As we approached the start of a suspension bridge that connects Vietnam’s north-east mainland to the small island of Dao Tuan Chau, the bus we’d been travelling on for the past three and half hours came to an abrupt stop as my friend and I were then ushered off and handed our bags. It had the feel of being dumped at the side of the road by a pissed off girlfriend about it. I had to remind myself that it had been our own choice to get off. Everyone else on that bus continued on, heading towards their floating hotel which would take them on a grand tour of Halong Bay overnight. We on the other hand, were headed for Cat Ba Island and despite much persuasion from tour operators back in the capital of Hanoi, we’d elected to make our own way from the mainland to Cat Ba, which is situated out at sea amongst a World Heritage site of dense stone jungle and lime stone islands.
Once we made it onto Dao Tuan Chau and to the south side of the island we found that we needed to wait for two and half hours before catching the last ferry of the day over to Cat Ba. A mixture of bad weather and it currently being the low season meant that ferry’s only made the crossing once every three to four hours with the last one being at 3pm. As we waited for our ferry the rain poured relentlessly, but the views out onto the bay made the time spent there seem to pass unusually quickly. It is testament to the beauty laid in front of us that even in the misty rain, it was still painfully majestic. Much like the Norwegian Fjords or the Islands off the coast of southern Thailand, these towering rock faces covered in dense greenery and shrub gave an overbearing sense of power, magnitude and beauty.
The ferry ride itself took little under an hour and as we approached the entrance to the rock formations the sheer size of these beasts hit me hard. At the front of the ferry there were two metal staircases on either side. Not put off by the rainwater that had pooled on each step I shuffled on my knees to the top stair where I sat for the entire ride. The perfect place to take in the views. I noticed a vast amount of large birds circling above each of the giant lime stone formations, as if protecting their own personal island. Swooping and diving, the spectacle really was the icing on the cake and I soon felt as though I was drifting off into some kind of natural paradise. I later discovered that these birds were Black Kites and are actually large birds of prey, although perhaps one of the most common bird of prey on the planet (according to Wikipedia).
When the ferry docked at the northern most tip of Cat Ba Island we made our way up a short slipway to where there was one small bus and three taxi’s waiting. We immediately decided against the taxi after being quoted 300.000dong to Cat Ba Town, which is around €15 and evidently a little pricey. I hesitated briefly as we moved towards the bus with concern that there would be no space for my wheelchair once everyone was on board. I needn’t have worried. Unlike the majority of folk on the mainland, the people of Cat Ba Island seem a lot more relaxed and willing to give anything a try. There’s something about island life that just chills you out – it was the same on Koh Lan in the north of Thailand. The smiling, chubby ticket master guided us onto the old bus and helped my friend and I stuff my wheelchair on the seat behind me. We paid a snip of the price that we would have paid for a taxi and set off on the half hour journey through the thick jungle that makes up Cat Ba National Park.
I saw somebody online describe Cat Ba Island as if it were a scene from Jurassic Park and I have to agree with this description. As the bus bounced along a single track road, winding its way up into the hills that enclosed the harbour below my mind almost didn’t have to time to take in the many different types of nature and scenery. Trees, vines, shrubbery, thick dark jungle, tall grasslands, expansive muddy bogs and tinkling streams all passed beside us as we hurtled along. The bus was without air-conditioning, so all of the windows were wide open and even the door was completely open, which I was precariously balanced above holding the wheels of my wheelchair and my heavy rucksack. The openness of the bus allowed for all the smells and sounds of the jungle to pour in and add to that authentic, very real, jungle feeling. Almost all other passengers were locals, sitting with their bare feet on top of the engine hub, chatting and laughing as the bus stopped on occasion for people to chat out the window and exchange sacks full of what I can only assume was food.
After travelling for around half an hour we arrived in what seemed to be Cat Ba Town, but with no bus stops it was hard to figure out where would be the best place to stop. Eventually, after following the example of some locals that had hopped off before us, I turned to my friend and signalled that we should ask the bus to pull over. Funnily, it seems that just about everyone on the bus was also unsure of when to get off because as the bus drew to a halt under our instruction, every single person on the bus, bar the driver and conductor, jumped off. I guess that sometimes it just takes one person to make a move before everyone else follows like sheep!
Fortunately enough my guess was right and our hotel was only a three minute stroll from where the bus had dropped us off. As the rain slowly got replaced by the most radiant of sunshine, it was a peaceful and tranquil evening all round.
There really is nothing better than island life.