Even with the map of Hon Gai in our hands we cannot find our way. The town is spread-out, and our map minimal. No one speaks English and time is running out. To think that we assumed two hours time was more than enough to get from Bai Chay to Hon Gai, on the other side of the water. A gigantic bridge between the two towns is being built. Together they form Halong City; a name little known among the Vietnamese. The more popular though among the tourists that come in hundreds, thousands to stay in touristy Bai Chay. But Hon Gai, that's quite another story...


One and a half hour ago: at the busy terminal for charterboats to Halong Bay we had tried in vain to get a taxi,Quan_Hai_Bungalow just a couple of motorcycles were willing to bring us. But with a five year old child and two backpacks you make sure to think twice. In the end we hopped on a crowded local bus that dropped us off in Hon Gai after a very short crossing by ferry. Easy, we thought, we just have to try once more to get a taxi and there we go. The taxi-driver didn't speak English, but he had been shaking his head like a 'yes' with so much conviction when we asked him for the boat to Quan Lan, and we had jumped in. The ride took too long, much too long. Stop! We were already driving out of town, how could he not see that? It was only then that we found out the man had no idea of the place we wanted to go to. Furiously we got out without paying a penny (the meter was already at 22.000 Dong) and we started the long way back. Son on daddy's shoulders.pigs

Hurry, the boat leaves in just half an hour! Everybody waves at us in the most friendly way, but no one, no one speaks English. Where the hell is this bloody boat terminal? We feel quite desperate, as there is just one boat a day and we don't want to miss it. Finally we meet a boy who speaks two words of English. “You have got to help us”, I say to him with obvious determination and take him by the sleeve. We walk a long way, through a wide street, past a communist looking statue, a park, lots of Chinese hotels. In the meantime our rescuer inquires shyly with passers by to see if they know more. But the people have never even heard of Quan Lan, let alone of the ‘boat to Quan Lan’. Only fifteen minutes left. We begin to fear that we have to spend the night in this awful town. At the busy market we inquire again; it cannot be far. Finally there's a man who at least knows where the boat to Hai Phong leaves from, our boat might be there too. At a three-forked road, with the terminal for ferries to Hai Phong to the left, suddenly a man on a motorcycle approaches us. He speaks very well English and starts to explain: we have to turn the other direction, go straight ahead, then left, and go to the end of that street. Just three more kilometers, he says with a broad grin. Need a motorcycle…? Hell, no! We do not trust him one bit and we head straight for the terminal. And yes – sigh – right around the corner lies a small flat wooden boat that leaves for Quan Lan in just five minutes. We made it!

Narrow boardbeach

Naturally we leave with half an hour delay, but that can only make us smile. In the covered boat we find some wooden benches on both sides, it looks very cozy. There are not many passengers, so the tired ones can stretch out on one of the benches. The boatride takes four and a half hours; quite long for a distance of just 55 kilometers. At first we hug the dramatic karst formations of Bai Tu Long Bay, after which the islands become flatter and lovelier. Every now and then we stop at a fishing-village to drop off or take on passengers. The people on board give us all kind of things: strange fruits, rice-balls, candy for the little one. Then suddenly, just when the sun is setting, we head for a mountains high stone pier, jutting out far into the sea. This is Quan Lan, the last island before the open sea begins. It is low tide and – shit! – we have to go ashore over an incredibly narrow board; over a distance of about three meters, I calculate. I feel like a junior-acrobat when I try to keep my balance this high above the water and make sure not to look down! Fortunately child and backpacks were already brought into safety by experienced Vietnamese board-walkers. Pff, we made it, I am already looking up to the return journey...beach

In the twilight an older man addresses us. It takes him just a few words to tell us about a bungalow on the sea. We get in his tuktuk, or something that looks like one, and for a couple of minutes we ride over a bumpy sandy path to the other side of the island. In the light of the stars we discern a vast beach. In the distance we hear the roaring sea. It is hard to figure out if this is what we had hoped for... a primitive wooden bungalow in the dunes. A wooden floor with large gaps between the planks, windows with shutters through which the wind blows continuously, a wash stand that is close to falling off the wall and a door that is hard to lock properly. But tonight we cannot be picky, where else could we go to at this hour? Besides, all we need is there: a shower and toilet, two large beds, a table, two chairs, a dilapidated cupboard, a broom and a fan. In front of the place a stone terrace has been laid out, a couple of meters above sea level. As a matter of fact, we have no more wishes. After walking with our torch to the tiny restaurant, we meet a Swiss couple and a German couple. They have been here for a few days already and talk with great enthusiasm about the island. While eating a delicious, copious meal all our travel adventures are being shared.Quan Hai It turns out they had the exact same trouble in Hon Gai as we did. The Swiss even had to stay there an extra night, it simply had not been possible to find the boat. We begin to think we did a great job! After a cozy night at the camp-fire it is time to go to bed. The wind whistles through the holes in the floor and walls, and the plastic sheet that has been attached beneath the roof to catch the odd rainwater flow, is noisily flapping. From ten o'clock on there will be no more electricity. The sea is far away, but we can hear it thunder. Lying in bed I think of today's adventures. What a day...

Idyllic place

And what an island! The next morning we see just how beautiful the beach is. It is high tide and the enormous waves roll to just a few meters in front of our little house. Fantastic! Sitting on the stone terrace we fully enjobuffaloy our view of the long beach. Until someone suddenly announces that breakfast is ready. A little early for us to be eating noodle-soup, fried egg and bananas, but who thinks of complaining at such an idyllic place? The two Vietnamese women who prepared our food speak not a word of English, just like the men by the way. But with the help of three old and torn dictionaries that are lying about in the small kitchen, we get by. Five little puppies are running about the place and there are also two hungry pigs. It is almost ten o'clock when we see two tourists coming towards us. Austrians. They had taken the ferry from Van Don island which is quite a detour; they had never heard of a direct connection from Hon Gai. I cannot help asking after the narrow board... but this morning the water stood so high that it even had dashed over the pier. No neck-breaking stunts for them. And then it is time to go to the beach, to jump in the waves and to build sand castles. Finally a sea as a sea is supposed to be: with waves. We had not seen this yet in Northern Vietnam. We find a torn-down parasol that we try to put up, because on Quan Lan there are no waving palm trees to sit beneath in the shade. Around eleven it is getting low tide again and the sea rapidly pulls back. We are overwhelmed with happy feelings; beautiful surroundings, friendly people, a sense of adventure and a paradisiac beach all to ourselves. In the late afternoon we walk along the vast beach at low tide. QuanHai RestaurantThousands of little crabs make millions of little sand balls and scatter them to all sides. We have a look at the neighbours, the bungalows of an American eco-center. The place looks deserted. We walk past the wooden houses, take the path through the pine forest and then suddenly find ourselves on the main street. To the right we see the village with its colourful stone houses, surrounded by rice fields. To the left the pier where we arrived yesterday. Some motorcycles and tuktuks pass by, there are no cars on Quan Lan as far as we can see.

Beautiful beach?

Next morning we are surprised to find mountains of seaweed that have washed ashore at night. Especially here on the south side of the island, at the foot of a hill, the beach is covered in seaweed. Today there is no wind and also the sea is remarkably calm. On this last day we choose to see Hon Gai bridgesomething of the island and so we drive around in a tuktuk for an hour or two. Past the pier, through the cute little village, past rice fields, water buffaloes on the road. It is hard to imagine that once this island was part of an important trading route between Vietnam and China. At the end of the road, some twelve kilometers north of the village, there is a place called Minh Chau. There is nothing to see, except for the waves that pound into the coast and the road with great force. We wonder what is so special about this place? (Our guide speaks - we are quite used to it by now - not a word of English.) It is not until later, much later, back in Holland in fact, that we find out that here lies one of the nicest beaches of Quan Lan. But only when the tide is low... On the way back we make a detour to Son Hao beach, another beautiful beach that we cannot see due to the high tide. This part of the coast has been damaged severely - probably the result of typhoon Damrey that has raged over the country just two weeks ago – and sand-bags have been put here to prevent further destruction. Son Hao beach is known to be whiter than our beach, but we prefer ours! To our surprise we find three bears in small cages. For the rest the beach looks deserted underneath the relentlessly bright shining sun.
Back in the village we do some shopping for lunch on our own terrace, where at this hour we can enjoy sitting in the shade of the house. Late in the afternoon I go looking for our little one's water-shoe that disappeared into the waves yesterday. Amidst mountains of seaweed I find lots of things: shoes, slippers, caps, baby trousers, a bra, quite a number of lighters, a dead jelly-fish. But no sign of the water-shoe.

Very early next morning a tuktuk brings us to the pier, where the water is reassuringly high, for the boat of six o'clock back to Hon Gai. Back to the bustle of mainland Vietnam. The bustle which does not affect Quan Lan (just yet).


The dutch version of this story has been published in Azië Magazine, nr.113 aug/sep 2006.