Halong the Bay in Three Days

Friday, July 04, 2008

It was a foreboding start. I sat on the street 40 minutes after the bus was supposed to pick me up for a 3-day, 2-night tour of Halong Bay. This is not unusual in Asia, but is extremely frustrating. The amount of time wasted waiting around that could instead have been spent getting other things done (like this blog) or, more often (and more truthfully), sleeping is criminal. No bus showed up, rather a man walked by on the street and asked me if I was going to Halong Bay today. Yes? OK, then follow him. We didn’t walk to where I’d booked the ticket, but rather to one of the ever-present Sinh Cafes that have spread through Hanoi and indeed southeast Asia like the bubonic plague. And there, waiting for a bus, was Nathan, my kiwi friend that I seemed fated to travel with. Whenever we parted paths, purposefully or not, we always found each other again. And now here we were, of all the places to book a Halong Bay trip, on all the days, not only in the same city, but on the same boat. Or so we thought. After they herded us onto a bus half an hour later (bringing total waiting time to one hour 20 minutes) the bus drove several feet then stopped. A woman ran on and told me I had to get off the bus. And then another twenty minutes I was on another bus bound for Halong Bay with, I imagined, the group I would be boating with. I should’ve known better; Nathan was not among them.

Indeed, the organization at Sinh Café exists at an unprecedented level of neglect. It is probably the most fantastically disorganized but still functioning thing I have ever witnessed. We arrived at the Halong City harbour where we waited 15 minutes in a sea of people coming and going and general confusion before being herded onto boats. Again, I was separated from the people I’d made friends with on the three hour journey from Hanoi and put on a boat with yet more strangers and some familiar faces, Nathan among them as well as an obnoxious American I’d SCUBA dived with in Nha Trang. Then we learned that contrary to the itinerary as given, we would not be sleeping on the boat that night. We’d be staying in the hotel. And so we cruised through the beautiful karst landscape of Halong Bay and on to Cat Ba Island where all of us – except for Nathan and the American – were instructed to get off. Apparently Nathan would be sleeping on the boat that night while the rest of us wouldn’t. I don’t think I can put into words the sheer amount of confusion and disarray felt by both us and our “guides”. Yes, plural, they changed from day to day and boat to boat so that nobody ever knew what was going on. If you were going to run a criminal organization and wanted to be at the top with your minions having no idea of your identity or evil intentions, Sinh Café (which I would soon learn was, in fact, a criminal organization) had the model perfected.

So I didn’t see much of Nathan in the end, unfortunately. But for all the mess I was lucky enough to find myself with a pretty great group. A nice couple from England and three really cool English guys with whom I spent most of my time. We got to our hotel on Cat Ba (not as advertised) and had the evening free to explore the town. We did just that and had some fresh beer which had far-too-high an aluminum content to satisfy the Alzheimer’s guidelines and a pretty early night. We had to be checked out of the hotel by 7:30 the next morning for our 3-hour trek to the top of some of the karst pillars. The morning came with some really bad (and chilled) pancakes served with honey that, I suspect, had been mixed with soy sauce and had bananas tucked between them. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds; at least there was no rice or water spinach. And then our trek. Our guide wasn’t much of a guide at all. He did bring us up the hill but left many in the dust as he set a new speed record for the trail all the while going incommunicado. We stopped at one point and he told us to continue to the top and then come back down. We did.

The view from the top was beautiful, which was no surprise, as we’d been treated to some amazing glimpses of the landscape on the way up. It was not especially challenging, though the heat and particularly the humidity were a bit much. And then back down to find our guide was not where we’d left him nor anywhere to be found, but we made our way on our own with the other group’s guide, by now soaked in sweat, and waited for lunch. Our three hour trek had been just over one and we had some time to kill before getting taken back to Cat Ba. We returned and then set out right away for the beach as the day had grown ever hotter, bypassing Beach 1 in favour of the more secluded Beach 2. Both had pounding waves and the day was spent playing in the surf and stretching out on a towel that, inevitably, was placed to close to the water and had to be moved back as the crashing tide came in. And then back to the pier.

We were supposed to be on a boat by 4:00, but arrived with no guide or boat to get on and watched them all sail away. We were left on the dock alone without explanation or guide for over an hour, left to fend off the women selling drinks and Oreo cookies for far too much money. 5:00 and one of our company’s boats arrived, but the guide on that boat told us it was not for our use. When asked what was going on with us, he neither knew nor cared to know or look up anything. Could he call and find out? Could he even stop to answer a question? No. Oh, we got in his way. It had a been a long day, a lot of waiting, and they had our passports, these unorganized and unmitigated clods. He wasn’t going anywhere until we had some answers, or that was the theory we had. Of course, if you’re not willing to really follow it up, then yes, he was going somewhere. So we let him go away, the only man who might’ve had the power to answer why we were left high and dry.

It was almost another hour before another boat arrived – by now, we’d been sitting in the middle of nowhere for two hours after we were supposed to be aboard. Were we supposed to be aboard this? Nobody was sure and then one man rudely waved us on as if quite perturbed to have to pick us up. Did he have our passports? Another, grumpier wave. Passport? ID? We knew he understood but just increasingly annoyed waves and dirty looks. Where’s my passport? Then he practically spit on me and turned away in disgust, as if asking if they had been given our passport from the hotel was the most unreasonable question ever. By now, as you might have guessed, I had about had it with this company and these people. With being treated like a virus instead of a customer. With being lied to. With being scammed. With being ignored and treated like I was an idiot. I took the small corner left of my over-priced Oreo and threw it at him. Yup - not my most shining moment. But he was paying attention again.

And then he was shouting and spitting and I was demanding my passport and he was calling me every name in the book and then grabbing a piece of wood. I stood and looked up at him on the boat and asked if he was going to hit me with it. And finally, word of someone that spoke English – a guide? – coming to the boat. Fine, I’d sort it out with her. She was having a perfectly good conversation in English but when asked by one of the English guys about our passports, she suddenly lost the ability to communicate. Great. While I don’t defend losing my temper (nor do I really regret it, if I am to be really honest – though I am embarrassed about the oreo), you have to understand the amount we had been and were being jerked around. That we had been given little of what we’d been promised and paid for. And that there is a scam here where they ‘keep’ your passport for a couple of days and return you a decent fake of it, meanwhile selling the original. You, most likely, don’t notice until the airport. And pretty much all of us were concerned that this was precisely why we were so steadfastly ignored when the question of passports came up.

Regardless, we were able to ascertain from this woman (eventually) that we were on the right boat and that they had my passport somewhere. Not really good enough, but as good as we were going to get. At least it seemed like the hotel had gotten it to the boat, though no, they couldn’t show me MY passport. And finally, 15 minutes later, our guide arrived. The man I’d confronted, who then confronted me with a stick, had been glaring daggers at me the whole time not to mention complaining to anyone who’d listen. I have little doubt he never mentioned threatening me with a board or being a rude and arrogant $@#^%&. The guide had the nerve to lecture me before having heard anything from our side. Apparently I have to respect him but he doesn’t have to return the favour. A while after that was dealt with, I sat the guide down and told him exactly what had prompted our collective annoyance and my angry response. And then, easy as pie (except for an eye-roll from our captain), he finally showed me my passport. Why, oh why, couldn’t they have just done that when we asked?

We had enough time to kayak 40 minutes (again not the three hours paid for) before it got dark and then left only to realize we were missing the English couple. We picked them up and had a good night on the boat with some of the new people. I partied with a Dutch couple who were very nice as well as Hazel and Alice (two English girls), who were likewise nice and good fun, too. Of course, it’s difficult to party when beer is so expensive, but we made the most of it and a cigar the Dutch guy had. And then our final day, which was supposed to include a swim, a climb up Monkey Island (some were told, not me), and who knows what else, but only included breakfast and a very slow ride back to Halong City. And then, a few hours in Hanoi after a pretty decent lunch and a crowded ride back before I was aboard a sleeper train to Sapa. In retelling this, I was forced to underscore the negative aspects of this company’s tour but if you put aside being lied to, scammed, and maltreated, the actual area itself was terrific and worth at least two days. Unfortunately, I think most of the companies are equally corrupt, so I’m left without someone to recommend, but I hope that if you do get here you’ll not be stuck with some North Vietnamese people endeavouring to keep stereotypes of extreme rudeness alive while undertaking to ruin your trip. Whether they succeed or not is up to you and I.

Halong Bay Photos

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