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Cool For Cát Bà

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.

Waiting & Wading Through A Cebu City Stopover

Our time on the western coast of Cebu Island had been one of sun, sea and slightly soggily sandy sandals, but it was time for a change – a decision we apparently shared with the ever-indecisive Pacific weather.

When we finally boarded the bus from Badian to Cebu City, the ground was scorched by midday sun. Twenty minutes into the journey, someone apparently annoyed the local gods and the entire sky dropped on our heads. Sheets of horizontal rain pounded the passengers’ faces while the conductor fought with rusted window latches; meanwhile, I endeavoured to take photos with rain filling my eyes, camera and undergarments.

After a few howling hours of misted mountains and tropical downpour, we emerged on the other side of the island into Talisay, a city area latched onto the outskirts of Cebu City itself. Our intention was to spend a few spare days with a base in the city to allow Meg the opportunity to get her rock-climbing fix before heading to our next destination, the climbing haven of Cantabaco – though the weather was already starting to raise concerns about the feasibility of doing so.

Talisay was something of an in-country culture shock for us. After a few weeks of roaming the brilliant beaches and dense jungles of the Philippine countryside, we were left reeling when the bus dropped us at the side of a screaming highway in a densely-packed urban landscape. Unfortunately, we were also left a few kilometres from our hotel with heavy bags and tired bodies – and a misread maps app led me to believe it was too close to bother getting a (presumably overpriced) taxi. Thirty minutes later we both agreed that 200 pesos was perfectly adequate for such a journey, but we’d already walked two-thirds of it and were too stubborn to give in.

Having survived enthusiastic motorcyclists, bloody-minded jeepneys and a number of spontaneously non-existent pavements, we finally dropped our luggage at the hotel and gave in to the allure of a Korean restaurant in a nearby mall. We were dusty, bedraggled, missing the cerulean beauty of Badian and ready to fall over on the bed in preparation of Meg’s climbing expedition the following day. This was the plan.

As we left the mall, we came up against a wall of people looking out at some pretty nasty-looking rain. We were convinced in our stubborn Englishness that a little drizzle wasn’t going to keep us from getting back to our hotel just across the street, and strode into the road – into two solid feet of flowing water that hadn’t been there an hour before.

The road was a black river, knee-deep at points and full of standstill, vaguely bored traffic. Meanwhile, the two palest people on the street were overjoyed to find purpose in the pack-a-macs they’d brought with them and waded happily onto the scene, taking photos and giving ironic thumbs-up to slightly-amused jeepney passengers. We had a great time until something unidentifiable brushed past my leg, after which point we stuck to high ground.

One of the additional effects of this torrent, however, is that it almost certainly meant that the climbing trip wasn’t going to happen. Despite my occasionally simian behaviour, I’m not yet much of a climber – but the gecko-like Meg was mortified. As such, we allowed ourself a lie-in with the promise that we’d find an indoor climbing gym elsewhere in the city; when we woke up to glorious sunshine and a bone-dry city, it became apparent that we should never make assumptions about weather in the Philippines.

Before: Cebu under water, 10pm.

After: Cebu, the driest city I’ve ever seen, 10am.

The next few days were devoted to attacking the climbing wall (for Meg) or wandering vaguely around Cebu City trying to write this blog. The daily downchucks of torrential rain made any ambitious adventures unlikely, and we were whiling away the time before flying to our last destination in the country: the lauded beach paradise of Boracay.