There are adventures and there are adventures. Some might say that adventuring is synonymous with exploring. I would say exploring becomes an adventure when you lose the map. The last day of our stay in Cat Ba started with exploration, sprinkled in some excitement and ended with an adventure.
The night before, we had met with our friendly guide to all Cat Ba has to offer and arranged a boat trip through the awe inspiring islands of Halong Bay. We joined a tour of hungover Vietnamese folks, some friendly Canadians with leopard print backs and various token Europeans on a two-story boat to explore the waters around Cat Ba.
The ride was fascinating. As we drew further away from the touristy Cat Ba town, we found ourselves closer to the nature of the place. We witnessed the nature of human life and the nature of wildlife.
The seas were a bit choppy as slowly we lost site of Cat Ba. By the time we were lost in the rhythm of the sea we heard a loud explosion. We looked toward land to see a small boat and a tower of water crash back to sea. A boy wearing only underwear and a diving mask dove in after. We watched as he bobbed up from the water tossing stunned fish into the boat where a shirtless man wearing an army helmet collected the fish into a box. We all watched until the stun of the spectacle was overtaken by the stun of the monolithic islands that jutted out from the sea.
The experience of seeing these islands in person was much like staring up at the El Capitan in Yosemite. The Cat Ba Archipelago is a UNESCO World Heritage site for good reason and is truly a wonder of the world. It was one of the places that I have seen in pictures and yearned doubting I would ever actually be able to witness. The slow boat ride was quiet as we took it all in.
The first stop of the tour was the edge of Cat Ba National Park for some kayaking. Everybody stepped off the boat and without any intelligible word was placed in a kayak to explore the hidden coves.
We started off clumsily but soon fell into rhythm. We would paddle for a while and coast to look up at the beautiful walls of the cove. Below us small fish and softball-sized jelly fished swam lazily.
The most amazing feature of these coves was the tunnels between one to the next. Transporting through each tunnel lead to its own lost lake and exiting them, as the shadows gave way to light conjured the theme musing of Jurassic Park. The stillness except from some birds chirping in these lakes was profound.
We even got to see an endangered species of monkey that can only be found in the jungles of Cat Ba Island. We were too far away for a picture but here is a picture of us instead.
Returning to the boat was a harrowing journey. As we fought the currents we were nearly too unskilled to get back out of one of the tunnels. Closer to the boat we dragged an even less kayak-confident couple through a tunnel as they cried and yelled.
We finally returned to the boat, and miraculously so did many of our tour mates, to smell lunch cooking in the galley. Sunburnt and tired, we joined together around the big table below the deck and shared a wonderfully awkward meal with several other sets of food customs. The food, fried fresh seafood and scratch local fare was the best we ate on the entire vacation. It could have been all the lifesaving we did all day (our own and others), but the food and beer hit the spot.
The boat turned back for port but we still had two last stops. The first was a nice cove for some jumping and swimming,
and the second was Monkey Island.
We disembarked to find out just why this island had such an intriguing name. We walked passed the busy beach for some rocks with some Vietnamese writing painted on them and an arrow pointing onward. We hoped it said “monkeys, this way.”
The scramble to the top of Monkey Island is just what a city-dwelling, sandal-wearing, adventure-seeking Westerner would hope for. We crawled over jagged rocks and shuffled along cliffs with orphaned sandals below. Though we didn’t see any monkeys that day our deft maneuvering to the summit was nothing short of primal.