Cat Ba Island, Phong Nha, Hue, Da Nang and Saigon
4/8/15 - 18/8/15 34 °C
After a four hour bus ride from Hanoi to Haiphong, followed by a 40 minute journey from the city centre to the harbour, a 30 minute trip by ferry to the island and then another 30 minute bus trip I finally arrived in a damp and driizzly Cat Ba Town. The town has sprung up from almost nothing in the last ten years or so, purely to cater for the growing tourist trade. As such it nothing but hotels, restaurants, bars and travel agencies. Strangely though, the place seemed almost deserted as I walked along the front that evening in search of food. It was the same the following day which again was raining, frustrating my plan to hire a motor bike and see the island. There was hardly anyone to be seen other than a few locals waiting morosely for business that was almost non-existent.
I decided to book a boat trip for the following day, hoping there would be enough people - six - to make it viable. Fortunately, there were nine of us who turned up the next morning and set off in a large boat that could cater for 48. After a rainy start the clouds began to break up and it turned into a beautiful day. The scenery was spectacular as we sailed slowly through the thousands of limestone islands that make up Lan Ha and Ha Long bays. Just before lunch we stopped for a swim, leaping off the boat's top deck into the clear, warm water. Surely the most idyllic setting I've ever swum in. After a delicious seafood lunch we all climbed into kayaks and spent a couple of hours exploring, paddling though caves (one of which was 200 metres long, pitch black and with a roof just a few inches above our heads) and into hidden lagoons totally isolated from the outside world. We spent the rest of the day.drifting through the islands and sunbathing, finally returning to harbour at sunset. Over a beer I logged on to the Internet and discovered that England had reduced the Ausies to 49 for 9! Could a day be any more perfect? And now that the sun had reappeared so too had the tourists. The town had miraculously come back to life.
The following day I hired a motorbike to explore the island. Truth to tell there wasn't a great deal to see other than the scenery and a cave that was used as a hospital by the Viet Cong during the war. Concrete rooms had been built inside the cave but despite this water dripped constantly through the ceiling. It must have been an extremely depressing place in which to recover from injuries. The island has only two main roads. Cat Ba Town and the ferry port lie at the ends of one of them, but I was unable to reach the end of the other. I'd already ridden through floodwater a foot deep on couple of occasions but on entering a village a few miles from roads end it quickly became clear that the floodwater here was at least chest deep as evidenced by the tourist who was wading through it with a suitcase in his head. Why he didn't use the boats that were ferrying people from one side of the flood to the other, I have no idea, but I guess he had his reasons.
I left Cat Ba at eight the next morning - bus, boat, bus and then another bus to Ninh Binh where I had hoped to jump almost immediately onto yet another bus for Phong Nha. However, there was nothing until eight that evening which meant killing 6 hours in a town with nothing to do. Long waits like this are not unusual though and I have become very good at waiting patiently while the time slips slowly by. In this case I sat at a cafe drinking Coca Cola and observing the comings and goings at the nearby train station. Eventually, I boarded a sleeper bus and arrived in Phong Nha at four the next morning where I tumbled exhausted into bed at the nearest guesthouse to catch up on my sleep. On venturing out for breakfast I was greeted by a cloudless blue sky and the kind of searing heat I hadn't experienced for a week or two. Everything and anything takes an effort of will and the smallest patch of shade is sought as one walks down the street. The area around Phong Nha is a national park and boasts the largest and longest caves in the world. The limestone karsts of this region date back some 400 million years and are riddled with caves and underground rivers. Many have only recently been discovered and large parts of them are still to be fully explored. Due to the intense heat I decided to visit the nearest cave rather than the largest which would have involved some trekking and, with a few other people encountered at the ticket office, hired a boat to take us along the river to the Phong Nha cave The first part of the trip took us past jagged karsts, wallowing water buffalo and the occasional church steeple (strangely enough churches are far more in evidence than pagodas or temples in Vietnam). Then as we approached the low opening to the cave the engine was cut and the two women crew members manned (or should that be womanned) the oars and paddled the boat along the first 600 metres of the underground river. Oddly enough, the male crew member sat down and did nothing! Apparently the underground part of the river is over eight kilometres in length but only the first part is open to the public. That, however, is more than enough for one to be completely awestruck by the scale of the cathedral like spaces of the caverns and the incredible rock formations that have been created over millions of years.
At eight the following morning I took the local bus, complete with goat which was trussed up and stowed behind the rear seats from where it complained loudly and plaintively, to Dong Hoi where again there was a long wait of four and a half hours before the train to Hue departed. Vietnamese trains have many different classes including hard seat, hard sleeper, soft seat and soft sleeper among others. The only available tickets were in hard seat class and as what I had thought would be a four hour journey turned into one of seven hours I gained a thorough understanding of why the wooden slats upon which I squirmed were so called. On the plus side it was incredibly cheap - just 59 dong (£1.80) for a journey of about 170 kilometres.
Hue turned out to be a pleasant city with a well developed tourist enclave which unfortunately does have a seedy side. On a short walk around the block near my hotel I was repeatedly offered drugs or the services of a "lady" or ladyboy by pimps on motorbikes. Hue was once a capital of Vietnam and at the beginning of the 19th century an imperial city, rather like the forbidden city in Beijing, was built here for the ruling Nyugen dynasty. Sadly much of it was destroyed, firstly in battles between the French and Vietnamese as France tried to reassert it's control of the country after WWII and by American bombing in 1968. Some building did survive though and others are being restored.
Could this be what inspired the design of our old phone boxes?
From Hue an eight hour bus ride took me to the very modern and obviously prosperous city of Danang. For the tourist there is very little to essential here but I needed to extend my visa and had discovered on the Internet that it could be easily done at the immigration office. On arriving there the following morning the woman I spoke to ummed and ahhed and then asking me to wait disappeared for few minutes. On her return she passed me a very small piece of paper with a name on it. "This is the name of a travel agent who will help you apply," she said.
"Is there an address?" I asked.
"You can find it on the Internet," she replied.
"Is it in Danang?" I then enquired.
"No, it's in Hanoi," she said.
I couldn't believe my ears. Apparently I had to go back to Hanoi because it was the nearest large town to where I had crossed the border from Laos. Why I had to use the services of a travel agency I never did work out. Vietnamese bureaucracy can be complex and extremely frustrating and as the rules keep changing there is very little reliable information to be found on the Web and the guidebooks are all out of date. After informing the poor woman, who was only following procedures, that if Vietnam wanted to encourage tourists to visit it was going the wrong way about it I stormed out in a huff leaving her silly piece of paper on the counter. There was no way I was going to retrace my steps all the way back to Hanoi and so after a bit of thinking I decided to try my luck in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City, but almost nobody calls it that). If I couldn't extend my visa there I could always make the relatively short hop over the border to Cambodia and perhaps return at a later date. It would mean skipping a few places that were on my itinerary but I could do them later. And so I booked a train ticket for 1.15 pm the following day, this time in soft seat class and my mood was considerably lightened on discovering I was entitled to a 20% discount due to my venerable age.
And so after yet another train ride, this time of 14 hours but in considerably more comfort , I arrived in Saigon at 6.00 am the next morning (Saturday 15th August) , and jumped in a taxi for Pham Ngu Lao, a collection of streets and alleys that makes up the backpacker area of Saigon.
Later that morning I set off to find a travel agent (there are literally dozens in Pham Ngu Lao) that could help with my visa application. Some told me it would cost $75 US and take 7 working days, meaning I'd be stuck in Saigon or 10 days or more, others were considerably cheaper but still needed anything from 5 to ten working days. Eventually though, I found one that quoted $65 US and only 2 days. With not a little trepidation I handed over the readies and my passport and said a little prayer. Ever since losing my passport in India I've hated letting it out of my sight. But - ye of little faith - when I returned on the Tuesday there was my passport duly stamped with a new visa allowing me another month in a country that I am growing rather fond of.
Although Hanoi is he capital Saigon makes it look somewhat provincial in comparison. It has undergone a lot of rebuilding in recent years with its fair share of skycrapers, but there are still many old and beautiful buildings from the time of the French which make it an intriguing mixture and in spite of the huge number of motorbikes one in which walking is a pleasure. Of course, one can't think of Saigon without thinking of its troubled past and there are many landmarks which evoke this, such as the hotel where Graham Green often stayed and the cafe where much of his novel, "The Quiet American" is set. There is also the bar in which foreign correspondents would gather just before Saigon fell to the Vet Cong in 1975. All this contributes to a city which is dynamic and enterprising but still maintains strong links with its past.