Thursday, December 17, 2015

Tales of Cát Bà Island-- Old and New

                                                        by Jim Goodman

typical islands of Hạ Long Bay
       Most of the islands studding the waters of H Long Bay, Vietnam’s premier scenic wonder, are small, limestone promontories jutting out of the sea, largely uninhabited.  But dominating the southern edge of the bay, with its own archipelago of 365 islets, mostly on the northern and eastern sides, lies Cát Bà Island, with the atypical size of 285 square kilometers.  Though much larger than any other island in the vicinity, about half of it is a preserved forest area and the rest is mostly too hilly and rocky for agriculture.  Fishing is the main livelihood of the island’s 13,000 inhabitants and the 4000 or so in offshore floating villages.
central pier at Cát Bà harbor
       Administratively, the Cát Bà Archipelago is part of Hải Phòng City, from where boats make daily trips to the harbor at Cát Bà town, on the southeast corner of the island.   Home to about 8000 of the island’s population, the town lies on a narrow strip of flat land between fingers of hilly land, with even higher hills right behind it.  Hotels of various sizes (and room rates) dominate the waterfront, for Cát Bà’s main change in the 21st century has been the growth of the tourist industry.
       Most tourists are part of groups that spend at least a night in Cát Bà town after coming from H Long Bay.  For those who’ve spent the previous night in Hạ Long City, it’s quieter, less congested and the restaurants offer equally delicious fresh seafood.  Cát Bà’s great advantage, though, is its harbor. A long dock, almost in the center of the waterfront, services the big boats coming from Hải Phòng.  Sprawled out on either side are innumerable fishing boats, usually moored during the day, interspersed with sampans gliding among them, some with attached roofs, some without, some fishing with nets. 
boats in Cát Bà harbor
       The land reaches out on either side of the harbor to partially enclose it.  Lighthouses stand on rocky promontories on either side of the outer edges.  On the eastern side several floating houses lie just offshore.  Small hilly islands lie out in the bay.  The brightly colored boats in the harbor can be anywhere from two to twenty meters long.  Most are anchored individually, but sometimes two to ten boats of the same size may lie side by side in a single row. 
       The nicest aspect of a harbor like Cát Bà’s is that, except days of squalls and storms, it is never completely inactive.  The bigger fishing boats might rest there for a few days without setting out to sea.  But you will still see individual boats go out on their own.  And the harbor scene will always feature the smaller sampans and dinghies gliding around the boats, taking goods or passengers from the docks to the boats and vice versa.  Occasionally you can spot someone rowing the boat by using his feet to move the oars.
sampan and tour boat, Bên Bèo
Among the small vessels plying the waters will be basket boats, unique to Vietnam.  Round, big enough to hold four passengers, made of split bamboo and caulked with pitch, basket boats are more common in Central Vietnam.  There dozens of them on a day of good weather may put out to sea at the same time to go fishing up to a kilometer and more from the shore.  Around Cát Bà they usually serve as ferries and if they do see use for fishing, they stay close to the shore.  If there are two using oars, they sit on opposite sides and row as if on a sampan.  If only one person is on board, forward progress comes by paddling in an S-pattern.
fishing vessel and basket boat
       The abundant seas around Cát Bà Archipelago have nourished its people well over the centuries.  In the 1930s French archaeologists discovered human remains and other evidence indicating that people had been living on the island since 6000 years ago, perhaps the first human inhabitants of the offshore territory of northeast Vietnam.  It was never heavily populated, nor an important factor in the economy or commerce of the area.  When, during the period of Chinese rule, marine trade began to develop, the focal point was Văn Đồn Island, far from Cát Bà. 
rowing with the feet
       The old historical records, Chinese or Vietnamese, make no mention of Cát Bà.  There must have been some sort of government authority, but probably not enough to interrupt the basic self-sufficient lifestyle of its people.  One can only speculate on what role they might have played in the great historical events in the area.  Were they aware of the invading Chinese fleet in 938, dispatched to quell the rebellion led by Ngô Quyền, that ended with the fleet impaled on hidden stakes in the Bạch Đằng River? 
       A generation later, did they witness the newly established Song Dynasty’s fleet sail into Hạ Long Bay and get stuck on the same stakes in the same place?  Did they observe the third Mongol invasion in 1288 as its ships swept aside resistance and sailed upriver to the capital?  Were any of them recruited to join the rebuilt Vietnamese navy that later sank all the Mongols’ supply ships and forced their evacuation of the country?  Did any of them participate in the third trick on the Bạch Đằng, when the Vietnamese impaled the retreating Mongol ships on hidden stakes, burnt all the vessels and slaughtered all aboard?
one of the Cót Cô baches
       There doesn’t seem to be any local legend about Cát Bà heroes in the Trần Dynasty’s Mongol Wars.  But the island’s name dates to an incident from that time.  According to local tradition, the corpses of three women, killed for one reason or another, each washed ashore on one of the three small beaches on the southeast corner of the island.  Local residents retrieved them and built temples to them.  Whatever its name was before, from then on the island was Cạt Bà.  In Vietnamese cát means ‘sand’ and means ‘woman.’  Cát Bà is short for ‘women landing/washing up on the sand.’
       All three of these beaches—Cót Cô 1, 2 and 3--are popular with visitors, for they are within walking distance of the town, connected by a cement walkway along the rocky coast.  They are relatively small, but with fine sand, clean and clear water and views of the Lan Hạ Bay islands.  From March through October, if the weather is fine, they can fill up with weekend or holiday visitors from the mainland.  Temperatures are too cool the other months for swimming or sunbathing, and visitors fewer, but it’s rarely cold and usually a few degrees warmer than inland.
cheô drama in the Cát Bà park
       The most crowded time will be around 1 April, the day commemorating Hồ Chí Minh’s 1954 visit, marked by Cát Bà’s biggest annual festival.  The program includes processions, boat races and public performances.  In the park near the harbor’s long pier, troupes stage skits from the indigenous chèo drama and Chinese-derived tuồng opera.  Theatrical shows also take place in the park on other local and national holidays.
       The island’s weather can be quite changeable, though, starting out with clear morning skies and clouding up and raining by noon.  The entire northeast coastal area and its waters are subject to sudden storms and occasional typhoons.  At such occurrences boats stay docked at the shores and neither sail to Hạ Long City nor leave the Cát Bà pier for Hải Phòng.  But it doesn’t mean travelers are trapped until the seas calm.  They can take a bus to the west coast, passing craggy limestone hills that look good even in the rain, then board a hydrofoil for a quick ride across the channel to a waiting bus on the mainland that goes all the way to Hanoi.
Chicken Rocks, Hạ Long Bay
       In reverse, that’s actually a quicker way to reach Cát Bà from Hanoi than to go first to Hải Phòng and take a boat.  Weekend visitors from Hanoi often choose this option, but the far more interesting route is from Hạ Long City across the World Heritage Site (since 1994) of Hạ Long Bay.  The inexpensive morning ferry service from nearby Hòn Gài ceased several years ago and so now the only option is to hop one of the dozens of fancy tour boats.  In general they are attractive vessels, though, with redwood sides and pale yellow sails, resembling the warships that traversed these waters in the centuries before boats had engines.
       The first boats leave about 11 a.m., while others wait an hour or two later for the tour buses to arrive from Hanoi.  They follow similar routes, though some range further than others.  Hạ Long Bay has nearly 2000 islets, mostly limestone, small, fairly close to one another, usually uninhabited, often jutting straight out of the water with steep vertical cliffs, or with shapes suggesting animals, like the pair of Chicken Rocks (also known as the Kissing Cocks). 
floating village, Hạ Long Bay
typical island karst cave
       Several islands feature big karst caves and every tour boat makes a lengthy stop at one of them.  It takes nearly an hour to hike up and down walkways past all the stalagmites and stalactites, illuminated by different colored lights all along the way.  The most famous is Đầu Gỗ Cave, allegedly a secret storage site for the wooden stakes the Vietnamese planted in the Bạch Đằng River to impale and immobilize the Mongol fleet.
       Continuing south, the boat will pass by one of the larger floating villages in the bay, nestled among the islets.  The villagers have their own modest fishing vessels, but they also raise shrimp and other edible sea creatures.  Some of what they raise or catch goes to the kitchens of the tour boats.  After passing by still more islets the boat eventually docks at the Gai Luân pier on the northern part of Cát Bà Island.
Lan Hạ Bay, viewed from Cannon Fort
       From here travelers take a bus across the center of the island south to Cát Bà town.  The road passes through Cát Bà National Park, a huge preserved area of forested limestone hills, lakes, mangrove swamps and incredible biodiversity.  Altogether the park holds 1561 species of plants and trees, 55 mammals, including the endangered Cát Bà langur, of which only about 70 are left, 160 different birds, 66 reptiles and amphibians and 274 insect species.  The parks waters contain 900 species of fish, 167 of coral and even 21 kinds of seaweed.
       Further towards Cát Bà town, about 10 km north, is the most famous of the island’s several caves.  It’s called Hospital Cave, because that’s what it was used for during the war with America.  Nearby Hải Phòng was a prime target during the periodic bombing campaigns.  As a strategic lookout point in the north’s defenses, the bombers hit Cát Bà also.  Residents hid in the caves for safety.  Hospital Cave was built up with three levels and could hold over three hundred beds in what was virtually a bomb-proof shelter.  Perhaps fearing a possible resumption of the bombing even after the American withdrawal began, the hospital remained operational until the end of the war in 1975.
       While Hospital Cave can be a quick excursion, it takes a lot longer to trek through the park.  Motorbikes, unfortunately, are not allowed inside the park.  But it’s worth renting one from town for a ride around the southern side of the island.  The roads are good and the scenery always pleasant and changing.  West of the town is much less settled, a quiet countryside with occasional small beaches, rugged hills, stray fishing vessels and always groups of lumpy offshore islands. 
boats passing through Lan Hạ Bay
       Even lovelier is the southeast corner of the island, from Cát Bà town around the edges of Lan Ha ̣Bay to the wharf at Bên Bèo.  This is a starting point for kayaking trips through the bay’s picturesque island scenery.  Tour boats take visitors on excursions to nearby Monkey Island, where you are more likely to experience a simian encounter than by trying to track down one of the elusive, vanishing langurs in the National Park.  Bên Bèo itself is a charming, quiet village, part of it floating houses, with a couple excellent restaurants along the docks and an active river scene. 
       With its collection of closely clustered islands in an endless variety of shapes, Lan Hạ Bay is like Cát Bà’s very own Hạ Long Bay.  It may not be quite as dramatic, but in one sense it is easier to appreciate.  A good road leads to Cannon Fort, high up on a hill overlooking the bay.  During the war years this was obviously an important lookout post, where soldiers nervously scanned the skies for the approach of planes. 
       Nowadays we visitors instead scan the panorama of Lan Hạ Bay.  We watch the tour boats and fishing vessels glide among the islands and the big cargo ships sail around the rim of it.  Cannon Fort has long been abandoned.  The main task around here now is to revel in the splendid natural combination of sky, land and sea.
Cát Bà harbor
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