Throughout Asia, I harboured dreams of whipping through the countryside on a motorbike. It’s the quintessential Asian adventure, right?
The wind would lick at my hair and the breeze would cool me down. I’d scoot through out-of-the-way roads, waving congenially to locals zipping past me or looking on flabbergasted from the roadside. The freedom and independence would be beautiful and romantic.
There was just one teeny, tiny setback. I had no confidence in my motorbiking abilities (a fear I am not alone in, it seems). Nor was it encouraging meeting numerous tourists carrying nasty scars or hospital bracelets as souvenirs from their own motorbike mishaps.
No solo driving? No sweat; Vietnam is renowned for its Easy Rider programs, where motorcyclists take you on long-distance rides across the country.
Plus if you’re a solo traveller, it’s pretty easy to pick up a more courageous fellow traveller to escort you on the back of their bike. And that’s exactly what I did.
When fellow Hanoi hosteller Simon offered me (… OK, I may have begged) his teensy bike backseat, (on the proviso I secure my own bike helmet) for the ride to Halong Bay, I jumped at the opportunity.
Screw the bus! Hurruh to independence! We would twist through magnificent curvy countryside. We would stop wherever and whenever we wished. It would be glorious.
Driving a motorbike in Vietnam
We burst through the metropolitan jumble of streets in Hanoi and hit the freeway. Dusty, straight as a ruler, and unchanging all the way to the coast. A clamour of tootling and chugging.
We’d barely begun before the bike’s back wheel began to swerve dangerously. A passing motorcyclist gesticulated wildly at us, two white tourists crammed onto a decade-old motorbike (apologies, Simon, if your bike wasn’t at least a decade old – it was lovely all the same) with two heavy backpacks.
We pulled to the leeway, where the motorist’s mechanics shop – a jumbled mess of wire and corrugated iron – was conveniently located and he got to work mending the wheel’s broken inner tube.
As we waited for the work to be completed, we chatted with the local vendors in sign language. We didn’t understand a jot of Vietnamese, but that didn’t discourage the locals from sustaining an exhaustive dialogue with us in their local tongue. We smiled obligingly.
It wasn’t so bad. It was as I expected; mixing with the real people of Vietnam. So far, so good.
With the motorbike fixed, we made it to Phong Duong, a nondescript town from which we took a fast boat to Cat Ba Island, a large island that hovers on the edge of Ha Long Bay.
Cat Ba Island features as a stop on many of the cruise tours through Halong Bay. But tourists barely get a glimpse of its windswept beaches before they’re once again boarding their luxurious yachts to continue their tight schedule.
Sitting on a local speed boat, we cruised past large container ships and small fishing boats, through flat, swampy and uninspiring groves until the karst mountains of Cat Ba rose before us. Time to get excited.
We docked on a flat slip of land, mounted the bicycle and jetted off, rising higher and higher up the swollen coastline. The sea sparkled below. The wind licked at my hair and the breeze cooled me down. It was glorious.
Cat Ba’s main, unnamed town is a subdued strip of high rise buildings along a harbour lined with floating seafood restaurants and fishing boats. Its biggest drawcard is the three beaches in its vicinity.
The first, Cat Co 3 is just concrete to the sea. Avoid.
The next, Cat Co 1 is crammed with Vietnamese tourists. Avoid.
But Cat Co 2 is the perfect Goldilocks combination of perfect sand and gentle quiet. A resort approaches the beach, but it’s got the peaceful atmosphere you want in the tropics. Plus it’s by far the cleanest.
Here we sat and marvelled at the murky green ocean framed by the karst mountains typical of Halong Bay. And it was beautiful.
Cat Ba Island by motorbike
You may think it’s a bit strange to take a motorbike to a destination prided for its water and cruises. And it is a bit odd. But sometimes adventure is about pursuing the unusual.
Cat Ba Island is indeed a large island – easily traversable in a day, but still, it is big. And it is bumpy. Tiny one-way roads criss-cross the island through its valleys. Either side of the road rise grand, impressive mountains. Half the island is national park, and wherever you go, you’re bound to come across beautiful scenery.
Simon and I explored the island thoroughly, basking in the freedom the motorbike gives. We were able to stop when we saw any sign that interested us, such as the nondescript placard for a cave that, as it turned out, was caged up.
The barred gate didn’t stop us – we had a motorcycle; nothing could stop us. So we mounted it and descended into the astonishing depths of the pitch-black cavern, using Simon’s phone torch as our guide. But there was nothing there but dozing bats and emptiness.
The “highway” we were on slices through the island. Its northern (I think) tip winds along the shoreline with the flat waters of the bay reflecting the mountains surrounding it. At the road’s tip is a ferry dock and the vast network of the limestone cliffs that make Halong Bay famous.
A woman covered from head to foot was rowing two giggling girls ashore. Their origin appeared to be a tiny string of houses docked beside a limestone sentinel offshore.
When they pulled up to land, the woman beckoned Simon and me into her boat and rowed us into the middle of the bay. Silence reigned. It was just the slapping of water on the boat’s hull. Nobody spoke. We were awed by our surroundings. She asked for 20,000 dong – or $1 – for the service.
On our return to the Cat Ba town we stopped beside another enticing sign for ‘Hospital Cave’. Up some concrete stairs and a bamboo ladder, we encountered an excitable guide ready to show us inside Cat Ba’s most famous cave.
He lead us through a series of indistinguishable concrete rooms, his hurried voice echoing throughout the bunker as he explained how the cave system was used as a hospital and recuperative centre for the Viet Cong.
Though every chamber looked the same, he introduced each one with equal passion: “Outpatient’s Room!”
We walked through the “bathroom” and up some stairs into a giant, cavernous hall.
“Cinema!” our guide announced, and waved to a dug-out space in the ground: “Swimming pool!”
It was quite the place to recuperate.
We weren’t allowed into the last niche at the end of the cave; a small sign forbade access.
“Ho Chi Minh slept there. Sacred space!”
We returned to the road; time was tight – we had to get to the port in time for our private cruise of Lan Ha Bay.
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