We made the mistake of taking the slow boat, thinking it would give us a leisurely tour of the spectacular island-strewn waters of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. Leisurely it was, so much so that after hours of winding our way among sharp, jutting rocks and lush green islands, we were now sitting in the pitch dark on a creaking wooden boat that had no running lights—well, that had no lights at all. Instead, a boy had climbed to the front of the boat with a flashlight that seemed to have faulty batteries. There were no lights anywhere around us, either, except for our own lonely light, which the boy had to shake occasionally to revive. The islands and rocks were invisible in the inky blackness until we were already upon them. I was recalling warnings in some of the guide books about pirates occasionally preying on tourist boats in Ha Long Bay. If there were any pirates in the area, we were surely easy pickins—although they would have had to locate us in the dark first. I wondered how much the captain of the boat could see—did he have cat vision, or bat vision? I could only hope he knew this area like the back of his hand, because floating dreamily through a labyrinth of tropical green islands by day had turned to navigating menacing rocks by night.
Full Disclosure: You can also (perhaps wisely) hop a fast boat and reach Cat Ba Island in one hour. The island has seen a dramatic increase in hotel construction in past years, mostly funded by overseas Vietnamese. But at the time we visited, things were still a bit more rustic, which made for more adventure as well.
Ha Long Bay (which supposedly means Descending Dragon Bay) in north Vietnam is dotted by, according to some estimates, 2,000 “islets”—which is to say, miniature islands of widely varied shapes and sizes. The scenery is stunning, and gliding through it on a slow boat can be an otherworldly, hypnotic experience. Our somewhat rattletrap wooden boat chugged along with a small number of passengers, including my sister and myself, as well as a French family. The boat operators used the small on-board space efficiently, cooking up a meal for us in the engine room as they piloted the boat. Old tires were scattered about the boat which appeared to be our life vests. On the way to Cat Ba Island, we passed floating fishing villages where entire communities spent their lives living on the water. After it turned dark and the boat plowed blindly on, a French passenger timidly asked, “Is this safe?” At that point, it didn’t really matter—the only way left was forward.
When we fortunately reached the island, a bus arrived to take passengers to our various hotels. Whenever the bus stopped, the driver put a cement block in front of it as a parking brake. When we finally entered our hotel room, ready to collapse after a long day, we noticed the sheets were dirty…as if someone had slept in them with muddy shoes. When we inquired about this, the proprietors responded by taking us to another room. The only problem was that in this hotel room, somebody’s possessions were still there. Unnerved at the prospect of other guests returning in the middle of night to find us sleeping in their beds, we requested a third room. In this room, the only problem was a non-flushing toilet, but otherwise it was clean, and completely empty of extra guests. I remember looking out the window into the alley below and seeing a sleek, fat rat the size of a medium-sized dog devouring something (probably a medium-sized dog.) Maybe it was some sort of water rat/native creature, but whatever it was, it was huge.
As you can tell, at that time, Cat Ba Island wasn’t about luxury accommodations. However, it was and still is about dramatic scenery: waterfalls, forests, hills, cliffs, caves, lakes, and sandy beaches tucked here and there among the otherwise rocky coastline. But the best part of Cat Ba Island is probably the breathtaking and nerve-wracking experience of getting there.
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