We rolled off just after eight this morning with stops at the post office and a cafe. We rode back down to the harbor to inquire about a boat to Cat Ba Island. Cat Ba is only a bit further than the first cave we went to yesterday, so we were expecting to get a boat for about 10USD. The first guy who walked up to us asked for 30 per person. We laughed at him and explained that we were not idiots. We said that it should only take one hour, and even if we paid for the return ride the price would never be so high. The women in the ticket office didn't know anything about renting such a boat, so we were stuck back with the boat owner who approached us or any number of people just like him. So, we talked the guy down to 28 and loaded up. The boat ride actually took almost two hours one way, so I had some time to catch-up on some reading and journals.
Our arrival at Gia Luan was quite amusing to us. We unloaded our bikes onto the concrete pier and asked a couple boys standing there whether this was Gia Luan. Before we knew it our boat was pulling away and we were stranded on this deserted pier which was still under construction in places. The boys seemed to say that we were in the right place and that the road down to Cat Ba Town was not so hilly. We walked our bikes across the unfinished rocky pier and headed up the first hill. Soon the road did level out and we realized one thankful fact: there was no traffic!
Halfway across the island we stopped at the Cat Ba National Park. The guy at the gate told us that there were various trails up to 14km in length that we could enjoy in the park. It was almost 1pm already, but we vowed to make it back later in the day. The road passed by a couple caves, one of which we checked-out. It turned out to be converted into a bomb shelter, so there was no much to see. Over a little pass, the road passed through a large meadow with a small meadow and lots of cultivating going on. Then a couple more gentle passes and we were rolling into the town of Cat Ba.
Merry's book recommended the Quang Duc, but there were so many other hotels lining the oceanfront of this crescent-shaped town, so we just picked the one that caught our eye. Competition among hotel owners was pretty stiff, so we were able to get two more good rooms for only 6USD each. Plus, the guy at the desk offered to arrange a whole kayaking adventure for us tomorrow morning as well as our speed boat ride out of here. Having completed all of these arrangements, we headed off for a late lunch.
The food was good as always and soon we were headed back toward the park on our bikes. Time was getting late, but we were hoping to get in a short hike before riding back into town. Since there are really only two roads on this island, we decided to take the second one on the way toward the park. This route along the western shore offered even more interesting views of the limestone peaks and little villages that dot this island. As promised, the road that crossed back over from the coastal road to the road that bisects the island
down the middle (which we had originally taken in from the north) was a little bumpy and took us up to about 100m. The descent from this height was quite exhilarating. By the time we made it back to the entrance to the national park, we realized we were too late to get any hiking in. So we just headed back toward the town, stopping at a couple more caves on the way. Although this was not an official cycling day, we had put in over 50km, part of it at race-speed over some challenging hills.
Back in town we were presented with more opportunities to drink and eat and spend our money. There were more foreign tourists here than anywhere we had seen yet. The waterfront was lined with electrical firework lights that explode in a burst of glory every 2 seconds, all night long. The restaurants and hotels were still decorated with Christmas trees and the streets still lined with Christmas lights (snowflakes in Vietnam?) even though Christmas was now four days past and basically only 5% of the population is Christian. We marveled at the speed by which the 20-30 workers were filling in the bay and creating more oceanfront property. They continued working through at least 10pm when the tide was low and the dirt and rock flowed into the water behind the new seawall they were constructing. People here were always constructing something new, and we have no doubt that by the next time we return, there will be a whole new row of hotels catering to thousands of tourists each day. But we hoped that instead the island we be preserved as a place for people to enjoy a quiet bike ride, a little spelunking or hiking, and maybe some kayaking. Until tomorrow...