Cat Ba Island, Hai Phong City, Vietnam is the third island as well as the third country I've lived in in my life. My time here has since been thrilling, nerve racking, frustrating and most of all has been a rewarding and trans-formative experience.
The highlights of this experience, so far, outweigh the struggles of daily life here. If it were any different, there wouldn't be 18 of us who reside and work under the banner of Asia Outdoors. The team is made up guides from USA, England, Canada and Vietnam who've all found their way here through some interesting means or another. The karst islands and emerald green waters hooked us in but it’s the community of climbers and all round good people who make this place magnetic and livable.
So far I’ve had the opportunity to climb in some of the most picturesque locations in Asia, I’ve swam the waters of Ha Long Bay, I’ve gone cave exploring on remote islands & jungles, I’ve woken up to sunrises in Lan Ha Bay and have met travelers from all over the world.
I’ve found myself on mission and it’s been inadvertent up until now. Paul Theroux said we travel to find a better version of home. It’s true to a point and maybe that’s why I’m on another island. I don’t know if I can say this is a better version of home but it’s certainly different. It’s places like this that make you appreciate what you’ve got. Here, you can truly sit back and enjoy the moment.
I tried doing life a different way when I was dropped off with a French couple at Bova’s fish farm, a floating home in the bay. We watched our boat motor away back to Ben Beo Harbor without us. I waved a hand good bye to the group I had taken kayaking that afternoon and they returned it along with enthusiastic howling. An old Vietnamese man signaled us to come over to join in drinking green tea. The tea was warm in our hands. It was nice as the evening breeze picked up and chilled us. The rice wine that came out after was harder to get down. Guillaume, unfamiliar with the tradition, kept drinking his 2 oz. glass like a shot every time it was refilled. Somewhere between Mue’s halting hand motion and my roaring laughter, the message to drink it slower was lost. Soon Mue joined in my amusement and we watched his face turn bright red after a few more, “Mot, Hai, Ba, Zo! (One, two, three, drink!)” You cannot refuse rice wine. Aurelie seemed disinterested in Guillaume’s predicament and pretended to drink hers.
We couldn’t all converse with words, apart from the few Vietnamese phrases I knew, so we did as much as we could with our gestures. Guillaume spoke English well and so translated most of the conversation to his other half.
Drunk and fuzzy headed already, we were offered a tobacco bong. Mue showed us how it was done and passed it along. When in Rome… I tried my best to copy him but started coughing uncontrollably immediately as I inhaled. It took two more tries before I got it right and about that much for Guillaume.
After watching one of the crew kill and prepare our dinner, the meat eaters enjoyed it and we laughed through dinner. We talked of the Langurs (a kind of monkey endemic to the island) we saw that morning, the temples we explored and plans for the adventures that lay ahead. Guillaume learned how to drink properly then brought it up. It seemed he was too late. We watched the stars for a bit and fell asleep to the sweet lullaby of the squid boat generators.
4:15 am came and I was awake for some reason. The squid boats shut off and I was happy. I could enjoy some silence, I thought, and possibly get some sleep. Not 10 minutes later, a rooster sounded his call and, right on cue, the sun started to rise. I was awake but happy. The sight was unbelievable. The sun peaked between two karsts and lit up the bay with an orange glow. We watched it rise for hours and enjoyed it. The bay slowly filled with basket boats and rowers off to get their morning catch. They all rowed the same way, focusing on the last push in a very small range of motion.
Mue was sitting at the table with a glass of something and raised it to me. I first thought this may be rice wine and that I may have to find a way out. It was 8:00 am. Luckily it was green tea and I was also joined by the couple. We drank our fill and the crew signaled us to the boat to get going back to the port in Cat Ba Town. Mue wouldn’t have it and filled our cups again. It would be rude to decline. We drank the tea as quickly as we could without burning our mouths. The captain now had his head out the window and was yelling something in Vietnamese. Mue shrugged him off and continued to fill our cups. The engine was running and the crew was untying lines. I stood up and began to move away from the table. Guillaume held a puzzled look on his face and was reluctant to move. He glanced from me to the crew to Mue and then made slow movement towards his belongings that he still needed to gather before leaving. The captain seemed agitated so we grabbed our things and left. Mue held his hand outstretched with my glass in it but I hopped on the boat. It was hard to tell if they were just monkeying around or actually upset.
The cruise back completed our overnight experience and left us feeling relaxed and carefree. The couple chatted in French the whole way back. I sat back and enjoyed the moment.
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