Summer 2017 #7 : Hanoi & CatBa, Vietnam

So, I’ve got 5 weeks until I leave China for the next stage of my life. I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but, it’s true… After living in China (Suzhou or Guangzou-ish), for two and a half years, I’m just over a month away from packing everything up, shipping it home, and going out into the world with no plan, no agenda, no clue… As I’m sure you can imagine, I have a crazy amount of stuff to do and sort out between now and the 2nd of February (which is when I get on my one way flight to Malaysia). I’ve got Visa issues, packing issues, money issues, work issues, bank issues, apartment issues, and, honestly, the list goes on… I also have to try and finish writing up about Vietnam somewhere in this time. I still have two weeks of travel and adventures to write and tell you about, so, I’m going to try and fit in as much as I can, and skip out the dull bits! (Fingers crossed… I do have a horrible habit of going into painstakingly boring detail about each day, I’m sorry about that!)

So, without further ado, let’s get going on part 7 of my Vietnam travels from the summer of 2017. This one starts with a 6am walk through Hanoi after the night bus from Phong Nha, trying desperately to find our hostel and a toilet to use before both our bladders exploded…

 

Hanoi

Arrived: Tue 25th July 2017 [Day14]

Departed: Wed 26th July 2017 [Day15]

Hostel: Central Backpackers Hostel – Original

So, the walk to the hostel was a quiet one, we were both still tired and that bathroom couldn’t come quick enough. We eventually found a super posh hotel we raided and sorted ourselves out in before getting to our hostel at around 7am. Obviously it was way too early to check in, so we just went up to the (pretty crap) communal room and chilled for a bit. Eventually we headed a few doors down to get allllllll the food at Joma Bakery. We seriously splurged and indulged ourselves here, a couple of times, but after the night bus, we were feeling sorry for ourselves, so we went all out… and my god, it was so good!

 

After sitting in a food coma for a while and getting our bearings on the map from the hostel, we decided it was time to see some of Hanoi! Sword Lake was just around the corner so we went for a slow wander around there and that area. There wasn’t much to see or do, and we were slowly starting to flag and get tired again. As we sat down for a rest and to people watch, a 24 year old Vietnamese guy came over and asked if he could talk to us to practice his English. (In China, this is quite common and I can usually help for a second and then move on, but here in Hanoi, it felt a little suspicious and we kept our guards up the whole time, despite him seeming very sweet!) He had a little notebook filled with sentences, names, places, words and questions, and he chatted to us about himself for a while. We helped him with some pronunciation and answered a few questions he had about English. As he was telling us about himself, Vietnam and how he wants to move abroad, an old man sort of pushed his grandson in our direction. The little boy then went on to tell us, in pretty perfect very rehearsed English, a story of: the lake (a king, a sword and a turtle), and of Vietnam (man of earth, woman of water, they married and had 50 sons and 50 daughters).

We eventually got away feeling slightly uncomfortable, and made our way back to the hostel stopping at a few shops along the way. We were soon able to check in and we spent the rest of the day chilling, sleeping and reading on our beds in our room on the 7th floor (thank god for lifts). I was able to catch up on my journal and reading, and Alice pretty much slept for the whole day – bless her. After she finally woke up and we started to move and sort ourselves out, the Kiwi guy in our room asked if we were going down for FREE BEER HOUR … yes you read that right… Each night from 7 – 8pm in the hostel it was free beer for the whole hour… Did I mention how much I love all the free stuff in Vietnamese hostels!? So down we went to the bottom floor with Kieran and a few others for some beer. We were joined by an English lad from somewhere up north, and a guy from Israel. After the free beer was over (I must admit we made the most of that hour), Kieran showed us a cheap good place for food a few doors down.

 

After a nice chilled cheap meal we went back up to our room to just chat and hang out before heading to bed. Kieran told us about his Tinder Bae (a girl he met on Tinder in New Zealand, who then flew, a few days later, to the Philippines with him to travel around! Insane…), and just general chit chat before we all hit the pillows.

We were up with more than enough time to sort ourselves out the next morning and we went down for our free breakfast (I feel like it goes without saying by now, but yes, it was eggs and bread). We packed up our things and said goodbye and good luck to Kieran before getting picked up at 10:30am (same time as the free walking tour). After the mini bus doing about 1000 laps of the old town, we were finally on our way to the speedboat/ferry that would take us to Cat Ba island, somewhere we’d been told was a must from Paris & Joe (Alice’s friends from home) who ended up living in a hostel there for a couple of months!

We had a half hour wait for the ferry where most people got a pot-noodle type thing, and then after the very cramped and hot boat ride, we were finally on the island and only another bus ride away from our hostel!

 

Catba Island

Arrived: Wed 26th July 2017 [Day15]

Departed: Fri 28th July 2017 [Day17]

Hostel: Central Backpackers Hostel – CatBa

The views as we drove inland on the island were beautiful! So much lush greenery and typical stunning island views! We were dropped off somewhere which looked like the middle of nowhere, but after a short walk down an alley type dirt road, we were at the massive sister hostel of where we’d just been staying in Hanoi. It was a super new hostel and you could tell! Everything was clean, spotless, modern and well put together. Upon check-in, we were upgraded for free to a private room, instead of our 8 bed mixed dorm room… Now, I don’t want to sound ungrateful, because obviously this was an amazing freebie, but, we’d not really had chance to be social for a few days thanks to the hotel/hostel in Phong Nha, the sleeper bus, and only having one night in Hanoi… so, we were a bit disappointed to not be staying in a dorm (believe it or not), but obviously we took it without complaint and headed out to our home for the night, a beautiful, cute little hut right by the pool!

 

After dumping our bags we rented some scooters/bike from reception and decided to head to town to see what was going on. We were given a very rough map/directions and we eventually made it to the front and town. There wasn’t much going on (from what we could see), so we parked up and went for some food before driving back to the hostel to enquire about where the beach was! Turns out we were actually pretty damn close to one of the beaches, so back on the bikes we drove down the road and then came to a barrier across a massive side street. We scooted under the barrier and kept going until we came to somewhere that looked like the start of a quarry. We went up a super bumpy dodgy looking path and then the beach was in sight. We drove onto the beach and took it all in for a little while while a massive party was going on at one end of the beach. The sun was starting to set and unfortunately we couldn’t see it from the beach, so we decided to drive past the hostel to see what else we could find before we lost all the light. (The sky was a beautiful colour that night!)

 

We saw signs for a viewpoint so stopped off there and a couple of girls told us that even though you had to walk through a B&B to get to it, it was free unless you went to the bar right at the top. So we walked up a bunch of stairs to catch the very last bit of orange hue before the sun dipped out of view. On the drive to this viewpoint Alice got a bug in her eye which was a bit of a disaster (think: driving without anything covering your face, at night, while the bug are attracted to the light in front of you… so many bugs in your face.)

 

After the sun had finally set and the skies grew even darker, we headed back to our hut for a chill, shower, change and then into the communal bar space for a few beers, a game of cards and after being way too indecisive, we missed our chance to order some chips for tea. But, there was a super cute pup (with an extra claw and pad on each paw, weird) to keep us entertained instead while we were deciding what to do about Halong Bay.

 

I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned the pack of cards that Alice brought? There were no diamonds or hearts, no black suit or red suit, no kings or aces… There were coins, swords, chalices and clubs, as in, actual caveman clubs. The colours were golds, reds, greens and purples. They went from 1 to 12… yep. the pack in the picture aren’t exactly the same, but they’re close enough. Apparently they’re Spanish playing cards!

1. Cards.jpg

In my journal I’ve written that we had a “nightmare” night in the hut, but, apart from the AC being too cold and a little noise from around the pool, I can’t think what made it so bad? Maybe it was because while we were sat at the bar, it was quiet, not much socialising going on, and then an hour or so after we went to bed, the party started… typical!

We packed up ready to change rooms into the dorm we’d originally booked for, and went for breakfast. We were given more options at this place, finally! So I went for French toast, which was alright.

We rented some bikes for the day again and checked out of our hut. The guy at the desk then let a group of girls go use the shower in the room we’d just left before they cleaned and changed it ready for the next guests. As they went and locked themselves in our room to shower, we were then told that they actually still don’t have any room in the dorms, so we would be staying in the hit again tonight… frustrating as hell! We’d packed up and sorted our things out and then let some random girls use the room! They assured us they would clean and change the room again for us before we got back later that day…

Before checking out we’d taken a trip to town to try and find some snacks and supplies for the next couple of days. We couldn’t find a supermarket of any size or kind no matter where we looked! Using the bikes we thought we may as well make the most of them and go explore the island. (You really couldn’t see anything without a bike on CatBa!)

We headed away from town and back towards where the boat had dropped us off until we found the Hospital Cave which is where people were treated and cared for in the war.

Here’s a little about it: This oozes historical significance, as it served both as a secret, bomb-proof hospital during the American War and as a safe house for VC leaders. Built between 1963 and 1965 (with assistance from China), this incredibly well-constructed three-storey feat of engineering was in constant use until 1975. A guide (most know a few words of English) will show you around the 17 rooms, point out the old operating theatre and take you to the huge natural cavern which was used as a cinema (and even had its own small swimming pool). The cave is about 10km north of Cat Ba Town on the road to the national park entrance.

We parked up, got our ticket and made our way up the stairs to the entrance. The views and scenery were beautiful, we obviously weren’t that high up, but the island is just so green and lush! As we reached the entrance, we were a little taken aback by the mannequin/dummy people in hospital beds at the mouth of the cave. We were greeted by a very friendly (but I’m sure very lonely) guy who told us that there were three levels to the cave, but the 3rd was off limits, and that there were loads of rooms, including a cinema room! Talk about priorities!

 

He offered to give us a tour, but we politely declined and headed in on our own… We aimlessly wandered around, popping into the empty rooms and making our way to the 2nd level. It was a really cool but creepy place.

 

I can’t even imagine how it would have looked and felt (let alone smelt and sounded) when it was being fully used! We only met a couple of other people the whole time we were in there so it was a really cool experience…

 

We finally reached the exit and made our way back down, again, marvelling in the beauty of CatBa!

 

After stopping for a cold drink with the lady we’d parked our bikes with/bought the tickets from, and admiring their pups (again, an extra claw and pad on each of the puppies!), we drove over to the entrance to CatBa National Park. Bikes weren’t allowed in, so we parked up, got our tickets, and headed in the old fashioned way, on foot.

 

The main thing to do in this place is to go for walks and hikes, to take in the beauty of the island amongst, but mainly, above the trees. We walked in down the main path/road and it was so green, lush, but also, so so damn hot! We aimlessly wandered; we had no map, no direction, and no idea where we were supposed to go or what we were supposed to do… We came across this cool lake area with a big sign and a place for drinks. We decided to try and make our way to the “peak” of this area and headed off up into the forest. The trees were really cool, lots of overgrown roots etc. and the views were great, but I unfortunately called it quits half way up (I did not want a repeat of the Phong Nha incident), so, Alice continued up on her own while I made my way back down to the lake area we’d passed.

 

I bought and downed another few litres of water and sat, people watching and reading while I waited for Alice to come back down. It was around an hour later (our decided “If I’m not back in x amount of time, come find me.”) that Alice popped out the jungle, sweaty as hell, and came to join me under the fan with some water. She showed me some pictures of the view from the top, and they were stunning. I was obviously gutted I’d missed it, but I knew my head pounding, dehydration, weird issue would have ruined it anyways… so pictures would have to do. The only issue with Alice going up alone, was that I wasn’t there to get some good pictures of her at the top with the view. She showed me one, and I just laughed… It looked like she’d put her phone on self-timer and placed it on the floor… the whole picture was just looking up at her stood there by the railing, no view in sight. Turns out it was actually a picture someone had taken for her, and they’d decided the best angle was to sit on the floor?! Some people…  luckily she hung around at the top until another couple came along and took a proper picture for her.

These 3 pictures are from Alice’s phone:

 

The views and this whole island in general just look so prehistoric and untouched. There’s just endless rolling hills covered in trees and vegetation for as far as the eye can see, and then, past that, just the ocean and beaches. It really was a stunning place…

We were starting to get hungry, and we couldn’t find anywhere to get some food, and, with me tapping out of any more hiking, there wasn’t much left for us to do in the park unfortunately (again, I’m sorry Alice!). We decided to head to where Alice’s friends Joe & Paris had stayed and recommended to us; Woodstock. It was quite a drive away, almost on the other side of the island, but we were pretty thankful for the breeze from driving the bikes, and, the views were amazing… as beautiful, if not more so, than the Hai Van Pass… there, I said it!

2. Catba.JPG

Woodstock (a hostel) wasn’t quite what we’d expected, but it was a really chilled nice place to grab something to eat. We sat relaxing and planning for a good while before getting back on our bikes. We decided not to drive back to the hostel the way we’d came, but instead, to just keep going down the road in the opposite direction, and head home the long, long, way out of the way, way. We had the bikes for the whole day, plenty of gas, and nothing else to do, so seeing the island this way was our afternoon plan.

 

It was quite a long drive, but again, gorgeous, so we were more than fine with it, and we finally got back to the hostel around 2/3ish. We spent the rest of the afternoon just relaxing in and out of the pool until we jumped back on the bikes to go back into town for some more exploration… Again, we found nothing. CatBa is definitely about the island, and not the town. We wandered around and finally found somewhere we liked the look of for food (we’d read about it on TripAdvisor too). When we got there, it was dead, literally not a human in sight, and by the time we’d ordered our food, a few other westerners had wandered past, seen us enjoying our food, and come on in! I told you, the foreigner effect is a real thing! The place was called Yummy Restaurant, and it was indeed yummy! The menu was seriously divers, which is always a bit concerning, but the food came out quick, hot, and really damn good, oh and of course, cheap!

After we’d finished, and we’d well and truly given up on the town of CatBa, we decided to use up some more gas and explore some more of this end of the island before it got too dark. We drove both left and right from town; to the left was a couple of stunning viewpoints at various hotels/restaurants and beaches, and to the right was the harbour and docks, which was really nice to drive around in a loop. We could totally see how Joe & Paris got sucked into and stuck on this island for so long. I’d be happy to just drive around it every day… beautiful place!

 

After we’d driven everywhere in sight on the front by town, we headed back towards the hostel and instead of going straight down to the beach after going under the road barrier again, we went right into this huge empty, abandoned, unfinished industrial park type place. There were roundabouts, massive roads, unfinished buildings, and a few side roads/bridges spanning everywhere. There was nothing there of interested, but it was fun to drive around and explore before the sun set!

We got back to the hostel and just chilled with a beer by the pool, where I caught up on my journal, we looked up and booked our flight out of Vietnam to Bangkok, and searched for some hostel options. During all this, the hostel had a full on power cut. There were roars of “awwwh”, when it went out, and then “yeeaaahh” when it came back out, followed by another “awwwh” a second later as it went back off. This happened about 4 times and eventually everyone stopped caring and making noises and eventually it came back on for good, and no one battered an eye.

The next day we had a stupidly lazy morning; packing up, sorting our things, eating breakfast and watching the cooking channel in bed before we checked out of Central Backpackers Hostel CatBa, said goodbye to the puppy, and waited for Nathan (a worker/rep from the Hanoi hostel) to come along with a coach of other travellers to take us on our Halong Bay, Central Backpackers Hideaway Tour

3 thoughts on “Summer 2017 #7 : Hanoi & CatBa, Vietnam

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