Day 201: Got to push travel timelines
Is catching the wrong ferry so much different than missing the right one? Photo: Isac Stone Simonelli
IF YOU aren't pushing the time tables when you're traveling, you're not squeezing enough into a day. At least that's been my policy, which has lead to missing a couple flights, plenty of buses and even more near misses of both – the kind of stuff of which adventures are made. Of course, it doesn't guarantee an adventure, but if you don't set the stage, you aren't giving it a fair shake.
So, today, I'm pushing the time tables. I need to check out of my room at Trang Anh Hotel by noon, then catch a ferry to Hai Phong to make it to Hanoi in time to pay VietClimb the fee for the bouldering competition this weekend.
Despite the late night, I'm up early and ready to climb at Butterfly Valley with Marry-Ann, Leah and Conner. Kayla is joining us as well, though given the finger situation, she thought it was best to take a day off.
I pick Kayla up and bring her back to My Way, where the rest of the crew is meeting for breakfast before heading out. Marry-Ann is fussing about because she's completely out of cash and the ATM isn't working. However, all of us are more than glad to spot her.
It's a glorious day. The air is crisp; the sun is out. It is a perfect day to be out on the rocks. After an easy warm-up route, Leah's showing off her sly smile and cracking jokes.
Time's flying. It's past 11 by the time I get on Mother Butterfly, which is an interesting 6a+ route that Leah wants to lead. I'm able to on-sight it, which means I jump on without having seen anyone else climb it and go all the way up without falling or taking. On sighting is the best thing in the world, as it requires in-the-moment problem solving skills, though that is less the case with easier routes like this one.
It's 11:30 by the time Leah is able to get on the route. I need to leave the crag at 11:30 in order to get back to town to check out.
“Yeah, it's fine. Go for it,” I tell her. Marry-Ann gives her a catch while I watch.
There is an enormous Black Kite perched in the bare branches of a tree poised atop the cliff. I wait for it to take off, peering through a zoom lens. It refuses to leave its perch. Another joins it in the branches. I could spend my whole life repeating a day like this: climbing rock like this, with people like these. But then again, maybe I'm exaggerating. That said, I am already considering a return trip before I leave Cat Ba, at least considering giving it a chance on the die.
It's about noon when Leah finishes the climb. I'm ready to get going. Marry-Ann, Kayla and I walk back to the bike – they're going to have a beach day.
There are further delays, before we're able to start zooming to town. Kayla's tense, worried that I'm rushing, perhaps driving too fast. Though it doesn't feel that way, she could easily be right.
It takes about fifteen more minutes for me to pack once I get to my room on the fifth floor. Have I ever mentioned how much I hate stairs?
The battery-less drone is left out. It's busted shell, damaged motors and bared wires look at me longingly, unsure why they are being abandoned in the hotel room. If I'd managed to save the battery, I might be more willing to salvage what's left of Dorsey. As it is, the salt water damage, plus the impact, plus the price of a new battery ($200 out here), I can't bring myself to even carry it back to Hanoi.
A casual lunch and a hunt for a Snickers bar later, it turns out that I'm going to have to race to get to the pier in time for the 3pm ferry to Cat Ca, where I can then take a ferry to the main land.
I do a crummy job of tying down my bags, strapping the drone box on top of everything. Bumping down the road, the drone box keeps sliding around, threatening to fall of completely.
I stop to re-position it.
Five minutes later, it's back to where it was.
This is not how you make up time when you're running late to catch a ferry.
Ten minutes later, I notice that the tent has disappeared. Having no idea how long ago I lost it and about to miss the ferry, I write off the idea of turning around to look for it – it's not like I've been camping at all anyway.
I take a right at a Y in the road, turning toward where I presume the ferry is located.
The tide is out as I rush through a section of wetlands on the west side of the island, the mangrove roots bare to the late afternoon air.
There is no ferry when I arrive. I'll have to wait for the 4pm ferry, which is the same one Leah and Maria will be on. I consider looping back for the tent because I have some free time. However, someone has probably recovered it by now.
This ferry station looks different than the one I arrived at more than a week ago. Then again, it was dark when we landed.
I park the Donkey, the bike, next to the entrance gate, buy a ticket from a woman at the little booth and then take a seat at the station, where only one of several stalls selling food and beverages is open.
Donkey is a pretty little beast. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
While eating a fairly unappealing fried rice and writing postcards, I see a group of white guys on Honda Wins arrive at the pier next to this one. That pier, however, doesn't seem like it is designed for vehicles to be loaded. I smile to myself and wait for them to realize their mistake and turn around.
Slowly, more and more tourists start to arrive, nearly all of them on a shuttle bus from town.
“Where does that boat go?” I ask the pleasant faced man who made my fried rice, pointing to where the men on Honda Wins went.
“Tour of the islands.”
“I see. What about this one?” I ask, pointing toward mine.
“It goes to Tuan Chau.”
That's not where I want to be going. I'm supposed to be headed to Cat Ca.
“Oh, shoot! Where's the other ferry? The one to Cat Ca?”
“That's over there,” he says, pointing. “About 20 minutes away. It goes to Cat Ca and then you have to take a ferry to Hai Phong.”
I start scrambling to get my stuff together. I don't want to miss the ferry to Cat Ca.
This could be a sign that I'm supposed to stay another night on Cat Ba, which is what Kayla points out when I tell her how miserably I failed at catching the ferry. However, I'm keen to get a move on and have a work day in Hanoi before the climbing competition.
“I think it's best you take this ferry now. It's longer drive to Hanoi, maybe 180km instead of 100km, but now you have waited it's better,” the man informs me as I'm considering whether or not the woman at the ticket booth will give me a refund for the 90,000 Dong ticket.
“Yes, you can see the islands too.”
I settle back into my chair and wait for the ferry to arrive.
It arrives. I load Donkey.
There aren't many people on the last ferry from Cat Ba to Tuan Chau.
To the mainland, we are headed. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
I strike up a conversation with a young Ukrainian couple at the bow. This ferry, with its concrete floor, is in a much better condition than either of the ones I took to Cat Ba.
I found Aledandr and Elena's travels inspiring. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Alexandr and Elena are a lovely young couple, maybe in their early 20s. He's tall, wearing a flat brim baseball hat and a floral scarf tied tight around his neck. She's wearing thick framed glasses and a heavy coat with a hood.
“We're mostly using Couch Surfing,” he explains to me as we talk travel. “We do have hammocks. One night we asked a man if we could hang them up between his trees. He took us into his house and let us sleep there.”
“Yeah, I've had my tent for six months and only used it once,” I say, momentarily forgetting that I lost it.
They are doing a Southeast Asia tour that bends up through China into Mongolia and Russia before going home.
“Can we take a photo with you?” Elena asks.
Alexandr holds up a strange device that looks strikingly like the Neuralyzer from Men in Black. It's a 360 degree camera. I didn't realize such things existed.
With a single push of a button he's captured the world in all directions from a single place and point in time.
The sun is starting to set behind the islands as the ferry navigates its way through the maze of striking limestone cliff faces.
“Do you want to take a photo of yourself?” Alexandr asks.
I head up to the top deck of the ship for a sunset picture of myself with the fancy camera, which costs about 550 dollars.
Something about Elena and Alexandr, from the start of the conversation, calms me, confirms that I'm back on the right path. I love their trip, their boldness, their confidence in going on such an epic journey together.
The sky is painted with striking pinks and oranges. The mountainous islands become silhouettes against the colorful back drop. Beyond the reach of the forest of islands lies the ferry arrival point. It's been a short ride, though I found time to kick back on Donkey and read a bit more of The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland – she's playing croquette with the Queen of Hearts, which is as good a way as any to loose your head.
It's a beautiful part of the country that I'd like to return to. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The manicured, straight line of palm trees and organized shop fronts on Tuan Chau jogs a memory. This is where a good friend and took the ferry from when we did our motorcycle trip four years ago.
A sense of joy fills me, like catch a glimpse of an old friend through a cafe window.
It was our first day on the road, we'd already been waylaid by a group of happy local men who got us moderately drunk on Vietnamese vodka during our lunch break, which took place just beyond the city limits of Hanoi. We'd arrived at the long bridge with oyster farms on either side that connects Tuan Chau to the main land.
It was night when arrived. We'd spent a good portion of the day moderately lost.
Stopped on the bridge, standing there next to our bikes in the dim yellow glow of the street lamps we watched a huge black SUV come to a stop not far from us.
One of the back doors opened and a pile of beautiful Vietnamese girls in cocktail dresses poured out of the vehicle, which then drove away. The girls, at first ignoring us, were taking selfies on the bridge. Then, they pulled us close for selfies.
It was an inexplicable moment: there we were minutes earlier, dirty from a day on the road and confused about where we were going to sleep that night, then we were surrounded by beautiful woman.
The black vehicle returned; picked up the girls.
One of them called out, “I love you.” The door closed and they were gone. We were back to standing alone on the bridge with only our motorcycles.
“Shit, we just got robbed,” my friend said, hands searching for his wallet. “Wait, no. I still have my wallet.”
We never came up with a reasonable explanation of what happened, though we believe we might have pulled a Dumb and Dumber by not following them to whatever party they were about to attend.
Cruising across the familiar bridge, I'm tempted to stop and send a picture to my friend, who I think is now stuffing his face with delicious Mexican food somewhere south of the border.
It's a long, dirty drive in the dark. Huge lorries kick up clouds of dirt. I end up on the Expressway, which has a no-motorcycle sign at the entrance, but it's too late for me to care. Once on the road, I'm confused by finding both speed limit signs for motorcycles and the occasional two-wheeled vehicle speeding toward Hanoi.
Google Maps takes me off the Expressway through a maze of roads on the outskirts of Hanoi. It takes a some time, but we eventually find VietClimb – I had promised to come by and pay the entrance fee today.
I messaged Eva earlier, explaining that I missed the ferry and was going to have a longer drive ahead of me. I asked her to pay the comp fee for me and secure me a room at a hotel or hostel. However, she doesn't have a phone and never responded, so here I am at VietClimb.
The the place is a wreck: climbing holds litter the floor, crash pads are piled up and boxes of t-shirts are scattered all over the place. One of the route setters is still in the office. I write my name down and give him 500,000 Dong for the competition fee. Outside, I get a message from Eva.
“The Chien Hostel is fully booked tonight.”
“Where are you staying? I'm finding climbing gym now. Can you book me in for tomorrow night?” I ask.
I send a message to Leh to see if I can crash at her place. I don't want to impose, but I'm also not so eager to be driving through town with all my gear trying to hunt down a place to sleep.
The internet cuts out. When it returns, I've a message from Leh saying it's fine for me to spend only tonight. There's also message from Eva.
“Oh, can you pay for me? I found us a room it's 13$/night... figured we an share it.”
Not wanting to stick her with the entire bill, and hopeful that if we share a room we can get a little more quality time together, I tell Eva that I'll be there shortly.
I explain the situation to Leh and thank her for the offer.
Home Backpackers Hostel is a dumpy little place down a side street in The Old Quarter. A narrow stairway leads to our room, 103. It's a low-ceiling affair with two beds covered with awkwardly unmatching bed sheets. Water is steadily leaking from the bathroom ceiling and the hot water doesn't work, but for seven dollars a night, it's not terrible – it's better than a dorm room.
“Yeah, I don't really like hostels,” Eva tells me, after recounting an unpleasant attempt at securing the last bed at Chien Hostel, where the rest of the Asia Outdoor team is staying. “I'm not really good at traveling.”
I don't believe her, but I agree that it's preferable to split a hotel room when it's nearly the same price as sharing a dorm room with eight to 12 people.
“I don't think I'm going to want to go out tonight. Sorry, if I'm not social,” Eva says, as if preempting some presumed party proposal. However, I also don't want to go out. I want to have dinner and call it a night. It was a long, dark, dusty drive to Hanoi.
After a bowl of duck Pho and desert at a cute little cafe playing Christmas music, we head back to the room to sleep.