Rock the Cat Ba, Rock the Cat Ba! …and getting lost in the South China Sea

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Town, Vietnam

We just spent three days on Cat Ba Island, Vietnam – it’s kinda of like a fantasy island. The main draw is the crazy topography – all around it is a bay of limestone karsts, fancy word for giant hunks of limestone splashed down right in the middle of the ocean. It’s surreal.

Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Town, Vietnam Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Town, Vietnam Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Town, Vietnam

Our favorite day was the boat tour day, which took us out right into the middle of all of the karsts… and got Rick and I lost in the South China Sea for a little while!

We met some great folks from the west coast at dinner the night before and they were going on a boat tour with a guy from their hotel and asked if we wanted to join. Well the price was right and we happily agreed to join. Funny thing about cheap boat tours…. Let’s just say our motto for the day was “Safety Third!” (Mom, Dad: Kidding it’s really wasn’t that bad)

We were pointed to a van to ride to the dock, where we got on a “junk boat” (which is the real name for these boats, although, it was also a good description).

Junk Boat Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Town, Vietnam

On our way out to the bay we stopped at one of the many fish farms… different than fish farms I’ve seen before, these are floating fish farms. Apparently they catch them as baby fishes and feed’em, fatten them up, then sell them as big fat fishes (hello, Never Finding Nemo). And these little itty bitty ladies balance on narrow floating pieces and flip 30lb fish from one netted enclosure to another.

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So our next stop is kayaking. We’ve been totally entranced boating through this landscape, but now we actually get to get IN TO it! Our boat pulls up to a dock surrounded by kayaks and we are pointed to get out…. Then ushered over to the edge.

Kayaking Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Town, Vietnam

We wait, thinking surely our guide is going to give us some direction. Or some timing, when to be back. Maybe what direction to go… Or not go… Like go around that island, or stay between these. I mean we’re in the middle of the South China Sea, not just that, but it’s not like we can see more than a quarter mile in any direction because there’s a giant, 10-15 story limestone island.

So… We wait… Nope, no direction. Just a push into a kayak and a hand pointing us out to the bay.

Kayaking Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Town, Vietnam

Ok, so surely our guide will be right behind our group. Duh. I mean it’s gotta be self explanatory if he’s just setting us out there.

Oh – by the way, I also note at this time that we do not have life jackets. Why did this stand out to me? Well because every other tourist in a kayak has a bright orange one on. Worrisome? Slightly. More so when I notice the inch of water in our kayak. But it does make it easier to spot the other folks in our group – they’re the ones without the life jackets!

So we’re off paddling towards… Well who knows, just paddling in the direction pointed to us. The group is around us… We see a really cool opening in the limestone, just high enough over the water for a kayak to go through. So of course we have to see what’s on the other side! We veer left and head for the secret lagoon – another couple in our group has already headed that way.

The sea is super peaceful. It’s like being in a giant dream lagoon. I guess the giant rock islands put a stop to any waves or currents.

The lagoon is beautiful, we paddle around for a couple minutes. Take pics. And see we’re the only ones in there… So we head off to find our group…

<<  cue the Gilligan’s Island theme music. “A three hour tour…”  >>

Kayaking Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Town, Vietnam

We come out of the lagoon back under the arch, and there’s no one from our group anywhere to be seen. But no worries because we know the direction we came from… So they must have continued on the trajectory past our little lagoon. Take a left, and paddle ho! We’re cruisin!

Kayaking Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Town, Vietnam

We make it around the next karst, and between a couple giant ones. There’s an awesome looking, wide, but very low arch cut out of the limestone and we can see light and water on the other side… That must be the big lagoon we imagine our guide us taking us to. There’s another tour group coming out of there… It’s so cool to smoothly glide under the rock. We emerge into a huge lagoon surrounded by jungle – we search the trees for monkeys, but really each of us is secretly, silently, with a calm smiling expression searching the horizon of the water for our un-life-jacketed guide and tour group. No luck!

Kayaking Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Town, Vietnam

I finally admit out loud  that I’m a bit nervous that we’ve lost them. Rick too. So we decide they must have come this way (there’s yet another group in the lagoon with us, clearly it’s THE spot to go to). You can’t see the whole lagoon because it’s got a twisty, curvy, hidden “shoreline” which is really just islands surrounding us.  So we decide we’ll kayak the perimeter so we can find the exit they took. All of the way around… Nope, no exit except the way we came in. I’m feeling those paddling muscles at this point!

So we decide to head back to the floating “dock” more of a big boat/dock because it’s not attached to anchored to any land. We’ll find them there for sure!

Paddle paddle … See other groups, but not ours. As we approach the dock, we search the boats for ours. It’s definitely not at the dock anymore. We search the horizon for it… Nope can’t find it.

Rick suddenly remembers that he thought he heard something about we were supposed to kayak to another rendezvous point on the other side of some island and that’s where the boat picks us up. But doesn’t remember where that point was or what time, or what direction…. Or if it was even the tour we went with… because we had talked with a few different companies before going with this one, so it could have been a different company.

We go to the dock thinking that at least they can tell us if we’re supposed to be there or somewhere else, or maybe which direction our group went, or if they had come back yet or not. We paddle up to the guy at the dock and ask about our boat, if we are supposed to be back or not, if they are coming back. We get very perplexed looks… and eventually get “Noo Eng-liiish”. But maybe we can say our boats name or our guides name and at least get a hand pointing us the right way…. Until we realize we know neither our boat’s name, our guide’s name, the name of the tour or anything. We know the name of the hotel we left from…. And I don’t think “Take me to Ali Baba’s Hotel” is going to get us very far here.

This may be when we start to get a little freaked out. I declare that I will commandeer a different tourist boat if we don’t find them in the next hour.

We start paddling back towards the direction we explored… because… well there’s nothing else to do really. As we round the corner, we see a platoon of un-lifejacketed kayakers headed our direction!! YEA!! It’s our group… well at least half of our group. But no matter, we are celebrating no longer being lost in the South China Sea!

The other half of our group seems to have gone missing like us. Our guide, smiling and completely unaware that we were lost at sea for a good 40 minutes points us toward the sign that says “Here: Danger. No Entry.” And hands us a flashlight.

Danger No Entry Kayaking Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Town, Vietnam

And somehow I feel much safer entering a pitch black water cave with this guide than I did paddling around on our own. We enter this cave, and it’s awesome – we are going through completely pitch black, narrow, and VERY low ceiling sea cave! How cool is that?! Just when we’ve been paddling for 10 minutes in the dark, we see a light on the other side and make our way out into a secluded lagoon (maybe this is how we lost him, he went through one of these things?!)

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After exploring a bit more around the lagoons, we board the boat again and have delicious fresh seafood lunch. The sun has come out now – we’re lucky because it’s rainy season – so our guide tells us we get to go to Happy Beach and swim. It was not so beach because of high tide, but we had so much fun swimming in the clear green-blue water.

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After that, off to Rick’s much awaited Deep Water Soloing (the fancy name for when you rock climb up from the water, with no harness, just the water to catch your fall if you fall). I manned the camera from the boat. Turns out it really is an acquired skill to be able to climb all of the way up the limestone rock that manages to be really slippery and really sharp at the same time. Rick made it up the bottom portion really well, but wisely chose not to slice up his hands by continuing to the top.

Deep Water Soloing Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Town, Vietnam

We slowly made our way back to port, toured a couple of islands on the way and got to see a beautiful sunset.

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Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Town, Vietnam