Cat Ba Island: Home of the White-Headed Langur and $0.25 Beers
Our quick stint in Hanoi was topped off with a final egg coffee and a farewell to our old riding partner, Martina. Egg coffee became our new favorite beverage in Hanoi. It’s very simple and will blow any Starbucks Frappuccino out of the water. Probably just as healthy as Frappuccino, egg coffee or cà phê trứng is made by whipping egg whites, sugar, and condensed milk together. Pour that over some coffee any you have diabetes in a glass, and one of the greatest the greatest products invented by the Vietnamese. After drinking 3 of these in one day I was able to convince myself I wasn’t doing my body a full disservice because there is egg hidden deep in each cup. Eggs have protein and protein is good for you, so egg coffee is good for you. There probably is some fallacy in that argument but f**k it, that shit is delicious.
Before departing to our next destination, Cat Ba Island, we teamed up with two more bikers who had the same destination in mind. Our two new friends, Rob and Amanda, are coincidentally from Seattle as well. They arrived in Asia in the winter and were able to pull off my new dream vacation. They rented a camper van and drove it to the greatest ski resorts in Japan to immerse themselves, neck deep, in some of the finest powder the world has to offer. Rob was a software developer for Microsoft and Amanda just finished up her Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering. Their trip was to celebrate Amanda’s graduation. Having traveled all over the world together, hiked and explored throughout the Northwest of the United States, our interests closely aligned and we got along great. Thier blog can found here: intandemwetravel.wordpress.com.
We began our departure early in the morning to Cat Ba, following Rob and Amanda, as we needed to catch a ferry to take us to the island. As luck would have it, Alex’s throttle cable broke on his bike 45 minutes into our ride. We insisted Rob and Amanda take off so we didn’t delay them for the ferry. Thankfully, a throttle cable is a quick fix and we were back on the road within 30 minutes. This 150 km adventure was by far the worse highway we have been on yet. The road was fine but the trucks… There were so many trucks on this road, more than I had ever experienced down South. My guess was that the onslaught of trucks were heading to and from the port at Ha Long. I don’t know if I was just in a different mindset or what, but this ride took it out of me. I felt as though I essentially spent 3 and a half hours trying not to die. Between the trucks passing slow trucks, and the scooters passing the trucks trying to pass the slow trucks, the highway was unorganized chaos. Add in the fact that none of the Vietnamese drivers look left before they turn and you can begin to imagine the traffic conditions. Still we made it to the ferry and, I wouldn’t trade the experience for even a minute sitting behind a desk working.
Cat Ba island is just south of the city Ha Long. It is west of Lan Ha Bay and south of the infamous Ha Long Bay. For all intents and purposes, it’s in Ha Long Bay. For anyone who is not a local, they both look the exact same. Ha Long Bay is arguably the most traveled place in Vietnam. Its name is known around the world and if you don’t know the name of it, you have definitely seen pictures of it. This is part of our reasoning for traveling to Cat Ba. Ha Long is jam packed with tourists and locals trying to rip you off. There were still tourists in Cat Ba, but it was not overwhelming at all. There was still a market that the town was centered around and life seemed to go on as usual for the locals despite the tourists.
Our first day in Cat Ba was spent kayaking around islands that surrounded Cat Ba. We stayed on the southern most tip of the island which is where the main city was. The eastern side of the island is where we rented the kayaks. Our adventure began paddling through the floating villages. These were cool to see but, I didn’t have much interest exploring them. These villages were essentially a bunch of scrap wood nailed together and kept afloat by styrofoam and big plastic barrels. Electrical wires were strewn all over the cliffs surrounding the villages. They flowed from the cliffs into the water to get power to the villages. I’m hoping they were using marine grade powerlines, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was some wires wrapped in electrical tape submerged to the ocean floor. The water around these villages was coated in oil and small particles of styrofoam were scattered everywhere. It was refreshing to see a boat scooping up the floating trash, but the oil and litter in such a beautiful location was hard to see. Obviously, fishing is a popular (if not the only) profession in these villages. The village I passed had a very strong fish smell which helped influence my decision to not explore the villages much further. I was also surprised by the dog population in the villages. Dogs were everywhere. Running around, barking, and probably trying to just get a little energy out because they were stuck on some small floating platform.
We paddled through the villages and made our way out to the islands through the main channel other boats were paddling through. We were met with overhead rolling waves and currents flowing in all directions. The churning water was a blast to paddle through and quickly subsided once we exited the channel. The limestone karsts (giant limestone rock pillars) were breathtaking. They shot up out of the water and were coated in bright green tropical plants. None of the plants were oversized like the vegetation we were exposed to in Phong Nha. However, these smaller brush like plants were extremely dense and grabbed on to every inch of limestone they could. Just the vertical faces of the black and gray limestone karst were exposed. We paddled to a beach, that connected two of the karst, and did what any 24-year-old would do. We build sand castles. After a few hours here we continued to paddle through the karst looking for caves and paddling through the currents. We stopped at other beaches and scrambled up some of the rocks. Our scrambles were always cut short because the rocks were razor sharp. It reminded me of lava rocks I had seen in Hawaii, except the pores were 2 – 3 inches in diameter with sharp jagged edges. After 5 hours on the bay, our shoulders were fried by the sun. We had had about enough of the fiberglass seats that were sized for the Vietnamese, not a 6’ 2” American. We wandered around for the rest of the night and met up with some more backpackers and went out for beers. We went to a street stall that seemed to be very popular with the locals. Everyone there was drinking and when our bill arrived we quickly understood why. We paid a little under $10 for 37 beers. The only cheaper beer I have had here was in our hostel, where beer was free.
The next day Alex and I went hiking through Cat Ba National park while Taylor decided that relaxing on the island for a day was too good of an opportunity to pass up. This national park takes up the majority of the island. It is home to one of the rarest primates in the world and the rarest primate in Asia, the Cat Ba Langur (white-headed langur). Only 70 of these critters exist in the world making them critically endangered. Around 40% of the entire population lives in this national park (source). Our hunt for the Cat Ba Langur commenced. The original plan was to hike 9 km into the park to a small fishing village then hike back out. We ended up hiking much slower than we originally thought. We had to turn around 1 km before the town to make it out of the park before it closed. Our progress was slowed by the numerous mountain passes we needed to go over, there were 4 in total. Rather than switchbacks, each trail was comprised of stairs going straight up each pass. These stairs were covered is wet mud and a thin layer of algae like moss. These slick stairs dramatically slowed our progress through the park. The flora was very similar to what we witnessed on our paddle. Vines hung down from tropical trees and the smaller underbrush, that topped the limestone karsts in the bay, surrounded the trail. Throughout the hike, we heard the howl of the monkeys. With hopes of spotting the Cat Ba Langur, we inched closer and closer to the howls. Although, we really didn’t know what sound the langurs made, assuming the howling came from the rare langurs made the hike much more exciting. The entire hike was about 5 hours and was a nice escape from the horn honking death trap we took to get to the island.
Our plan from Cat Ba was to head north and follow the Chinese border to Sa Pa and end back in Hanoi. Our first destination was Lang Son. There was really nothing memorable about this city. For us, it was a place to rest before we arrived at our next destination Cao Bang. Here, we would unexpectedly spend 5 nights due to food poisoning, bike breakdowns, and waterfalls.