Cat Ba, Vietnam. Rugged, craggy and jungle-clad Cat Ba, the largest island in Halong Bay, is straight out of Jurassic Park. While the vast majority of Halong Bay’s islands are uninhabited vertical rocks, Cat Ba has a few fishing villages, as well as a fast-growing town – Lonely Planet.
After checking into our hotel on Cat Ba Island, we decide it’s time to explore.
Excitedly, we make our way down along the harbour – we are going to rent out mopeds. I’ve always wanted to drive one, and where better to do this than Cat Ba? Surrounded by the sea, wildlife, and beautiful weather. The perfect backdrop.
I am definitely the least experienced of the group, with the boys having done this previously in Thailand. The pressure is on!
The woman at the……cafe!? where we are renting them from takes our money, and hands us the keys – no passport or driving licenses needed…. The bikes are sporadically parked on the opposite side of the road. We rush over, each of us secretly hoping that we don’t end up with the worst bike, or the pink helmet…
Despite some minor issues getting the helmet to stay on my head I’m ready to go, and get some instructions from Counting Sheep on how to start, and drive, the bike – it really should come with instructions!
First task – drive to the end of the road and perform a U-turn so that we drive in the opposite direction. I watch Smooth Operator, Loud Noises, and Counting Sheep navigate the manoeuvre with ease, now my turn. I approach the turn slowly but can’t get my bike to turn around, my pre-school instinct of learning to ride a bike kicks in, and my feet instantly hit the ground, trying to slow myself down, my flip flops bending backwards as the bike continues to move forwards – yes, that’s right, I’m in flip flops, swim shorts, and a vest. We all are. Not the most appropriate clothing, but we look good-ish, and think of the tan…. Instead of turning left to go in the opposite direction on the dual carriageway I’m at the turn facing the curb and driving towards it. I’m going to hit the curb, possibly people and surely drive into the cafe! Thankfully, something kicks in at the last minute and I manage to turn the bike left and facing the right direction for the road ahead, panic over.
I’m calmer now, and slowly getting used to accelerating, braking – and turning.
We are only five minutes into the journey, when we pass over a bridge and decide to stop and fill up our fuel for the day ahead. A woman fills our tanks to the desired measure. Within a couple of minutes our tanks are full and we have paid an incredibly small amount that wouldn’t get you a drop of petrol in England, let alone fill a tank.
For the next few hours we drive along winding roads, up and down hills, along the coast, through farmers fields, some of the sights are truly unique, and you appreciate the local way of life on this small island.
After a short while, I felt very confident on the bike, manoeuvring corners, dodging the random animal in the road, and driving at speed down the straights. Dare I say it, but I think I’m a natural. My dad was a biker – a proper one, so I’m talking motorbike – maybe it’s in the genes.
We find a dirt track and follow it to the end to find the sea, and a very small coastal area. We stop to take it all in and pose for a few photo’s – as you do.
A few minutes later and we are off again, driving through a small village, the street lined with shacks, houses, and people watching us go by. This is Vietnam. We are away from the tourist hot spots and we are witnessing how the Vietnamese live.
Minutes later and we’ve taken a wrong turning off a dual carriageway and now wound up in a dead end at a large house.
We head back up the side road to the dual carriageway and I watch the boys turn left, and speed off down the road. I accelerate out, but I’m not turning left! Why am I not turning? I’m heading towards the central reservation, and panicking. I’m a kid again and my foot is down trying to help me stop – my foot bending backwards giving way to the grit below. My back wheel has given way and I’m falling. Arm out. Uh oh.
Seconds later, and I’m lying ten feet further forwards in the middle of the road with the bike lying on top of me. It feels like I’m in a computer game sequence. I hear the boys shouting, and coming back, I am temporarily motionless. The bike wheel still spinning above me.
I push the bike off me, and get to my feet taking everything in. Thankfully it is a really quiet road with only one bike passing by and stopping to check on me. Pain instantly floods through the left hand side of my body, and I assess the damage.
My knee is covered in blood, grit and sand, two large wounds shining a bright red. My left arm very similar, with the underside burned and oozing a clear liquid. My toes are bloody stumps, battered and bent.
The bike had given way, with the back wheel skidding out, trapping my toes against the tarmac. My knee and arm had instinctively come out to support me as I slid across the width of the road covered in sand. I was a bloody, fleshy mess.
The boys arrive back and realise that this is quite serious and we all take a breath contemplating our next move. I’ve just had a bike accident – in Vietnam!… Oh my, I’m in Vietnam, what are the hospitals like? Do they have any here? We are miles from the north of the island where we rented the bike, how will I get back? I’m in pain, and need medical attention, the boys take control and organise the situation. I’m in shock.
We take a look at the bike, the plastic is scratched but the body is ok. The back tyre however is as flat as a pancake, hanging off the tyre. Is this why I skidded off?
It’s clear that I can’t drive back, so Smooth Operator and Counting Sheep take charge of my bike and take it to the small village we drove through to see if it can be repaired. The small village we passed through was amazing. Small buildings and shacks with everyone lining the streets to watch us pass through.
Loud Noises tells me to get on his bike, and he drives me back to the village. There is a lot of pointing and staring at the tall English guy pouring with blood. We pull over and look for some sort of hospital. A young girl comes over and grabs my hand leading me behind the shacks, up a small alley way. Reluctantly I follow with Loud Noises closely behind.
The alley opens up into front gardens, and at the end stands a beautiful building covered in marble. I’m led here to be greeted by a middle aged man and woman, and they take me into a door at the side of their home…
The room is white and very clean. A bed before me with white sheets, and a cabinet full of medicine to the side. I think this is the village doctor. She sits me down and starts working on my wounds. Our communication based on smiling and pointing as neither of us speaks the others language. Clearly there is too much sand and grit covering my wounds, as she shouts for her husband. Her husband leads me outside and into the main house. Before entering he stops and takes off his shoes, immediately making me feel guilty as I did not do this when entering the surgery. Like a naughty school kid late for class, I quickly pull my flip flops from my feet and follow. He leads me through a beautiful kitchen, where an elderly man is cooking dinner, to the bathroom where he makes me stand in a bowl….
I’m possibly in one of the most surreal situations of my life right now. I’m standing bare footed in a washing up bowl, covered in blood, sand and grit in the bathroom of a beautiful house of a Vietnamese couple who I think may be doctors…or have an active hobby of collecting medicine. My main concern is not to get any blood anywhere, as the house is so clean – which pleases me.
He proceeds to bring over a shower, and wash my wounds free of the sand and grit clinging to the blood. A few minutes later and I’m trying not to step wet, bloody footprints through his house, as I venture back next door.
I am ushered back to the bed, and sit down facing the kind woman. I feel like I’m back at school in year 9, waiting for my TB injection with the school nurse. She pulls out a small brown bottle, I think it says iodine…
Then it got painful. Iodine poured, thrown, and rubbed into each wound. When I say rubbed, we are talking a wax and polish job. After an age of cleaning, she bandages me up until I literally resemble Mr. Bump, or someone half way through the mummification process. I thought they only used these sort of bandages in the cartoons? Brown, yellow stains start to show on each bandage, but I’m happy to be cleaned and covered up.
I thank both the man and woman profusely for their kindness, hoping that they understand me. I am charged a modest sum of £6 and I return outside to find Loud Noises taking pictures. We head back up the alley to the main street running through the village. Everyone is waving, smiling and staring. A few of the locals come up to me looking at my wounds and offering sympathy, checking I am OK. We walk to find Counting Sheep and Smooth Operator standing in a crowd surrounding my broken bike. We join the group and find my bike with a new tyre fixed, and ready to ride. The locals seem really happy to have helped, proud of their efforts. They charge us £6, and we gratefully pay them. Smooth Operator emerges from the crowd wearing my flat, broken, old tyre around his waist as a souvenir…
With both my bike, and me patched up. We set off back to the cafe to return the bike. As we leave the village a crowd forms to wave us off, with some shouts of English words. I wonder how often they see tourists, and how often the tourists crash their bikes. I’m guessing the answer could be quite often. As the sun starts to set, the island is beautiful once more, as we drive through the farms, villages, and beach side roads, I have a new found confidence, solely focused on returning the bike in one piece. Upon arrival, the cafe owner greets us, takes the keys, and glances at the bikes without blinking twice at the scratches on the side, which makes me question how damaged was the bike before I took it.
Travelling by bike is one way to get to know a place intimately, crashing one on the other hand is definitely a way to get to know the people, their culture and the generosity they have to offer – though I wouldn’t recommend it.