Day 193: Hating motorcycle drive to adventure island
Halong Bay is one of the premier deepwater soloing destinations in the world. With such stunning limestone islands dotting the landscape it's easy to see why. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli / Music: Philipp Weigl
DON'T sleep with your host seems like a very good rule of thumb, I thought as I lay in bed this morning. I again prioritized sleep over traveling, having been up so late last night packing.
Leh comes down to the room carrying Bu, her cat. She's wearing a nightgown with a big smiley face on it. She puts Bu on the bed, but he takes off immediately. I take her hand and and she climbs into bed next to me, but above the comforter. Beneath fluffy piece of fabric, I'm completely naked.
Her small body is curled up against me, her nightgown, already short, ridding up high on her thigh. I let one hand caress her leg. Calm from the waist up, I'm at full attention downstairs.
What was I just saying about not sleeping with my host? Perhaps I had started patting myself on the back too early. It should be simple, right? Two adults – Leh's 33 years old – are keen to have a little bedroom frolic, so why hold back? It's not like there can be any misunderstands, there's just a connection and a very natural desire. Nonetheless, I find myself hesitating to move beyond some invisible barrier that's keeping things from escalating. Why? I couldn't say. I guess it's complicated. No wonder I confuse some women.
Bu is making a racket upstairs. Leh get's out of bed to check on him.
Laying alone in bed, I consider getting up, which would prevent things from going too far. But I don't. I'm still in bed when Leh returns with Bu, who again bolts out of the room as soon as she climbs into bed.
Her face turns toward mine, our dry lips lightly brush. Then I lean up and give her a big kiss on the forehead and I blow hot air onto her glasses, fogging them. I give a little laugh and pull her close. I've developed a habit of killing the mood, though it rarely seems to work as well as one might expect. It especially doesn't help that my body wants what most people's bodies want.
Leh and I cuddle for a bit longer, bring me back to attention.
“What time is it?” I ask, before reaching across her and checking my phone. It's nearly 10am. I'll get out of bed at 10.
“Okay, about time?” Leh asks at some point. I get out of bed, facing away from her.
“You were naked?” She asks.
I wrap a towel around myself and head to the bathroom.
In a sweeping number of successes, I'm able to confirm that my bank spending limit has been raised, I buy my Qatar Airways ticket to Kenya and I apply for my Kenya visa. Though it again looks like a failed attempt at an early start, at least it's been a productive morning.
Leh and I grab lunch at a little restaurant down the street before she waves me off and heads to work, wearing a long black skirt, black high heels and a white blouse. I still don't know what exactly she does for work.
Packed up and ready to roll. Photo: Leh
Decked in full riding gear, 30kg backpack strapped to the back of the bike and a drone bag on my shoulders, I still don't look overloaded compared to some of the motorbikes on the road, which are stacked with lord knows what, but enough of it to quadruple the size of the bike, both the width and height. A guy riding pillion behind his friend gives me a smile – already forgot that I've got orange fox ears with tuffs of fluff and glitter stuck to the top of my helmet.
The ears are very popular with the kids in Thailand, though it was Greg's bear ears in Laos that inspired me to get a pair for the Dice Travels' helmet. Oddly enough, the trend, which gained traction about a year or so go in Thailand, hasn't begun in Vietnam. I'm the only person on the road with animal earson their helmet.
Donkey and I pick up speed as we sail across Cua Nhat Tan Bridge. The suspension bridge with four beautiful red arches, cables elegantly splayed out on either side, runs above the Red River, which carves a northern and eastern boarder to Vietnam's capital.
Across the bridge and down AH14 toward Hai Phong, where I'll catch a ferry, I try to follow Google Maps onto the Expressway. Three loops of a four-leaf clover later – I missed the first turn off – I'm confronted by a no motorcycle sign at the entrance to the Expressway.
From that point forward, poor Google Maps does its best to re-direct me to the Expressway. However, I ignore its directions, sticking to AH14.
I know I should turn Google Maps off, as I'm not using it and it's draining my phone battery at a frightening rate, but there should be enough juice to get me close to where I'm going and I can't be bothered to pull over and turn the app off.
AH14 is a dull eight-lane, split highway comprising walls of lorries and dump trucks headed to some industrial part of Vietnam. The bumper to bumper traffic is nearly at a stand still as I attempt to wiggle a little farther head. However, even the shoulder of the road is blocked by the occasional 18-wheeler.
The roadside view is equally bleak. The smog that hangs heavy over Hanoi has given way to a blue sky that quickly turned a dull gray, the shop fronts are uniformly underwhelming and the rice fields themselves seem to have the hue sucked out of them. Some of the fields, recently harvested, still have piles of unthrashed rice, while wafts of smoke from burning piles of stalks in other fields blows across the road.
A tall foreigner with a small bag strapped to his bike, which looks to be a some sort of Honda Win, blows past me in the traffic. Hoping to follow him to the ferry, I give Donkey gas. However, I lose him in the maze of lorries, which are clogging the road like fat cells in the arteries of a heart attack patient.
The driving continues.
And I can't believe it, but it continues.
I'm not the prettiest of fellas at this point. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
It's supposed to be a couple hour drive to Hai Phong. Though I've been on the road for three hours when I hit the town, it feels like a life time. I find myself muttering “what the fuck” and other such obscenities to myself as I attempt not to kill anyone or be killed by anyone on the road.
None of this is Donkey's fault. Donkey is doing a wonderful job, it's a stressful drive in stressful traffic, that's it.
Without a gas gauge, I'm bound to run out of fuel sooner or later, as even with one, I often run out of gas. However, I'd already stopped earlier in the trip to fill the tank. I push onward.
Deep in the industrial part of town, after Google Maps takes me through the tight quarters of an active market – my ears getting some smiles from middle aged woman – I stop to ask for directions. It's a little mom-and-pop store that sells drinks and credit for mobile phones. The woman at the counter is kind, but instantly confused as I say, “Cat Ba”.
One of her customers, an older gentleman with his front teeth showing signs of decay, takes a look at my phone as I pull up the map. My phone is living on fumes. There's 1 per cent battery life left; I should have turned off Google Maps when I didn't need it.
“Dao Cat Ba,” he says with a big smile once I point to the location on the map.
I point out where we are on the map and he starts naming the areas I'll pass through on the way to the ferry, which I'm finally seeing on the map.
“Thank you,” I say, giving them both a big smile before climbing back on my bike.
The road dives deeper into the industrial zone, where pavements been torn apart by enormous trucks. Most of the intersections are deeply gorged, forcing me to slow. Lorries kick up clouds of white dust as they pull out ahead of Donkey.
Time is ticking. The ferry leaves on the hour, and I have a sneaking, sinking suspicion that 4pm will be the last boat. Google Maps is saying I'm still 45 minutes away. It's 3:13pm.
To conserve battery, I turn the phone off and follow the road straight toward the ferry port. Suddenly, the road ends in what appears to be freshly reclaimed land. There are a couple big dump trucks in the desert landscape and a warehouse to my left, but that's it.
I stop the bike.
One dump truck blasts its horn at me. The driver, a tiny spec behind the windshield, points back and to my left, helping me with directions.
I wave thank you and turn around. I spot a security guard at the warehouse and signal if the left up ahead is where I should be going – there's only one reason a backpacker is going to be way out here. He gives me a positive signal, so I speed down the road.
At the ticket stand, I'm no longer thinking about the time. I park the bike, yank off one glove and try to find the correct change for the ferry ride to the unbelievably flat Cat Hai, which I'll have to drive across to catch a second ferry to Cat Ba.
I woman in a floral patterned jacket with a hood shoves me out of the way, squeezing between me and the bike to get to the counter.
I laugh at her rudeness. It would have been just as easy to walk around me rather than attempt to push through me.
I pay the woman behind the counter 30,000 Dong.
“Four hour,” she says.
I look at my watch. Shit, it's almost 4pm.
Back on the bike, I drive 20 meters to where a security guard in a cop hat stops me. He needs to see my ticket. I stop the bike, again, pull off my glove, again, and fish around in my wallet for the ticket, now, very aware of the time.
Down the narrow road with swamp land on either side, I drive straight down the landing ramp. Men on either side of the ferry are starting to pull cords to raise the door. I drive up into the empty hull of the ship, which is full of cars and motorbikes. By the time Donkey is parked, the back door has been raised and we're already chugging away from the main land.
That was close. Very close.
The metal floors, banisters and stairs, basically the entire ship, is bubbling, blistering and rusting, yet it methodically chugs along as we pull away. Clumps of large barges are tied together, creating a beautiful, post-apocalyptic scene with the sun setting into the clouds of fine dust hanging over the industrial zone.
In the right lighting nearly everything can be beautiful. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Sitting on an empty steel drum near my bike, I open up American Psycho, but am interrupted by a Vietnamese man with a North Korean haircut and a black and white argyle sweater. He looks at Donkey and gives a thumbs up. Leaning in, he picks up one of my gloves and puts his hand up against it. The glove is monstrous compared to his hand. Then comes over next to me and holds his foot up to my boot. Even by American standards I have big feet, so again, he's foot look childish alongside mine.
I hold up my hand. He places his next it to confirm how much bigger I am. I'm not sure what it is, but Vietnamese seem very impressed with the size of foreigners, which is something I noticed on my first trip to Vietnam. However, I think they are not only impressed with our size in a positive way. I think they also have an enormous sense of pride in the fact that they are so much smaller, yet were able to defeat the United States with all its military might and its giant people.
I offer him a piece of chocolate, which he accepts with curiosity.
“No English,” he says.
“No Vietnamese.” I say
I attempt to introduce myself: “Isaac,” I say, placing my big hand on my chest. I do it several times, but he doesn't get it.
We both smile. He wanders off.
Shortly afterward, I middle-aged man in a white dress shirt with lavender stripes walks up to me, looking at the bike and then my gear.
He feels the tough quality of my jacket and gives me a thumbs up. I show him that the pants are the same.
He lingers for a bit, but, again, neither of us speaks the others' language. Eventually, I find a moment to return to my book without being rude. By this time, the flat landscape of Cat Hai has come into view. People begin filing down from upstairs and climbing into their cars or onto their bikes.
Donkey finds her place on the ferry. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
A white guy walks down the steps on the far side of the boat, spots me and gives me a wave. That means there's three of us on the boat I think, watching him mounts a different bike than the one I noticed on the ferry earlier. The Detech Espero I was eyeing when I got on the ferry seemed to be in very good condition. It even had a USB plug mounted on the frame, which is what I planned to do with Donkey, but never made happen.
Down the ferry ramp and we're off. The cement ramp leading away from the water is wet and slick with algae, but heavily textured, so Donkey has no problem getting her footing and speeding away. We're on a narrow, two-lane road on the flat island. The road is flanked by what looks like sewage treatment pools, though are maybe shrimp ponds, either way the black, mucky squares of water offer a less-than appealing swimming hole.
The curly-haired man on the Detech Espero is in front of me. The other backpacker is somewhere behind. Naturally, we start to group up as we cut through a small town on the island, racing for the next ferry. I say racing, because it feels fast, though I'm sure we're hardly going more than 40km/hr.
We all come to a stop at a “Y” in the road.
“Do you know which way?” the curly-haired guy asks with a strong German accent.
None of us know. However, a local points us in the right direction. To our right is a long bunker wall, which I remember from when I was here four years ago. At least I think I remember it.
Ten minutes later, we're back at a ticket booth. We pay 20,000 Dong each for the ferry.
“Hey, so what's your name?” I ask the German. We do a quick round of introductions. There is Johann from Germany and Jarrah from Australia and, of course, myself. Instantly, we have a little motorcycle crew.
The guard ripping tickets stops me after the others have passed. He wants a selfie with guy wearing fox ears.
He leans in and holds his phone out at arm's length. After snapping a few photos, he gives me an award-winning smile and a thumbs up.
We're a couple minutes early to loading. We park our bikes under a nearby shelter, where vendors are selling drinks and snacks.
“You're bike's beautiful,” Johann says, looking Donkey over. Jarrah agrees.
“Ah, I just spray painted it black yesterday,” I admit. “Your bike looks really solid man. I like the USB plug.”
All three of us scope out the bikes. All proud, but modest.
“So what did you name your girls?” Jarrah wants to know.
“Espero,” Johann says, pointing to the name already on the bike.
“Donkey,” I say.
“Yeah, what about your baby?” I ask.
“Silva, Silva Fox,” Jarrah says, caressing her tank. “I think I'll do like you did and sand her down and give her a silver coat.”
“That would be beautiful. Though, to be honest, I didn't even sand Donkey down, I just spray painted over everything.”
The gate goes up and we pull onto the ferry.
“Are you guys going up?” I ask.
“Yeah, it's going to be very romantic for the three of us,” Jarrah jokes as we climb the stairs to the top of the ferry.
Jarrah is a fairly fit, short guy with sweeping black hair and a large tattoo on his left bicep. He bought a one-way ticket to Vietnam and is fresh on his travels – this is day one on the motorcycle. Johann is a lanky guy with a full beard, though probably still in is early 20s. He's just finished a Northern Vietnam loop, which explains why he's so much faster than Jarrah and me on the bike.
The sun has set as we disembark from the ferry on to Cat Ba Island. We have about 45 minutes of driving on the dark, unlit island roads.
Donkey's headlight fades and then disappears as I wait for the other two at the top of the ramp. Her battery is nearly shot, so only when I'm giving her gas is she able to muster the power for the headlight. Once we're all ready to go, we take off, with me in the lead. Alpha instincts kicking in, I'm driving a bit faster than I'd like to be going, but can't seem to consciously force myself to slow down.
I hit the brakes hard as I slow at a bit of a trough in the road and then avoid large pot hole. The road cleans up as we leave the southern, swampy plains of the island and start up along the coastal road.
Johann makes a steady pass on the up slope as we climb the mountainside. At the top, we're both looking back for Jarrah, whose headlight is nowhere to be seen. We park. Beyond the road barrier, the final rays of the sun turn a sliver of the horizon a deep pink as a dark blue settles over everything.
“It's gorgeous,” Johann says.
I'm inclined to agree.
“Sorry mates, stalled it at the bottom,” Jarrah says. “My mate said we'd get to a Y in the road and to go left. They both get us there, but the road on the left is in better condition. At least that's what he said.”
My phone is dead, so Johann pulls his out to check a map. Jarrah and I are both committed to just going left, as we're at a solid Y in the road. However, Johann is double-checking, which feels like it's taking forever.
Donkey chokes back to life and we're off again.
At some point Johann disappears. Jarrah, who stops to take a leak informs me that the German had to make a phone call, which seems beyond strange given that it's night and we're kind of in the middle of nowhere.
Parts of the road seem familiar, but not so familiar that I know where I'm going. Once through Cat Ba Town, Jarrah and I take a left down toward Ben Beo Harbor. We stop.
“This doesn't look right,” I say. He agrees, but we decided to give it five more minutes.
About thirty seconds later, the road ends in the harbor. This is not what we want.
Eva's directions were less than clear. Or to be fair, what I remember of Eva's directions are less than clear. Of course, if my phone had power, I could check her message, which reads: Go to Ben Beo Harbor and it's the last hotel closest to the harbor on the left.
What I remember was “go to main harbor area and we're the last hotel on the left”.
Back up the hill, we hesitate and then take the other fork in the road toward Lan Ha Bay. Down the hill, we find ourselves on the main strip of Cat Ba Town, which is exactly what I remember.
A wide, four-lane split road with short palm trees an a grassy median separate ugly high-rise hotels from the boardwalk that runs along the bay. The lights from groups of fishing boats spot the water like stars in a night sky.
A man trying to get us to stay at Cat Ba Hotel, directs us toward Asia Outdoors, where Eva works. Above Asia Outdoors, on the third floor is The Good Bar. I plug my phone in so I can get in touch with Eva. I buy beer for myself and one for Jarrah, because the bartender charged me for both and the total was only 35,000 Dong.
Eva has already showered and is ready to go meet up with the rest of the Asia Outdoor guides for dinner. Exhausted from the less than lovely ride from Hanoi, I push to meet up at the hotel first, where I can at least take a shower and change out of my heavy riding gear.
Back in Ben Beo Harbor, Eva is waiting for me at the gate of her hotel. I give her a weak half hug from the motorcycle.
Up the cobblestone driveway, I'm blown away. A huge limestone rock face looms over a hotel with piles of kayaks stacked out front
“It's great to see you,” I say, off the bike and able to give Eva a proper hug.
Eva, who has always been fit, now has lovely tan skin, like roasted chestnuts, and is exceptionally toned.
“Are there bolted routes on this?” I ask, looking at the lovely piece of rock stretching into the night sky.
“Yep. My project is on it,” she says.
We walk over to where her climbing project Egyptian Submission, a 7a+, is situated. It's hard to see in the dark, but it looks like a fun line. I'd love to on-sight it, but given how out of shape I am, I'll be lucky to climb anything that hard.
The hotel is backed into the rock wall, as it faces a stunning view of the harbor, where clusters of boats are floating against a backdrop of dozens of dramatic islands.
“Come in, come in,” Eva says, helping me carry my bags into her first floor room. “So don't be surprised if I'm way more chilled out with everything. I'm a lot less A-type now. It's been a really good experience here.”
Eva had a checklist of things she wanted to accomplish while working as a guide for the last sixth months before she returned to a more traditional career path in the medical field – she's a certified nurse. By the sounds of it, she's ticking boxes as quickly as she needs to.
The room is a proper climbing dirt bag sort of setup. Shoes, quickdraws and other climbing gear is hanging from ornate metal bars over a window. Eva's bed is covered with bean bags, her roommate's is also a mess. The center of the room, where I'll be sleeping on a mat, is clear, but everywhere else is filled with the clutter of people who have passed through and left bits and bobs over the years.
It turns out that this side of the hotel, a four-storey white cement affair that feels a bit like a stacked motel, is rented out by Asia Outdoors for the their staff, which means it doesn't get the sprucing up and care you might get in the other rooms.
“Okay, before you shower, I need to show you something,” Eva says, leading me into the bathroom. “This is Bethany.”
Bethany is a curvy Asian woman with plump breasts, pale skin and prominent pink nipples composed of eight tiles on the far wall of the bathroom. Bethany, eyes down cast, seems fairly sad about the arrangement.
At first scandalized by the pornographic flare to the bathroom, Eva considered covering it, but then just got use to showering and doing her bathroom business with another naked woman in the room.
After I shower, Eva grabs her helmet and hopes on Donkey. We head back to the other bay, where a group of four of her co-workers are finishing up dinner.
We pull up chairs and I'm introduced to everyone, though their names don't stick.
There's a good banter at the table. I find my footing pretty quickly.
“I now remember why I don't like you,” Eva says, with plenty of love, when I start giving her a hard time about one thing or another.
Back in the hotel, they're going to have a movie night – the crew is still suffering from a goodbye party a couple days ago.
Eva's roommate Leah, pulls up her laptop while a crowd starts to form. There's Conner, a solid climber who's been out her for a while; Markus, a Spanish volunteer; and Rob, a solid climber who's still new to the job and hasn't become jaded yet. All in all, it's a good crew.
With everyone crowding into the room it feels like I'm back in a dorm room at Indian University.
“How old are you?” one of them asks.
“I'm 31 one now.”
“Really? You don't look that old.”
This has been the first age in my life where people feel the need to tell me 'I don't look that old', as if 31 is old. It's strange, as it didn't happen once when I turned thirty, perhaps I looked thirty? And now, suddenly I look 28 again?
Leah asks what people want to watch. The question is mostly ignored for the better part of ten minutes. I think about suggesting we use the dice for the decision, as they're perfect for these kinds of decisions, but I'm worried that the dice will choose and then someone will override the Die's Will, which I couldn't abide. So, to prevent any unnecessary friction, I sit back and watch their decision making process.
Eventually it's decided that we'll watch an Alex Honnold climbing movie about Africa, which ends up being less than exciting – it's hard to see what the point of the movie was, as there was no narrative arch.
Eva is sitting next to me on the floor with the most of us, she leans in close, but I'm unsure if I should put my arm around her. If it was just us, I wouldn't hesitate, as we've always had a very touchy-feely friendship that occasionally pushed some boundaries. In fact, our entire friendship was built on climbing and massages. However, I don't know the dynamics of the group. So, instead, I awkwardly hang my left arm in front of me.
Though most of us are fading and ready for bed, Rob pushes for Suffer Fest 2, which is a short climbing movie. This one, another Alex Honnold film, is inspiring and entertain.
Once everyone leaves, a thick, hard foam pad is put on the floor along with some bean bags and blankets for me. Eva fusses a bit about whether or not it's good enough. However, there is no need, as it's perfect.
So many adventures to be had! Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli