Halong Bay

Karst Climbing and French Kissing - Halong Bay, North Vietnam

The Magnificent Karsts of Catba Island, North Vietnam, Halong Bay

Travelling with Christine has been an interesting experience although one that has led me to the conclusion that as I probably wouldn't go on holiday for 10 days with many of my closest friends suddenly joining someone you've known for less than 3 is a fairly high risk strategy. 

Christine is an eager, French, forty something, Management Accountant from the home counties with a line in sensible travel skirts. She briskly guides us through the streets of Hanoi and organise our excursions. I am terrible at lazily taking a back seat in situations like this if someone else shows a modicum of interest in planning. As a haphazard marketer have a feeling she finds my total lack of logic and practical forethought immensely frustrating. She watches bewildered as I roll up notes and stuff them in my purse until the day I buy a wallet that can hold them flat ….only to keep rolling them up and stuffing them in! She is animated and sociable and always eagerly looking for the next person to talk to - whereas I, on the other hand, can retreat into my own little world even surrounded by crowds of people. Its a hard lessonbeing told by her that she thinks i'm "cold and aloof" but its not the first time someone's rallied that criticism in my direction and I know that i really need to work harder to make an effort with people when I have activley made a chosen to put myself in their company. 

She has the strange habit of stopping at every photograph I take to get the same angle and a tendency to order the same dish as me in restaurants - until we decide to budget better by sharing everything - which I find baffling. I can't help feel she is more than a little "glass half empty" - constantly voicing her negative opinion if she is less than satisfied. 

However we do have one big thing in common - we are both the daughters of oppressive Turkish fathers and western mothers. "They fuck you up your mum and dad" as Larkin said. But it is peculiarly specialist form of fuck wittery to grow up as the only daughter of an Arabic and very lapsed Muslim father. A relief when you meet someone who has been there too. 

Christine and I say our farewells this morning and I give her a copy of “Awakening the Buddha Heart” a book that I picked up in Nong Kiaw. Sometimes my Buddha Heart just doesn't want to awaken, it sits there angrily stamping its feet and shouting “fuck off” to the world instead. She gives me her copy of One Day and a stinking head cold. Splendid. 

Today I have decided to get up close and personal with the fantastic landscape of Halong Bay and climb up the thing! I'm very very excited – i've never done rock climbing before but scaling 20m up the grey and white jagged karsts of Halong Bay that sit in a pearly blue sea overlooking golden sands sure as hell beats the indoor climbing wall in Mile End, East London. 

I'm going with a company called Slo Pony / Asia Outdoors who are recommended by Lonely Planet as the best for beginners. We take a van and then hop aboard another big sailing junk where I while a happy couple of hours jumping from the boat into the deep green sea joined by a couple from Aberdeen who delight in telling me that its snowing back home. 

We get a little speed boat over to a secluded bay that sits in the shade and the two experts we have with us -Chris and Meeka from Germany set to work fixing the anchors and the cable and setting up the first three runs. 

We 've already been kitted out for climbing shoes which are incredibly painful as they should be too small and scrunch up your toes with their hard plastic. 

Chris is a small wiry boy in his early twenties with a strangely highlighted mullet - German...remember ;) -  who suddenly shimmies up the cliff face in nothing more than his flip flops. 

 



I'm a little thrown by the sight of two Australian women in their 60's - Jean and Mel get off the boat with us. Clad in elasticated slacks with steamed up specs and heavy duty blow dries, they start shaking out a rug and settle down. 

“Ummmm are you doing the rock climbing??” I ask tentatively. 

“aaaah no daaaarl we'll just watch.” 

Jean leans in and says: “ – I think we've been a little missold actually – our travel agent didn't say there'd be any of this stuff in it!” 

"Oh no" I think! Poor things – they've inadvertently found themselves on a 2 day kayaking, boat jumping, rock climbing adventure holiday..... 

“Come on!” shouts Meeka – our other expert – with short blonde bob, perfectly straight teeth and hockey player calves. She fixes me with her bright blue eyes: 

“Dominique!...You can go first!” 

Great. 



They have set up two routes – the easiest one for beginners has lots of craggy rocks and crevices which apparently makes it easier and you have to touch the two anchors that hold the cable at the top of the climb to show that you've made it.( I do not admit to anyone later that for ages i'm looking for ships anchors...not the hooks that hold the cables. I can imagine Christine rolling her eyes ...! ) 

I start scrambling up and immediately get stuck. 

“where do I go from now!???!!' 

Meeka hangs on to the other end and I need to shout “slack” for her to make it

to the left, to the right, and where I need to put my feet. 

Its harder than I thought (although why I thought scaling 20m up a cliff face should be a walk in the park I have no idea.)

 

Like most things I don't bother to think about the detail until i'm already half way into doing them. Now the thought of falling off the side even though i'm attached by a harnass – is ridculously scary, I can feel my hands begin to shake. 

 



Gradually Meeka coaches me up the last bit of the climb until i'm balanced precariously on a little soil ledge. But then I have to come down. .. 

"Right stretch one leg out and rest it on the cliff face opposite you, then swing out and let the other leg join it.” says Meeka calmly. 

“and then enjoy the view!!!” says Meeka optimistically as if this stepping out and suspending myself into thin air 20metres above the ground would be the most natural thing in the world. 

After much hesitation I realise there really is no other choice and swing myself out so that Meeka can begin to pull me down. But just for a moment -I clumsily rotate myself round so that I can take in the view. Halong Bay is stunning – the bay is lit up silver from the afternoon light. 

The thought of taking this up back home in the cold and gloom of London doesn' do much to motivate me but nonetheless I can add it to my list of "Sports that I don't ABJECTLY HATE with every fibre of my being" - and therefore might try and do again for the sake of ...you know...exercise. 

When my feet touch solid ground again I think – “I've done it once and that's enough.” 

I can feel the adrenaline pulsing and my knees are wobbling. But then gradually I think – "No i've paid $63 dollars I should definitely give it another go" – so I do the same run again: 

“You will be surprised how much easier it is” says Meeka encouragingly. And she is right – I crawl up it in half the time and don't feel nearly as scared. 

Then she takes it a step further – pointing at the sheer grey cliff face where the second more intermediate run has been set up: 

“You should give that one a go – she has just done it and she never did any climbing before...” 

“But I couldn't do it “ I say... 

and as I hear myself say it I know that means i'm now going to have to give it a go. 

Might as well get my money's worth... I suppose... 

This one is a lot harder – hell I can't even get up onto the cliff face as the first little ledges and crevices are quite a way up – but after Chris and Meeka have come and manually shoved my arse up – I manage to get a hold. And then it really isn't too difficult. I seem to find my way right until the very very top. I'm more than 20m up and the drop is sheer. But the end of the cables are anchored at the top of a large slit in the rock. I have no option but to wedge myself into the crack. There is absolutely nothing to put my feet into and I'm worried about sticking out and then falling away from the rock. But its tantalisingly close – so after thinking: “Oh well you almost got there thats not bad” The little Seargeant Major voice in my head that was so often present at Chinese bootcamp chips up and says: 

"There is NO way you are giving up right at the last hurdle. You are stronger than that.” 

So with sheer bloodyminded will power and the decision to once again sacrifice the skin on my knees for the greater good I haul myself up with what little upper body strength I have left, scraping a series of colourful bruises on my poor legs once more. But hey I get to touch the anchors and I make it. This time i'm quite fearless in swinging round and enjoying the glorious view and even quite enjoy being pulled down as I kick my way back down the mountain. 

Chris high fives me at the bottom and I feel great. So correction - I LOVE doing things I didn't think I could do. Once again I am reminded that the mind leads and the body follows. 

Back on the boat I go up onto the top deck to take some more photos of the sun setting behind the rocks. Everyone else has had the same idea so there is literally no where to sit unless I want to share the comfy cushion of an incredibly good looking Frenchman who seems to be on his own... Oh hang on a minute....of course I do! 

 



I politely join him and he starts to chat to me whilst I just generally drink in his beauty. He has that deep rich tan that only French men who have spent half their life lying prostrate on beaches at Le Croisette in Cannes seem to have, with dark navy eyes, and a smile that reminds me of Jude Law. All in all not a bad combination...As luck would have it he also turns out to be very sweet and very funny. 

Max is a 26 year old Parisian who does the retail marketing for Tour de France. As I was doing the retail marketing for Arsenal we have a bit in common. He seems to work 7 months of the year (such is the nature of the event) and has the other 5 months off but still gets paid... (gotta love the French government.) When he asks if I would like to join him for dinner I think to myself rather smugly “well this day just gets better and better....” 

We meet and have a little walk around Cat Ba's seafront which is a string of touristy restaurants and then opt for a little street food place behind the main road where noodles and beef are just under a couple of quid. The Slo Pony crowd are eating there and as they are long term locals I take it as a good sign. 

We leave and go for a final beer on the seafront - wherever you walk on the island there is often a Vietnamese woman trying to sell you a beer or a coconut. 

“That is my hotel” Max jokes pointing at a building site as we pass .. “they are just building my room.” 

At 11pm at night it is still in full swing – sand shovelling and concrete mixing. They work very strange hours - the Vietnamese – you can bet at 9am tomorrow moring it will be deserted. 

Then we do get to his hotel and I go up to ….. “look at some of his travel photos”....(I think this must be the modern day travelller equivalent of “would you like to come up and see some etchings..”) 

At sometime around 12.30am  he disappears to find some water to make tea and comes back with a sheepish look on his face: 

“I am really sorry Dominique...It looks like they have closed the hotel, it is locked and there is no one downstairs... think you will have to stay the night.” 

I summon all my strength and draw on all my previous acting skills to try and muster what I hope is a look of genuine sincere concern on my face an then say" “Oh well I guess that will have to be o.k...” 

That's the thing about Laos and now Vietnam -they do tend to have curfews so it is best to always check with the owner first about what time you need to be back by. I have already done this and am fully aware I needed to be back at least 2 hours ago to get into my guest house (ahem) although Mr Cahn did give me his mobile number in case of emergencies... 

I''m pretty sure “I was with a gorgeous Frenchman and he took ages to kiss me,” qualifies for said emergency. 

Even though I feel absolutely terrible; the head cold Christine gave me is coming out full swing; I do manage to gather up enough energy to sit up and watch him as he undresses . 

He has spent the past month doing Thai boxing in Thailand and its what he does back home. So his body is...well ….incredible. 

The next day and it is my final day on this lovely island. It has been a perfect place to recuperate from my illness and have a little holiday. I get my guesthouse owner Mr Cahn to give me a motorbike ride to the Cannon Fort at the top of the hills. It is a 177m at the peak of the island and has, according to Max, some of the best views in Vietnam. I think he may be right.


The views from the top of Catba island

It was used as a fortress, bunker and ammunitions depot in the French and American wars but it also looks out over the most beautiful views across Lan Ha Bay and the rising green peaks of the hills in Cat Ba National Park. From this perspective you can look down on the entire bay bathed apricot in the light of the setting sun and see the deep lavender of the rock islands that rise out of the water. I'm lucky – a gay German couple stop to offer me a lift back down the hill on their motorbike and I finish my time on the island with a delicous meal of fresh stuffed squid and banana flower salad. 

Sadly i've already said 'Bon Voyage' to Max as we are moving in opposite directions and today he is making his way up to the North of Vietnam to bike around Sapa. So there we are – a perfect evening together but as is often the way when travelling – nothing more than mere bateaux that pass in the night...

 

Mongolian Vodka swilling, Monkey bottle swigging, Halong Bay - Vietnam

Halong Bay

As we know by now me and boats are not a marriage made in heaven so i'm somewhat relieved that our little tour of Halong Bay gets cancelled two days in a row thanks to an ENORMOUS TYPHOON. I'm happy to wait it out i'd much rather do kayaking and sunbathing in er sunshine! than be dragged round a grey swilling bay on a rocky boat with a bunch of green faced tourists. Finally on the tuesday the storm has passed and we take our bus transfer down to Halong City harbour and then our boat. Our guide on the bus takes care of formalities and asks who amongst us are “monks” 

“Yeeees!“ says a wiry 32 year old Thinh – our tour guide … 

“not eating the pork or the chicken..” 

Oh he means vegetarian! ...I quite like the term “monks” though! 

“My name is Thin but I say it short for “DestTINhy - because a snake bit me once but I survived." He explains. I wonder how many times he's made that comment to his groups... 

When we arrive at the harbour we are divided into groups and some stay with Thinh but we are given Binh a chubby faced chap with dimples and short spiky hair. 

He leans forward conspiratorially and raises his hands - pausing for dramatic effect. We crowd in, in anticipation– then he says: 

“We are getting boat, we are checking , we are lunching, we kayaking.” 

Oh. 

“I would have rather a tour guide that can speak English!" says Christine. 

All the brochures show off the Halong Bay cruise ships as great mahogany varnished sailing junks with bright yellow sails traversing the emerald seas. Someone has taken the unilateral decision to paint them all white. They don't look nearly as pretty. Never mind - they have been “decked” out (sorry) with pot plants and the rooms are lovely. The beds are close together but the walls inside are a deep rich varnished wood with pristine cream sheets and maroon silk throw overs. There are loungers on the top deck and a restaurant and bar area below. 

We have a welcome lunch of king prawns, squid in spicy sauce, deep fried pork, and various vegetable platters. The group consist of two tanned very good looking Italian boys from the Dolomites, a couple of English girls who speak in hushed and giggly northern accents and a Mongolian family - a husband and wife in their early thirties who have a 2 year old son who is very very cute and a great ice breaker.

Halong Bay
Floating Market Stalls, Halong Bay

 

No one has touched the plate of prawns – and although i've generally given seafood a miss on my travels I say i'll have one. Everyone watches me expectantly... 

“they are prawns I think” says the Mongolian - “but I don't know how you undo them...” 

Oh I see. Its funny the thinks you take for granted coming from a comfortable middle class background in London. Why should they know how to peel a prawn ?– surrounded by all those mountains in the middle of a desert. So it is left to me to demonstrate -ripping the head and the tail off then peeling back the shell that covers its body.

“I can't believe you are English Dominique” says Christine “You know how to peel a prawn...!” 

Well I think food, ingredients and awareness of both has come a long way in Britain since the 1980s but the French never miss an opportunity to berate us on our terrible cooking. Having said that I did actually learn how to peel a prawn sitting on my nan's lap at my parents' flat in the South of France! 

We are kayaking first – which fills me a little bit with dread. I sympathise with Helen from Doncaster – who is also nervous and wants to try and avoid doing it. 

“Oh don't worry” I say, “ you'll probably just see me paddling around in a great big circle!” 

We go in twos - so Christine and I share a boat – which is just as well because even though I and several of the others are complete beginniners we have been given absolutely no instruction on how to row the bloody thing. 

I am in front (yes – clearly a mistake) and we are pushed out into the water. Christine instructs me in in school mistressy turns – paddle left, push forward, paddle right and eventually I begin to get the hang of it. 

“I should have gone in front “ says Christine

“Its ok you can be my Cox and should instructions from the back” I say over my shoulder. The bay is filled with hundreds of boats and as we veer towards one I am shrieked at again: 

“NO!" Says Christine exasperated. “Can you just stop paddling as its undoing the work i'm doing. Its easier if I just do it on my own..” 

“ Or you could just explain to me what i'm doing wrong and tell me what I need to do “ I say. 

 

Halong Bay



I think its fair to say the old Entente Cordiale is becoming less well...cordial... the more days we spend together. 

So she explains how I need to hold the oar near to the paddle and scoop under the water deep and pushing it out and eventurally we fall into some kind of rhthym. 

Once I can relax into a bit, I begin to realise that kayaking is a beautiful way to see the landscape. 

I'm so delighted we've waited for the sun to come out – there is nothing more dreary than a beach in the rain. And now that its shining its really gorgeous. The sea is heavy in salt and a deep milky green color. The strange lumpen shapes of the rocks that give Halong Bay its distinctive sky line rise up out of the water like so many jagged teeth and are bleached with white stripes from the limestone and chalk that typifies Karst formations. We follow our guide Binh who has jumped into a kayak along side us. One of the great karsts has eroded away leaving a little cave of light between its undercarriage and the water – so we can kayak through it into another secluded little bay. We come to a beach front where some boats have stopped and float silently up. Little brown monkeys with scrunched up red faces and bottoms sit tamely on the rocks, one nurses a baby. 



We go back to the boat for our next stop on an island. 

A walk around a cave followed by a swim and a climb. 

After the beautiful natural phenomenon of the jewel cave in Western Australia this is a tad of a let down. It looks like they've concreted over most of the ceiling - as it hangs down in great puttyish dollops. Nevermind. By the time we get to the shoreline again the its 5pm and the sun is setting. 

“Why are we going for a swim at night?” ask the Italians bemused. 

All of the other boats have stopped here and everyone is cramming themselves into the sea. I decide not to join them. 

Christine and the Mongolian vodka



Back on the boat and we have another good dinner and everyone makes for the top deck for a night cap. The big hazy moon is ringed with an amber halo and the Italian boys have bought a bottle of Vietnamese vodka for 140,000 dong ( around 4 quid) from a woman in a boat who has hauled it up to them in a fishing net. However the Mongolian has trumped that by bringing his own bottle of Mongolian vodka and insists that we all share it with him. He grabs a set of little green tea sized china cups and starts to pour a round. We are all given a shot each – Chingis (after Genghis) Khan vodka is an uber premium brand that uses wheat from the Mongolian steppes. I'm no vodka conoisser – I've always been slightly suspicious of clear liquids- but this one tastes like fire water , it punches the back of the throat and leaves me gasping. But it's also smooth and doesn't have that chemically after taste that cheaper spirits have. It is, shall we say, slightly better than the Vietnamese vodka that even when mixed with coke has a weird slightly malty sour aftertaste. The bottle goes around again for another shot and then we leave the couples to it. 



The next day we visit Monkey Island for a swim. Unlike the previous stops this one is blissfully free of any other tour groups and we have the pale gold sands to ourselves. We swim in shallow sea water that is deliciously warm until monkeys are spotted running onto the beach. One of the girls rushes out of the water to guard our bags – they've been known to thieve. 

They are incredibly tame. One strolls nonchalantly along beside me before stopping to sit on a rock, looking for all the world like a chav with an asbo. He picks up a plastic bottle, chews the top off and then spits it out fixing me with an insolent glare before sloping off no doubt to see if there are any handbags to snatch further down the beach. 

Next stop is Cat Ba Island where we will be staying overnight. Cat Ba is Unesco protected site and has a national park that plays home to a huge number of different species including the Golden Headed Langur which is native to the park. The island is flanked by wooded limestone hills and the harbour is filled with fishermen casting nets for pearls and for shrimp. They jostle side by side with the cruise ship sailing junks on 2 and 3 day excursions like the one i'm on and next to single women on floating market stalls selling travellers essentials such as bottled water and packets of oreos. 

The harbour shore line is built up - and the Vietnamese seem to be constantly building more of their stange and thin tall storeyed hotels. Seafood is popular here as a result - the squid and shrimp are fresh and a local speciality is the Sea Mantis -a rather sinister crab with a dark curved helmet shaped shell. 

We go for a trek into the National Park; climbing the 200m to the top of the hill for views over the wooded limestone hills that rise in regular trangular peaks . Its incredibly peaceful – amazing how a beautiful natural view has the power to silence a group of people. That is - until a group of girls behind me decide to strike upa conversation about Holly oaks. Ah well. 

Binh stops to explain some interesting details about the species we can see here: 

"This is called Happy garden where there are many trees...” 

“Did he say Cheese!!!???” exclaims a baffled woman from Croydon to my right. 

“er no I think he probalby meant “trees” ' I say. 

“Oh YES! Of course hahahahha!” 

Binh has already confided in us: 

“Please i'm sorry..but I would like to be a tour guide...you help me practise? I am still learning English...” 

Well he's very sweet but call me picky I quite like my tour guides to already speak good English when I pay for them. As a result not many details about the island are imparted and when they are the entire group turns to me for a translation as I seem to have the dubious talent of being the only one that can deciphher his thick Vietnamese accent. 

“You shecking, you come for luncshink, you schimming shoot” 

“we have to go and check into our room, then come back for lunch and then change into our swim suit” - I translate for the group. 

"ooooooh" says everyone. 

What kind of one or two night experience you get on a boat on Halong Bay very much depends on how much you pay and what company you go with even though on the surface - it seems as if everyone is offering the same thing. Here the Pan Asian expression "same! same! but - different!" really comes into its own. Our guide has a a tenuous grasp of the English language at best- and there have been a couple of annoying moments - such as being asked to go for a swim at 5pm and having another group come onto our boat and take all our sun loungers for the morning journey to Catba. However i have heard a lot worse from other travellers - including rooms filled with engine fuel, boats only making swim stops at 8pm at night or 5am in the morning and even a demented kitchen chef threatening travellers with a butcher's knife when they dared to complain. On the whole our boat and the food was excellent. So make sure you book with a reputable company or via a good hotel - like the one we did - Little Hanoi Hostel. 

Tomorrow the group head back to Hanoi but i remain on Catba island. I am getting up close and personal with this fantastic scenery and trying something i've never done before....rock climbing!