Cat Ba Island has been a bit of a surreal experience.
This week we went to their National Park in the hope of bumping into one or two of their golden-headed langurs. Not that it was likely. There are about 70 langurs in an area twice the size of Jersey.
A conservation programme to save the golden-headed langur is surely too little too late. The local population has already eaten the rest. But we reckon if anyone can find a langur, it’s our guide, who is introduced as Monkey Man.
The first ten minutes in the park do not impress. The litter is a problem. There’s a monkey in a cage. A sign says it’s a temporary rescue place. I am not so sure. Apparently this National Park is home to 32 types of mammal and 70 bird species. We see three or four deer. We hear frogs croaking. It’s been beautifully wet for them.
We walk through what looks like an abandoned homestay area with a pool. It has surely seen better days. The guide insists it’s a good photo opportunity. David obliges. It’s easier than questioning it. Then the guide grabs a crab and tries positioning it for a photo. The crab scuttles off, falls unharmed off a tree. This happens a few times as he is picked up for repositioning. It’s ok, I say, let’s leave it. I am glad when eventually the crab wins the day by hiding round the back of a tree where he can’t be disturbed.
Then we see two huge spiders on a tree. I hope to god the guide is not going to pick them up. David’s camera struggles with the humidity and he has to keep wiping the lens. We hope we have the spider photo.
It’s quite a climb up, with manmade steps through the forest. Although the park has some strategically placed bins they are all full and there other piles of rubbish elsewhere, especially plastic bottles. It never ceases to amaze me how people can’t be arsed to carry an empty plastic bottle back down a hill. Surely most of the people are interested in ecotourism, something Cat Ba is trying to champion.
In terms of experiencing a rainforest it was worth doing. It was – inevitably – humid and sweaty and we had close encounters with mosquitoes and other assorted biting bugs. The guide gave us sturdy sticks. To stave off snakes, I wondered. Turns out it was more trek pole than self-defence weapon. On the final ascent we put down the sticks so that we had both hands free in order to clamber up the rocks.
At the very top there was a lookout shelter, though there was not much to look out for as it was all green forest and mist. It was nevertheless an accomplishment and the cool breeze was welcome.
The guide had a fag in the fresh air and checked his Facebook while we took photos. Then he made odd noises as if to summon some monkeys for us. Nothing happened. I mean, why would a monkey with 100 miles of forest to explore come to an area littered with plastic bottles, a local in a Man United Tshirt and two sweaty tourists? A thought flitted through my mind. Unless there was food…
No, luckily he didn’t entice with food. But he made more silly sounds cupping his hands and blowing through rolled leaves. He put one leafy frond to his chin. ‘Ho Chi Minh,’ he said drily.
His sense of humour now coming to the fore, he gestured to me to sit next to him on a wooden railing. He had been directing us for photos all the way so I assumed he was doing it again. There was a precarious drop to trees.
‘Don’t do it if you’re not comfortable,’ David warned. I recognised that this was his understated way of saying ‘fuck that’.
Having mentally done a quick risk assessment, I sat as I was told, not feeling it was too dangerous. Before I knew it, the guide had jumped up on a slippery wet post and balanced on one leg. We had ourselves a performing monkey after all.
Back at the bottom we bought Monkey Man a cold drink. On giving him a $5 tip he gave us a smoky, sweaty hug and in so doing kissed the back of David’s neck.
Which we laughed about all the way back to town.
We were in Cat Ba town for only 24 hours, with no time (or inclination) to go off in search of sporty activities. Lonely Planet says Cat Ba is emerging as northern Vietnam’s adventure-sport mecca, with sailing, biking and rock-climbing on offer. But there was nothing of note in the town. It’s scruffy. You can’t tell if buildings are going up or falling down. It gives an awful first impression on arrival through the majestic Ha Long Bay. There’s rubbish everywhere. Work in progress, you could say.
We walked around the coast to a beach (imaginatively named Cat Ba 1… there are two others in similar labelling). Plenty of people were enjoying the water, but right behind the beach was a huge building site. Construction on the Flamingo beach resort has started.
The best part of the day was finding our hotel’s rooftop bar and pool. I got straight in to my cossie while David ordered a beer.
From up here we could appreciate the view of local fishing boats and floating seafood restaurants. But we could also see evidence of their lack of planning policies. Who allowed that building to block up the view between two hills? (Look closely at the picture at the top of this post and you can see it at the far left.) Who allowed that building to be so high?
On our last day, sitting on a street corner waiting for the bus, we reflected that we have been sad to leave some places on our journey. Not so Cat Ba Island.
We tried to sum up in one word what we thought of it. These are what came to mind.
Disappointing. Unfinished. Characterless.