As dawn slices across Ninh Binh, I’m taking up four whole seats to myself in the back of a mostly-empty bus nipping up the north-eastern coastline of Vietnam. The hostel had very generously sliced the small watermelon we’d procured from a roadside stall the previous day, and I was happily dribbling sticky juice onto my lap while marvelling at the driver’s skilful negligence of road safety.
For the first time since the Philippines, a ferry trip awaited to take us to Cát Bà, a large island just down the coast from Hà Long Bay. The driver shoulder-barged us past lines of salesmen and souvenir stalls, threw us onto the waiting boat and drove off again in a snaking cloud of dust, while the ferry’s crew expertly stored our bags in a large, makeshift pile. Slightly baptised with sea spray, I wedged myself onto the craft and churned across the Cát Bà strait.
Despite its separation from Vietnam’s mainland, Cát Bà is a haven for traveling folk, commonly featured as part of the Há Long Bay experience. As with any self-respecting South East Asian hotspot it offers its own range of tours and experiences, including boat tours of Ha Long Bay and the local Monkey Island, challenging jungle hikes and dramatic biking routes straight out of Jurassic Park.
It also offers some rare climbing opportunities, meaning I lost Meg for much of the stay. As befitting of the climbing community, we somehow found a small group of climbers out of Hong Kong to instantly befriend; apparently some peoples’ ideas of a relaxing weekend includes clinging for your life fifty feet up a jagged rock face, which I’m more than happy to exploit in the name of photography.
While Meg got her mountain-scaling exercise in, I exercised my right to motorised transport and Went For An Explore. Cát Bà, while the largest of the Hà Long islands, is traversable in under an hour via bike, and after two trips from the main town to the furthest ferry-port I still wasn’t tired of the view. After breaking away from the suburbs of Cát Bà town you rise gently to a break in the mountain range, before dropping to the bottom of the valley floor with towering green peaks either side of the road. As the grey ribbon continues onwards in an arrow-straight line, you feel increasingly small against the prehistoric scenery.
The island’s northernmost point is [FERRY PORT NAME?], next to which can be found a cafe and absolutely nothing else for miles. Across the bay, rowboats flying the Vietnamese flag bob vaguely between the area’s signature islets, unidentifiable animal life chittering in their green canopies. A small Buddhist shrine sits isolated on the opposite rocky shore, accessible only by a roughly-bound wooden bridge; I wandered tentatively across it expecting outrage or demands for money, but encountered absolutely nobody as I sat on the temple’s dock.
One surprise discovery (upon a quick search, actually quite well promoted but we neglected to check in advance) were the Hang Quân Y Hospital Caves, a secret medical installation from the American War. Crouching through into the cold, concrete maze is an eerie experience, and I can’t say I particularly envy anybody who had to be there in its prime. Water naturally seeps into the structure from the mountain above, and even when lit it’s full of dark, eerie corners. The directed route takes you through and above the hospital, into the cave network surrounding it and out through the other side of the secret mountain base. At 40,000VND (roughly £1.50-£2) for a ticket it’s well worth it for history or spy-movie nerds.
After three days of exploring, I eventually managed to goad Meg back down from the climbing wall with promises of snacks and sadly left my trusty (albeit ancient and perilously mirror-less) bike behind.
We’d procrastinated and redirected but it was finally time to venture back into metropolitan civilisation, into the manic heart of the country’s capital – Hanoi.