Sailing the bays: Cat Ba Island

Some places are just a bit weird.  They may have historical or geographical significance, but the ways in which they’ve been arranged for public viewing overshadow the experience, making it all just a bit off.

Cat Ba Island boasts several wonderful caves in its limestone mountains.  Most are surreal warrens of  stalactites, stalagmites and mineral formations dating back millions of years – long before man existed.  We wandered through the Thien Long cave in wonder as it snaked through the mountain revealing enormous caverns and narrow walkways, all tastefully lighted, and stunning in its unadulterated natural beauty.  It is a cave as you would expect it.

The nearby Hospital Cave is something else entirely.  

Once a full service hospital that had been built inside the massive cavern, and hidden by a narrow entrance just below the jungle canopy, it is now an odd relic with little evidence of it’s past.  

It was built during the war, and stayed hidden and protected from the American bombs that dropped relentlessly on Cat Ba. Made entirely of concrete, it’s square rooms filled the space of the cavern to the extent that at most times you forgot you were in a cave, except for the lack of windows.  

Building a hospital in a cave during a war isn’t a strange thing to do.  In fact, that seems perfectly logical. The Americans never found it, and if I were getting bombed relentlessly, I think I’d take my wounded soldiers underground too.  That’s not what’s so strange about it.

It’s the “styling” of the place as a tourist attraction that makes it utterly bizarre.  The rooms are now adorned with VC mannequins cast in concrete and painted cartoonishly to display their anguish. They are laid out in odd inhuman positions on wooden tables meant to represent operating theatres and wards.

Obviously, it’s a somber place where many people surely suffered or died, and many more were mangled by the fighting going on around them.  But that is lost in the comical “dioramas” of the soldiers. There were rooms where stiff captains sat around a table with no explanation as to what it was they were talking about.  

There were rooms where mannequins dressed in doctors’ scrubs were laid on tables, and rooms where fully uniformed soldiers anguished on gurneys. One enormous open cavern was entirely bare, except for a few photographs on easels that didn’t really do much to illustrate anything at all.  What was this room used for?  Who knows?  Maybe we should have paid for the guide…

The cave alone was certainly worth the 40,000 dong (£1.25) cost of admission.  Even from the outside, you’d hardly know the cave was there, much less the extensive building inside.  The bemusement is an added bonus, as is the sensation that is the soaring enormity of the cavern inside, making you feel human and tiny all at once.

Cat Ba or Ha Long Bay?

Ha Long Bay is a world famous UNESCO site, noted for its green waters and soaring limestone karst formations.  It is stunningly beautiful, and tourists flock here from all over the world to cruise it’s waters among the other-worldly mounts.  Ha Long can get very crowded, even in the low season, so we opted to base ourselves in nearby Cat Ba Island – offering the same views without the crowds.

Cat Ba didn’t really impress at first, and try as hard as we might, we never warmed to the island or the town itself.  We had bad food, bad service, and we found it fairly characterless overall. There aren’t really any beaches on the island, and of the three tiny ones that do exist, two are being taken over by hotel development.

However, the bay was stunning, and the owner of our hotel / hair salon / foot massage / laundry / tour operator helped us book a two day / one night stay on a big wooden converted fishing boat that was a huge win.  We were joined by two French girls in their early 30’s, and a crew with a ratio of 1:1 to its guests. Most of the other boats held 30 or more people, and we had read reviews about cramped quarters and poor quality food.

There were two big cabins at the front of the boat with loads of space and comfortable beds.  And the food was simply amazing. Fresh fish, fresh produce and pure love went into our Vietnamese feasts, and we were left with nothing to complain about except for the grumpy old deck hand.  But even his grumpiness was so extreme that it was comical, and became a source of entertainment for us and the girls.

Sailing among the cliffs and rock formations was even more stunning than we had hoped it would be.  The emerald green water played against the black karst limestone, and the blue blue sky. We kayaked through caves into hidden lagoons, and jumped off the boat to swim in the sea.  We swam or kayaked to little deserted beaches, and annoyed the crew when we brought back a big bag of rubbish from one otherwise gorgeous strip of sand. We stopped at the floating villages to buy beer, ice or other provisions, and were lulled to sleep by the rocking of the boat as we anchored in a quiet bay for the night.

The girls happened to wake in the night to find the bay glowing with plankton. Neither the crew nor anyone else had told us this was a possibility, and it was only by the luck of a full bladder did they get to experience it.  We missed a phenomenon that I desperately want Austin to see, but I’m sure we’ll find it again somewhere in the world.

For all we didn’t love about Cat Ba itself, it was a good base for our Ha Long Bay cruise, and I wouldn’t change a single choice we made about going there.  The cruise was medium in luxury and off the charts in just simply relaxing and taking in the amazing view.  

Had we based ourselves in Ha Long, we’d have ended up on a crowded boat with potentially bad food.  As it was, we enjoyed our little off the wall boat and crew.  And maybe that’s what Cat Ba is about…having a different experience in the same scenery, which makes it all the more memorable.

For now, we were in Northern Vietnam, with a week left on our visas and no real plan.  So we took a bus / ferry / bus in to Hanoi to decide how to spend our last week in Vietnam.

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About the author: Shalena

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