I’d been teaching English in rural Thailand for three weeks and had gotten used to the small villages, the wooden bungalows, the tiny market stands and children playing soccer in the dirt. Then I got to Cat Ba Island in Vietnam.
Cat Ba Island made me feel as though I was in paradise, with streets full of bustling people and numerous restaurants, hotels, and shops lined up near the water. Immediately after checking into the Hoang Ngoc Hotel, I decided I needed to get to the beach.
Reaching into my backpack, I pulled out a bright yellow bikini. Even though I knew showing skin was unacceptable in Vietnam, something in my brain was telling me that I should wear it. Maybe it was the way the heat was making my damp shirt stick to my skin or maybe it was the fact that my drastic change in location was making me delusional; I wasn’t sure, but I knew there was no way that I was going to lay on the beach in long pants and a t-shirt.
Grabbing a towel and oversized sunglasses I headed down to Cat Co 2, the local beach. It was quite crowded, a myriad of locals all sitting under umbrellas. This annoyed me, as I had been hoping to have a peaceful day reading my book, but I suspected that nobody would bother me.
Laying out my towel on the smooth, taupe-colored sand, I threw my bag down and peeled off my clothes. It felt invigorating to have the sun’s rays browning my skin and not just making me sweat through my shirt. I pulled out my book, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and began to read.
Suddenly, I felt a presence next to my towel. Two adolescent boys, about 13 years old, were standing next to me, staring.
“Chao,” they said in unison, expressing the Vietnamese term for “hello”, before turning around and sprinting away.
I laughed to myself. The young males must be intrigued seeing a female with such little clothing on at the beach. Shaking my head, I went back to reading my book.
As it got hotter I decided it was time to take a refreshing dip in the ocean. That’s when I felt the stares. Looking to my right, I noticed a group of middle-aged men pointing at me. One of the men tried to grab my arm, as I jumped back away from his grasp. He chuckled and pointed back to the beach. I looked and gasped in horror as a woman stood there snapping photographs of me.
Within seconds I was back on my towel and away from the strange people and their cameras. But before I could even pick up my book, a slender woman wearing a yellow hat came over to my towel with her three small children. She did not speak English, but she had a camera in her hand. After saying something to her children, they all ran onto the towel as she began taking pictures of the encounter.
I shook my head furiously, trying to nudge the children away but it was no use. It didn’t matter anyway, because as I became aware of my surroundings I noticed that I had become somewhat of a celebrity on the beach. People everywhere were taking photographs and video-taping me.
Horrified, I threw my clothing on. Even with a t-shirt and capri pants on, however, I still felt exposed. Despite the thick heat, I wrapped the towel over my clothes to coverup even more. As I trudged back to my hotel, I couldn’t help but wonder how many photo albums I was going to end up in. And, would the captions under the pictures be about how interesting a half-naked Western girl could be, or a joke about a foreigner who had no sense of where she was?
Getting to Cat Ba Island: Cat Ba Island can be reached by boat from Hanoi, which takes about 4.5 hours. Another option is to use a tour company, which can help makes plans stress-free while still being affordable. You will also get to cross Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visit http://www.catbaventures.com/?act=news&macat=3&masub=34 for more details.
Dining: Green Mango Restaurant was my favorite dining option in the town. There is Western and Vietnamese options, as well as delicious tapas. I loved their banana shakes and even came back the next day for another one. All of their food is MSG-free and the restaurant is open daily from 7:30 AM until the last customer leaves. Located at 1-4 in Cat Ba Town, you can visit their website at http://greenmango.vn.
Hoang Y: While their menu includes many Western options, this popular restaurant is where you should go to get fresh seafood. If you are in the mood for some carbs, this restaurant has delicious pancake and egg combos. Expect large portions. Located at 1-4 in Cat Ba Town.
Accommodation: The Hoang Ngoc Hotel is an accommodation right on the water with spacious, air conditioned rooms, coastal views, and balconies. It is in the center of town and walking distance from the beach. Rooms cost about $5-$8/night. You can call them at (84-31) 3888 309.
The Noble House is a mid-range accommodation with rooms containing AC or fans, televisions, and mini fridges. It is located in the town center and is walking distance from the beach. Services offered at the hotel include laundry and currency exchange, and there is a restaurant, bars with pool tables and darts, and even a rooftop bar located on premises. At night the bars at Noble House become crowded as this a very popular party spot. Expect to pay about $10-$20 a night. You can contact them at TheNobleHouseVN@yahoo.com or call at (031) 321 6350.
Things to Do: For information on adventurous activities in Cat Ba island, such as sailing, kayaking, trekking, or rock climbing, visit http://www.catbaventures.com/. You can also find general Cat Ba information as well as news and updates on this website.
You should also visit the Hospital Cave, which is open daily from 8 AM – 5 PM. It is located North of Cat Ba Town when you take the road that leads to the Cat Ba National Park. The Hospital Cave consists of an underground maze of hospital rooms and office buildings. A guide will be there to show you around and offer explanations.