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The Halong Bay Fiasco 2

VIETNAM | Sunday, 7 June 2009 | Views [2794] | Comments [2]

Day two of the Halong bay tour started surprisingly similarly to day one. Claire was in the shower when the phone rang. The voice said ”Finish! Leave hotel now!” I looked at my watch: 7.10 and we had been told to meet at 7.30. Ignoring what had been said I took my time, had my shower and we were at reception at the agreed time, but not before a hammering at the door at 07.15. “FINISH - OUT NOW!” No need to remind us quite so incessantly. Vietnam is a bit funny about passports when you stay in a hotel. They always ask to see it, and most of the time keep it for the duration of your stay as some form of ransom in case you smash the room up or steal the air conditioning unit. The Cat Ba Plaza had kept everyone's passport. When I handed in the room key, expecting the passport back the reception said “No passport”. I wasn't too happy about this but let it go, trusting that we'd get them back eventually. One of the French guys, probably still drunk from the karaoke soundtracked excesses of the previous night wasn't taking no for an answer. He wanted his passport back and started raising his voice. A sense that this wasn't going to be pretty began to rise inside me. In the midst of the shouting he tried to go behind reception to retrieve his passport himself. A scuffle started. We left to avoid adding to the situation. We we got to the dinner hotel (also serving as breakfast) back in town we found out that he had been manhandled out of reception and still did not have his passport. Neither did anyone else. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow. After a flavourless pancake breakfast (of which there was not enough to go round all the guests but luckily a few were too hungover to stomach breakfast anyway) it was time to set off for our trek in the Cat Ba National Park, comprising about half the island. We were ushered onto a comfortable new bus with AC by yet another guide type character. There were a few unfamiliar faces – an English gap year group and a local family with two pudgy daughters dressed in summer party dresses. Then everyone was asked to get off the bus again. A subset (everyone minus the gap yearers) were put back on and we set off. At this stage most of the group were embracing the disorganisation, looking forward to the next stumbling block – it had to be the trek... A sleight, polite man with decent English took us off the bus when we arrived at the park – he would be our guide through the park. He was wearing flip flops while the other guide, a younger lady was wearing backless heeled slippers and a pair of super tight satin jeans. The reason for the description of their ludicrous trekking clothes will become apparent later. Off we set, up a rolling hill, the whole motley crew. Claire and I hadn't been trekking in a while and were looking forward to a good sweat. We got it immediately – the heat was oppressive. We took a brief water stop and our guide, who turned out to be from Laos sprang off, the little girls in summer party dresses in tow. Claire and I followed the rest behind. Soon the path turned much harder, a sheer drop on one side with difficult terrain on the path itself. The guide had gone on ahead, leaving the party dress girls on their own to negotiate a (in my opinion) technically challenging part of the trek. They stopped at the largest chasm ... and started crying. Their parents were miles behind. So Claire and I guided the girls over it and on up the hill. Claire's girl had a pretty little net over her dress which kept getting caught up in the brambles. When we got to the top I thought the girls were about to combust. Everyone was dripping with sweat but I never knew children could sweat so much too. Poor things.

At the second rest stop we had a magnificent view over the bay and the lady guide passed around a few hairy lychees before we were off again. I went behind the guide this time.

Shortly after the beginning of the descent he hissed “Stop – poison!” and grabbed a branch. Using it he coaxed a skinny vermillion green snake off the path and into a crack in the rocks. The trek had now turned into 20% scaling rocks and was taking its toll on some of the group. At the third water break we were told “Only people with good shoes continue.” Somehow the guide's flip flops qualified him and he set off with Claire behind him. A few other people seemed to have dropped out. The trek now turned into 60% rock climbing. At a certain point the guide stopped, saying he was too hot but beckoned to Claire to carry on up to the pinnacle. Claire of all people! I had visions of another vertigo-ridden rescue like in Maccu-Picchu but thankfully it wasn't required. The view at the top was beautiful once again: sheer-cliffed islands topped with green jutting out from the Gulf of Tonkin. Even the descent down to the road was tough going. A blanket of pine needles prevented any type of purchase down the incline, but it did pass by one of the most beautiful spots for a graveyard I have ever come across, with a broad sweeping view over the islands.

The Canadian girls, who we had been getting to know quite well, were laughing about their friends. We didn't even realise they had been travelling with two guys until this moment. The guys were complete beefcake steroid types who (as their friends told us) would only work out if a mirror could be found. When we got back to the van we found the two enormous beefcakes (they were both ripped with muscles and well over 6ft tall) sitting down in sullenness around a table drinking 7up with the two little girls with their now ripped up party dresses. They all had the same, slightly wincing expression of defeat, having left the trek at the second water stop. For out part we thoroughly enjoyed it – the guide was good fun - he was actually a guide who imparted information and seemed to have some experience dealing with people, and the exertion was all there although the rock-climbing was unexpected!

Back to the same old hotel for lunch (the food at lunch and dinner, either on the boat or off it was always identical – tasty, but the formula was now starting to get tired 3 meals in). All hell had broken loose. Our group had been told to dump its rucksacks by reception as we couldn't take them on the hike. Another group of people were trying to check in but couldn't for the bags in the way. The new group included the 2 belligerent dutch girls, one of whom was now sporting a large, painful looking graze along her leg and arm. An Aussie couple were patiently but firmly complaining to the manager. The snatches we heard were “But this is not what we were told would happen – we want to leave the tour now and get our money back.” The manager replied, “You buy cheap tour no? Well this is the cheap tour!”

We ate lunch hurriedly to get out of dodge as soon as we could. Once we had vacated our seats yet another bus load of cranky tourists arrived for lunch. We had “lazy time” now according to the brochure (no-one actually told us anything – are you seeing a recurrent theme?) so wanted to make the most of it at the beach. We asked where a beach was (Cat Ba town itself just has a harbour with lots of boats and boat people – no beach to speak of) and were told “10 minute”, pointing south. We arranged to meet the Canadians there, where ever there was but walked off at a slower pace. A good half an hour later we arrived at a beach – not sure if it was the beach we were supposed to go to but it was a beach, it had sand, a gentle surf and the type of vista that people send postcards home about. And the water seemed to be clean, which it certainly wasn't around the corner at the harbour. No Canadians though.

We had about 2 hours and spent them playing frisbee and floating about in the turquoise waters. We had joined some of the French guys from the tour and then a group of friendly locals invited us to join in a game of water-keepy-uppy. At one point an oily slick drifted in and made us get out fairly sharpish. Aside from that it was absolutely gourgeous and a real pleasure to have nothing to do with a tour where so many things can go wrong.

When we got back to the hotel for our bus transfer to the boat a thought occurred to me. Seeing as there is a port in the town – why not have the boat drop people off at the town and then save them the annoying bus ride? I didn't dare suggest this customer focussed business improvement lest my passport come back a fake.

Claire and I were the last two on the bus. I crammed in beside a middle aged couple – he was a kiwi and seemed to speak for the two of them. “I'm from New Zealand and my wife is German”. Ok I thought ... and we had a pleasant enough chat, about the disorganisation of the tour, of the gradual destruction of the natural resource the tour companies are profiting from but then he asked the fatal question. “How much did you pay? We paid $65 each.” To be fair I had commented “you get what you pay for” at one point in the conversation, inevitably provoking the question. I didn't have the heart to say “about half what you paid” so just said that we had paid a little less but not much, in the grand scheme of things. The man's key point was that it was not the money it was the waiting around and the wasted time and broken promises – they had had a similar litany of events - particularly as they only had 2 weeks holiday this was a big chunk of their days. I think this point is crucial – we have a year more or less – they had 2 weeks. We were having a great time in spite of the tour – they were having a horrible experience (not even noticing how beautiful everything was) because of it. If you are thinking about doing a Halong Bay tour as part of your holidays my advice would be to stump up the $100+ and get a quality one on a nice junk with a decent company like the Kangaroo Cafe. Or take your chances – you might have more fun the cheaper way! I reckon we did!

Of course, when we arrived at the jetty the boat was nowhere to be seen. I was first off the bus and was told to wait “over there” by the driver, pointing at a few drinks hawkers around a few uncomfortable looking shaded seats. I duly complied, kind of looking forward to this impromptu “free time” and to seeing what would happen next. Most people off the bus followed me across to the waiting area. The older couple and the Canadian girls confidently marched up the jetty, perhaps assuming a boat would appear from the deep, Pirates of the Caribbean style. It didn't. The Canadian girls took their rightful places in the shade a few minutes later.

The hawkers were doing a hilarious deal on beers. “1 for 15. 2 for 35!” I got one of them down to 25,000 dong for 2 and accepted that the wait would have to happen whether it was being enjoyed or not. We all started chatting and listening to some tunes. An Aussie couple (the same who had been looking for a refund) moved away from the group, preferring to wallow in their own grumpiness than join in the banter. It must have been over an hour later when we were called over to another guide – a boat had turned up!

There was a problem though – the boat could not fit everyone on it. The new “guide” tried to read out a list of Western names – the lucky ones who had made the cut – his pronuncitation wasn't great so I offered to read the names out for him. I was most surprised to read the first 2: Eric Clapton and David Copperfield. Then the Canadian girls, the three South Koreans who were also part of the group and finally myself and Claire. The Aussie couple and the French guys didn't make the cut. At this point a lot of things happened at once. The Vietnamese guys started counting us all and shouting at each other. The Aussie guy started shouting at the main Vietnamese guide and the French guys started grumbling too. Their remonitions had a lot less ferocity, having already had one fight and seen its outcome.

The Aussie guy really started to go for it and screamed at the Vietnamese guy menacingly an inch from his face. A scuffle developed and I started to walk off towards the boat – not my problem. Claire and the Canadians followed. The South Koreans stood fast, I think stunned by the western direct action approach. The second Vietnamese shouted at us all to stop – there was a problem. There were four people already on the boat (who, we didn't know!) and 13 people on the pier trying to get on. There were only 16 places to sleep so there was one too many. “Who is travelling alone?” he asked.

Mark, our English mate was very much one of the gang so we all said that we were travelling as a big group to keep us together. The scuffle between the Aussie and the other employee had subsided now – it turned out there had been no rooms at the hotel earlier, hence the complaint, so they had to get on the boat as there was no alternative. Fair enough but no need to be so aggressive, I thought. There was a stand off. No-one budged.

I wondered if Eric Clapton and David Copperfield would provide light entertainment on the boat...

Eventually an agreement was reached – the 3 South Korean guys very diplomatically agreed to stay behind. With all this messing around I wanted to do one thing when I got on the boat – show me our passports. I didn't want them back I just wanted to see them – there was no rhyme or reason to the tour so if our passports made it to the same boat as we did it would be pure chance. Everyone else had the same idea so the passports were brought out and everyone could look for themselves.

Most people's were there – but so were the 3 South Korean guys who were obviously absent. The passport belonging to the German half of the $65 couple was missing. It was a complete mess. The kiwi started shouting at the guy managing the boat who started shouting back. Then the boat manager/ guide started really freaking out about 2 missing passports. Not the German lady's one we knew was missing, or even the 3 extra South Korean ones but 2 more which he was now accusing us of stealing. No-one had a clue what was going on – it was a really tense nasty situation.

We went through all the passports again, raising hands, but there were still two missing according to the guide. “Wait a minute” I thought, “What about bloody Eric and David!” They had said there were 4 people on the boat – the $65 couple and who else? I ran upstairs to the sun deck to see who the additional passengers were. Sure enough there were an American bloke and an English guy sunning themselves. I told them what was going on and asked them if they had their passports - “Yes. Yes we do. We took them back when they weren't looking cos earlier on they left them out on the counter for anyone to steal.” “Well would you mind going downstairs and sorting your shit out cos everyone else is tired of trying to deal with the crazy Vietnamese boat man downstairs!!”

They obliged and once there was a hook to hang the problem on everyone scarpered to their cabins. The atmosphere on the boat had become tangibly tense. On the upside, the boat itself was much more luxorious than the one we had taken to the island. There was plenty of room for everyone and the cabins even had ensuites and towels! The sun deck was huge and had plenty of space. Claire wasn't comfortable with the situation though. Neither was I but there was very little to be done except for embrace the madness – and keep laughing. It was a beautiful place after all...

The next installment, and the one which we had been looking forward to most was “kayaking”. I used inverted commas because we were put in a double canoe, given a broken lifejacket and told “Come back before it dark. Don't drop paddle – it sink.” Who designs a heavy metal paddle that sinks? We had a paddle around a limestone outcrop and took some photos but it was a little anticlimactic, although, as usual, stunningly beautiful scenery. We only got about 20 minutes in before it became hard to see so we returned.

We were the last out of our cabins for dinner. The Aussie couple and the $65 couple were providing a mutual support network for each other, Mark was listening in (for gossip for us later imagined) and the Canadian girls' table was full. So we were left with one canadian beefcake, the other was sea sick upstairs (on a pancake flat voyage!) and Eric and David. I know there was a bit of history but it was without a shadow of a doubt the most impolite table I have ever had the displeasure to sit at. The three of them wordlessly wolfed down the food regardless of whether anyone else had had any or not. Claire and I essentially got leftovers.

No attempt at conversation was made. Claire and I chatted amongst ourselves but even that seemed forced somehow. There was a very brief conversation about the merits of various SE Asian beers and then right on cue a common ground in NHL and the benefits of anabolic steroids was found. We made our excuses and took our highly overpriced and bitter but delightfully decadent local Dalat red wine upstairs to the sun deck to get away from them. At least we had garnered that they had given their passports over.

Bit by bit the group joined us upstairs and everyone started to unwind from the earlier tensions. Even the $65 couple were in better form with a few tunes, a can of beer and a friendly chat. They had even managed to get the missing passport back while we were kayaking. It was all looking up.

I got chatting to one of the boat hands throughout the evening. His English was really good and he was a very friendly chap. He explained a bit about the Bay – all the boats which have tourists aboard overnight all spend the evening in the same bay. 2 reasons for this. There is a police boat out there somewhere in case there are problems (and given what we had seen in two days I suspect they are quite busy). There has also been a problem with piracy recently – so when everyone stays together the police can keep an eye on everyone easier. Comforting. I was touched by the contrasts and dichotomies that Halong bay was displaying. The peace and tranquility the bay interrupted by the sounds of drunken karaoke and diesel generators. The genuine friendliness of the majority of Vietnamese compromised by the view, by some, of Westerners as “walking dollars”.

The Canadians had gotten in trouble downstairs for smuggling vodka on board in a water bottle. They paid a “corkage” fee and then were allowed to continue. We played a few games but then the American guy, David Copperfield (I never knew his real name) turned the games into a very public chat up of the one Canadian girl neither of us had taken a shine to. Somewhere around midnight we decided to call it a night. Now we had noticed that our cabin was directly above the very noisy generator but hadn't thought that much of it assuming that they would turn it off at some point. We asked what time and were told in a few minutes. Seconds later there was a knock at the door and a very apologetic boat guide telling us that the generator would stay on – one couple had paid for AC and they needed it to be on throughout the night. So that's what $65 each gets you: an air conditioned lack of sleep due to the noisy generator needed to provide it. We busted out our own illicit bottle of vodka, circumvented the corkage fee and joined them back upstairs. We were told the objectionable American had succeeded in his chat up – the roommate of the object of his affections could confirm she had been asked to make herself scarce. She couldn't sleep for the generator anyway. Mark was missing but suddenly he appeared at the stern of the boat, a bottle of vodka in one hand, and a bottle of pepsi in another. He had engaged the services of an enterprising boat person who operated a covert sea faring off-license undercutting the tourist boats' vastly inflated prices for liquor. Only in Vietnam!

Tags: beach, boat, canoe, island, island, tour, trekking



Hi your journal is very interesting and extremely helpful.

One point, why do tour guides always collect passports? At hotel checkin. At least in some countries where tourism is less common. It annoys the hell out of me.
Or is it just me? Does it bother you?
Surely I have a right to hand in my own document myself
What if they lost it? It has happened.

  Eimeara Stapleton Dec 21, 2017 10:20 AM


I appreciate it feels wierd for you (and me!) But somwtimes you just gotta with the flow. Look at my other entry in Laos - SE Asia in particular is kina crazy for passport requests so I think you have to walk the line between risk and adventure. 99% of times adventure will win but there's always the 1%....

  Eoghan Kelly Dec 21, 2017 10:54 AM

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