It seems to me that there are basically two types of tourism for Westerners in south-east Asia (I’m deliberately choosing to ignore the seedier other kind). First, there’s the “I’m off on vacation and I’ve decided that to make it exotic (and/or cheap), I’m going to south-east Asia – bring on the beaches, bars and bumming around”. That is, the holiday which is designed as exactly that – a holiday – and which happens to be in south-east Asia because why not. Second, there’s travelling through the area to see what south-east Asia has that’s different from the rest of the world. (Actually, this is a distinction that I’ve started to be more aware of the more I roam around: I tend to think of it as the difference between “going on holiday” and “travelling”, for want of better terminology.)
I’m not going to make any value judgements about the distinction. (Not here, anyway. Get a few drinks into me within spitting distance of somewhere like Phuket and I might change my tune. “Yeah, sure, I’ve done south-east Asia. First I went to Bali, then I went to Ko Phangan for the Full Moon Party, then I went to Nha Trang – you name a trumped-up tourist destination that’s been decked out to make partying Westerners feel at home, and I’ve done it, man!”) But while I’m not going to claim that we were on a god-given mission to discover the real beating cultural heart of the angst-ridden downtrodden peoples of the region, direct or indirect victims of colonial oppression all, my point is that we were in south-east Asia for the experience of experiencing south-east Asia.
(And actually, I really have nothing against people spending their hard-earned time off having a blast in a party spot that’s made to float their boat. I just hope they realise that if they’re interested for next time, there’s a lot else to see in the area too.)
All of which is introduction to the fact that we skipped Halong Bay – one of Vietnam’s biggest attractions for Western (and, more recently, Chinese) tourists looking for a waterfront paradise. But we didn’t skip it for any reasons related to any of the above: quite the opposite. We (well, mostly Chris) did some research (read the little sidebar in Lonely Planet Vietnam) and decided to go to its better-behaved little sibling instead: Cat Ba.
Halong Bay, it seems generally agreed, is a bit of a bitch these days. It’s beautiful, yes, but it’s full to overflowing of ruthless scams and hassle and misfortune waiting to befall the unwary – and, by all accounts, even the wary – tourist. Cat Ba is right next door, with the same scenery – thus far slightly more unspoiled – and with much fewer potential problems to plague the holidayer. And, as a slightly less developed locale (albeit that it’s catching up fast), it’s a Western holiday spot, yes, but without quite the glitzy tourist horror that we were later to encounter in, say, Patong, in Thailand.
So, we rolled up, and had us a holiday.
Cat Ba Island is an island in Lan Ha Bay, which is just adjacent to Halong Bay and shares the same basic scenery and geographical features. The bay is full of limestone karst islands – literally thousands of small- to medium-sized lumps of rock jutting out of the water, surrounding floating fishing villages and tourist cruises alike. The view is stunning. Just putting about on the water on a tour boat is mesmerising, before you even pull up on a deserted beach on an uninhabited island to explore for an hour or so. And kayaking through the karsts is incredible.
And on top of that, we spent a morning out in the bay deep water soloing, too: rock-climbing on the side of one of the karsts, unassisted (no ropes or harnesses or any other gear), just jumping (or falling) straight into the water below when done. I was terrible at it. It was fantastic.
And on top of all that, Cat Ba was my first time riding a scooter, as we hooned, err, rode sensibly, around the island’s greenery exploring our first taste of south-east Asian tropical jungle, mixed liberally with a hearty dose of mangroves and mudflats. Well, it was my first time driving a scooter, anyway – I figure sitting on the back doesn’t really count. This was an important capability to develop, since scootering was to be our transportation mode of choice for the next couple of months.
Our time in Cat Ba was not without its cultural moments – exploring the Hospital Cave, a large Viet Cong bunker during the war, was fascinating, and don’t think for a second that I passed up a single opportunity to get some more local food into my gut. The Cannon Fort, housing French-made canons to defend the island from the French, was also intriguing (as well as being a great viewpoint for the bay). Oh, and we passed a couple of what I can only presume were very culturally valuable karaoke bars on a couple of evenings. At least, I assume the value they had was cultural, since it certainly wasn’t musical.
And of course (how could I forget) we got a particularly lucky and rare look at a family of the only sixty-odd remaining Cat Ba langurs in the world, as we motored past their protected habitat on one of the nearby islands. Much to the chagrin of Jim, the marketing guy at our hotel, who’s been in Cat Ba for a year now and still hasn’t spotted any.
But cultural moments aside, basically, we had a holiday. And it was awesome.