Eventually I made it to Cat Ba island. Cat Ba is the largest island in the Halong area. Halong Bay is dotted with small, rocky mountains that jut up out of the water. Technically speaking, Halong Bay is only the open area of water by Halong City, but for our purposes it includes the surrounding karsks and formations. More than half the island is a National Park, with some small villages and one town that caters to tourists. Of course, I ended up in the touristy area. Everything there is expensive, at least by Vietnamese standards, and as such everyone is loath to pay for anything not absolutely necessary. I ended up taking a tour my first full day. I really wanted to go kayaking around the formations, and this guy promised it, albeit after a morning walk to see a hilltribe village. Sounds good. Well, the pleasant walk turned out to be a hellish hike. From the village we could either sit around and do nothing for 2 hours, or go on this hike. It was sprinkling a bit as we headed out, not that it mattered after a while - we were all soaking wet with sweat anyways. The so-called trail ended up being a stream at various points, then as it turned upward it became a mudbath due to the heavy rains the previous couple of days. After about 30 minutes hiking up the slick mud we hit the rocks, sharp and pointy with just enough slick, wet spots to make it very dangerous. I'd been told we'd go kayaking, so I was wearing my swim trunks and sandals. One poor German guy, Christian, was only wearing flip-flops as he had no idea what would be happening.
The view up was fantastic, though. We were able to see all the way to Halong City, and take in the view from extremely high up. Then came the best part, going down. Down is always more difficult, this path particularly so. A few Brits and I took the lead, not really waiting for anybody. We just wanted to get down and get cleaned up. I don't think anybody got back without slipping and getting either a bruise or cut someplace. I lost a couple layers of skin on my palm when I slipped and grabbed a rock. One girl managed to fall and land sitting on a sharp jut of a rock. Ouch! The nice part was stuffing ourselves with food back at the village and after a pleasant walk back to the boats we took a swim in one of the grottos. I met some really interesting people on the tour, particularly a couple of nice Austrian girls and Christian, the German. We ended up spending that evening hanging out, sharing stories, and going to the beach together the next day. I also rented a motorbike and drove to the far side of the island to see the beautiful scenery. It was great until I got caught in a downpour that made driving impossible. The beach near Cat Ba town had been damaged a few weeks before by the typhoon and debris was washed up all along the shore. But the waves were big and fun to swim in. We also got to witness a landslide that partly ruined the new landscaping of a hotel resort and reminded me that the Vietnamese aren't known for either their environmental awareness nor their capacity for landscaping. I caught an early morning ferry to Hanoi after my third night (yesterday) and have beeng wandering the Old Quarter looking for souvenirs to bring back to my schools. I fly out tomorrow, so I'll also have to stock up on baguettes and strong coffee that'll strip the enamel off your teeth.