Note: Sorry for the delay in getting this update- seems that WordPress is blocked in most of Vietnam. Many, many updates to come!
With everything in order motorcycle-wise it was time to check out of The Little Hanoi Hostel and really get our motorcycle tour started at long last. On our first official day out on the open road we were headed to a little island called Cat Ba in the Halong Bay area on the coast. Newly purchased map in hand and luggage precariously packed and perched on our janky rack we were about as ready as we were going to be. One deep breath and we were on our way.
Knowing that we had a ferry to catch in order to reach the island and having been warned that Google Maps timeframe estimates are less than accurate when you are on a motorcycle in unpredictable Vietnam, we left plenty early. Soon we were leaving the outskirts of Hanoi and heading into the countryside. It was just gorgeous! What we really could not fathom however was that during this first day of riding we were not going to even skim the surface of Vietnam’s most spectacular sights. Absolutely mind boggling! Luckily, everytime we started to day dream of the surroundings to come in the next few weeks we were snapped back into reality by horns honking vigorously as trucks and tour buses passed us as what felt like record breaking speeds. Truth be told, we had no idea how fast they were going since we do not have a working speedometer on our motorcycle…or any gauges for that matter. (In the long list of little repairs needed before we left Hanoi, this one seems to have slipped through the cracks.) Between not getting lost and the locals that pulled up alongside of us to cheer, wave, and give us the peace sign, we were feeling pretty confident by the time we rolled into the ferry station just in time to board the boat.
It was not until we were on the ferry and had a chance to really take in Halong Bay that we fully grasped what a magical world we were entering. Everywhere you looked the water was riddled with karsts. Karsts are essentially cliff towers standing alone in the water. Imagine a mountain range with just the summits visible above the water as if they are floating. There are thousands of them! Unbelievable! The ferry zigged and zagged its way through the karsts giving us ample opportunity to soak it all in. We just sat and stared, mesmerized by what we were looking at.
A lovely hour ride from the north end of the island where the ferry dropped us off, we arrived in Cat Ba Town. It is a misty, sleepy little fishing town with a flare for tourism, but sleepy nonetheless. While I went for a run along the waterfront as the sun set and watched the locals as they went about their daily routines, Ron set off for a little evening ride and ended up getting a lesson in Vietnamese motorcycle repair. All afternoon there had been a rattle that we could not quite place. No time like the present, right? After finding a shop with parts and tires strewn about, Ron pulled up and, due to each party being uni-lingual, began the sign language game. Eventually they were able to piece together the underlying problem. The fix, however, required some welding. More sign language charades ensued and in time Ron found his way to the local welder and got everything squared away lickity split. The old bike should be good to go now…at least for another two days or so 🙂
The next morning we practically bolted out of bed. We got to spend the whole day among the karsts on a traditional Vietnamese junk boat tour! Our trusty vessel departed and we maneuvered our way through Lan Ha Bay scoping out the many floating fishing villages along the way. People live all over out here, their houses bumping up among the karsts and just fishing in their rudimentary row boats. There were whole communities living out here on the water, protected by their towering neighbors. It was so cool to watch them going about their daily lives and imagining what it would be like to live so totally and completely off the grid.
Once we reached Halong Bay proper we disembarked from the junk boat and got into double person kayaks. We were all let loose to explore the different caves and tunnels to the hidden lagoons in the area. The water was a cloudy turquoise color which perfectly complimented the grainy walls of the caves and tunnels. It felt like such a far away, mystical land that I don’t think I would have been surprised had Captain Hook and Peter Pan jumped around the corner as Neverland is the only place I could think to compare it to. A tasty lunch onboard followed by a couple of jumps off the top of the boat (because everyone knows that right after you eat is the best time to swim) and we jetted back over to the secluded white sand beaches of Lan Ha Bay for a little more swimming before calling it a day…and a good one at that.
Later in the evening, we took the motorcycle up to Cannon Fort, the highest point on the island. Supposedly sunset is fantastic up there, but due to the thunderheads and rain spitting from the sky we missed most of that. While we were up there though, we did have a chance to explore the remains of this old military fort used during the Vietnam War, complete with the original cannons and concrete structures. It was definitely a point of interest worth seeing while we were there, even if we missed the sunset.
The rain that started when we were up at Cannon Fort persisted all night long and into the morning. Rather than wait around for it to get worse we opted to hit the road a little earlier than anticipated and try to catch the next ferry out. By the time we reached the ferry port we were sopping wet. Absolutely drenched! The super windy and damp air mixed with the non-stop rain made for a long wait for the ferry, but regardless we were glad to be there early as more and more people crowded behind the gate. The ferry was really more of a small boat this time and while waiting for the gate to open we started to worry that if a mass of people pushed forward to board all at once, there was a chance we would not get on despite being their early. After watching a handful of Vietnamese simply jump the fence and board without problem, we followed suit and did the same. No questions were asked and we just walked on board. Good thing too seeing as even with the boat stuffed to the gills, lots of people were turned back. Ah, yes! You have just got to love and embrace the lack of order sometimes.
Still wet and cold, we docked at Hai Phong on the mainland. Surprise! Surprise! It was still raining. We found the very first hotel available, which luckily was a whopping $10, and started to dry off. Although we were beginning to get drier slowly, but surely, outside was just getting wetter and wetter. By the time we ventured out to find dinner there was water up to our mid shins covering the entire road. Thankfully, it was not until we got back to our room that the skies really opened up though. It kept sounding as if the roof was going to get pulled straight off by the wind and heavy rain. It was unlike anything either of us had ever experienced before. Lo and behold, we wake up the next morning to find this article on CNN: http://edition.cnn.com/2012/10/29/world/asia/vietnam-tropical-storm/index.html?iref=allsearch Apparently the wind and rain we thought was going to pull the roof right off actually had been doing just that and was classified as a typhoon known as Tropical Storm Son-Tinh. Riding out of town in the morning was wild. There were giant metal billboard structures twisted and turned and torn right down to the ground and huge trees pulled up and out of the concrete like it was nothing. While it was no Hurricane Sandy, it certainly gives you an appreciation for the power of Mother Nature. Wow! We don’t get a lot of tropical storms in Colorado.
You must look at all the photos in this album- this could be one of the most scenic places we’ve ever traveled to: