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The Halong Bay Fiasco 1

VIETNAM | Saturday, 6 June 2009 | Views [2058]

It was an inauspicious start to the trip. We had slept through the alarm and were awoken by a heavy thumping on the paper thin bedroom door. The thoughtful receptionist had given us a 20 minute headstart before the promised air conditioned minivan would take us to Halong Bay.

The first broken promise was the minivan – the driver smiled and shrugged negatively when a few people getting on gestured hopefully at the air vents and then their sweat-glistening foreheads. It was only a four hour trip - not to worry. The second was the amount of people – we had been told that the group size was 16 – more than 20 were on the bus including a morbidly obese Belgian and a Vietnamese family, the patriarch of which insisted on proudly showing me his military identification card as we sign-languaged and smiled our way through introductions and pleasantries.

When we arrived at the port where we would embark the boat (we assumed, having been given no information) we found large groups of foreigners finding shade under trees and being harrassed by hawkers selling fruit and water. After about half an hour there, none the wiser, some people started to ask questions – when would we leave, where was the boat, what time was lunch? The guy who had collected us at our hotel and taken our tickets spoke very little English. Eventually he tired of not being able to answer the incessant questions, pointed at another fellow and said “Follow him!” as he almost but not quite ran away. Broken promise number three: English speaking professional guide.

The rest of our group consisted of Mark, a soft spoken English guy just out of Uni, a half Vietnamese, half Belgian guy (and friend of the larger gent we sat beside on the way down) who was back discovering his routes and a group of Aussie girls. When another minibus turned up, branded the same (AZ Queen Cafe) its human contents were mingled with ours. We noticed jealously that it was a much better bus and clearly had AC.

The new “guide” had disappeared and reappeared again much later and now started asking some people (not all and not us) for passports. Rumours began to spread about the import of this – some said that if you had handed your passport over it meant that you would be staying on the boat that night – night 1. As this was what we had been told would happen to us, we were a bit confused but let it pass – no sense getting stressed about anything. It was the cheapest tour we could find after all.

After being ushered around to the harbour side of the building the “guide” pointed at one boat, identical in style to all the rest, but a little smaller and shabbier. We boarded. There were about 40 of us now and there wasn't enough room at the tables for everyone. We left the harbour and went about 200m into the bay, among a thousand other boats spluttering black plumes of smoke into the blue sky, where lunch was plonked down in front of us rather than served. A middle aged northern lass behind us shouted that as there were eight rather than six at their table they would need extra food.

We were joined on the table by the Belgians from our bus and two Dutch girls from the other who spoke Dutch through most of the meal. As we put down the chewy squid and morning glory I tried to get a conversation going but no-one seemed to be chatty so after eating we cleared off to the upstairs sun deck where at last we started to understand why people flock to Halong Bay. In the bay are a myriad, over 3000 other-wordly karst limestone outcrops, islands and towers which are like something from a dream or a Hollywood movie. In fact I think one of the Bond movies was shot here – Dr No's evil lair – something like that.

Our first stop was at some caves. The guide had told some people there were caves to visit and what time to be back at but not everyone was in on it so there was a bit of confusion to begin with. We walked up the stairs and into the caves which were gaudily lit in green and pink for no apparent reason. They were large and impressive but the lights took from their splendour rather than added to it. Many groups had a guide pointing out interesting features of the cave but we had to interpret it for ourselves. We learned later that this merely consisted of pointing out shapes similar to human genitalia with a laser pen but we were still a bit jealous.

A crowd of hawkers forcefully selling beer and soft drinks harangued us as we exited the cave. We passed them by to take in the fabulous view and wondered whether we were supposed to go to the second set of caves. Looking at the watch we didn't have time ... and proceeded to spend 15 minutes trying to find the boat anyway (no-one had thought that it might be useful information to let us know its name. Admittedly we had not thought to look either so one-all on that account). Back on-board we got talking to a genial Argentenian and a lovely Welsh girl fluent in Spanish. I was dumbstruck when he produced a thermos and yerba and proceeded to serve mate, the traditional South American tea I love so much. It had been a long time since a chat passing around the mate – a very unexpected and pleasant surprise. Even the hungry northern lass got in on the action, pulling out a pair of comedy monster sunglasses as she took her first, and last sip. No idea why – why not.

Later we made another stop where we were told if we paid 40,000 dong (about $2) to a man in a little boat he would take us to a “water cave”. Without any more salesmanship most of the boat declined but we decided to go for it, along with the Welsh girl and the Argentino. It was well worth it – the boat man steered the little vessel (with his feet!) towards a seemingly impenetrable karst fortress towering out of the sea. We made for a tiny dark cave and, passing through under strangely shaped stalactites emerged into a brilliantly bright place.

When our eyes adjusted we could see enormous 70m walls reaching up on all sides but the island was hollow, an intense blue sky with wheeling frigate birds above. We circled about and went through a few sea arches before returning to the main ship. It was impossibly beautiful and not at all what I was expecting, That said I don't know what I was expecting.

We relaxed on the roof as we cruised around the bay for the rest of the afternoon, finally making it to a jetty on Cat Ba Island. There was an incomprehensible announcement about passports and rooms – the first of the tour! On clarification it turned out that if your passport had been handed over you would stay on the boat, if not, you would stay on the island the first night and the boat the second. Fine ... but this persistent lack of information and changing the plan was starting to irk us a little and some people more. Thankfully we didn't have much residual stress from 9 months of travelling but the Dutch girls refused to get off the boat. Luckily the Belgian guys who had given over their passports wanted to stay on the island having befriended a big group of French who were not chosen to stay on the boat. Problem solved with a swap of passports.

The island people were lead to a half full bus on the jetty but, as with the boat we had just left, there wasn't enough room for everyone. Some, from different groups, were left waiting for another bus. It took about 45 minutes to get to our hotel, It was a basic but decent sized room with a fabulous view over a postcard bay with islands in the distance. We were told to be back down at reception for 7pm when we would go to dinner in another hotel. The Canadian girls who checked in just before us were told 18.30. When Claire and I came down at 7 unsurprisingly they had the look of people who had been waiting for half an hour. The Franco-Belgian group were at a beer stall so we joined them until the decrepit one head-lighted mini bus came along to bring us to dinner.

The whole group was starting to gel a bit now so no-one paid much attention to where we were going or where we had come from. On arrival at the dinner hotel there was no space left at any tables where we knew people so were placed with four young Vietnamese guys. Three of them were brothers and the other was a friend and were all great craic. They drank beer and ate food with a determination and gusto that I hadn't seen in a long time. They were also very polite and took care to offer us anything before they devoured it themselves. I asked them what they did – the oldest brother replied IT. The next replied “electricity”, I interpreted as an electrican. The youngest brother was a student and the fourth wheel, when asked, paused and replied “businessman”, rather grandly for a man still in his teens. I found out later shoes were his business - he worked in his mother's shoe shop. We raised glasses in the typical Vietnamese fashion “mot, hai, baa, yo!” (literally one, two, three, yo!) countless times until they left, asking us to join them later for snake wine and dancing. We regrettably declined. You just can't go to all the parties.

We only noticed once the Vietnamese had left that the area we had been eating in was empty and that rest of the tour group had gone. We asked one of the hotel workers about our bus back to the hotel but he shrugged. We then asked the waitress and she said “No bus!” but only after a lot of pointing and gesturing at the distinctive one head-lighted bus driver-less outside. We asked for the name of our hotel. I suspected it was the something plaza but wasn't at all sure. The assumption had been that a bus would take us back so the logic was that we shouldn't have needed to remember what it was called or where it was. I had a vague recollection that we came down a hill on the way, and it had only been a 10 or 15 minute journey so how hard could it be? The night was but young.

Cat Ba town is by many accounts quite pleasant – the main street down the waterfront, where most of the hotels, restaurants and street food vendors are gathered is pedestrianised in the evening. It's blissful to be able to walk freely with out constant fear of mopeds crashing into you anywhere in Vietnam! There was a the feel of a lot of people on holiday – not jaded westerners expecting more but locals enjoying a precious few days off work away from the bustle.

We turned up a street that seemed to go in the right direction and walked past busy seafood restaurants with live catch in aquaria outside and large bottles filled with bizarre shapes inside. We picked one and went in to look at what was in the bottles. Amongst other things I can't describe there were snakes, scorpions, sea horses and starfish and what looked a bit like canine foetuses. We had avoided eating cuy (guinea pig) in Peru and I didn't want to miss the opportunity this time. I chose snake wine and Claire reluctantly chose seahorse and starfish. Mine was vaguely palatable but Claire's was quite nasty. Neither were strong in terms of alcohol but they certainly were in flavour. Ice-creams were in order afterwards to get rid of the taste.

We carried on up the street and eventually it started to curve and drop back down towards the sea as I had remembered. It started to look familiar – I thought we were coming out just beside the hotel when we came out exactly where we had started. The situation which had been funny an hour ago had started to become very tedious. We were staying in a hotel which we didn't know the name of never mind its location. We went back to the place where we had eaten and tried a lot harder to get something out of them. This fell on completely deaf ears – the rising temperature of my colère increased the vehemence with which the hotel staff ignored me. Eventually one of the girls offered me a hotel room there for $30, as if to shut me up. Why hadn't I taken one of the hotel business cards. Or even the room key?

Enzo, an Italian we had chatted briefly to at dinner passed by. We explained the predicament and he said he thought our tour guide (there was a tour guide?) was staying at his hotel. We followed him to it and somehow got a room number to knock on. The TV was on but no-one was answering.

We left on another attempt, this time more focussed on the task at hand. We came to a crossroads. We had already chosen the right had turn. Left, up a hill felt all wrong so we carried on straight. A moto driver asked us if we wanted a lift – we asked if he knew the plaza and pointed back towards town, gesturing to get on behind him. No thanks. We asked a man clearing up his shop for directions which we followed. It looked as though he was right until we discovered that he had brought us back into town again.

In despair we returned to the dinner hotel for a final crack at the whip. Mercifully the night receptionist who spoke some English had started his shift – we had been traipsing around for 2 hours now and were getting tired and seriously pissed off. He had the four words we needed – they seem so obvious now in retrospect but hindsight is always 20-20: The Cat Ba Plaza. Of course it was named after the island! We found a moto driver nearby who would take only one of us but before long another showed up. I jumped on and was given a helmet. Claire jumped on only to be presented with a construction site hard hat. Put put put and away!

I had plans of making very serious complaints at the hotel when we returned but when we saw the French and the Belgians in the open air bar beside the hotel we joined them instead. We wanted to see if anyone else had had the same problem. Everyone had, but it seems that only those who left the dinner hotel first were given directions back. Instead of complaining we joined the crowd.

They had been there for some time, in very good spirits literally and figuratively. A karaoke mike appeared and was passed around. Even Claire, not renowned for her solo karaoke talents got into it. The singing got louder and worse, the night went on and the owner of the open air bar opened the door to a private video karaoke booth he had kept hidden at the back. Presumably to keep the noise down. It was a terrible night and a fabulous night, luckily in that order. So much had happened on the tour already , good and bad – what could the next day bring?

Tags: boat, cave, island, karaoke, mate, passport, tour


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