Tour Guides on DIY Trips

In Cat Ba island where something new for me is streaming along the streets — Vietnamese tourists. Ten years ago, when I was living in Saigon, destinations were pretty much the turf of sunburnt foreigners toting backpacks or the occasional wheeled suitcase. Now it’s hard to get room from all the souvenir shops hawking things directed to the local market — seashell wind chimes, ‘du lich Cat Ba’ hats (Cat Ba Tourist — I love how literal souvenirs can be here), weird fake bugs on a stick, and all sorts of things floral. It’s nice to see more Vietnamese having the money to afford vacations — even if it’s just for a couple days.

Backpackers don’t like to admit it — or even realize it’s a possibility — but they’re actually one great herd of package tourists. People get from Saigon to Nha Trang to Hoi An to Hue to Hanoi, all on an ‘open bus’ ticket that stops off in front of their guesthouse. From each place — particularly from Saigon and Hanoi — group tours of two or three days are arranged to the Mekong, Sapa and here at Halong Bay. Very very few — perhaps only %5 — go DIY style, as I’m trying to do.

I arrived into Cat Ba, the principal town of Cat Ba Island (Old Woman Island — which faces Old Man Island, per legend off to fight the Chinese), yesterday by hyrdrofoil from Haiphong. I rented a motorcycle — about $5 or $6 per day these days — and roamed the islands 50-plus kilometers of paved road, then stopped at the gates of Cat Ba National Park, where I started on a ‘two hour hike’ up to a rusty watchtower. I accepted an old guy’s offer for a ‘guide’ for the heck of it, and ten steps up the steep jungly steps, he yelled for his daughter/granddaughter — Van Anh — who ran up in flip flops to be my new guide. She looked about eight — I asked how old she was ’10… 12!’ (Earlier this year I had a possibly 12-year-old truck/taxi driver in Mexico nearly sideswipe a bicyclist on a mountain road.) We slipped on the steep, muddy path going up, her waiting for me as sweat dripped off my nose and I fumbled with a walking stick they provided in one hand, a huge bottle of water in the other. At the top was the rusting watchtower, with a seriously wide-open frame, with sparing metal-bar steps going around a seriously wide-open frame. Van Anh didn’t go up, and I took it very slowly. At the top, you could see through — roughly five stories below — the wide cracks between the long, weathered boards that served as the ‘floor.’ I held onto the side bar the whole time and tried to step under the visible metal braces below the boards. I am not macho.

Two days ago I took a daytrip on another mountain hike with 27-year-old Thong in Ninh Binh, a few hours inland. He bought a tacky ‘Cuc Phuong National Park’ souvenir for a friend, and mentioned he was meeting his ‘girlfriend’s parents’ that night. Before we got back he started mentioning stomach pains — gone the next day — and confided the gift was for another girl. ‘Maybe she’ll be my girlfriend some day.’ He speaks Russian, studied it four years in college — this, doing math, means after the USSR, making Thong one of maybe eight Vietnamese people who continued Russian studies after the the USSR gave up communism. I asked where he’d go if he could anywhere in the world: ‘to your country [USA] because I could learn a lot, and Moscow so I could practice my Russian.’

Traveling with Van Anh I saw no tourists, traveling with Thong for the day, I spent about 20 minutes looking at remarkably cute langurs and gibbons in the company of six other tourists.

About Robert Reid

Robert Reid is a travel writer (Lonely Planet, New York Times, ESPN), travel expert (Today Show, CNN's Headline News), travel videographer (76-Second Travel Show) and travel artist (don't ask).
Tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Tour Guides on DIY Trips

  1. Anonymous says:

    It is very valuable answer