Rock the Cat Ba (Island, Halong Bay)

Could someone explain to me how you prepare and consume star fish?

So it turns out that Cat Ba Island in summer is the premier holiday destination of the  north Vietnamese. Premier as in 90% of tourists are Vietnamese and the remaining proportion are Western. Apparently we were pretty lucky to be paying $15/night for a double because (and I am told by a British hotel employee) bidding wars on rooms can occur during peak season, driving prices skyward. Judging by the amenities (and commodities) on the island, it’s evident that the island caters to Vietnamese. Have no illusions. Our stay on Cat Ba is really best reflected upon in anecdotes.

The Biggest Food Fail.

The entire island (population 15,000) has one Western restaurant. I’m serious, every other establishment is authentic Vietnamese, which is not to say that I don’t appreciate Vietnamese cuisine. It’s just that they have Western food on the menu and apparently much has been lost in translation. For a food enthusiast like myself, I was deeply disappointed by the lack-there-of food culture here. I’ll recount the most disappointing breakfast ever.

I order a baguette with fried egg and cheese, simple enough. I also ask for some tomato (not an extraordinary request, there was tomato on the menu). The server (and hotel proprietor) suggests a plate of tomato, “Very cheap.” Sure, a plate of tomato. Whatever. Greg orders something similar and GTO orders jam and a baguette. Curiously enough, our food (which requires a minimal degree of cooking) arrives before GTO’s plate of jam and bread. Our eggs arrive and a struggle for ketchup ensues. He brings us a small bowl of salt. Uh nope…no…ket-chup? “No have.” Fine, fine. At least we have brought our own personal bottle of Heinz mustard. Then a plate of fries is delivered to the table. Oh my god, seriously? Fries, tomatoes, fries, tomato? And you know what, the fries wouldn’t even be a major problem, if there was ketchup!!! Mustard mixed with chili sauce would have to suffice. Lastly, our iced coffee was definitely not iced. It was hot, which wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t 30*C. Epic breakfast fail.

Beach One

Literally,  the beaches have been named Beach One, Two and Three. Beach One is closest to town and should cost 10,000 VND/pax by motorbike taxi. It is also the largest and most populated. Populated isn’t the best word. Interestingly Vietnamese beach-goers arrive promptly each day at 4:30pm and stay for about an hour and a half. Late afternoon they begin to arrive in droves, and I get the sense that this is also the time when tour boats arrive on the island. So you’ve enjoyed the sunshine all day and it is cooling off, perhaps you’ve got your nose in a book when 150 tourists flood the beach. They are unbelievably loud (I think the Vietnamese people are the loudest people on the planet), ignorantly overtake beach space occupied by sunbathers to play soccer and have professional photographers (covered head to toe as not to tan) position them in the waves. G and I paid to use some chairs and this one photographer lined up her group of twenty and then proceeded to back up into us to get the picture. I stood up directly in front of her to move my effects from her feet and of course she made a fuss. Good, and I hope the proximity to my bikini-clad, large Western body made you uncomfortable. I should note that Beach Two is not immune to the invasion. Thank god the hoards only occupy the beach for an hour and a half a day.

Anyway, I have digressed. Being the closest to Cat Ba Town, we first ventured to Beach One. It was unbelievably hot and G and GTO had dipped into the water. This was short lived as the amount of garbage in the water was intolerable. We retreated under a bungalow for some respite from the heat and struck up a conversation with some girls on a boat tour. We were casually chatting until something floating into shore caught our eye. About one foot by one and a half, it appeared to be the grey-white innards of a large mammal. Absolutely appalling. Some beach employees eventually removed it from the shore with shovels, donning heavy duty gloves, face masks and gum boots. We consequently left for Beach Two.

Beach Two

We bucked up and purchased some beach chairs to soak up the rays. At about 2:00pm I approached the beach cafe and purchased an overpriced Fanta. I sat two chairs down from the one I had been occupying, to consume the drink in the shade of an umbrella. I was enjoying the view of the cove when a young Vietnamese boy timidly approached me. “Um, excusa-me?”

Me: “Yes?” I am thinking, ‘Is this seriously going to happen. Like seriously? This is so seriously about to happen.’

Boy: “You buy chair?”

Me: “Yes. That one there.” I pointed at the chair that was so obviously mine because there was no one else around.

Boy: “You…mumble…mumble…mumble…”

Me: “Uhm, you want me to move back to my chair?” I say lamely. This is sooo happening.

Boy (his face lights up): “Yes.”

Me (are you kidding me?): “I will finish my Fanta and then move back.”

Incidents like this are just becoming tragically laughable

The Mini Mart Lady

There’s a mini mart on our street but it conveniently closes from noon through four, so we are forced to be patrons of the one on the main strip. We frequented this same mini mart and made transactions with the same woman about five times and she still had the audacity to attempt to short change us.

The first time I went to buy something, water and sunscreen or whatever, it must have totalled 70,000 VND and I gave her 100,000. She made 20,000 in change and handed it back to me. That’s why you count your change travellers! I continued to stare at her, smile and hold my hand out. She counts out another five in small bills. “Okay, come on. Keep it coming. Five more.” She struggles to count out another five to complete the transaction. Nice try Mini Mart Lady.

So the next day Greg goes to buy smokes from the woman and she tries to shortchange him. G: “You wouldn’t believe this woman! She tried to rip me off 100,000 VND!” I hear ya babe. Mini Mart Lady is cunning. But really, at least try to short change us by a more plausible denomination.

But on a serious note, having to be constantly alert of scams is exhausting and frankly it ‘s disappointing. Not only does it reflect poorly on the entire tourist industry, my experiences ultimately color my opinion of the people. I am certainly not ignorant enough to paint the north Vietnamese with a single brush but I seek to open my mind through travelling not narrow it! To encounter so many business people in the industry at large who are so keen on separating you from your money is taxing. Pun intended! However, as far as I know the Vietnamese tourists could be short-changed just as frequently as we were.

Slo Pony Kayak Day Trip

Having decided to do Halong independently, we booked a day trip to the islands through Trip Advisor recommended Slo Pony Adventure Tours. You can buy organized tours from many Vietnamese run travel agencies but we were erring on the side of caution following our ‘episode’ en route to Cat Ba Island. We put out the extra Dong for an expatriate staff, great Vietnamese lunch and all day kayaking itinerary. We were mini bused out to the eastern port and cruised out in the morning sun. Our early morning kayak was highly enjoyable. Our boat moored just in front of Hanoi Backpacker’s Castaway Island and we had a good paddle around the opposing island. We were treated to some archways, lagoons and a small, sheltered, sandy beach. Lunch was delicious and again we enjoyed the company of our Dutch pals. After lunch we cruised a little further out towards Polish Pinnacle and were guided about by a very energetic American. I’m not sure if he had an amphetamine laced lunch but he was full of energy, and I could hardly will myself to keep up by the end of it. Greg was quite happy to join the American and climb up Polish Pinnacle for some cliff jumping. Much to everyone’s horror there were some huge jelly fish milling about at the base. After pushing off from the ledge you can imagine how quickly he paddled back to the kayak, fully exhilarated. We were lucky to have amazing weather for this excursion because we were about to experience sunny, but hazy skies for the rest of our stay on Cat Ba.  Slo Pony earns this blogger’s recommendation for day trips. Do book ahead of time if you are keen to rock climb or deep water solo.

Our Seinfeld Food Incident

As I mentioned above, there is only one Western style restaurant on Cat Ba. Really, there is no restaurant that even holds a candle to the Green Mango. It’s not exactly backpacker budget but then again we fancy ourselves budget travellers or ‘flashpackers’. Anyway, Green Mango is the only restaurant capable of making a good breakfast and we returned for dinner later that day with GTO and de Dutch. Service was fine, food quality was great (especially in the greater context of the island) and the ambiance was great. Then it got all fucked up.

The following evening we had returned for a third meal and a major cultural mis-communication occurred (the only explanation). GTO had been feeling like absolute  garbage for the last few days and was holed up in his room. He asked us if we could bring him back a chicken breast and veggies. Sure thing. We seated ourselves and asked the server if it would be possible just to order the chicken breast as the rest of the meal didn’t quite fit the description of what GTO’s stomach could handle. Yes, she replied. Could we have the price adjusted since we only wanted the protein and the plate was a pricey $9? As if I was trying to rip her off, she refused and we dropped the issue entirely. It’s fine we will just order for ourselves. Unsure of what we wanted we first put in our drink orders: Tiger Beer, water and Fanta. As we browsed the menu the server returned and placed Tiger Beer, water and Sprite on the table. “Oh, I ordered a Fanta, not a Sprite.” Simple error, easy enough fix. Well that’s not what happened. At all.

Server: “No you ordered Sprite.”

Me: “Greg, did I say Sprite?” I double checked. Seriously I rarely order Sprite.

Greg: “No she definitely said Fanta.”

The server begrudgingly picked up the offending Sprite and returned with a Fanta, refusing to look at me or say anything. “Really, you couldn’t just drink the Sprite?” Greg says.

“I really wanted a Fanta!” I retort. We decided what we want and patiently waited for the server to take our orders. The server mills about the other tables, providing superior service. Minutes pass. “Damn it, let’s settle the bill. I am not going to stand for this! This is so awkward.” So Greg kindly downed his large Tiger beer on principle and we left.

Greg: “Where are we going to go?”

Me: “Oh my god, I have no idea. That is the best restaurant on Cat Ba! We have three more days here! This can’t be happening. This kind of thing only happens in the plot lines of sitcoms!”

This is just awful. We have just alienated ourselves from the only, I repeat the ONLY good Western food on the island. You read above what happened during a simple breakfast! For the next few days we really struggle to find the most white washed cafes and restaurants in town. Terrible service and poor food quality ensue and we bemoan the Fanta Incident, while reasoning that we were not in the wrong. But not being in the wrong has never tasted so bad! It is devastating, the typical apex of my day is eating.  I love trying new things and especially on this island, meals break up the monotony of the beach days.

So it is August 3rd, it’s my birthday and god damn it, I want the best for my birthday! I want Green Mango!! Okay, we will try. Maybe her shift starts in the evening? It’s 5:30 now…let’s just go, walk by and maybe it will be a different server. It is so not a different server. There she is and we are the ONLY people in the restaurant. [Expletive]. We kind of stumble by and then pretend to read the menu while we try to discuss whether or not to go in. Greg: “Okay, let’s go in and be really, really nice.”  We seat ourselves and she approaches with menus. So awkward.

She returns for out drink order. Dare I order Fanta? NO! We order two large Tiger beers and she returns with them, and pours them into large glasses. This is notable because most servers in Asia pour beer straight into the glass which obviously produces 80% foam and 20% beer. Greg remarks, “You’re really good at that.” What a kiss ass.

Server: “Thank you, everything I do I try to be the best.”

Greg: “You know, we are really sorry about what happened the other night. We love the restaurant. It is the best in Cat Ba.”

Server: “Oh, yes. Thank you.”

I can’t recall the words exactly but all of us recognized the uncomfortable confrontation that happened days before, which initiated the recovery of the Fanta Incident. And thank god. We had such good service after this. I mean it was still incredibly awkward but it was friendly. Greg asked her name and we made formal introductions. I mentioned it was my birthday and she told me to wait just a few minutes more and took off down the street. When she returned she asked me to close my eyes and hold out my hands. She gifted me some conch key chains and I thanked her with a hug, which made her very uncomfortable (lol). We all had a laugh and told her we would be back again tomorrow.

WE WERE BACK IN THE GAME!

Other…

I have the best tan of the entire trip! I haven’t been this tanned since I used to pay for it leading up to prom.

Motorbike rentals are cheap, $5 for a full day and no passport required!

Some of the cheapest beer in Asia. Large Tiger beers sell for 15,000VND ($0.80). I don’t particularly understand this because Vietnam is supposedly Socialist/Communist, so why are they promoting imported beer?

If you are a seafood fanatic (which I am not), there’s a ton of fresh food for you to be enthused about.

Could someone explain to me how you prepare and consume star fish?

 There are these really crazy looking crabs in restaurant fish tanks. Their shells are as big as military helmets and they look like a cross between huge crabs with lobster tails. Right bizarre! Update: I have since discovered that these are Horseshoe Crabs and I am not convinced that they aren’t aliens. GOOGLE IMAGE IT.

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