkness. Walking in the dark would kind of suck. Shut up, Rambo.
Suddenly, a light flickers in the distance. On and off, repeatedly. Mr. Tuan’s nephew steers the boat toward the light and we see an outline of a pier. As we get closer we discover that two men on motorbikes are waiting for us at the shore. Seems they’ve been warned by Mr. Tuan. The nephew drops us off and we leave him with the promised 200,000 dong.
The men introduce themselves, grab our bags and wedge them between their legs at the front of their motorbikes. My driver grabs my famous helmet, plops it on my head and we ride off towards Viet Hai village. The ride takes us through a road that branches out a few times. It is pitch black, except for the small chunk of the road illuminated by the motorbike’s headlights. Later we’ll find out that the village is over six kilometres away from the pier. That would’ve been a fun night-time walk.
There are several points where the road dips down and then comes back up steeply. This where our drivers press their pedals to the floor and speed up as much as they can in order to make it to the top again. On the way my driver (his name is Zoam) asks about the price we’ve paid for the boat and confirms that 200,000 dong was very cheap.
At long last we arrive to the tiny and quiet village of Viet Hai, tucked away inside the mountains. There are several bungalows being rented out here. Our bungalow is very basic. There’s no furniture aside from the bed. A big mosquito net is attached to a wall and can be stretched to cover the whole bed. There’s a small division for the toilet/shower/sink combo.
Zoam, who is also the one running the bungalow business invites us into the bar/restaurant hut for dinner. When we get there we realise that we’ll be sharing the meal with his family and we begin to feel at home. There’s a cat and a puppy fighting over dinner scraps on the floor. The family is busy setting up the table and we lend a hand. Finally we all sit down for dinner and Katka and I realise how hungry we are. We haven’t had any food since breakfast in Ninh Binh. What do you say now, Rambo?
The table is full of food. There’s rice, noodles, bamboo soup with beef in it, chicken, spring rolls, fresh vegetables and all sorts of seafood. We patiently wait for the family to start eating and then we attack our food almost maniacally. We make small talk with the family and they keep serving us different dishes and making us taste their home-made rice wine.
They ask me if there’s anything I don’t like. I proudly announce that I don’t like Rau Mui, which is Vietnamese for “coriander”. Coriander is really one of the few things I don’t like. Partially because it tastes like soap, but mainly because it tastes like freaking soap! Unfortunately, the family understands the “Rau Mui” part but completely misunderstands the “don’t like” one. For the remainder of the dinner they continue to place huge portions of fresh coriander leaves on my plate.
At the end of the dinner we all share a delicious watermelon. Katka and I thank the family for the food and head out to our bungalow. Here I’m happy to discover that my thumb has almost completely recovered and is no longer on the verge of turning into an alien creature. Exhausted after a day on the road we finally collapse on the bed and fall asleep.
The diaries will continue shortly. Remember to drop by Katka’s Flickr page and check out the pictures from the trip.