Owen belatedly joined the group and has fitted in easily - like he has always been here. Our small group is great, relaxed, easy going, inquisitive and always up for a challenge.
After picking up Owen in Hanoi we made our way to Cat Ba Island, northeast of Hanoi and situated within Halong Bay. We were met by Mr Hack, a good guy working with the National Park Service on Cat Ba Island, who was our main liaison during our 5 days on the island volunteering to help the environment and the national park. Sometimes it is strange the things you find yourself doing in life...and so it was for us the next day when we were inside a cave in Vietnam - scrubbing. A surreal experience at times far removed from everyday life in our own homes or even from the tourist trail in vietnam. When we first entered the cave the amount of graffiti etched into the walls was overwhelming. While not a huge cave, we never thought we would be able to clean it all. But by 4pm we wandered out covered in limestone dust, sweat and a great sense of pride - the cave was totally clean of graffiti.
The next day we swapped the cool of the cave for sweltering sun as we hiked up a steep trail, with mud and rubbish everywhere. The sense of wanting a clean environment is slowly changing in Vietnam, but still there are generations not used to picking up rubbish, as well as the influx of pre-packaged, bite size, easily accessible plastic wrapped items whose rubbish is dropped everywhere. Talking to some of the more educated and people in the younger generation there does seem to be a growing awareness of the importance of looking after the environment. As we climbed up, bags and bags were filled with rubbish, and we finally made it to the top and onto the observation tower. We were gifted with views across this spectacular landscape. Karst towers poking straight up out of the vegetation. Small holes opening up into cave systems.
We followed a similar pattern for the next couple of days, exploring, picking up rubbish by boat and sea kayak. On our last day we hit the trail again trekking over to a Viet Hai village on the other side of the island. It was a demanding walk, made all the more challenging at times due to the heat and and sometimes slippery conditions. We completed the trek with plenty of sweat and exhaustion but also a few bags of rubbish from along the way and a sense of accomplishment. We stayed at the Viet Hai village for our last night on Cat Ba Island which wrapped up our time volunteering. The group felt pride in their achievments, thru a sense of helping and doing things that may not have been done otherwise. But there was also a sense of frustration - a wilingness from the group to do more, but not the effort or understanding from the National Park Service to really make use of what we had to offer. Giving your time to volunteer and help the environment seems to be a foreign concept to many Vietnamese. We were the first group ever to undertake this kind of effort in Cat Ba National Park and I am sure the path has been laid for a more fullfilling and effective outcome for future groups. One highlight was being stoppped and asked a by a Vitnamese woman what we were doing, and then her praising and thanking us for what we were doing on behalf of her country.
In between all the volunteer work on Cat Ba we also visited other caves used during the war as hospitals and headquarters (complete with pool and movie screen), and hired bikes to explore and see a great deal of the island.
The next leg of our journey was by boat cruising amongst karst towers rising up from the ocean. Halong bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Area, is an amazing place to spend a couple of days. We kayaked, swam, jumped from the roof of our junk boat and soaked up the views as we lay on the loungers and relaxed. Our boat was amazing - offering us comfortable berths, amazing food and the opportunity to jump into warm water from the roof. What a place for Danielle to spend her 19th birthday! We were spoiled at times, not just by our accommodation but by our location. Words won't do Halong Bay justice - you will have to wait for the photos.
Like all good things it was over too quickly. We are now back in Hanoi, and past the halfway point of our trip. Tonight we catch the overnight train to Hue as we leave the stunning north and begin to head south. If Vietnam continues to unveil her beauty, if she continues to challenge our thinking and our senses we will have an amazing time. I am sure we will.
Vietnam Program Leader