Tour Guides, Free Beer and COVID on Cát Bà Island, Vietnam

a small village and many boats in the plethora of island near cat ba island, vietnam

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This island near Ha Long Bay, Vietnam is the kind of place that traps you in its magic.

In the winter of 2019, we landed in Hanoi, Vietnam, and we loved it! Though the pollution is unbearable, and so when our friend Camila invited us to Cát Bà Island–which was badly in need of volunteers–we moved the next day. The island is a paradise in pictures which seems unreal–it’s even better in person.

A bus from Hanoi–paid for by the volunteer host–took 4 hours, including a ferry crossing to the island. The island itself is big, but the town is small and you can walk everywhere. Those looking to get around a bit more quickly ride motorcycles, and thus they’re everywhere.

Our host “B.” was eager to greet us, offering up a beer and showing us to our new room in the hotel that he managed, linked to a pizza restaurant, two bars and tour guides.

The environment in Cát Bà Island was absolutely breathing, even in winter. The weather was good, sometimes cold but nice enough. Our first, super boring, task was handing out flyers for a week. That transitioned to offering breakfast every morning, which proved considerably more enjoyable, and then cleaning rooms and guiding guest to the rooms throughout the day.

Eventually, I became a tour guide: every day a van took the 9am tourists to the harbor, we got into a boat and went kayaking in the sea, caves and ponds. After swimming around the islands, we’d go hiking on Monkey Island, an  extreme, fun and sometimes dangerous place. I’d skip the monkeys, this form of entertainment for humans needs to end in my opinion, and finally we found ourselves eating traditional Vietnamese food in the boat.

two hikers pose for a photo on a rocky ledge high above the ocean on cat ba island, vietnam
Hiking Cat Ba Island, Vietnam.

Even better than the tours, though was how–at the end of each–we had all become good friends just as the van brought us to the town center’s reggae bar, a small, cozy place where every tourist scored a free beer. We spent endless hours just chilling, talking, laughing till night. Usually, Michael or Boy Lo–the other tour guides–and I, were the last ones to leave.

My wife offered to paint a mural on the restaurant and so that became her task as a volunteer for the months we called Cát Bà home, while I played Jack of All Trades: painting, taking pictures, designing. Even  “B” agreed on my idea to make a double circle billiard table. Billiards were all around and the Vietnamese are usually excellent players. In the mornings our son, Luka, studied with us for a few hours before the rest of his day was spent playing with the local kids. He picked up Vietnamese naturally, even though we could remember no more than 15 words.

As part of our volunteering, we received lodging and three meals per day, plus free drinks on the tours and pizza at night.

Partying? Well, there are lots of bars and they all had a “Free Beer Hour” which actually lasted 30 minutes. But it was from 8 to 8:30 in a place called Napoli, 8:30 to 9 at the Big Man, and 9:30 to 10 at the Oasis. Even when the beer wasn’t free, it was surprisingly cheap.

After three months we knew all the playlists by heart, and though the music wasn’t really good, the the people, the atmosphere, the very energy was truly authentic. For the last two months, we’d become so “local” that we could go to a party every night.

several young people drinking beer on bean bags with a peace sign tapestry hanging in the background in Vietnam
Partying on Cat Ba Island, Vietnam.

We had no expenses. We hadn’t used money but other than to buy BanhMi (a sandwich) or BanhKeps (crepes). We were even given an offer to live there permanently, complete with visas and formal school for Luka. Tempting as it was, we doubted that would be our choice.

During the winter in early 2020, as COVID spread across the world, at first little changed on Cát Bà, as close to China’s border as it is. But soon, we had less tourist and soon it all changed when a person in Vietnam tested positive and she hung out with some guys that had been on the island. In one day we realized how everyone was related in some way, we’d all been in the same bars the same night as this person, we’d all spent our days in the same places. People were afraid.

The next day we went for a walk in the morning and when returning, B. repeated his catchline, “So guys, do we have a situation here?”

The phrase wasn’t usual, but now the reason was: we had to evacuate the island in 25 minutes. We quickly packed everything. All the foreigners were waiting for the bus that would shuttle them off the island, and when it arrived it was instantly filled.

“Y’all will take the next bus,” B. told us, and so all the volunteers stayed for one more day.

Many of us–sitting at the reggae bar drinking beer and wondering what would come next, what could happen, where we would go–found peace while listening to “Every little thing…is gonna be alright.” No one could imagine the worst.

Though impossibly uneasy, we all managed to get onto the bus. Our friends went to Ninh Binh to live on a farm, and we headed up to Hanoi for a couple of days. Michael, our friend and fellow former tour guide, lent us the money to take flights to Malaysia and came with us. We moved back to “Home for the Angels” where we felt we would be alright and well protected.

Still, I thought of Boy Lo, our other fellow tour guide, who now had to leave his world in Cát Bà, a place that he showed me so well, with his love for all that world.