4th - 6th April: Cat Ba Island & Haiphong

Cat Ba: Phuong Mai Family Hotel  -  £7 per night, double room
Haiphong: Monaco Hotel  -  £19 per night, double room

In amongst my meanderings around Hanoi I'd actually visited the railway station to check out the process for buying tickets, you'd have thought while there I'd have bought the bloody thing! So it was that my attempt to buy a 2nd-class air-conditioned seat at 5am came to nought with only 3rd-class being sold on the morning of travel, what was even more stupid was that I'd read this, somewhat important, fact when doing my research. Good thing was that the ticket I could buy was only £2 and the journey was both entertaining & reasonably comfortable.

Initial impressions didn't augur well as an elderly Vietnamese firebrand & his baguette were occupying my place on the bench seat, I signalled that it was my seat to be met with a skyward glance and a reluctant allowance of a third of the bench, the bloody baguette had more room than me!!! Having taken breath briefly he was soon putting the world to rights again. Luckily he wanted to include the whole carriage in his musings so was soon hopping from seat to seat seeking debate, this gave me a chance to relocate the baguette onto his bag and claim my rightful place where I was to be joined by a student wanting to talk English. I'd also been helped out by an employee of the US Embassy who turned on my fan to help ease my melting in the morning heat.

Trains in Vietnam are notoriously late and ours was no exception, this meant a mad taxi dash to the hydrofoil with fellow 'farang', Joachim from Germany, who I'd only met on disembarking. I was already prepared for the ticket touts at the terminal and rebuffed their badgering with a firm "No, too expensive!", to which they came back with "Ah, you very smart, yeah, me very expensive" smiling all the way, what they knew that I didn't was that there wasn't anyone at the ticket office. "Yeah, I very expensive!" as I handed over the dong . . . . . . they didn't gloat much :}

The only good thing that could be said about the crossing to Cat Ba is that it only lasted 45 minutes, the ancient hydrofoil being well past its scrappage date. I was soon trundling my suitcase down the harbourside towards Phuong Mai Family Hotel, the accommodation of Mr Khan & his family. To call it a hotel would be stretching it but my en-suite room above his hairdressers was only $12 a night, immaculately clean with a wonderful view of the harbour. After booking my Halong Bay trip for the following day I decided to take it pretty easy with a nice walk I found along the clifftop and a chill on the nearby beach from where I could admire the numerous black kite gliding overhead, unfortunately I was never quick enough with the camera to actually photograph one! The evening was as laidback as the island itself and, after a few beers & bit of fodder, an early night was called for as I had another early start in the morning.

Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and regarded as one of the wonders of our world today, while I agree the limestone karsts hold an ethereal beauty, especially in the hazy light of our day, unless the Vietnamese do something about the amount of rubbish floating amongst the diesel film on the water the experience will not be savoured as it should. Our traditional (old!) boat first visited the less celebrated, and cleaner, Lan Ha Bay for a bit of kayaking. I was partnered with Joachim and we were soon racing against Tasmanian devils Jim & Angela, competitive these bleeding Aussies! After a bit of fun it was back on board the Skylark for a spot of, very tasty, lunch. The rest of the trip was pretty mundane and, quite frankly, went on a couple of hours too long. One thing that did come out of it all though was that Jim & Angela completely re-arranged the rest of their holiday after hearing the enthusiasm the united nations of travellers onboard had for Hoi An, my next stop on the journey. By the time I met them for dinner that night the flights & hotel had been booked for the next morning. I, in turn, would be joining them the following day after a pretty uneventful stopover staying at the Monaco Hotel in Haiphong, the main port in Vietnam & given particular attention by the Americans during the war, the only noteworthy thing was seeing the town square turned into a racetrack for toddlers in little electric cars, very cute :}