Ha Long Bay and Cat Ba Island

9 December

I’m sitting at a café on a beach on the holiday island of Cat Ba. It was lovely when I got here but it’s now overcast, and I’ve just had some young man demanding money from me for sitting on the café’s beach chairs. I did try to get a cup of tea when I first got here, but when I went to the counter to buy it, neither the young man nor his umpteen mates could tear themselves away from the lurid Samurai drama they were watching on TV to come and serve me, and the bunch of women sitting with them were too busy picking things out of each other’s hair. Nits, I assume?

I’m here because I wanted to see the famously beautiful Ha Long/Halong Bay. The guidebooks say the best way of doing that is to spend a night there on a boat (I think it’s something to do with appreciating the silence and stillness of the water during the night, while the limestone karsts look spectacularly spooky when they’re wrapped in morning mist). The easiest – and safest – way of doing that was through a tour, which in the case of the one I went for, through Handspan Travel in Hanoi, included a jaunt to Cat Ba.

Floating village, Halong Bay

Floating village, Halong Bay

Halong Bay really was spectacular – limestone karsts soaring out of a turquoise sea and all that – but I spent almost all evening getting worked up, and then all night actually awake, because some considerate person told me they had met some people who had had to decamp to the deck because of rats in their cabins.

Of course, I had to have that conversation while we were merrily sailing into the bay and it was too late to opt to stay on dry land, so the best I could do was hope that, as Handspan is supposed to be one of the posher companies, the pest control on their boats would be better than that of the cheaper operation the rat people had travelled with.  It wasn’t much help, though. I had a cabin to myself and I just could not allow myself to go to sleep, and every sound put me on the verge of a panic attack, partly because I hadn’t really thought through what I would do if there actually was a rat in the cabin. Would I scream and wake the whole boat? Would I lie still and hope the rat left without making contact with me? Would I try to flee the cabin? If I would, how would I do it? How easy would it be to open the door and get out without standing on the floor, especially as the cabin roof was scarcely taller than me? What if the rat was on the shelf near my head? It was horrible, horrible, horrible. And after all that stress, I didn’t even have a bloody rat in my cabin anyway!

It’s only now, after a day unwinding in the quieter parts of Cat Ba that I’m starting to remember just how stunning Halong Bay was. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, after all. Cat Ba is OK, but I’m sure my life would still have been complete if I hadn’t seen it.

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