Jay and I both sleep through the alarm this morning and wake to John’s knocking on the door at eight minutes past six. Two minutes later, breakfast arrives on a tray, and somehow, we are downstairs in the foyer to pick up our tour to Cat Ba Island by half past.
The departure of the bus is delayed by some other passengers, so we do not feel too guilty at our own tardiness. We pass through flat green countryside, then hills replace the paddy-fields as we approach Ha Long City around noon.
The place where the bus sets us down is reminiscent of an off-season european seaside resort, and I expect to see a crazy golf course and dodgems on the sea-front. The lunch, included in the tour price, is generous and tasty—stir-fried dishes of fish, beef, and vegetables with rice.
We travel across the bay first to Thien Cung cave. Although clearly set up for tourists, it is surprisingly tastefully done. Subtle coloured lighting picks out the best rock formations of the enormous cavern that we find ourselves in. This natural cave was used during the war as a hospital, and must occupy by far the larger part of the inside of the island. The second cave, at the top of a steep flight of steps, is less impressive and the humidity is exhausting.
Today, most of the islands of the bay are visible just as grey shapes in the haze. The closer ones appear more green, rising abruptly on rocky crags from the placid sea. There are few other boats around, and I am soon lulled to sleep by the chugging of our boat’s engine.
More boats begin to appear around us as we approach Cat Ba City, the main port and town of Cat Ba Island. The sky is turning from a hazy white to pale orange. Outside the port is a floating city, boat after boat, the blue flickering lights of televisions spilling out from the windows. We pass a line of seven or eight fishing vessels moored side by side, spotless in their blue livery, proudly displaying in line their yellow-star-on-red flags.
The hotel is all right. James is upset that our room has no television, but at least we have air conditioning.
Actually, we don’t have air conditioning. When we return from supper and an evening stroll around Cat Ba Town (something that doesn’t take very long), the air conditioning unit is off and we can’t restart it. Apparently, we have to pay a supplement to use it.
Cat Ba Town has changed much in recent years. Hotels line the waterfront and there is now mains electricity. Karaoke bars and massage parlours have sprung up. But only a short distance from the waterfront is darkness. Many people are out on the promenade this evening. A game that is evidently very popular with the local children is played with an over-sized badminton shuttlecock, which they keep aloft with their feet. That this is harder than it looks is amply demonstrated by John.
John also cannot resist the prospect of a massage, but from the sounds eminating from behind the screen, we do wonder whether he might be having second thoughts.