Geocaching on Cat Ba Island

May 30th was another rainy morning on Cat Ba Island. My hair was getting longer than I liked so I decided to shave my head, but when I went to use my electric razor the battery was practically dead. To top it off, I soon found out I had killed the charger by plugging it into a 220v outlet that it was not made for. So long, electric device, another casualty of world travel.

Tien and I decided to go after the only geocache on the Island which was located somewhere in the center of the island. I tried to find a good map of the island but couldn’t, and the topo maps available via the Geocaching iPhone app were pretty poor. This sucked because the iPhone’s assisted (aka, retarded) GPS doesn’t work unless you have cell reception, which I do not since my phone is locked to AT&T’s network. With that in mind I read all of the hints and logs, and found out that the geocache was located at the bottom of the very tower I had joked about climbing to the top of, on top of Ngu Lam Peak.

Hiking the wrong trailWe mounted our moto and headed out for the park where the trailhead was. Unfortunately I was thinking like a n00b and totally forgot to bring food and water. On top of that, we ended up on the wrong trail, one that went up and down steep rocks through deep jungle. There were a lot of butterflies and some animals in the forest making some crazy sounds like a digeridoo. Eventually we ran into some folks who were coming the other way down the trail and when Tien asked them if we were headed towards the tower they said no. They told us where the right trail was, we hadn’t taken the right exit off the main road. We turned around and headed back to the bike, hiking about half the way with the other party.

Looking up to Ngu Lam PeakOnce we got back to the main road, where we were in clear view of our destination, we turned towards home and immediately passed a huge gate with people selling food and refreshments. It was the gateway to the right trail. I made a joke about going to climb it, not really being serious because our energy had been pretty spent on the wrong trail and we still hadn’t eaten anything. Tien said she was up for the hike though, and with several verifications that she was serious we parked our bike and got some refreshments. The sun had just come out, having been hidden behind a nice layer of low clouds all morning, so we walked for a short while in the sun before disappearing back into the jungle and up a steep incline of steps.

A little ways up the trail was a sign that was pretty confusing, but we figured out that it basically said “left is the shorter hard way, right is the longer easy way.” We went left into what was hardly recognizable as a trail. Muddy rocks, frogs, butterflies, crazy vines and deep jungle going up steep, jagged rocks. We encountered two girls who were coming down and talked to them a little bit about what was up ahead. They said it was a lot of the same, and since it was manageable we continued. It soon became much less steep and merged back with the easy trail.

I found a blue gorilla pod that was placed on a rock on display, probably put there by the girls to be easy to spot by whoever lost it. I figured this was a bad idea so I took it and hung it from my backpack, expecting better chances of running into the owner along the trail, but never found them.

One thing that was odd was that there were crabs running around on the rocks. I had seen a few on the previous trail too and thought it was odd, I’d never seen crabs anywhere away from the ocean, and this was far, far from the ocean.

We ascended a few metal ladders that were bolted onto some steep rocks and peeked out of the forest to see a grand view of the island and its many steep hill tops. I recalled that the cache hints had said it was near that spot, so I consulted them and we doubled back to look for it. It was easy to find once we were in the right spot. There was a travel bug inside of it that had been there for two months, so even though I had nothing to leave, I took the TB to remove it from its exile. It wanted to visit zoos, so I made the plan to take it to Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, almost on the exact opposite side of the planet.

With our objective complete, Tien and I continued the short distance to the top of the hill where the tower was. It was a rusty metal tower from the war in the 60′s. It hadn’t been noticeably repaired, and there was a sign indicating that it wasn’t safe for more than 4 people. While Tien and I were at the cache a european couple passed us, and now they were up on the tower, so that made four of us.

Looking down from Ngu Lam TowerTien and I started up the stairs that circled around the core of the tower, but her acrophobia kicked in and she got pretty scared and by the second landing she said she was too scared to continue. I was certainly not going to force her to climb this scary spectacle, but I myself was not about to back down, so I left her there knowing she could make it back down on her own as I continued to the top. Tien and I at the top of Ngu Lam Tower When I got to the top the european couple was up there admiring the scenery, which was incredible. It looked like an unrealistic landscape that some novice would make in Bryce 3d. I exchanged photo taking duties with the couple, and right as they were finishing taking my photo Tien appeared on the stairs, she had overcome her fears and made it to the top. Looking out over Cat Ba Island They took some photos of the two of us, and I took some panorama and HDR sets, admired the view with my own eyes, and then we started down. Just as we were starting down, the european man remarked about how he was a structural engineer and seeing the state of the rusty metal made him want to get off the tower as quickly as possible because it was not safe. It was at that brittle stage of rusty, where you can break off parts of the metal. They went quicker down the stairs than Tien and I did, Down the towerand I let Tien go ahead of me so we weren’t all on the same stairwell, spacing out our weight so as to not overbear this artifact.

Below a rusty towerWhen Tien and I got to the bottom we were all alone again. We had some snacks from the gateway at the bottom, so we took a break to eat bananas, drink a coke, and clean out the potato chips that had spilled in our bag. Everything that was in the bag now smelled like imitation crab. Who ever heard of crab flavored pringles?

While we were eating, Tien and I talked about adventuring. She said this was the first time she had ever done this sort of thing, and I was proud of her. Not only did she do it, she did it after having taken the wrong trail where we had no food, farther from her home than she’d ever been before on and island with steep rocky terrain through a dense jungle crawling with crabs.

Just as we started down we ran into a group of young adventurers who had come up the easy way. We checked with them how to get there, and once we found it it ended up not being too much easier than the hard way. Sure it wasn’t as steep, but it had rusty metal handrails that had broken apart and become javelins waiting to impale you if you slipped on the muddy rocks. Tien did slip, and thankfully she did not impale herself, but she broke the band of her engagement ring in half when she caught it on a sharp rock. I was glad she hadn’t cut herself open in the process, but we were definitely going to have to get it fixed. The rest of the way down was easier than I expected, given the terrain, and at the bottom was a man with a shop and a deep well where he drew buckets of cold fresh water for us. We bought ice cream, water and beer and relaxed before plodding back to our motorbike.

On the way back was Hospital Cave, a cave that had been converted into a secret hospital for troops during the war. I really wanted to see what it was like, but after two trails we were dead tired so we skipped it.

AutoswimmersBack at the hotel I took a shower to wash off the buckets of sweat and caked mud on my legs, then we headed back to Cat Co 2 for a swim to cool down our muscles. The water was a bit chilly, but worse than that, it was really dirty. There was trash of plastic and organic kinds floating in the water all along the beach. I thought about the clear, warm water of Phu Quoc and wished we were back at Bai Sao. We took some photos and left, this Cat Co thing was not our idea of fun. Instead we went back to Bamboo and had dinner while most of the island was without power. It was funny to see the mainland all dark while the floating restaurants and hotels in the bay were all lit up, powered by their boat motors.

Child CycloThere was a boy riding a child-size cyclo up and down the street giving other kids rides.

A few kids came riding by on bikes emblazoned with the word “exercise.”

Back at the hotel we went upstairs, realized we’d forgotten the key at the front desk, and on my way down to get it I slipped and fell on the stone stairwell, bruising both of my forearms.

The silence and whir of the fan told us how the power flickered on and off all night long

A Trip to Cat Ba Island

On the morning of May 28th our alarm failed to go off, or at least we didn’t hear it, but I somehow managed to wake up about 15 minutes before our bus arrived. We hurriedly packed and got downstairs with just a few minutes to spare. Tien tried to find us some breakfast but the neighborhood we were in was mostly construction type shops so she only managed to find some snacks before the bus came and took us away.

There were many europeans on the bus, it was almost entirely full of white folks. The narrow streets of Hanoi were already full of life and packed with motorbikes. We passed by the lake where a street was closed off for a festival that was just beginning. We stopped at a few hotels to pick up other folks, and then stopped at the cathedral to wait for somebody. It was at that time that Tien realized she’d forgotten her bag at the hotel. The bag that had the iPad in it. In her typical stressed out mode, she forgot all english and began blabbing away in Vietnamese with the bus driver and some other folks, and didn’t really say anything to me or answer any questions. She told me to wait, and went to hail a moto taxi. 32::am::138 I chatted with a girl from The Netherlands for about 10 minutes before Tien came back, relieved to have her bag in hand.

At 9am we headed out for Ha Long City. Traffic was heavy on the way out of Hanoi, and I noticed again how the number of cars just seemed to mess up the flow of traffic. Tien and I drank water and ate Oreo cookies for breakfast.

We passed the charred frame of a motorbike that stood up in its own ashes as if it had immolated itself at the side of the highway, probably protesting the rise of the cars.

We passed factories for Canon and Foxconn in the countryside.

We pulled off at a travel stop for 20 minutes. Tien and I got some pomelo and bananas. I was hoping to find a better breakfast, but they don’t know how to make breakfast sandwiches yet in Vietnam. I could make millions selling them… Millions of Dong.

We passed a few auto accidents along the way to Ha Long, one involving a motorbike and one where a car had driven up the side embankment and crashed into a pole, finishing sideways, squished between the pole and the hillside. It was a remarkable sight, I’m not sure if anybody died, but it looked like they should have but didn’t.

Soon after the car crash we arrived at the outskirts of Ha Long City where the bus dropped us off at the docks. Tien and I were the only two folks on the bus left who weren’t going on the cruise, and it felt kinda nice to be sitting there with just the two of us, ready to do whatever we felt like, far away from obligation. The tour guide from the group came over and asked us if we wanted to go on their boat to Cat Ba Island, which is precisely where Tien and I were headed, so we agreed to take their tour for 250k each. It was expensive for a boat ride, but included the Ha Long Bay tour, dinner and a cave tour, so it was a pretty good deal.

The boat we boarded was a typical asian junk. Ours had three levels: rooms downstairs, a dining room in the middle and an upper deck. Dinner was served shortly after taking off. Tien and I sat and chatted with some other travelers and it was good to be back in the company of english speaking, active people. Only one of them was from America, the rest were brits, french and other countries that I never learned. Tien was the only Vietnamese person on the tour that wasn’t working. She mostly listened while I blabbed away with the brits about traveling, culture, food, work, and destinations. One of them, a man named Paul who we’d run into many times on the island, was traveling from London to Australia to work. He’d been traveling for a few months and had a few weeks left. Local transport in Ha Long BayMost other folks were just traveling for fun, some for weeks, some for months.

After dinner most of us went up on the deck to take in the sights as we approached the islands of Ha Long Bay. The boat pulled into a bay and docked with a bunch of other junks and we all got off to explore Thien Cung cave. It was a cool cave, but there really isn’t much to see inside most caves. There was an opportunity to go to another cave, but Tien and I declined and instead went to take some photos and relax.

Everybody returned to the boat and we traveled onwards, through the islands and into a market area where there were many floating houses that were used as a fish market and other business related things. There were girls floating around on boats with their fruit all laid out for sale. They paddled up next to us and shouted out, sounding like retarded people with a heavy lisp, saying “eck-u me, pine-appo” and things like that. It was cute, and their boats were beautiful with the colored fruit, but Tien and I already had some fruits we’d bought earlier so we didn’t buy anything. Instead, we decided to go with a small group on a little tour of an enclosed part of the bay, completely surrounded by cliffs, almost like a lake except it was salt water. We took a small local boat in and a few of us swam around for a while before returning through another natural tunnel.

A short rest on the boat later we were pulling up to Cat Ba Island, which looked like a pretty treacherous place, and seemed like it would be more than one island. Indeed it would be if the water were deeper, the landscape rose and fell just like the islands sticking out of the water, but came down to land at the bottom.

Anybody who wasn’t sleeping on the boat was dropped off on the island. We were, once again, dropped on the completely opposite side of the island from the town. Tien managed to negotiate some kind of bus ride, still with the tour, and after sitting for 10 minutes or so a group of us got in and headed over the crazy terrain.

Cat Ba backroadsThere was one sign at the front of the bus, and it was written in Korean. I’m sure nobody on the bus knew what it said. The ride took 30 minutes and we passed by many, many beautiful views. The steep hills fell down to flat fields where different foods were grown, some ponds and rivers, and countless steep hills. On top of one of the hills was a tower standing tall, and I made a joke about climbing up it. A lot of other people were blabbing away in their native languages, and a group behind us was chatting in english about their travels.

As we pulled into town, Paul and some of the folks he was talking to were trying to find a hotel in the guide book. We all got out right at the main intersection of the town, and after looking at one hotel that had no vacancy I decided Tien and I would probably be better off walking around trying to find a hotel. We went one block and found a place where we negotiated with a slimy guy who I didn’t like much. Tien said she also didn’t like him much because of some things he did or said that showed he looked down on her. The hotel room actually kinda sucked too, no AC, no internet, and a bed wrapped in plastic with a tiny blanket.

We took a short rest and then went out for dinner. There were a lot of people riding tandem bicycles around and we thought about getting one, but decided to do it another day. Instead we returned home and fell asleep. Some time during the night, Tien got up and found some towels to use as blankets. The next morning we woke up and the power was out. 32::AM::139 It was a dreary morning. We decided to find a new hotel.

Finding a hotel has become much easier now that I know to use my iPhone to do it. I don’t look it up online, that’s pretty tough over here where there are no centralized review sites like yelp. Instead, I go into the network settings and look for wifi hotspots with hotel names, then I go to that hotel. Any hotel who has wifi that my iPhone can find from the street has got to be good. The only downside to this is that sometimes these hotels are expensive, but at least it helps weed out the crummy places.

We walked out to the end of the pier that stuck into the bay where dozens of boats were docked. Some were fishing boats, some were floating hotels, some were restaurants. It was a good way to get a view of the shops that went along the waterfront.

We had a disappointing breakfast in a restaurant that seemed like it was closed. I was getting tired of fake coffee. One great thing though was we invented a new food. It’s the stir fried beef and noodle egg breakfast sandwich. Tien orders stir fried beef and noodles, I order egg with bread. I put the egg in the bread with some soy sauce, and she puts some beef and noodles in with it. It is *so* delicious, I’ve been eating it frequently ever since.

We went back to a place we saw the previous night while walking around looking for dinner. It was a hotel that was built into the rock cliff. There was a big room with two beds available for not much money, and we took it. We didn’t need the second bed, but it’s nice to lay things out on when you’re organizing, and for lazing around on like a couch.Tien and the bike at Cat Ba So, we spent the mid day heat being lazy at our hotel room.

We went to rent a tandem bicycle, but the prices were like 20k for 1 hour. A motorbike was as low as 60k a day. We had already paid the girl before we knew it was per hour, and I finally decided to let her keep the damn bike and the money because we didn’t need a bike for an hour. She finally gave my money back as I was walking away. Instead of a bike, we decided to get a moto from our hotel though, for 100k a day.

We cruised some local beaches and then headed northwest on the island into territory we hadn’t seen yet. We found a place where they were filling in a bay with mud to build a golf course. Beyond that there were beautiful, natural places, some caves, farming villages, roaming goats, and eventually a beautiful pink sunset. Finding the rural Cat BaWe stopped a lot along the way and took photos, and at sunset we decided to speed back to the town to go swimming at the Cat Co 2 beach. Unfortunately, by the time we got there the water was off limits, so we sat and had some drinks on the beach instead. I dipped my feet in the water and was suddenly not disappointed that I couldn’t go in, the water was cold. Too cold to enjoy a swim in, that’s for sure. It was a huge difference from the beautiful, clear, warm waters of Phu Quoc. Instead of sticking around, we headed back to town to get dinner at an awesome spot on the water front called Bamboo. It was recommended in the guidebook, but also looked appealing. The staff was nice and the food was great, and it was a very satisfying end to the day.

A day among the islands of Ha Long

So there I was, back in the bathtub in my room at the Chains First Eden Hotel in Hanoi Vietnam. I was drinking a Tiger beer and had just used up all the hot water washing away the sweat from a long day of hiking and boating in Ha Long Bay. The photographs from the last 24 hours were importing from my D300 into LR2 and were instantly being backed up to my external hard disk where they would be safe in the event that my laptop got stolen.

The hotel room was different from my other one which was directly across the hall. That one had a view of the downtown park out its window. The window here could be opened about 2 inches before it hit a hot water pipe. I guessed I wouldn’t be getting anything like the sunrise awakening I got today on the 5th floor of the Bach Dang.

Floating in Ha Long BayThis morning when I woke up there was sand and a bunch of rocks where there used to be water, and I remembered that we were on the Pacific Ocean. The tide had gone out. I got ready, went downstairs and ate my breakfast with the parisian couple, caught up on some online stuff and then we headed off for the boat. On the way I saw an image of a bay with a speed boat circling another boat. A minute later I saw that same bay and the same speed boat circling two rocks sticking up from the water where the 2nd boat had been. I wondered why on earth in a place with such blatant and obvious beauty did somebody feel the need to embellish with a composited image. Advertising spits in the face of true beauty.

As we were going to be outside all day long I put on a bunch of sun screen, and I managed to find and buy a hat with the bartering help of one of the VN mothers who is on my tour. I got a good price on it, something like $2. This is especially nice because when I was shopping with Tien for hats I couldn’t find one that fit, and this one fits perfectly. It is emblazoned with the Vietnamese flag and the name of the country, my first souvenir and a functional one at that.

When I got on the boat I found the tour guide and got down to business. I was in debt to him a healthy 5,131,000 and had to come up with the money in the next day. I forked over 4 millions on the spot and told him I’d get the rest to him later. I thought about “Coming to America.”

We headed out across the wide bay on a junker style boat, an open upper deck and a covered gallery below, no handrails on the front end by the stairs and one mast that is clearly not used for sails. The sky was hazy and provided a diffused shield from the sunlight, which was very nice. Unfortunately as soon as I noticed this it went away and we were attacked by direct sun rays.

Everybody began taking photos on the upper deck even though the cliffs were still a few miles away. It continued, however, until the cliffs were right there, and then it wasn’t so ridiculous. The cliffs are great… they’re strange. They remind me of the cliffs by my house in Almont, except completely overgrown and with an ocean at the bottom. They were immediately impressive and I can see exactly why this place is being nominated for one of the 7 natural wonders of the world.

There were little groups of boats and floating houses that were tied together. We stopped at one that had little square openings in a floating deck, holes where different kind of sea life were swimming around. Crab, shrimp, all sorts of stuff I didn’t recognize. There was a man with bloody hands chopping up a fish. There was a man pouring boiling water onto two large fish in a large pot. A man took a fish out of the water and clubbed it three times before it quit flopping around and died.

We got back on the boat and kept going. Some other folks that weren’t on our tour were on the boat and one of them was a camera nut. He had an old nikon film cam with a 28mm ƒ/3.5 lens and a modest external flash. He was taking pictures of his family on the boat. We talked a little about photography through the only other english speakers on the tour. It always bugs me when people ask how much my gear cost. I always think back to that time where these two guys were trying to hustle me in SF.

Docked at Surprise CaveWe slowly circled counter clockwise and northward until we got to a place called Surprise Cave. I never found out what the surprise was, but we sure as hell found the cafe. It was really big, way bigger than I expected. The caverns stretched maybe 100m or so into the rock. It looked like something out of Half-life 2 and I kept looking around for head-crabs and corpses with spare supplies. It was the other two english speakers and I walking around and we had lost the tour but we quickly found them with the sonic assistance of a wailing spoiled brat. We talked about how awful that kid was. We agreed that he is a monster. We finished the tour of the cave and headed for the boat.

The day was incredibly hot at this point and I was pretty much showering in my own sweat, so I bought a cold drink off a vendor and took it back to the boat. As we pulled out of the dock we talked about weather, hot and cold. The girl was talking about how cold NYC was on new years. I told her that if she had the right clothes she’d be almost fine with the cold. She said that even with the right clothes her face would still be cold. I told her that there’s no cold a bottle of whiskey can’t help you withstand. She said that she doesn’t drink. She was wearing a t-shirt that said “just add cocktails.”

Next stop was a man-made beach. There’s no natural sand in Ha Long bay so they had to bring in sand from other places. Since the waves are so small I imagine they don’t have to refill the sand on the beach very often. It was a nice beach and we spent an hour on the island. I climbed up to the top of the precipice and took a bunch of photos. Ha Long Bay I was kicking myself for not bringing my tilt/shift lens with me. It was too heavy to bring, but the views from the top of this place would’ve been ƒ *amazing* in TS. I will just have to come back again.

Ice cream was never so good. I sat at the bottom of the cliff in the shade of a hut and ate an ice cream cone while the sweat shower I had taken on my way up the mountain evaporated. I looked at the ticket for the tour and saw that it cost 40,000 dong. That’s about $2.50. The relativity of wealth is staggering.

We headed back to shore, got on the bus and started driving.

I saw a girl on a bicycle talking on her cell phone while the girl on the back held a parasol above their heads. I saw this again a few hours later.

I saw four adults on a 110 cc scooter.

I saw a man on a bicycle with a stack little cages with colorful birds inside.

I saw a little girl sitting in front of her dad on the scooter, sleeping with her head on the dials.

Painting mugsI saw cows grazing in a cemetary.

I saw a woman on the sidewalk cutting a block of ice with a table saw.

Judging by the commonality of models, the Honda Wave 110 is the most reliable scooter.

We stopped at a little pottery place where girls were hand making and hand painting pots. They made all sorts of clay things, from lions to ducks to cups to chopsticks to pots to vases. They were pretty girls, quiet and attentive to their work. It was amazing to see them so smoothly stroke out the designs they were doing. I thought that they could make much more money being artists in America. They asked me to exchange $10 for them, so I gave them a good deal at 100,000 dong. They deserved it, I wasn’t going to buy any of that novelty stuff anyway, even if it was skillfully made by hand.

Outskirts of Hanoi We continued driving. Vietnam countryside is almost entirely rice paddies. Fields and fields of beautiful green rice with roads running through them. The people here are real farmers. They don’t just drive farm equipment, they do the farming. They walk out in that field and cut that rice by hand. They wrap it into a bushel by hand, pile it into a package and wrap it by hand, then put it on a bicycle and ride it back to town where they they do whatever it is that they do to make it into small grains, and then they sweep it up and put it in bags. They also burn a lot of stuff, I don’t know what that’s all about but there were fires and smoke everywhere.

Seeing these fields I was reminded of the drive between Colorado and Texas, which I’ve done more times than I can count. I used to hate that drive, and I wonder how bad it would be right now because I don’t get tired of staring out the window at rice paddies, listening to music on my iPod. I’m sure I will though.

In America, homeless people gather under bridges. In Vietnam, everybody does. A bridge provides shade from the sun, and you will see people selling drinks, bread, pho, anything you can imagine under a bridge in the middle of the country.

I saw a circle of houses around a large depression, a hole in the earth that had a pond in the bottom of it. I wondered if it was a bomb crater from the war.

We stopped for dinner and even though it was nearly sunset, it was blazing hot. So hot that as soon as somebody put ice in my glass it immediately started spinning around as it melted. It was gone before I had finished my first glass of tea. My second glass was warm. The meal was good though. I don’t know why they have to serve fish with the head still attached. Everything I chose to ate was good, right up until the end. There was a soup which I later found out was spinach and crab meat soup, but when I tasted it I could’ve sworn it was dirt soup. It was absolutely terrible. It literally tasted like eating dirt, and I do know this from experience becasue one time when I was running from the police I tripped on a fence and ate a mouthful of dirt, then just lay there still in the field hoping they wouldn’t see me, so I got a good long taste of dirt. This soup tasted exactly like that, except it was liquid.

I excused myself and went outside to play with the nicer kids. I had brought my hacky sack and tried to teach them to play. The boy picked it up quickly, but the girl fell into the problem of trying to kick too high. I couldn’t get her to kick low, and her brother kept treating it like it was a full contact sport so she soon left. The father of the brat came over and he, another guy and I had a good game and all ended up once again showered in sweat. We piled back into the van and headed back to Hanoi.

Because there are so many scooters in Vietnam there are also a lot of helmets. People express theirself through their choice of helmet. Some helmets look like baseball caps. Some look like cowboy hats. Some look like military hats. Some look like girly sun hats. They have some pretty rad helmets here. I’m pretty sure they’re not DOT approved though so I’m not going to bother buying one.

We made it back to the hotel and I made it to my room, which brings us to now. I’m sitting on the floor, a single protected wifi signal within sight, a little bit of beer left in the can, wondering once again if I should go out and make the best of Hanoi.

This is the same problem I’ve run into in America. Do you leave your comfy bubble where you can simply be lazy and go out into the big bad world and experience something exciting, or do you stay indoors where you’re safe and cozy? Tonight, I’m not sure… I may stay in and develop the 300 or so photos I took today. Bleh, never enough time, even on vacation, if that’s what this is.