When Sera and I crossed the border into Vietnam, we were granted a 15 day visa exemption. Now in Hanoi we had to apply for an actual visa, a procedure which takes approximately 5 working days. Instead of staying in the loud and busy city, we decide to cycle to Cat Ba island, see the impressive karst rock formations as well as climb a bit. The island is about 115 km away from Hanoi, plus a ferry ride and some kilometers on the island itself. Ergo two full cycling days through villages and endless rice paddies. We spotted this gigantic earthworm slivering from one field to the next. It must have been at least 40 cm long! Quite impressive.
After a short but cramped ferry ride, the island is very popular with tourists, we set off to Cat Ba town. The road took us along steep cliffs, small local mussel farms, some mangroves, a bit of forest and small settlements. Half of the island has been declared a national park and we hope to see some birds and wildlife. Above us large black kites are soaring through the sky and in the distance we spot big groups of herons on small beaches and silt areas.
Close to the shore, mangrove trees grow in the silt. During low tide, the water surrounding the mangroves is gone and large mud banks form, revealing the inhabitants of this seemingly inhospitable place. Hundreds of small crabs appear, filtering the silt for algae, tiny animals and plants.
Among them we spot mudskippers, a fish caught in evolution between the terrestrial and the aquatic world. It lives an amphibious life, breathing through its wet skin and the overly large gills, and walks on land on its fins. With their eyes bulging out from the top of their heads, they are not exactly pretty. But the eyes can be moved separately for a panoramic view, a handy trait with all these herons around.
The town of Cat Ba holds a totally different picture than the rest of the island. Dozens of hotels, bars and restaurants are cramped into a small bay and foreigners slurp smoothies and munch on fresh seafood at every corner. Boat tours leave from here to the Lan Ha Bay, a neighboring bay of the world known Halong Bay. We decide to rent a small junk boat, as they are called, and head out for some deep water soloing. Many tourists wave from other boats or take pictures of us hanging onto the cliffs. The tourism industry flushes a lot of money into the area and many families have been able to improve their livelihoods here. However, the sustainability of this type of tourism is questionable.
After three days of sleeping in a nice hotel bed, we head off for a more quiet part of the island. There aren't many sand beaches on the island and I am skeptical that we will find a peaceful beach where we can also pitch our tent.
But we are in luck and we spend the next two nights camping on a beach that we basically have all to ourselves. In the evening, as we sit by the water, we witness a fantastic spectacular. Inside the waves are hundreds of tiny fluorescent lights, only visible when the waves break onto the beach. It is fluorescent phytoplankton, what a horrible name for such a spectacular natural phenomena!
As we head back to Hanoi to retrieve our passports and continue our journey, we already know we will miss the tranquility of these days...