Casey was on her way to China to lead a trip for No Barriers Youth and I was hanging in Hanoi for the following ten days on my own. Now I had not truly been on my own in a very long time; many of you know that Casey and I do just about everything together. Other years when she left for these trips I was with friends or family, rather than by myself in a new city. So what was I going to do? Well... Casey (and I) made a long list of things for me to work on and research, of course, but I also wanted to fit in a mini cycle trip to Cat Ba Island.
The first few days in Hanoi were spent on the computer in my hotel room with no window, only venturing out for food and coffee. These forays were through the quaint yet extremely hectic Old Quarter. The banh mi sandwiches and the Vietnamese coffees with sweetened condensed milk were what got me through those days (not to mention countless bowls of pho).
78 miles to Haiphong
The morning I was to leave Hanoi for Cat Ba Island I hit snooze and woke up much later than I wanted to. I ate breakfast while watching the rain come down. I almost decided to cancel my plans entirely, but I had already paid for a hotel room on the island. I nearly opted to take a bus instead, but the hotel manager would not let me keep my bike in their storage room. Already with no good options, I realized I had also set in motion another reason why I should leave. I had lost the key to the safe in my room and the manager was very unhappy with me. She frowned and muttered, "This is real bad." I braced myself for the worst, but she then only charged me 50,000 Vietnamese dong, a little over $2. I paid and left quickly, never to return, because I worried she would find out that it will cost her much more than that. And I don't want to be around when she does. So off I went, only getting lost a few times heading out of Hanoi.
I got on a road along a river and through small villages and rice fields, as well as bananas and other crops. It was pretty cool to have little to no traffic after being in Hanoi for so long. The road itself was nice for most of it, that is until it became more pothole than road. I stopped for lunch at a hole in the wall pho restaurant with good food and a nice lady who came over to chat with me. I also watched them preparing a dog to eat. They were burning it on the sidewalk, I think to get the fur off.
After lunch and a few more hours on the side roads, I was back on the highway and this sucked. There was a shoulder but it was crowded with motorbikes and there were lots of big trucks zooming by, splashing, spraying and scaring me. Did I mention that it was still raining? I tried twice to get off the highway but both times had to turn around because of dirt roads turned to mud. Finally, I got off the highway and on side roads the rest of the way into Haiphong. I arrived around 6:30 after 75 miles in the rain. When I was planning this ride and made a route, it was only 60 miles, not too long of a day. When I used the ForeverMap app, which I use for most of my planning because it routes off the main roads onto nice side roads, it was then 70 miles, a bit longer of a day. Then it became 75 miles because I got lost a few times, almost two hours longer than I had planned! It became quite a long ride for my first time back on my bike in a month.
I cycled pretty much all day without stopping. It was too rainy for photos and there was no food to eat so I just kept going. It was really weird not trying to keep up with Casey or waiting for her and not having someone to talk to as I rode. Traveling by myself was both rewarding and lonely. I was the only one who had to deal with my bad decisions. I wasn't affecting anyone else. Decisions were faster because I had no one to talk to, only myself. You should have heard those conversations. I didn't have Casey's wisdom to help out so I just did what felt right in the moment, which I would then regret a few moments later. And then sometimes I would be happy with the decision later on. I was lonely though, having no one to share the adventure with. Sure, I talked to my folks and Casey but it was not the same. At the same time, I did like being alone sometimes. It was very different.
In town, I could not find the hotel I was aiming for, so I rode by two others to scope them out. They said no before I could even ask for a room! Were they really full? Do they hate bikes? Or do they just hate wet bikes? I cycled around for a while until I found one that was both cheap and welcoming to me with my bike. After getting myself un-waterlogged, I went to a local brewery for a dark tasteless beer and super dry fried rice. Unfortunately, it wasn't a great place. Back in the room, I chatted with Casey before heading to bed. My knee hurt on and off throughout the day, and I wasn't so happy about that.
16 miles plus boat and bus to Cat Ba island
I was going to wake up early so I could catch the first ferry but I was so tired that it did not happen. I got to the ferry dock in the pouring rain. The first boat company said "no bikes." The second company said it would be the same cost for my bike as me! The third company wanted a lot but I was able to talk him down a bit, but then he said the road was real bad for biking so he did not recommend I go this route. He suggested yet another company and gave me back my money. This shocked me more than getting denied, an honest man who was not just trying to make a quick buck on a tourist. It was very refreshing. So I could have cycled straight to the other dock as he suggested, but it was about 10 or so miles and it was still raining so hard. Finally, the fourth company said no problem for the bike and the price was lower than the others. I guess sometimes persistence really does pay off, but before this point I almost gave up and headed back to Hanoi. This had become such a hassle that I was already dreading getting back from the island, but I decided to go anyway.
This was one of the decisions that I regretted in the moment but would later look back on as a success. The bus ride to the ferry was along a muddy road with heavy truck and bus traffic, which I would have to ride back on. I loaded the ferry easily, but as I got off the boat and approached the bus to Cat Ba town (included in my ticket price) the driver said 'No!' to my bike and drove off. So what could I do but get a pack of cookies for breakfast since I had not eaten yet and ride the 15 hilly miles in the rain to town? It wasn't a huge deal, but I paid for the bus just like all the others who got on. Actually, I payed more because of the additional bike fee. At least the ride was not so bad even though my knee did hurt, and did I mention it was raining? In fact, I think the ride would have been amazing if I could have seen anything. Parts of the road were so flooded that my feet were under water while pedaling.
I got some amazing smiles, looks of wonder, thumbs ups, and shouts of encouragement as I rode. I wasn't sure if it was because of the weather or what. Whatever the reason though, it always made me smile back no matter what mood I was in. If you ever pass a cycle tourer in your car, don't honk right next to them even if it's just to say hi. It can be a shock and hurt the ears. Wave out the window or give a shout of encouragement instead. It helps a lot. Or even better, if you have a spare water bottle or some fruit, stop and share it with them.
The only easy part of the day turned out to be checking into my hotel. They gave me no problems about the bike and I had a great view from my room on the fourth floor with a floor to ceiling window overlooking the bay. Sure, the ceiling leaks a bit and there are plenty of ants, but it only cost $9. I spent a few hours walking around town, mostly made up of eateries and hotels, but the local market was cool. The streets were flooded above the ankles in a lot of places. I ate some pho and a pastry and headed to the room to rest. By then I was a walking zombie.
17 miles around Cat Ba Island
What a surprise, I woke up to yet more rain so I was lazy about getting ready to sightsee that day, but luckily it soon stopped raining. Breakfast next door had great coffee, a good pancake and eggs. It was a nice ride up to Cat Ba National Park. I hiked on the only open trail since the rest were closed due to wet weather, fallen trees, and bad trail conditions. It was a great hike up through a rainforest. Of course, I didn't see any big animals, but I did see crabs, lizards, skinks, birds, and some cool vegetation as well. There were nice but overcast views from the top. I took my time on way down, stopping to check out a small cage of sad-looking monkeys. Supposedly it was a temporary location for them after being rescued. Passing by a 'zoo' featuring deer, I went into the visitor center to see the animal display room but it was all locked up in a decrepit building. Through the window, the taxidermy looked pretty scary, maybe some of the worst I have seen.
On the way back to town, I stopped at Hospital Cave. This was an interesting cave with a bunker built inside of it. It was used during the American/Vietnam war as a shelter and hospital. It reminded me of being in Battery Townsley back in the Marin Headlands. Then I went to a harbor area near Cat Ba town with awesome karst formations and a floating fishing village. That evening, I found a bia hoi joint with good local beer and asked for pho for dinner. At first they did not want to serve me, but after asking nicely again, a guy got on his motorbike with an empty bowl and came back with it full! I don't know where he went to get it, but it was good.
7 miles on Cat Ba Island
It was yet another slow morning because of yet more rain. After breakfast, I worked on stuff for a while then signed up for kayak tour with Asia Outdoors for the following day. Casey said to stop worrying about money, so I listened to her. When it stopped raining, I got on my bike and went exploring to some view points and then up a very steep hill to Cannon Fort. Walking around the fort was like walking around the Marin Headlands. The fort is built into the hillside will gun trenches and cannon holes and the have these creepy-cool mannequins around the gun and sitting at desks. I think they need these in the Headlands. It brings some life to the fort... I had the place to myself for most of the time while sitting at a viewpoint looking over the bay, until a very large group of French came by and overran the place.
It was also a nice ride back down the hill, except when I was going over the bridge to the fishing port I noticed that I had a flat. Ugh! Conveniently, I pulled into a bia hoi and ordered a beer before starting the repair. Then the big French group came by and ordered beers as well. Either they are following me or it's a small island. The tube turned out to be split along the valve and therefore unfixable. Ironically, I had to ask the group to watch my bike while I ran back to my room for a new tube. Luckily, I had one. So in the end I was able to fix the flat while enjoying some good fresh beer.
Cat Ba Island
I woke up early and had breakfast at my usual place. I don't usually go on tours if I can help it, but kayaking on my own amongst the karst seemed unwise. So... I got on a big boat with about twenty people, but also plenty of space on a nice sun deck. However--surprise, surprise--we could see the rain coming at us; it was going to pour. We passed by a floating fishing village and many cool karst pinnacles poking out of the water. I chatted with some French Canadians about climbing and traveling. Of course, we got in our kayaks from a floating restaurant just as the rain started. There was an odd number of kayakers, so I was paired with a guy who was part of a group of five young college Brits. Dumb and Dumber came to mind. My partner was not a good paddler since he was nervous and did not trust my steering.
It rained for most of the two-hour long morning kayak session, but not too hard. We kayaked around Lan Ha Bay, the less-visited but just as beautiful bay next to its famous counterpart Ha Long Bay. The paddle trip took us through the amazing karst scenery, a few archways and an open-roofed cavern. Back on the boat, lunch was served family style with three to four people at a table. There was plenty of food and it was pretty good as well. Egg was provided as my vegetarian substitute for the fish, which is unsustainably caught in the area. The sun came out and the sky cleared, so we chilled on the upper deck for awhile while taking in the amazing scenery. As we motored further out, Lan Ha Bay got even more beautiful. We kayaked for two more hours with a little time on a beach. We saw a monkey and lots of cool birds, maybe some hawks or eagles. I chatted with our guide Claire about work, travel, and environmental topics, especially after watching some fishermen fishing with dynamite! Overall, it was a very nice and enjoyable day. Was it worth the extra $7 over other tours? Probably. Was it worth the price over going by myself? Yeah, I was able to go further out in the bay and had some nice folks to talk to.
While eating dinner that evening, I got offered a pretty Vietnamese girl by a man passing by. I declined.
24 miles back to Hanoi
I packed up and headed out of town, taking the back way toward the national park. A local guy at Hospital Cave Cafe waved at me and yelled "Tea!". I almost just cycled by, but then I turned around after thinking to myself, "Well, this is why I travel by bike." He offered me Vietnamese tea and we sat and chatted for a while. He had very good English as well as speaking five other languages, all of which he learned by talking with tourists. He was in the Vietnamese army and fought in the Chinese war. He was a really nice guy. After a while, I got going again on a nice ride along the coastal road to the ferry docks. The first dock I came across was not the Hadeco ferry, but they tried to tell me that Hadeco would not take my bike so I should just go with them. Liars! I finally got them to point me in the right direction and just a little further down road was Hadeco. I paid 170,000 dong ($8.50) including my bike.
While waiting for the ferry, a group from the infamous Castaway Tour showed up. Most were super drunk and the remainder looked annoyed. One girl said she cut her trip short because it was so bad. I was thankful to get on a different ferry. Very thankful. Back in Haiphong, I went to the train station to get a ticket for later than night, then found the Haiphong Brewery. I was impressed with their amber and bought two bottles as a surprise for Casey when she gets back. I filled up on some street food at two different stalls before returning to the train station. It was nerve wracking and weird to lose control of how they loaded my bike. Casey would have been proud with how calm I was. The cheaper hard seat was not such a bad ride, although anything longer than the two hours to Hanoi could be rough. I returned to the Blue Sky Hotel 2 but they only had a dorm bed available. Their other location had a room, but would not accept my bike. Always an ordeal, but eventually I was able to leave my bike at Blue Sky 2 while I stayed at Blue Sky 1!
The ten days I was traveling solo went by much faster than I expected, and most of the time it wasn't even that bad. Before I knew it, Casey was back and we were planning the next leg of our journey together.