As a geographic continuation of world-famous Ha Long Bay, dramatic limestone karts also tower above the crystal clear green waters that surround Cat Ba Island – the largest island in the Cat Ba archipelago. Heralded somewhat as an adventure tour mecca, Cat Ba island is the quieter, cheaper and less touristy alternative to Ha Long Bay… or so I’ve heard. having never been to Ha Long Bay, I don’t have a basis for comparison however my thoughts on Cat Ba town can be summed up with the words ‘touristy’ and ‘overdeveloped’.
The main strip is lined with mismatch concrete hotels in varying states of disrepair and, I would imagine, cleanliness. They’re also not stopping there. We were rudely awoken at 6am each morning by the ear-piercing volume and super vibrations of rock drilling to create room for a new hotel.
There are hundreds of restaurants that all sell pretty much the same thing for pretty much the same price and then there’s the floating restaurants. Having heard horror stories about tourists paying for a boat to these restaurants only to get ‘trapped’ there and forced to pay way over the odds for mediocre food, we decided it would be best to steer clear of the two ‘floaters’ situated directly in front of the main tourist strip. Instead, following a recommendation from local, we went three-up on a moto taxi to nearby (not touristy) Ben Beo harbour and walked ourselves across the rickety foot bridge to Quang Anh floating restaurant. As the only foreigners in a room full of feasting business men, expectations were high for our own seafood feast.
Thanks to our very patient waiter, we eventually ordered sea acorns in a lemongrass broth, steamed crab with rice and a plate of grilled geoduck clams topped with crispy onions. Our waiter assured us, with actions, that this was enough food for ‘three strong men’ but he must have meant three strong man-cubs because we both left very pleased with our meal but still pretty peckish. The seafood was cooked to perfection and a very reasonable price. In addition, I was also glad they they had sort of hidden us around the corner out of sight as my gracefulness while dissecting a whole crab with chopsticks definitely left something to be desired. After convincing Rich that he couldn’t pass as a monk in his bath towel (mostly due to his ginger moustache…), he put on some real clothes, we shelled out a whole $5 for a days moped hire and headed off to Hospital Cave. Just $1.50 each scored us a stable for our Honda steed and a friendly and knowledgable tour-guide to show us the sights. Hospital cave is a natural, three story, cave that was adapted during the Vietnam War (or American War as they call it) to serve as a secret, bomb-proof, safe house for Viet Cong leaders as well as a fully equipped hospital.
Deep inside the mountain is a series of concrete tunnels and purpose-built rooms such as the operation room, ward room, kitchen (equipped with secret smoke ventilation shafts), meeting room, cinema, exercise swimming pool and emergency jump tanks.
Being led underground alone, into a bomb shelter, with such horrifying history and impenetrable iron doors, is a little creepy. This was only exacerbated by the fact that our guide snuck off, put on an old generals hat and jumped out on us with a replica gun drawn at face height. It turned out to be a bit of fun but at first, I wasn’t so sure. (DISCLAIMER: I hate guns but in the name of history, I figured it was ok to pose for a picture. Just this once.) Hospital cave was never discovered by the Americans and served as a vital refuge from the barrage of bombs they dropped on the civilians of Cat Ba.
Years on, this is still very evident all across the island. I found our tour fascinating and at just $1.50, the best value tour I have even been on.
Back on the bike, we got some great road action and great view action to boot. As a kind of day finale, we headed up to the… thing (it’s probably some kind of temple but looks more like startrek has landed their moon cruiser on the mountain) for sunset and another great view of Cat Ba town. I think it looks better from a distance anyway. What do you think?