Our ‘sleeper’ bus pulled over into a random carpark in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere. It is 1 in the morning and we think to ourselves surely this can’t be our stop. Afterall, our trustworthy travel agent from our dingey hotel in Sapa had told us we would arrive into Bai Chay at 5 in the morning. Since when do bus services run 4 hours early? The bus assistant then boards the bus and announces our stop a few times just to make sure everyone can hear. A large group of disgruntled, sleepy passengers prepare themsleves, depart the bus and collect their luggage before the bus takes off again.
We all look around and at each other wondering what to do now, the ferry doesn’t leave for Ha Long Bay until 7am. Our confusion and comtemplation is interrupted by the group of taxis that have swarmed around where the bus once stood. We’re around 10km from the ferry terminal in Ha Long City. A few people enquire as to the price for the ride and the response is $5US, the drivers also generously offer to take us weary travellers to a highly reputable hotel to catch another 5 hours of sleep before continuing the onward journey.
Three weeks into our South East Asia trip Bonny and I are both wary and weary of scams and decide to walk. We check Maps.me and notice there is a ferry terminal only 5km south of where we are and decide to go for it. Once out of the carpark and on the street heading into town we notice a lot of activity, there are restaurants open, taxis waiting in line everywhere and there is one overly enthusiastic Vietnamese man on a motorbike trying to persuade us to follow him to his house. Even if it wasn’t 1 in the morning and assuming he didn’t sport a ratstail and mohawk this type of behaviour would still seem suss to even the most naive traveller.
Bonny and I do our best to ignore the motorbike hooligan and continue our walk towards the dock. We were constantly beeped and flashed by taxis going in every direction but were so used to this by now that we didn’t even acknowledge their existence. We did eventually ask one driver if we were heading in the right direction, he tells us that it was too far to walk and offers us a lift, a classic response from a desperate taxi driver we think to ourselves. About 3km into the walk we run into motorbike man again, this time out the front of his half complete concrete block house. Unfortunately he recognises us immediately and follows us as we cross the road in an effort to avoid him.
He catches up, and starts barking at us in rapid Vietnamese and gesturing towards the house. We shake our heads with equal aggression and say no as clearly as we can, however this does nothing to deter him. As we continue walking he becomes even more insistent, even placing a guiding hand on Keiran’s shoulder. It’s at this point that Keiran becomes more assertive in an effort to dissuade our aquaintence, even drawing the attention of nearby restauranters. It is, however enough to make our Vietnamese stalker withdraw from his pursuit as he wanders back in the direction of his house.
After another kilometer of walking we stop to check our map, the ferry dock was just over the multilane road, which during the early morning hours was virtually empty.
It takes us two attempts to find the right road leading down to the dock as it does not quite match up with our map, as is often the case in these smaller towns.
We are soon crossing the manicured gardens of what appears to be a very luxurious hotel. Even at this time the foyer is illuminated and we pass some perplexed night guards as we hunt for our ferry dock which should appear just behind the grounds of the hotel. Eventually it dawns on us that we are mistaken and our doubts start piling up around us. We approach the foyer and are immentiately met by the attentive night staff. They speak no word of English, but have the initiative to call somebody who could deal with these very lost and confused travellers.
As it turns out, there is a dock behind the hotel, but a private one with no commercial ferry operating in the near future. We need to travel a further 10kms to reach the commercial dock, we are back to where we started and the $5US is starting to sound much more reasonable. We thank the staff with our biggest smiles and toss our backpacks on once more.
It’s without discussion that we continue to walk, now in the right direction. Heck, it’s hours before we need to be at the terminal. With plenty of time and nothing else planned, we trudge along, mostly in silence. We walk along the abandoned highway until we reach some water with a nice view overlooking the town and decide this would be a good place to have a rest and take some not-so-great night time photos. The path to the dock is basically straight from here and very well lit, we think that it should be pretty straighforward.
At around the 10km mark we start to notice that our stops are becoming more frequent and Bonny has developed a dull ache in her right collar bone. We choose to ignore the pain, putting it down to sore muscles as a result of carrying over 20kgs for a long period of time and continue our march. By the time we reach the bridge crossing, only a few kilometers from the small island on which the ferry dock is located, Bonny now requires assistance to get her big bag on and off. The pain in her collar bone has advanced into a sharp stab.
After another 10 or so rest breaks we reach the small town surrounding the dock and wander into the empty waiting area at around 6am, just as the sun is starting to rise. We had finally made it and saved ourselves a whopping $5US in the process! We take a brief nap on the steps before the arrival of staff marks the beginning of the business day. We buy our ferry tickets (d70,000pp) and take yet another well earned nap on the cold metal benches that line the terminal before catching our long awaited ferry to Cat Ba island.
Although the ‘overnight’ bus stopping at 1 in the morning in a carpark surrounded by taxis is somewhat of a scam, the $5US price to take said taxi to the ferry docks is actually quite reasonable. From our experience it is not worth the pain of walking 15km through a dull and dusty town, fracturing your collar bone in the process, as it turns out Bonny had done. The savings were minimal, especially in one of the most affordable countries in the world.
We recommend you do visit Cat Ba island, but don’t arrive via our methods.
If you enjoyed this story check out our other posts including The awkward ciclo ride in Haiphong, Vietnam.