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The Halong Bay Fiasco 3

VIETNAM | Monday, 8 June 2009 | Views [923]

We didn't get much sleep due to the generator but we got enough. It turned out that the $65 couple's AC didn't work anyway. After a simple breakfast we stopped for 10 minutes to allow those who wanted to jump off and have a swim. The American and English guys were arguing with the boat manager again so we were happy to leave them to it. They got off and surprise surprise the brothers we had eaten at the dinner hotel with got on. They weren't so chatty (read drunk) this time so we went back to our places at the stern of the sun deck. The last few hours of our time on the bay were really good fun. After the batteries for the speakers ran out we went round the houses and had a sing song. Aggressive Aussie guy turned out to be very pleasant and a great singer.

The Canadians embarrassed to start off with but eventually gave a pretty good group rendition of Oh Canada just as the boat docked in.

As far as I was concerned there weren't going to be too many more antics on the tour. What could possibly go wrong – all we had left to do was eat lunch and get a bus back to Hanoi. Read on ... I can hardly believe it all myself.

Well it was no surprise that we would be waiting for a while for ... anything really – information, some direction, a bus? We managed to find a shady spot and bought some strange fruit, not because of hunger but more for the entertainment value. We had succulent giant hairy lychees and a fruit I had never heard of called Mangostan. You peel off the skin with a knife revealing small white mandarin-like fleshy segments tasting somewhere in between a pear and a mango. While we were eating, a bus came but was full by the time we got to it. The canadians were gone. A second bus came along and the French people from the original tour made it on before it was full. It was just us two and Mark left at the end.

Eventually the bus came. It was one of the posh ones. We got decent seats at the back. We were in luck! Other people piled on and just when we thought we could leave, there was an announcement. “Could someone please get off to let a sick 83 year old woman on?” We were so far at the back it was impractical to volunteer. Someone did and a little old lady stuttered her way on. We went about 4 minutes before we got to a restaurant – I had forgotten about lunch and thought we were on our way back to Hanoi. Mayhem once again at the restaurant – identical tour buses everywhere and bewildered tourists, western and asian alike milling around them looking for the right one. I wanted to take our rucksacks off the bus and bring them to lunch with us as instructed– it was the only way to guarantee we wouldn't lose them. A man said “No, no! You leave! You leave!” I asked him how he knew that I would get onto the right bus after lunch. “I know everything!” came the flourishing response. Speaking at the same time Mark asked him what the population of Indonesia was while I asked him for the meaning of life. The bus had already left, bags on board, by the time we realised that a response was not going to be forthcoming on either count.

It was the strangest set up for a restaurant I have ever seen. We were told to go to the fourth floor. We passed by 4 floors with 3 or 4 windowless rooms each with an identical lay out. 6 six-seater tables. 36 chairs. One door at the side – that would be the toilet. One door to enter – exit via the same one. We were with another group now – they were clearly newbies – one Irish girl asked what was on the menu. I should have known what the answer would be: “Everything!” The same old menu as ever got brought out.

Mark, Claire and I were joined at the table by a friendly Scottish guy, Ewan. We were swapping stories about this and that when I asked him what the craziest part of his tour had been. “Easy!” Ewan exclaimed and recounted a story about his own bus from Hanoi to Halong Bay. He had been unfortunate like us – it was one of the no AC models. There was a very old lady ... 83 years old someone had said (!!) who couldn't handle the heat. She collapsed and the driver took her to hospital. Rather than leave her there, the whole busload, in unison, waited for her for over an hour. She was brought out to the car park on a gurney. Ewan assumed she would be put in an ambulance, but nope, the gurney was upended and she had to get back on the same bus. The driver promptly took her to the harbour and dropped her off along with everyone else. Euan was delighted that she had managed to get an AC bus in the end, if even for a short hop to a crazy restaurant!

Various tour guides came into our room beckoning at tables to follow them. We were the last to be called. I saw the guy who knew everything and asked him where our bus was. He nonchalantly pointed at one of the buses outside. They all seemed to be the same standard issue so there was no reason not to believe him but I did want to make sure our bags were in the boot. Against the omniscient man's wishes I opened the boot to discover it empty. Scowling at him and his lack of knowledge I started to check random buses. A shouting match developed between the know-it-all and our “guide” – there was much pointing and gesticulating but I'm not sure what it was about. Finally Mark, Claire and I were led to bus around the corner. It was almost completely full but it had our bags on board – better than nothing - so we got on. We piled a few rucksacks off a seat for Claire and Mark found a hidden seat near the back. I made do spreadeagled on top of the removed rucksacks with my feet either side of the driver's gearstick. The “guide” sat in the place where the door opens. I was beside a lovely little girl who alternated between opening packets of sweets, offering them to Claire and I and falling asleep on my shoulder. Behind us were an English couple who we recognised from the dinner hotel. We started chatting.

They had had as interesting an experience as we had but theirs was subtly different from our own. They had stayed on the boat the first night – no major mishaps there, but when they got to the island they, like our Aussie friends, were told there was no room at the inn. Rather than demand to sleep on the boat again, they went with the flow. They, along with another couple, were taken to a few hotels but none of them had any rooms for them (despite groups of Vietnamese checking in before their very eyes). Eventually they were taken, of all places, to a hairdressers. Both couples (who didn't know each other from Adam) were asked to sleep in one room with two single beds. Together. On their vociferous decline, another room, this one windowless was magically arranged. They had a decent night's sleep and the following morning, as a, excuse the pun, fringe benefit, got a haircut each for 40,000 dong, a little over a pound. You literally could not make it up. They seemed to be relishing the madness as much as we were.

As we left the bay itself Claire and I started making notes. So much had happened during the three days (if you have managed to read this far you will know). We had to write it down to remember it all. Just as we finished 4 pages of bullet points, just when we thought nothing else could happen, the final installment occurred.

Our bus was flagged down at a seemingly random police checkpoint the like of which are all over Vietnam. The driver got out to talk about whatever he was pulled over for. Within seconds he got in again and pulled the bus over further into the siding. I'm sure the same thought was in every passenger's mind – “Please let this NOT mean waiting for another bus – we were so close!” I turned to the guide, who was in better form now that his responsibilities were lessening (as we approached Hanoi) and made the universal sign for money. He nodded and smiled. The driver got back on and we carried on our merry way. The driver and guide had a chat and once they were done I asked what the problem had been. “Too many people on bus” came back as the response. “So what happened?” I asked. “500,000 dong bribe” said the guide. All told it had cost the driver 12 discounted haircuts to get me back to Hanoi. What a tour!

It seems fitting to finish this crazy story is with a quote, from the quilt in our cabin on the crazy boat:

"LOVE YOU I wishes for my friends happy today and today!!!"

Just like the tour, the sentiments are there but there's definitely something lacking in the delivery. But at the end of the day it's kinda funny and endearing. But it's also just plain wrong. Maybe that's why I enjoyed it so much...

Tags: bribery, singing

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