Cat Ba Island

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As soon as we docked on Cat Ba Island, a swarm of women selling food and drink surrounded us. Like the seagulls in Finding Nemo they sent up a chorus of “You buy, you buy, you buy, you buy.” Piercing, unrelenting–for 30 minutes while we waited for the bus to take us to town. A stocky man from Israel was irritated. No, he did not want to buy water from them… he already had a bottle of water, see? But, would they like to purchase his bottle of water? The women giggled, decided to give up, and sat down between us and the Israeli. They kept us company, even though we were only able to communicate through gestures and more giggles. Their oblivious husbands sat in a small house at the other end of the bus turnaround watching cartoons, drinking sodas, hardly working.

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Waiting and waiting and finally another bus. Cat Ba Town was on the other side of the tropical island. Large banana leaves, exotic flowers, a symphony of bird calls–it could have been a deserted island, a Lost island, if not for tucked in lean-tos and the signs of new construction for high-end resorts.

Cat Ba Town was also deceptive. Pink and yellow and teal mid-rise buildings clashed against the moss-covered limestone cliff before us. Tourists–mostly Vietnamese–moved about with sand in their toes and sun on their backs. That thing about island time penetrated daily life. Slow and relaxed. The crescent bay cradled more single platform houseboats and floating restaurants, their phone numbers advertised in giant neon letters.  But when pressed further, the town revealed a lonely character. The buildings were all hotels. The tourists were temporary, the population was fleeing. A place to sleep while we dreamed about visiting the beaches and hiking in Cat Ba National Park. halong bay day tour