The Mystical Islands of Halong Bay
Slowly cruising along the calm south china sea we were heading to Cat Ba Island, a large island withing Halong Bay. Getting there was like navigating through a sea of icebergs as we could see thousands of limestone formation tearing up through the emerald waters. Many of these majestic formations held secret (and not so secret) grottoes and caves for eager visitors to explore.
The air had a mist to it as a blanket of dull low lying clouds gave the area an eerie feel to it. You couldn't quite see ahead and I imagined our boat coming across sharp jagged rocks where we would stumble across a mysterious island that was not on the map.
We sat on the top deck of our boat alone as the other 20 guests sat in the cabin eating their lunch. They were all part of packages and as me and Fay had only bought a 1 way ticket to the island, lunch wasn't included for us (well it was but it was extremely overpriced). The advantage of being on this tour boat was that we got to explore a cave on one of the islands on the way to Cat Ba. We also passed floating markets as well as floating villages where inhabitants spent their entire lives on water!
After arriving at Cat Ba Island we had a 50 minute bus ride as the town was on the other side of the island. Although we had been travelling for 9 hours now I definately didn't mind this bus journey as we meandered around hill after hill, perching on the cliff edges that gave us great vantage points. The island really was like a lost world as if we had stepped back into the jurassic period.
During our 4day stay on Cat Ba island we did our usual renting of a motorbike to explore the island for $3, our cheapest rental yet. When exploring an area with sceneries like that on Cat Ba Island, a motorbike is the best way. I find there's nothing like the freedom of choosing your own path, and even if I am driving I can always slow right down or even stop if I want to gawk in awe at something.
On our exploration of the island we visited a cave which was used as a hospital during the Vietnam/U.S war. A local man who actually lived in the cave as a soldier for 18months gave us a tour for the two of us for a dollar each. We climbed a ladder made of sticks and climbed into the mouth of the cave which was not bigger that a standard living room. We both thought "is this it?" but we were relieved when the local walked over to a steel door embedded into the rock at the back of the cave. Inside was a warm concrete corridor with rooms running off either side. Our guide showed us rooms that were used for operating, sleeping, eating and playing ping pong even. A small set of concrete stairs led us to the next floor. We were amazed to realise we were inside a massive cave, the floor we were now walking on was the rood of the corridor and rooms we were just in a minute ago. Amazingly we saw a swimming pool they had built, and even an area of the cave wall which they used to project movies onto for the soldiers. It felt strange being in this gigantic cave but seeing this concrete structure built inside the cave. It felt big but we discovered it would accommodate 300 men at any one time, so I can imagine it would have actually have been pretty cramped.
We dedicated one day to go on a boat tour around Halong Bay. We were put onto a basic double decker wooden boat. The floor on the open top deck had a couple of holes and during the day another guy on the tour with us actually created another hole as a bit of the wood flooring gave way under his foot! So it was a rather dodgy boat. The day included visiting two caves, anchoring up by a stranded beach to have our lunch and swim in the aqua blue waters (including jumping in the water from the roof of the boat), and finally kayaking around the limestone formations for an hour on our way back to Cat Ba island. The kayaking was what we were on this tour for mainly. Paddling around the many little islands looking for little hidden caves and arches to paddle under and through was a lot of fun. Our surroundings were truelly breath-taking and kayaking in this region of the world was definately the best way to explore Halong Bay.