Heading to Hanoi

Cat Ba Island – Hanoi, Vietnam
October 15, 2013

The next morning we packed and got ready to head for breakfast before catching a ferry to mainland, but Michael Douglas had to have one last tantrum, yep another fucking blown tire. Make that 17 mechanics now…or 18…I’ve honestly lost count. Whatever really. Another five dollars down the drain and with a deep inhale and exhale I calm myself and avoid taking an axe to Mr. Douglas. He’s one sadist son of bitch, that Douglas, and I’m counting the days until I unload him on another foreigner half enthused and half saddened by the completion of part one of our journey.

Travel Vietnam Cat Ba KT and room

View from our balcony

I pulled up to My Way and dagnabbit, the only two people there were the Italian couple, Frankie and Katia. We sat next to them and ordered our farewell breakfast on the island. It was too good to pass up. Especially since we have a long day ahead of us.

I was mid hash browns when the two Germans came moseying down the street and into the café. The six of us just laughed. Our party had closed down the restaurant last night and now here we were the only six at it once again. We all just rehashed our plans for the day. Each of us minutes or hours from departing the island.

Luca and Eva had read our blog the night before and paid us a wonderful compliment on its layout, look, and how the stories read with the exactitude of my speech. At least I took it as a compliment! I think?

Goodbye to our new friends!

Goodbye to our new friends!

The ride off the island was nice and so was the ferry ride to mainland. Although the ride from mainland to Hanoi was about as bad as the ride out of Ho Chi Minh City. What can I say? I think it’s only fitting that the first and last days of our trips are just shit. We got into the old quarter around seven and pulled over on the side of the road to look at a map and search for a hotel. We weren’t even parked for a minute when a motorcycle rolled up to us.

“Hello! You looking to sell your bike?”
“Uhh yah! But we’re looking for a hotel right now.”
“I have a hotel! You want to see! I can show you right now.”
“Thank you, but we want to drive around the area and get comfortable with it to see where we want to stay.”
“It’s ok! No problem. I think you came from Ho Chi Minh riding to Hanoi right?.”
“Haha…yah we did! It’s such a beautiful country. But how do you know?”
“I see your ad on Craigslist. You were on Cat Ba, yes?”
Katie’s eyes rotate out of her body and onto me. Which I can now feel, because mine are gravitating towards hers. What the fuck we both mouthed to each other!
“Excuse me. What’s the population of Hanoi? How many people live here?”
“11 million” he said.
“So how much are you selling your bikes for again?”
“I am looking for $250 and for the Yamaha $400”
“Oh so expensive.”
“I know. I know. But that’s what foreigners are paying for them.”

And it’s true. Craiglist.com, expatblog.com and travelswop.com have hundreds of bikes posted daily and we did our research before posting our bikes up on the sites. We were asking the going rate for our bikes; nothing more, but hopefully nothing less. But somehow I felt that Michael Douglas would be getting the last laugh on me. Ahhh and he did.

The Old Quarter of Hanoi is where we ended up. It’s a mix of one way streets, lakes, café stacked on top of cafés beside more cafés inside hotel after hotel after hotel with tourism pop-up shops all with the name, Sinh Café or some twisted variant. On one street back-to-back-to-back sat three shops “Sinh Café- Formerly Known As Sinh Tours; Sinh Café- Official Hanoi Headquarters; and Sinh Café- The Original Sinh Café”. There are without a word of a lie 130 or more Sinh Café’s all scrunched into a considerably quaint and affable backpacker district; each and every single one of them offering the same package. The same bus trips. Same locations. Same poorly translated English on their signs. And the same eager worker trying to hustle you in for just a quick trip… just one day Halong Bay… come inside. No…No sir, just out for a walk. No…No mam, not interested. No…No, not even tomorrow. No…No…No!! Leave me the fuck alone (insert aneurysm). That is the chaos of touristy backpacker Vietnam. And if you don’t get that in you immediately, it will take a toll on you. As you can read from just fourteen seconds and 35 words ago.

That night we spun through the cities webs in search of a hotel and ended up at Violet 2 Hotel with vibes that started off bad and ended up worse. It’s too bad, too. The hotel itself was the nicest one we had stayed in for the last 35 days on the road;

35 days translates into 19 different hotels. And even though our hotels were definitely not dreamy or spacious or well kempt or on anyone’s must sleep list- we enjoyed them all.  So it was the only time that the odds would catch up with us, especially since we are on the final leg of our Vietnam journey and the only hitches we’ve had have been with goddamn Michael Douglas. We slept like babies that night and woke to a nightmare.

NOTE: The lack of photos is because there was a lack of scenery between Cat Ba and Hanoi. It wasn’t the worst drive, but not one worth pulling over and snapping photos. It was a “let’s get there” type of driving day, not much of a scenic one. Sorry friends and fam! But you’re not missing much. More pics next time, promise! ;)

Kayakittyyakkityyaking & Hanging Out With Real People!

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam
October 13-14, 2013

We took the day off from each other to do our own things: biking the island, reading, writing, and sneaking off for our beloved breakfast, which was open (they had closed the previous day for a wedding-so we let it slide). But we ended up meeting at The Noble House in the evening. A hotspot for long haired and scruffy backpackers jonesin’ a taste of home. I’ve had a lot of bad luck with burgers across the country…but I always feel like my luck’s going to turn around. Optimistic? Ignorant? Who knows! I ordered the burger anyways. Bam! It came on a real bun. The patty was actually hand packed like a pressed baseball. The cheese melted and stuck to the top of the bun. Tomatoes. Cucumbers?

KT: My day took me climbing this random staircase for a  decent view

KT: My day took me climbing this random staircase for a decent view

Ok…I’ll give them that one- but hell it adds a nice crunch. I bit into it. The burger was spiced perfectly. Salted too. Ahhh my mouth is dancing! And it only took 2500km and just over a month and hopping two islands. And you know what? I wouldn’t do it again. I’ve already done it. There’s plenty more land to travel and shitty burgers for me to sink my teeth into and immediately regret…but hell, with shitty burgers comes great distance and utter beauty and amazement in between. So bring on the shitty burgers and sugary sweet ketchup and glorious mountainsides and cucumbers, wilted lettuce and ancient citadels and bread for buns and hidden lagoons, ’cause world…I’m coming to fuckin’ get you! And eatcha too! (KT: I’ll apologize for Louis’ dirty mouth. I wouldn’t dare try to censor his writing, so just close your eyes over the swears)

The Noble House is two parts restaurant and one part tour shop that it’s sandwiching. We walked downstairs to the second floor and had a little chat. We were looking at going on a kayaking trip. Bam! Done! We talked to a Malay for about a minute who was as stoked as we were and she told us that she’s even the guide for tomorrow. So we were pretty stoked. The itinerary ran like this:
8:15- meet and drive to harbour
8:30- boat out to pick up our kayaks in the middle of Lan Ha Bay
9:00- Kayak like motherfuckerssuckers through bearded mountains that jutted from the sea
12:00- eat a badass lunch and dive off the boat
2:00- kayak like mofo’s to hidden bays and deserted beaches
3:07- slice my dang finger on coral while a snake crawls up a cliff
4:00- lazy ride home through hundreds of these bulging islands
6:00- land a’hoy

We signed our names and threw it on visa… something like 52 bucks for the both of us. We’d travelled from the complete south to the farthest north and this had been our first booked trip. So we were both in balls deep. Just as we were leaving, the Italian couple we had met in the National Park popped in, along with their German friend Fabio. They signed up on the spot and kayaking was looking to be even more fun.

DAY 34- Kayakittyyakitty

We woke up at something like seven. Set off for breakfast at our favourite breaky joint “My Way”. Ate some banging breakfast. I have no clue where the chef learned to cook with such western flair, but the hash browns were out of this world. Fried julienned potatoes served in a birds nest. They even had real catsup. We scarfed and raced off to join the tour. (KT: When I asked him for Maple Syrup, he was perplexed. But he wrote down my strange request, so perhaps the next Canadians to amble through might get some good ole Maple Syrup on their French Toast!)

We slunk into the tour bus and turned on the Vietnamese air conditioning aka slid the windows open. The ride was short and soon we stepped onto a wooden vessel. Upstairs we plopped on some cushions and just basked. Drawing away from shore the seascape was just as hopping as land. In the bay, we cruised past a floating neighbourhood that mirrored one on land. Bobbing shanty’s strapped to dozens of barrels fixed with corrugated tin roofs and patched with tarp wherever fixing was needed, around the perimeter planks created networks of walkways that led to hatcheries, docks, and lounge areas. Scrappy sea dogs made the width of the plank home. Loafing on a pile of fishy nets or barking at each boat that passed at the edge of their world, foreign of grass or sprinting through a plush field with flying tongue and drool.

Travel Vietnam Cat Ba boating villages

We saddled up to this floating restaurant-cum-kayak rental and we all paired off into the battered school bus yellow kayaks. The water was still and blue and our path was surrounded by bushy lime mountains in the sea that we would have to navigate. We got Travel VIetnam Cat Ba boating KTcomfortable and started cutting through the water catching up to the guide then passing her as she kept a soft eye on the reckless gang. There were a total of  eight kayaks in the water all flowing at our own leisure. Steering alongside the jagged karst mountains the water had eaten away at the base creating a mushrooming effect that allowed you at times to glide under and through the prehistoric aquatic mountain-range. After paddling for a good while we came to the edge of a mountain. From a distance you could see shimmering blue piercing through a speck of rock and as we paddled closer the speck turned into an opening fit for a flightless canoe. It was a crescent opening that had eroded that led to a hidden inlet. Travel Vietnam Cat Ba kayakingMost of the people hopped out of their canoes to swim with it in hand, but I slid my body into the cavity and Katie swam me through. Passing under the jagged and bubbling limestone my face was mere inches away but I slid through unscathed. My eyes drew long and wide. My jaw followed. My body frozen. It felt as though I made it- all the while unknown that I was even in search. It was paradise. An unblemished paradise. Without an exit this 360 degree cove was our playground. I hopped out of the canoe to swim free with the others. Hedonism at its finest hour. (KT: The swimming was unbelievable. Using our life jackets as makeshift seats we floated, splashed, laughed, and dropped jaws.)

Travel Vietnam Cat Ba Kayaking KT

We left at our own leisure. Swimming our canoes through the small incision in the mountainside and back out to the Mysterious Lan Ha Bay that stretches out deeper and farther removed than the infamous Ha Long Bay. The scenery was pure magic.

After a few hours we ended back up on the boat for some good ol’ deserved eating and a dive off the second deck of the boat which took me a good measure to talk myself into. It’s an awkward feeling tricking your body into letting it jump 12 feet head first and that everything’s going to be just aces. I did though. And I got a few claps from the upper deck. And damn it felt good. Afterwards I thought about how I’d like to become a better diver and that it is something that I would really like to work on. It’s a beautiful and wild feeling being free and letting your body fly over an edge. It is very empowering. (KT: I didn’t dive. I’ve never truly been good at jumping into water without getting mass amounts of it up my nose, and now with my nose ring plugging my nose it’s that much more difficult. I did jump though! Exhilarating!)

Travel VIetnam Kayaing lou

The second bout we chugged an hour further north in the whooshing vessel and then slipped back into the kayaks to the sound of simplicity and the hues of cerulean.

After a good five hours of enjoying mixed water-sports the two of us were excited to be pampered by cushions and the ease and ingenuity of powered steering. The two of us sat on the lip of the boat and Katie read me Kerouac’s On The Road as we passed pureness in its most natural form.

Travel Vietnam Cat Ba boat chillin

Synchronicity On the Road

We haven’t met too many people on the road so far, well not many that we have really clicked with, aside from Max, Alex and Emily from Phu Quoc but that was only for one night and was about two months ago. I chalk most of that up to us not being partiers or club/bar goers. That, and we are usually just hungry and tuckered by the time we end up in a city after spending the last 8-10 hours on an eight inch wide piece of plastic. Plus the comfort of traveling with a partner always adds a little to the “I just feel like staying in” category. Or maybe it’s just us. Could it be? No!

To our surprise we met two couples…and on the same freaking day have you. Cat Ba island turned out to be a hotbed for us. A Cornucopia of couples. A delicacy of duos. A plethora of pairs. A goddamn hotbed I said! The first was Italian couple which I already introduced to you. Both full of life and world travelled and with cigarette in hand they threw out stories and cursed and laughed and whooped it up. Real genuine folk. And the other a tender couple from Germany. Sweet natured, worldly, and well spoken with eloquent tongue and trustworthy. And we can’t forget Fabio. Even though he hasn’t said much more than a few sentences. The seven of us were all aged within six years of each other and clicked immediately, all engulfed in the travel talk that spanned globally to each continent as if set with sail and precise winds. It was the beauty of travel all pieced together like origami- each fold working with exactness like the natural flow of uninhibited conversation.

“Did you know they have machines in Japan that dispense used panties?” said Eva with excitement in her eyes.
It caught everyone’s attention over the hum of friendly table-side banter. I had known about the machines. I had travelled to Japan twice for visa renewals during my tenure as an English teacher in Korea.
“I know! It’s wild isn’t it?” I said.
“On the machine”, Eva continued, “there was a picture of a woman wearing panties with a little stain on it.”
We all sat around discussing if we thought the stain was real or what the smell was or how they made all intrigued with discerning scowling squeamish grins.
“Imagine the factory that makes the smell for the panties” said Frankie in his tonguey Italian “scientists searching for just the right smell to match it with used panties.”
We all let out some sort of ooh or cringe.

It’s some visual isn’t it. A lab full of Japanese men dressed in white gowns with furrowed brows and noses sniffing vials with quick short nods knowing how close they are to nailing that pheromonal scent. They call their wives and say they are going to be late for dinner

To give you a visual...

To give you a visual…

because they are so close to perfection and they must keep working. Oh, you know that strong Japanese work ethic. Perfection cannot wait. And can you imagine the joys and cheers when they add a dash of cat urine and splash of oyster juice and they bury their noses deep into the vial and whiff and their eyes light up like Japanese storefront. They drop everything and burst through the doors of their perfume factory and rush out, white gowns flapping in the wind, full sprint to the closest bar for a round of Sapporo and a bout of celebratory karaoke.

The restaurant was closing so we all said our goodbyes. Each couple heading to a different corner of Vietnam. Us to the mountains of Sapa. The Italians to a typhoon currently hitting the land of fabric and tailors that is Hoi An. And the German couple to hunt for Caves 50km outside of Dong Hoi. And a lone and silent German who we never found out where his journey was to take him.

His name was Fabio. That night while saying goodbyes he came back to our room and purchased one of my hats. It was my first sale and it emphasized that there are people out there that dig my hats. If a backpacker on a budget spends his rent and food money on one of my hats then I’m doing something right. I walked him downstairs after taking a congratulatory first sale picture and handshake. I thanked him and assured him that after I make my first million I will send him a hat on the house for being the first to support my independent venture.

L is officially in the hat business!

L is officially in the hat business!

Freaking Keys, Opulent Hash Browns, 70 Year Old Bear Hugs, and a Hike

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam
October 11-12, 2013

Do you have a key that fits into anyone else’s lock? How about a car key? Imagine trying it in a 1996 Dodge Stratus one day and BAM it unlocks. Then you put the key into the ignition and off you go with a sweet set of wheels. What would you do if someone just up and stole your 1996 Dodge Stratus?

I don’t know the odds, but I was under the impression one key for one lock, with an immeasurable grey area of chance or error. Meaning one key opens two locks. I don’t know what the statistic is, but I know that I have put the wrong key in the door hundreds of times, probably a thousand in my life and it’s never worked. Think of all the times fumbling in the dark. Coming home drunk. Stupidity as a child. Then you have the senile and bling thrown in the mix as well. If I’ve done it even ten times in my life and there are shy of seven billion people on this planet that have done it as well (which averages out all the people who have done it in the hundreds to the people who live in far regions of the world where ox are vehicles and houses made of mud and sticks are yet to be padlocked) then we are sitting at 7 billion times 10= 70 billion times. Yah. I know!

Our first room on Cat Ba

Our first room on Cat Ba

Well this morning. And it’s always this morning. There is nothing like starting the day with a hiccup. And my hiccups these days have been brought on continuously by Michael Douglas. Over the last two months Michael Douglas has brought me to the highest peaks and the lowest lows, ya dig!

I lost my keys. Like a fool. I scorned myself for the child I am “you idiot”. That was meant for me. But if you feel like you’ve done something stupid lately- then lay it on yourself too, my brother.  I lost my key. Fast forward twenty minutes to one fatty sweated t-shirt; one room flipped upside down; two cadavered bags gutted on the sidewalk like a 1920’s Chicago massacre. Which is exactly how I felt inside. And like the cynical untrusting man I am I was hooked on the hotel manager pinching the key from my bike after I had left it in the slot accidentally over night. Which is a fool thing to do in the first place. But as soon as those thoughts popped it I forced them right out with an internal apology. It was my fault. And after I painted him guilty he came to my saviour.

The manager, who by now has witnessed my stress and sweaty t-shirt, runs into his hotel to grab his set of keys. Coming to my aid he put his key in my slot. I don’t know what kind of bike he had and it really doesn’t matter because the key didn’t work. He grabs his friends set of keys, who’s now a bystander, and fiddles with it in the slot. Nope! Then he grabs Katie’s key and puts it into her ignition, which it obviously rev’s up, and then he takes it out and magically it stays running and then fiddles the key into my ignition. And would you know it my Honda kicked in shining that beautiful green neutral square. I turned the key and BAM it started revving. How the hell did that just work? I drive an early 2000 Honda Win and Katie drives an early 2010 Yamaha Nouvo. I’m still enamored. I’d love to know the statistics of this feat occurring. I don’t want to do the research or math myself, but if someone knows it and you want to contact me that’d be wonderful and appreciated. Louisstroud@gmail.com

Travel Vietnam Cat ba us smile

So the bike is running and the guy offers to run down the street to get me a copy. Ahh this is where he gets me I think this was his plot all along, to make a few dollars off the key. Aha!! I’m getting too suspicious for my own good. How the hell would he have known that her key was going to work. I guess I’m just destined not to trust this guy. Which is good because he turned out to be an asshole the next day. Well maybe I brought that on too.

We left the hotel after I got the bike working in search of breakfast. And what a breakfast. Our morning soon turned into an obsession. Taking a break from the eggs and baguettes we found a restaurant serving up western style breakfast and great coffee. None of that syrup or corn replacement we’d begrudgingly sipped to quench our parchment. Vietnam has great coffee, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that they don’t always serve it to you. Like I’ve said to Katie a handful of times “Vietnam is the land of great food prepared without love – and the same goes for coffee”.  The night prior we found a restaurant-cum-café on a walk and made plans to head then in the morning. So we did.

We ordered a couple of ice coffees, com dung com sua, without sugar or milk, which I have grown accustom too. Pure black gold. Waiting for the coffees we flipped through the breakfast menu. Our eyes lit up to stacks of pancakes & French toast & hash browns & crispy bacon, oh GOD crispy bacon & Denver omelets & everything looked holy and

Only a delicious breakfast can achieve this dopey grin ;)

Only a delicious breakfast can achieve this dopey grin ;)

wonderful and they were all laid out in little neat combos that had bites of everything all in the range of three bucks. A splurge from the buck or two we had been used to for our routine eggs and baguette, but hell, we’re on vacation. Even if our entire life feels like a vacation. “When in Rome” I believe is the saying. We conquered our meals like we had just been given a clean bill of health. Which is probably far from the truth since we’ve been living off eggs and bread for the last three months. I think I’ve lost twenty pounds already. It’s a wonderful diet if you’re looking for one and you don’t think the whole carb-free Atkins or the don’t eat anything with a shadow diet will work for you. Eggs and bread. BAM! Do it! Perhaps consult a physician first seeing as though I am just a backpacker and not an actual bankrolled doctor.

After our breakfast we set out for a new room. We heard about a secluded bungalow on the beach that was said to be cheap and rundown. It sounded perfect. We lit out and found the land we were looking for although it looked a lot nicer than how it sounded. We got off our bikes and went up to the reception. She pulled out a pricing sheet. It was somewhere around $60/night and we were under the impression that it was in the $10 ballpark. It turns out all the comments had been outdated and the bungalows had been redone and thusly re-priced. What a flop. (KT: I couldn’t believe it. I was so bummed! I was looking forward to some little craphole bungalow with a beach setting for backpacking prices. Not a beachside resort with flat screen TVs! Who needs a TV when the sea is at your feet??) So we turned around…away from the beaches and found a new hotel on the same strip as the night prior, but larger, cleaner, and closer to the beach. We talked the guy down to $10/night for four nights. We unpacked, jumped back on our bike and went straight back to the bungalows which were located on the most beautiful cove and set up camp. It was magical. A hidden treasure. A beach that you see in movies on tropical deserted islands. An oasis where people slave the entire year just to dip their toes. We swam. Yes, swam. And it was glorious. (KT: & of course neither of us snapped any pics. Dopes.)

DAY 32- breakfast melt down, oh and climbing an awesome mountain

We woke up with breakfast on our minds. I couldn’t stop thinking about those damn hash browns, I had to have them. So when we pulled up in front and saw that it was all locked up, you can guess how upset we both were. We actually stood around for 15 minutes with guffaw looks on our faces like we had no clue what to do next. And to be honest we didn’t. I knew the restaurant next door would be shit compared to our heavenly plate we chowed down on just yesterday. And guess what? The food next door was shit. I’ve told myself many times to travel without expectations because if you build yourself up – you can easily be let down. And boy were we low. Eggs and baguettes just didn’t seem the same. (KT: Turns out the owner of our breakfast joint was at a wedding that morning, so we forgave him hehe)

With indifferent bellies we went to trek through Cat Ba National Park. A mountain range with the slogan “Save The Langurs”, an endangered monkey which is  apparently tastier Travel Vietnam Cat Ba Hospital Cavethan it is cute. On the way there we pulled over at an entrance to a Hospital Cave which is exactly as its moniker sounds. We paid the seventy cents and climbed a makeshift staircase to an opening on the side of a mountain. A “guide” showed us the lights to switch on and said for us to turn them off after we exit. Inside was the equivalent to any horror movie setting; dark, eerie echoes, creepy shadows, a dozen completely empty concrete rooms except for one with a ladder that led to nowhere, and an unnerving feeling that you weren’t alone. Aside from its spooky air it was extremely interesting that it was once in fact an actual functioning hospital inside a mountain. People shot in combat were stitched up in these rooms. People bled on these floors. People died between these walls while some people were healed. Although everyone that found their way into this hollowed mountain had been affected one way or another by the war. We crept out as another group walked in so we left the lights on for them.

A kitty we met

A kitty we met

We got back on our bikes and zipped off.  About one kilometer from the national park a couple of men were having bike problems and waved me over. I assumed so one could hitch a ride. I was correct. A man in his seventies hopped on and without any Travel VIetnam butterflycommunication I just drove. He was wearing a green jacket that had Vietnamese on the back so I assumed he worked at the park. Maybe a concession booth. As I closed in on the park entrance he pointed for me to make a left, so I passed the gate and kept rolling. For the next twenty minutes I drove this man from one end of the island to the other, some twenty kilometers weaving along the Cliffside. Halfway into the ride I got the feeling that he was in pursuit of reaching the ferry. The one we came in on. Well it was his lucky day. It was a beautiful day and with his seventy year old arms wrapped around me I took him all but one kilometer from the port and swapped him onto another mans bike. Climbing off my bike he Travel VIetnam butterflieshad the biggest smile on his face. Not knowing what to do he stuck out his hand and kissed me on the cheek. We had not spoken a word to each other the entire ride, but he left with a thank you. My shirt had become damp from the grip he had around my waist, with one of his hands resting ever so close to my cough. I wonder if it occurred to him that I drove forty minutes out of my way when I was at the park entrance? Where did he think I was heading? As he climbed onto the other bike I saw that his jacket had three gold star lapels.  I wondered if they were accomplishments from the war and what he had to do in battle to get them. I thought about all the horrors he has seen. As I rode away I saw another man riding in with a jacket fully decorated ten times over. (KT: It was quite hilarious watching Lou tow this guy around the island. Then when the guy kissed Lou on the cheek…I thought I would die laughing. What an adorably cute and hilarious thing to witness. The man was so grateful and he just wasn’t sure how to show it – a peck on the cheek does it!)



The ride back to the mountain was just as beautiful. We parked, paid the fee, and started Travel Vietnam Ngu Lam Peakclimbing. The point of the climb was to reach a peak sitting at an arguable 1200 feet. We reached the top easily with a few skipped heartbeats. The peak opened up to unbelievable 360 degree views of mountains, mountains and more damn mountains. On top of the peak was a looming tower with a dated wooden plaque reading “Dangerous No climbing” which are the exact words that stir the adventure in me. I slipped through a metal bar and onto the staircase to Katie’s chagrin, although I know it was purely out of love (I amTravel Vietnam Cat Ba lizard loveable you know), and climbed the rusted iron steps up five flights to a deck that was more of a work in progress. It was like they ran out of planks to finish the top so they just said fuck it and threw up a danger sign instead. The view though. It was worth the risk. Alone at the top of the world free to think about what all men think about. (KT: Yeah, I did NOT want him climbing up there. “There’s a sign for a REASON, Lou!”. Then I dropped it, and let him do his thing with a promise to be careful while I sunned myself like a cat on a rock. It was great.)

Trave Vietnam Cat Ba Peak

When I climbed down the group from the hospital cave had arrived. This time we actually introduced ourselves and traded travel stories. Frankie and Katia were an Italian couple traveling with Fabio, a German that had linked up. They had just came from Laos and told us about their route, the absence of a culinary experience, and the unrivalled countrysideTravel Vietnam Peak US beauty. We all snapped photos and descended together just as a lengthy and garish group were arriving, and then another, and another, and even another. The peak had snug room for ten and that’s generously allowing everyone a few feet of space to do what you do at the top of a mountain – enjoy the view. We had passed 20-30 all within a span of four minutes trying to snake ourselves down a set of shifty and unhinged ladders. Our timing couldn’t have been calculated more perfectly. We all walked down together and parted ways at the entrance. But that wouldn’t be the last of them.

Travel VIetnam Cat Ba National Park

We’re in Cat Ba Beaches!

Heading to Cat Ba Island, Vietnam
October 10, 2013

Have you ever heard of Halong Bay? It’s east of the capital, Hanoi, and rests as a port-cum-destination spot. Rich in beauty, tranquility, and one of the reasons that swayed my decision to visit Vietnam. At least that’s how all the pictures on the computer portray it to be and today was the day that it was all coming down to.  After travelling 2300km across the country we had another 150 and we’d be there. All across the country we talked to folks doing the same journey- a mere fraction of them on motorcycles, but scaling the entire country North to South/South to North nonetheless. Although not quite as badass as us. We asked and received a lot of feedback about the famed Halong Bay and a consensus came out that it was a filthy port, touristy and over priced. Wow! Dreams just came crashing down on me! Well, not really, but taken back a little. After looking at a map, you can see an island further out past the bay of Halong. An island that was surrounded by a Roy Litchensen painting of untouched islands. It was like Halong jacked up on steroids.  I had to go there. And to make matters even more in our favour, an even closer port took us to this new island. It was cheaper, less touristy, and less of a drive on the AH1. Fucking jackpot! So in the morning we had a new destination, one that included hopping across two islands and riding the span of each until we came to the farthest eastern tip. To a land of exotic langurs, white sandy beaches, national parks, 360 degree sea views, and a network of newly paved roads that mirror that of any Italian backstreet raceway.  A land called Cat Ba Island.

The road out from Son Tay to Hanoi was straight forward. 50km on a straightaway that lead to the south of Hanoi. Then since motorcycles aren’t allowed on the highway we had to skirt the perimeter and ride underneath the underpass stopping at every red light for 30 to 50 seconds only to be held up at the next. Lovely. Quite the dynamic from the past month on the road, but it’s all part of the battle. And in order to get the pie you have to buy the ingredients.

We had this to look forward to

We had this to look forward to

Along the side of the highway waves of women were perched on the railing like crows, all scrolled out for miles, all selling the same fruit. Something that resembled a lime. I didn’t really get it. It just seems a little trite to sit around all day, day after day, with no way of standing out from your competitor. It was a crapshoot that someone’s tires would stop in the 20 feet of highway you occupy, one foot further and it’s someone else’s limes they are going home with. Not one person had a sign. No one had a deal going on. At least no visible deals. And no possible way to know anything about the said limes unless I pulled over and asked. But then I’d feel compelled to pull up to the next and try to get a better deal.

And this!

And this!

Eventually we exited at a roundabout and found ourselves on the right path after being lost and grumpy for an hour or more. And would you believe it, as soon as we turned off the highway the lime salesladies morphed into baguette salesladies but the technique was the same. And on it rolled for a few kilometers with a dozen vendors all selling the same buns. We passed them too. Then a stretch of restaurants with workers all standing street side with fans in their hands causing a big stir and waving people on in. We zoomed right past. The road was another straightaway – 80km in 30 kph traffic. You do the math. I had my eyes glued on every marker counting the seconds it took to complete a single kilometer. Hai Phong was the name of the port we were to catch our first ferry and it seemed like we would never get there. But we obviously did.

The town of Hai Phong was a refreshing break from the monotonous escape of inner city blues and battling trucks, traffic and pollution. We probably couldn’t have spent more than a day there, but it was still refreshing. We navigated the town for thirty minutes trying to find the port swerving through back roads, uwee’s, and on and off  and on and off the bike

Our babies waiting for the boat

Our babies waiting for the boat

fixed on the cursed GPS until we finally found the road. A road that turned out to be pure shit. We were under the impression that the road to the ferry would be paved with gold, saddled up right along the sparkling blue waters filled with flapping birds and flopping fishes the entire way until we rode our bikes onto our maiden voyage that would sail us to our deserted island. NO! It was nothing like that. The road to the ferry was an industrial wasteland. Surrounded by huge factories and ship yards with mountains of colorful shipping containers pieced together like children’s Lego blocks. I once saw a home built from twelve pieced together shipping containers spaced together like two T’s pointing outward and an open family room in the center covered by a corrugated tin awning. A true work of art in sustainable development. Driving past, I thought about building my own container home in nature. Three stacked, one on the other, with a spiral staircase running from the ground on up and access to the roof to gaze out at the tops of trees  and sliding doors that open up to your own environmental oasis and full windows on each end to let in buckets of natural light. But my reality was dust blinding our faces from the debris from a thousand and one trucks schlepping product A from country Z and every letter in between. We pushed on until the road died at the water’s edge and then found our ferry by gazing down the shore.

WE MADE IT! ...to ferry #1

WE MADE IT! …to ferry #1

It was cheap. Three dollars would to get us to the first island of Cat Hai. We docked after a short effortless expenditure and geared up to cross the island before boarding another ferry to our destination. We drove across in one slug and saw everything the island had on display. It was an island that was on the brink – but I couldn’t tell of what. I felt like they Travel Vietnam making friendswere building the whole island over although it was still in its primary stages. Which is odd because the island wasn’t born yesterday. I had an eerie feel that the island could never sustain growth because every time they got ahead, a natural disaster occurred that set them back to ground zero. Cat Hai is filled with grandparents that look older than the island itself all sitting around like containers of paint. That, and a bunch of workers in fields and in floating tubs at sea tending to their tendables. We found the ferry and boarded for $2.50.

We docked at Cat Ba and road off climbing the forested bluffs with bleating mountain goats, then dipping to sea level to cruise against beaches and then zigzagging up and up

Gross bug that got stuck behind Louis' eye

Gross bug that got stuck behind Louis’ eye

along those sexy s-curves that skirt mountains like the brim of a hat. We rode for thirty minutes until construction brought us to a halt. They were blasting mountainside to give way to wider roads and an antique crane was using its arm to sweep boulders off to the side. We played cards and waited. When it finished we passed and cruised into town and found an $8 hotel after the manager hailed us on the street. It was on the 5th floor and overlooking the harbour. We saved $2 by cheaping out on the AC – we figured the breeze would be just fine. It was. We ended up at a restaurant filled with foreigners. The most we had seen since Hoi An. It was called the Noble House and we would end up there for dinner almost every night.

Travel Vietnam Cat Ba clearing roads

We had been riding since 8am and hadn’t stopped until 7pm. So we dedicated that evening to sleep. Only to have Michael Douglas screw me in the morning. And it wouldn’t be his last.