Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 16 – Cat Ba Bay

Today was a day of wondrous beauty. I spent half the day on a boat, drifting between the majestic landscape of Cat Ba and Ha Long Bays. The limestone pinnacles, the coves, the channels metamorphosed from minute to minute, as the boat quietly glided through the misty mountains. I stood on the prow mesmerized by the symphony of lapping waves and the myriad of islands that form this archipelago, taking picture after picture in the knowledge that they could hardly capture the magic of the moment.

The boat was doing messenger service, delivering passengers from one miniature port to the other. On the way we passed several pearl banks and fish farms, and from time to time encountered small floating villages, where people live year round. There may not be much room to move around, but children and dogs play like in any other town, running nimbly along the narrow planks that join one fish farming plot with the other.

At our farthest reach we picked up a family from Finland, including mom, dad, two teenager daughters, and two American teenagers (I presume the latter were staying with the family and were brought along in the family vacation). Together we made a stop at a small inlet, where we rented bicycles and biked to a small farming town about a kilometer inland. When we came back to the boat we were served a delicious lunch that included fried chicken, fish in a tomato sauce, a veggie stir fry, tofu in tomato soup, spring rolls, steamed rice, and a nice plate of steamed clams. The girls were all together at a table and had their own serving of the goodies, while mom, dad and myself were on another table. The Fins were not very adventurous eaters, and were flummoxed by the clams. “What is this?”, they asked, and then added “we don’t have this in Finland”. And then some small devil whispered in my ear and, making a face of mild disgust I said “Those are clams, and you really need to develop a taste for them. Sometimes they taste like mud but, please, by all means give them a try.” That did it. Each reluctantly took a piece, tasted it, and had no more. So I had the big nice plate of clams all for myself!
After lunch we headed back, and once again I got lost on the beauty of the trip. The only place I can compare it with is the Magallanes Archipelago, along the southern coast of Chile, but that is a barren, glaciated landscape, whereas Cat Ba is a lusciously green karstic paradise. It is truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited (and this is not my first time to the rodeo)..

Back at the hotel I was in a bit of a daze, but it was only 1 pm and there was no point in wasting a perfectly good afternoon. So I got my motorcycle and went cruising through town, only to discover that they have a whole little bay devoted to tourists. Hotel after hotel, and restaurant after restaurant are to be found, all facing a beautiful waterfront boulevard and the glorious landscape behind. Toward one end of the bay there are a couple of all-included resorts, and toward the other end is the regular town, with its eclectic market.

The one thing missing were the typical souvenir stores, where you can buy a hat or a t-shirt. Finally, on my second pass I saw a small street-side display with some necklaces and conch shells. I wanted to get a present for my Honey so I stopped to look. Little did I know I had stopped at the gates of Hades, and that there was a pack of harpies waiting for my naïve approach. The first one was all smiles, and claimed I was her first costumer so she needed to make a sell for good luck. It was hard bargaining, but given that I was in Pearl Island I ended making a purchase. No sooner had I concluded the deal when the second witch popped by my side, asking for me to look at her own display, and giving me all over the sob story. The precise same tactics used by those devilish Girl Scouts! To make a long story short, I was handed from one smiling sorceress to the next, and I ended with enough baubles to outfit a full harem. Darn, but they were good!
The problem of being on an island is that there are only so many places you can go. Ah, but with a motorcycle every narrow road is an invitation to adventure, so one thing led to the other and pretty soon I was speeding along a twisty cliff-hanging road, or plunging into a canyon and then emerging on the other side of the island. I thoroughly enjoyed the rush of speed and zooming around the curves in practically deserted roads. I can see why motorcycling is an addictive activity!

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