The best of travel: Ho Chi Minh City to Cat Ba Island in 15 hours

The best of travel: Ho Chi Minh City to Cat Ba Island in 15 hours

Writing is fun. Telling stories is fun. I spend a large part of my day telling stories verbally, because I love holding court, so I guess it makes sense that I’d enjoy putting fingers to keyboard and making my random chatter even more widely available. It also means that I’ll be able to remember. So many funny, important or beautiful things have happened and, without photos or words that can be accessed for posterity, these moments only live on as long as they remain in my memory. That’s a lot of pressure to put on my brain. I’m only able to recall the day recounted in this blog in so much detail because I made extensive notes on my phone while it was happening, as I was already thinking I don’t want to forget this.

It is unreasonable to ask my brain to remember all this stuff. I already ask a lot of my brain, given that, according to Jake, “you think more before 9am than most people do in a week.” Overthinking is one of the cornerstones of my personality. Occasionally Jake will ask me what I’m thinking, and I’ll reply, “well, I’m thinking about four things, so pick a number.” Just kidding. I obviously just go through them in an itemised list.

Rather than add the fairly arduous task of remembering minute details of potentially random moments of my life, I might as well write it down and free up my brainpower to think about more important things, like cake and whether we are all hearing the same things when Trump opens his mouth.

After graduating in the summer of 2017, Sophie and I took a trip together. We spent a few weeks being clichés in South-East Asia, moving through a few spots in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. This whole trip was characterised by finding vegetarian restaurants under the duress of extreme hunger, dealing with various medical crises and laughing. A lot.

Sophie is a great travel partner, because she is adventurous and confident and brilliantly spontaneous. All of these qualities were exemplified on one particular day we spent in Vietnam.

We were travelling from Ho Chi Minh City in the south of Vietnam to Cat Ba Island, a small island near Halong Bay west of the north coast. This is a distance of 700 miles directly and much longer when you consider the constraints of transport routes. But the distance was irrelevant, because we had extremely loosely planned our route and therefore it was all going to be straightforward. Right?

The goal

The day started with a taxi to the airport, to catch our flight from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital. We left our hotel at 7am, Soph still recovering from the stress of her exam results and me nursing the fresh burn on my leg that I’d acquired from a motorbike exhaust the night before. The plan was to catch our flight and then buy one of the bus-boat-bus tickets that get you all the way from the airport to the island on a single ticket.

This would obviously have been too simple. When we arrived at the airport, our 9am flight had been delayed. We were unfussed  and took advantage of the extra time by ordering some breakfast. I grabbed a bowl of pho while Soph snacked on a plain muffin because Vietnamese cuisine is wasted on her. As we were boarding the flight, Soph said, “you don’t think we’ll have a problem getting a later bus/boat ticket, do you? They seemed to stop at 11am when we looked last night.”

Our flight was supposed to land at 11am. The delay meant that we didn’t touch down until 12.10pm, at which point it was made clear to us that all the combined ticket operators had left for the day, as you needed to have left the capital already in order to make one of the ferries, given it’s a journey of several hours to the coast. We approached the information desk and asked about tickets to Cat Ba. The woman behind the desk looked at us. “Why would you want to go there?

We looked at each other, confused. I’m not used to having my travel plans savagely critiqued by tourism bureaus. “Well, it looks very beautiful and we thought it would be nice to stay on the islands.”

She shook her head. “You should take a cruise around Halong Bay.”

“Yes, we did consider that, but we’ve already booked somewhere so I guess we’re going to Cat Ba!” I kept the mood light. “Can we get there?”

“But why would you want to?”

This continued. Eventually she made it clear that our choice of destination was not only misguided but also inaccessible, as all the buses had left. “You’d have to get yourself to the coast in time for the ferry.”

Challenge accepted. We found out that the last ferry was at 4pm, which we assumed really meant 5pm given the punctuality of Vietnam’s public transport. Also there was no way we’d make a 4pm ferry so we just had to lie to ourselves with abandon. “If we can make to the port by 5, I bet we can find a boat.”

A taxi turned out to be prohibitively expensive and every website we went on suggested five possible routes, all of which were distinct from the five routes suggested by the other websites. However, most of the routes did seem to involve Hanoi’s central bus station. “Let’s go there,” Sophie suggested. “There must be a bus given this route is so popular.”

We hopped on the 86 bus to downtown Hanoi, leaving our internet connection and any hope of advance planning behind. We’d made a few quick notes about the buses that would get us to Hai Phong, the coastal town where we could catch the ferries. The plan was to get either the 10 or the 54. The 86 took an hour to reach the bus station, at which point we stumbled into the humidity with our enormous backpacks, looking every inch the gap yah traveller.

A 10 bus came into view. We felt smug. Despite us waving our hands, the bus drove straight past the bus station. A few minutes later, a 54 did the same thing. We felt less smug.

“Where you going?” an elderly Vietnamese man asked.

“Hai Phong. We’re waiting for the 10 or the 54.”

He shook his head. “You don’t want that.”

“Oh. Which one, then?”

“The 21.”

We smiled at him, deciding to trust his knowledge over our own, given ours was picked from a lucky dip of bad transport apps and the 10 and 54 bus drivers appeared to have us on a blacklist. “Thank you.”

He stood near us, I assume waiting for his own bus. A 17 bus came into view and he started smiling and pointing. It’s worth mentioning here that the buses don’t really seem to stop, so much as slow to a point that, by employing the Navy Seals skills you presumably have, you can leap onto the still moving vehicle without trouble. “Get on! Get on!”

“But this isn’t the 21?”

“No, no, this one! Go to Zalam!”

Against perhaps better judgement, given this man has contradicted himself spectacularly in only a few minutes and ‘Zalam’ could have been literally anywhere, we leapt onto the bus.

“Zalam?” We said tentatively to the conductor. He nodded and took our money.

We had no idea where Zalam was, what it looked like or how long it would take to get there. The coast was three hours away, at least, so this ride could be a ten-minute connection or two hours of asking the conductor repeatedly “Zalam?” every time the bus braked slightly, indicating that this was a stop despite the distinct continued forward motion of the vehicle.

He caught on to our total lack of knowledge quickly. He motioned for us to sit near him and, at each almost stop, he shook his head to let us know that we should stay put. He was a nice guy.

After about half an hour, he suddenly picked our backpacks up off the floor and literally threw them off the bus. “Get off!” We leapt after our luggage. A small sign said Gai Lam. The pieces fit together. My Vietnamese needs work, clearly.

This was one of those moments where you can only look around, bemused. “Where are we?” Soph asked. This wasn’t some large bus station. This was a tiny bus stop in suburban Hanoi. There were no signs and very few people. It was 2.15pm. Time was running out.

We turned to a woman near us and asked, “Hai Phong?” She smiled but shook her head. The same thing happened when we asked the woman next to her.

“You want to get to Hai Phong?” a young-ish boy asked. A tip – school students tends to be learning English so are often better able to help. I have no expectation that people in non-English speaking countries should speak English, but, as our Vietnamese extended to “cảm ơn bạn” (thank you), we had to hope someone might be able to help us or otherwise we were screwed. At least we could thank them in our poor imitation of Vietnamese.

“Yes!”

This boy was a total sweetheart. Honestly, the people of Vietnam were the MVPs of this day, as without them there’s no way we’d have made it in any kind of timely manner. He recruited a nearby woman and the two of them started strategising, trying to figure out which bus might get us to the coast.  After some minutes and lots of random buses going by, a large bright green bus with an enormous neon sign bounced into view.

“That one!” he shouted. As the bus came closer, the sign clearly said Hai Phong. “Thank you so much!” I grabbed my bag and turned to Soph, who… wasn’t there. I span around. “Soph? Sophie?”

She was gone. The bus was getting closer. “You need this one!” We all knew there was no way the bus would wait.

“SOPHIE,” I yelled, startling some old women nearby. “Sorry,” I mouthed. Then, I spotted her, haggling with someone in a nearby corner shop. I ran over. “Mate, we need to get on this bus. Hurry up!”

“I’m just waiting for my change,” she hissed, at which point I realised she’d been delayed by the sweet old cashier counting out her change in the smallest possible denomination.

We stood, feeling the physical tension build. I glared at her. “What are you buying?” She held up two bottles of coke and two packs of Oreos. We were in the land of banh mi, pho and goi cuon and this was lunch. However, eight hours since our last meal and the prospect of more hours on a bus coming rapidly closer, we had to take what we could get. Packs of Oreos are prolific in Asia. We consumed so many during our trip that I’m surprised my blood wasn’t thickened with creme filling.

I saw the bus getting closer. “Can’t she keep the change?”

“I used our biggest note,” Soph admitted sheepishly.

Finally, finally, the change-counting ritual was finished. We hurled ourselves at the bus and the driver looked stricken. I don’t think two sweaty white girls was what he was expecting at this tiny rural bus stop. We collapsed into our seats, feeling relaxed. Little did we know that we were about to start the most challenging two hour period of our entire South-East Asia trip.

Look, I’m an easy traveller. I will eat anything. I will sleep anywhere. I am not afflicted by the travel constipation that plagues many of my nearest and dearest as soon as they leave their postcode. I will smile through six hours of bumps and jostles in a tiny car that feels like it might break down any minute. I will carry a heavy backpack in the heat without minimal complaints (hey, I said minimal). But this bus journey almost broke me.

We spent two hours sitting in the only two free seats, directly behind the driver, slowly losing the will to live as he beeped his horn for eight seconds out of every ten. I’m not joking.

BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP.

*Two second pause.*

BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP.

Repeat for TWO HOURS. I was shaking by the end.

Now, if this was downtown Ho Chi Minh, where the pavement is for motorbikes and traffic flow remains identical regardless of whether the light is green or red, this might have been understandable.

But it wasn’t. This highway was empty. There was one motorbike, some three hundred metres ahead, three lanes across.

BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP.

We sat there is silence, wide-eyed, chaining Oreos, as the horn beeping slowly infiltrated our souls.

“I want to get off,” I whispered. Soph could only nod slowly. I felt like we’d been sedated.

After two hours of nearly being driven insane by somone who, I can only assume, was hard of hearing, required to beep the horn as the result of some court mandate that I don’t understand or staving off narcolepsy, we finally reached Hai Phong.

I imagine this is how Frodo felt when he eventually made it to Mordor. Thrilled, but also traumatised.

However, we weren’t done. As the bus came to an actual stop (!!), the conductor pointed us at a small grey minivan. “Get in, get into the shuttle,” he yelled, actually pushing us into the car. We assumed some of the other passengers would be joining us. They did not.

In hindsight, we probably should have protested more. As soon as the door slammed, the driver took off at speed. It was now just the two of us and some strange man in his car, being driven somewhere random. I’m pretty sure this is the start to at least six major blockbusters.

Soph and I shared a concerned look. “Um. Are we going to the pier?”

He barely turned. “Yes.”

Still recovering from the traumatic horn beeping, we could only sit in silence. Maybe that was the plan all along. However, we didn’t need to tuck and roll just yet. After only three minutes, he pulled up to a building. “Here.”

It was a plain building in the middle of a busy street, no ocean in sight. “This is the pier?” I said, unconvinced.

“Yes. Get out.” We got out.

“Maybe this is the entrance to the pier,” I said optimistically.

However, on closer inspection it was clear that this was an electrical supply store.

The car had already left. Literally five minutes ago we were in horn beeping hell and now we were alone staring at a sea of LCD TVs. “What is happening?”

I had no answers. There were only questions.

We sidled up to a cab. “Can you take us to the pier?”

It was now 4.20pm. Officially, all the ferries had left, but we hadn’t hit our self-imposed totally abitrary 5pm deadline so remained hopeful. After a twenty minute drive – honestly, what was going on with that shuttle I’ll never know – we arrived at the sea. All the ticket offices were closed. It didn’t look good. However, we had made it. From the airport some five hours ago to the coast, on a random spontaneous collection of buses and shuttles on the advice of people we would never see again. Despite hiccups, it had all worked. We decided to try our luck.

We stuck our heads out of the windows. “Cat Ba!” We yelled. “Cat Ba!”  Suddenly, a woman turned around.

“I can get you to Cat Ba!” she shouted back.

We stared at each other in disbelief. She offered us the hallowed bus-boat-bus tickets and took us to a collection of people waiting for a bus. “You’re lucky,” she said. “This is the last ferry today.”

Another backpacker was there. “I’ve been waiting for over an hour,” she told us after introductions. A mere five minutes later the bus turned up. We realised then that we hadn’t waited more than fifteen minutes for a bus all day.

We drove for forty five minutes. Where, I still don’t know. We drove through a town and an enormous construction site before reaching an unnamed port. A small boat arrived soon after. “We are getting on this ferry,” we agreed, noticing the large number of people queueing for this one boat.

After a cutthroat queueing experience, we flopped down on the pile of bags that been loaded onto the deck. We left the mainland as the sun set, running only on the afternoon’s Oreos, unexpected elation and golden hour’s good selfie lighting.

The feeling of triumph dissipated somewhat as we arrived at a tiny jetty and everyone started to confidently make their way toward a number of buses. We lurked behind a group and slipped onto one of the coaches, uncertain as to where we were going but figuring it would be more useful than staying alone on this jetty that I would have thought was abandoned if not for the fact that we’d just arrived there.

We were stowaways in great discomfort, as this bus was not content to merely transport from one place to another. No, this bus spent the hour we were driving playing disco music and flashing neon lights in everyone’s faces. There’s no possible reason that this bus company would want to provoke seizures in their passengers, and yet, I can’t think of any other explanation for this disco-neon monstrosity other than to overwhelm your nervous system.

We eventually reached the pier, not a moment too soon as I’m pretty sure I was starting to hear colours. The Cat Ba pier lead us to another taxi, who can only be described as an aspiring boy racer with an unholy fondness for electropop music. There was something truly surreal about hurtling down an island road in the pure darkness with blasting tinny disco music as the soundtrack. Vietnam was an attack on the senses.

As we left the main road to drive further into the jungle down a dirt path, we both were glad to have each other. Not to be dramatic, but if I had been alone, I might have thought I was about to get murdered. Well, I still thought that might be a possibility, but I figured that the two of us could take this guy.

Cat Ba’s jungle

Fortunately, we didn’t have to. We pulled into the epically secluded lodge, looking a little shellshocked. After check in, we sat down for a late dinner, which was served starter, dessert, main because nothing made sense anymore.

This was one of my favourite days ever. We realised that if we had lost even five minutes over the course of the whole day, we would have missed that final, elusive ferry and not made it. This turned out to be crucial given that a cyclone arrived the following afternoon and all boats to the island were cancelled. This was the real fun of travel; getting onto buses on the recommendation of strangers, no idea where you are or where you’re going, but loving it all anyway.

After 15 hours, 1 plane, 3 taxis, 5 buses, 1 deeply questionable shuttle, one miraculous ferry and the latent onset of synesthesia, we’d made it to bed some hundreds of miles away. My leg had swollen spectacularly due to the as yet untreated burn (more on that later) and I awoke after only an hour to Soph violently hurling due to her sensitive stomach having ingested too much oil at dinner. I think it’s time to call it a day.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *