Cát Bà Island divides opinion among international tourists. Meanwhile, domestic, Vietnamese tourists seem to almost universally enjoy their time there. The problem? People don’t realise that Cát Bà is actually several spaces, located in the same time and place.
What can I possibly mean by that?!
Cát Bà has never been what most western tourists imagine it to be, and that is the heart of the problem. Well, Cát Bà may have been a deserted idyll at some point in its existence (only the fading number of white-headed langurs can know, for they as a species have never seen the mainland), but not for many centuries now.
Many (predominantly western) tourists come to Cát Bà expecting a jungle paradise, somehow untouched by the ravages of time. This is the romantic popular image of much of south-east Asia. Yet Cát Bà has seen conflict, several wars, and ultimately, is now in the grip of its most serious crisis yet, modern development. It’s limestone cliffs are drilled into, and its earth must be pummelled, to make way for the foundations of a new luxury resort or set of restaurants. It’s the 21st century after all.
Though the sustainability of this development is questionable (and it is being questioned, both by expats and locals), I actually think the issue with the way in which most people experience Cát Bà as a place actually has a lot to do with different expectations. For domestic tourists, Cát Bà is basically seen as the equivalent of a booming seaside town, complete with seafood restaurants on the harbour, plenty of small vehicles for children to charge around in, and cheap markets full of bright sun hats and scarfs.
As mentioned, westerners come with a fundamentally opposed view. They want Cát Bà to be like the jungle-beaches found in Thailand and Cambodia, in which only classy bars and well-constructed wooden ocean swings (perfect for selfies and so Instagram-able) interrupt picturesque scenes of pristine white sand. So, is Cát Bà truly a paradise lost?
I’ve noticed, since being in Hanoi, how much quicker fruit ripens in this humid, tropical atmosphere. After just a few days, bananas become inedible, their smell unbearable. However, back in the UK, I can keep them for almost a week before any sign of mould. Why? Because the conditions are fundamentally different in different geographical places. It’s the same with Cát Bà. Except in this case, one geographical place is actually home to many competing spaces. The two almost have a physical dividing line (walk along the seafront, by the harbour, and note that after the roundabout across from the fenced-in pond, the cafes and restaurants serve almost solely Vietnamese food, all traces of English gone from their menus).
In short, the problem is partly one of appearances vs. reality, that is, Cát Bà is often marketed as a place to “get back to nature” via activities such as hiking and stand-up paddle boarding, and so international tourists are taken aback by the massive scale of development (often clumsily designed, or at least, unattractive) on the seafront, which resembles the Costa Brava on a bad day. The other “problem” is actually just a cultural difference, ask any Vietnamese person about Cát Bà, and they won’t mention the concrete high-rise, the neon lights. Either they don’t notice it as much, or, more likely, they don’t see it as a problem.
So what should those who are truly in search of lost time do? There are ways. Much of the island does remain preserved as part of a larger biosphere or nature reserve, and there is a great deal of natural beauty to be found. Kayaking into a lagoon on Lan Ha bay is as heart-stopping as you could hope for, lost amongst the emerald islets. Wandering alone in the early morning up to the hilltop cannon fort is a humbling experience, in which Einstein’s theory of relativity might well be proved; time seems to slow, and the landscape appears impossibly vast, and absolutely spectacular.
For my part though, I prefer to keep a foot on both sides of the timezone. Watch Vietnamese families nibble sea snails and ice lollies whilst western tourists gather in exclusive French restaurants (both are good). Savour milkshakes and fondants, but take the time to sit back and sip traditional Vietnamese drip-coffee in the mornings (both are great). Don’t lose sight of the fact that we all have the ability to walk between worlds, and Cát Bà reminds us of that.