July 15th, 2010
Visiting Ha Long Bay is something you simply Have To Do in Vietnam, since it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and stunningly beautiful and blah blah blah. If it was up to me and Chris we’d be on a train for the Chinese border already, yelling “Faster, driver! Faster!” but the girls are here for two weeks and so we thought we may as well go visit Vietnam’s biggest tourist draw.
Elisha came to Vietnam in February already, by the way, after two months of working in an orphanage in Cambodia. She hated it, largely because of the rude and hostile populace. See? It’s not just us.
Anyway, we were booked into a package tour for the trip ($98 US for three days and two nights), since Ha Long Bay isn’t exactly a place you can wander about in by yourself. As I mentioned earlier, Chris and I both disliked package tours for various reasons despite never having been on one, and I’ll warn you now that this blog post will largely be comprised of reasons why our prejudices were correct.
We got up at 7 so the tour bus could pick us up at 8 – which was actually 8.35, because of course there were dozens of other tourists to pick up from their hotels, and we weren’t first. For the first time since we’d arrived in Hanoi, a thunderstorm was hanging above the city, treating it to an absolutely torrential downpour of rain. From the windows of the bus we could see entire flooded streets and intersections, with people on scooters in water up to their knees. The fact that a tropical city doesn’t have a system in place to deal with monsoonal rain is another example of the Vietnamese inability to accomplish anything. I mean, shit, we have storm-water drains in Perth, and we’re practically in the desert.
It was a fairly uneventful three hour bus ride, with a brief shopping stopover. Oh, sorry, “rest” stopover. I was quite pleased to be back on a bus, looking out the window at other people struggling through heavy rain and bad roads and insane traffic on their motorbikes. I’m done with motorbikes for a while.
We arrived at the coast shortly after noon, with the distant islands of the bay visible on the horizon, and were told to sit and wait by our idiot tour guide Dingus. (That’s not his real name, but none of us learned it, so we had to come up with a nickname and that’s the one that stuck.) There were plenty of other tour groups similarly sitting around and waiting, while their guides wandered off somewhere into the hustle and bustle of the quayside. There were dozens of boats lining the wharf, and hundreds more visible anchored in the deeper water beyond them. I was at a loss as to why we were sitting there waiting, and after about forty minutes Chris and I went off to find out why.
We found Dingus in an office that was marked, in Vietnamese and broken Engrish, as a “boat rental service.” Inside, Dingus and dozens of other tour guides were clamouring at a desk in order to secure a vessel.
We walked back to the girls. “Guess what,” I said. “He’s only just now hiring our boat. And that’s not just our guy’s method, that’s everybody’s method. You don’t think, maybe, you should arrange that in advance? Instead of bussing people three hours out of Hanoi and then just hoping that you can get a boat?”
Chris put on his Vietnamese accent: “Oh, that is really good idea… you should be in charge!”
Eventually Dingus returned with the news that we had a boat, and we grabbed our bags and followed him down to the wharf. Chris mentioned that he heard another guide returning to his group in failure, and spinning some bullshit story about how they hadn’t been able to get a police clearance. And the tourists were just sitting there and taking it.
We got herded onto a tender, which took us out to one of the boats anchored in the harbour, a stately three-level boat run by a company called Christina Cruise. Our tour company was called AST. This is all irrelevant, since package tours in Vietnam are often (correctly) described as a “minefield,” flooded with shonky operators and imitators, lies and deception and charlatanry, all wrapped up behind an inscrutable Oriental curtain. Any trip to Ha Long Bay is apparently a crap shoot, because the operators are all in cahoots and will bump you off onto their partners whenever they feel like it. We knew none of this beforehand, and simply booked a tour straight from our hotel’s reception desk. I couldn’t be bothered putting in any more effort than that; in fact, Chris booked it while I was in bed with a migraine. So I didn’t really have high expectations for the trip itself, but – since this is the first time we’ve slept anywhere more exotic than a hotel room – I was apprehensive about the cabins.
“They can’t build houses, which stay still,” Chris said, as we shuffled down the port side with our bags. “I can’t wait to see how they fuck this up.”
I suppose it wasn’t too bad, as cabins go, except that it was incredibly cramped and in no way resembled the spacious suite we’d seen in the brochure. (Actually, since Dingus booked the boat at the last second, I’m not sure how they justify having a brochure at all.) The bathroom was a typical mess, with another of those toilet cisterns you have to take apart and fill up yourself if you want to flush – not to mention a seat that wasn’t bolted on or attached at all, so if you shift your weight even slightly it slips out and practically flips you right off the toilet. Haven’t had one of those since Cambodia!
Kristie was puzzled when I said I was going to have a shower. “We have a shower? Where?”
I pointed at the hose and nozzle attached to the wall. “There.”
“That’s the shower.”
“But… where do you stand?”
“There. In the middle of the bathroom. And you wash yourself, and it goes down this drain on the floor here.”
“But that’s retarded!” she wailed. “Why are they so retarded?”
“Welcome to Asia.”
After dumping our bags in the room, we were ordered to report back to the restaurant deck for lunch. This became a recurring theme that we despised: constantly being told what to do and when to do it, as though you’re back in school on a camp or excursion. Except your teacher has been replaced with a nineteen-year old Vietnamese dork. The icing on the cake was his constant use of the word “enjoy,” just like in the huge tour advertisements that plaster the walls of every cafe and hotel in this country: “Now we go to enjoy lunch… if you do not enjoy seafood you can enjoy vegetarian meal… at one o’clock we will anchor and enjoy swimming…”
After lunch the boat started cruising towards a cluster of islets, and I sat at the prow with my legs dangling off the edge, watching them approach. Like much of Vietnam and southern China, the landscape in Ha Long Bay consists of huge limestone pillars thrusting up out of the ground, resulting in sheer cliff faces and lots of dangling green foliage. Ha Long Bay is different in that it’s in the ocean, resulting in thousands of little islands.
There are also thousands of little tourist boats.
It’s beautiful and dramatic and all that – Kristie, who came straight from Perth and hasn’t seen anything like it before, was certainly impressed – but after seeing this kind of thing all the way up the country I’m fairly jaded. No matter how beautiful something is, if you see it often enough you get bored of it. Just like Chris’ chest!
We arrived in a sheltered harbour inside the islet cluster, and Dingus came out to tell me to stop sitting at the front of the boat with my legs off the edge, because “if police see, they will give us trouble, and fine.” I later learned that either Dingus lives in constant fear of the police, or they’re his catch-all excuse when he doesn’t want a tourist doing something.
We got off the boat and were hustled through a cave with approximately a hundred other tourists. You may recognise the cliche Ha Long Bay view from the top:
After that it was back on the boat, travelling a short distance and then docking at an Authentic Sea Gypsy Village to Enjoy Kayaking. The village had been thoroughly annexed by the tourism authorities; several of the homes were apparently sponsored by Sacombank.
We shuffled out onto the planks and dutifully lined up while Dingus made everyone put on enormous, misshapen life jackets that would be about as useful to a drowning man as a towel.
“Excuse me sir, but you are needing to put on a life vest,” Dingus chirped as we tried to get into a kayak without them.
“I don’t need one. I’m Australian. I know how to swim.”
“Aha, yes, I see, but if the police is see you without a life jacket, then the police, they come to tour guide and make me pay money. You see? So I am not wanting to pay money to the police.”
“Fine,” I said. “But I highly doubt this is a registered vessel.”
We put the stupid, itchy life jackets on and paddled off past the village, with the girls in a kayak behind us. “This water is disgusting,” Chris said, watching all the junk bob past in the brown, murky water we were paddling through. “I don’t even know what that is.”
“You know they just pump the sewerage straight in. They must. Not just the villages, but all the tour boats too.”
Chris put on his Vietnamese accent and spelled out a tourist slogan: “HA LONG BAY: Where do you think it goes?”
We paddled on through the bay, dotted with other kayakers, and eventually ended up drifting near a karst wall. The girls had already headed back to the village. “This is shit,” Chris said. “This is so shit.”
“Maybe if we had our own kayaks and a proper day to explore,” I said. “Instead of just getting booted off the boat into this gross bay for half an hour. If we were on our own it would be better.”
“I hate that man,” Chris said. “I really do. I can’t explain why. It’s like all the hatred I’ve built up for the last two months has just…”
“…into this one man.”
“‘Now you go here… now you do this… now you enjoy…'” I said. “It’s just organised tours. They’re shit. I don’t like being told what to do. And you know what blows my mind? There’s people that do this for everything. Just for stuff like cities. Or even whole countries.”
“And just this,” Chris said. “Kayaking around… I don’t know, like, all the other tourists and stuff are on holiday so they’ve got to make every day count and make the most of things. But… this is our life now. And if it’s crap, it’s crap.”
“Max and Jess liked this,” I said. “Maybe they were on a better tour than us. Although… I don’t know, Max did say Thailand was his favourite country. And Laos.” I’d been looking at photos of tubing in Laos a few days ago, and it repulsed me. You can see gap-year travellers everywhere wearing shirts and singlets with “Tubing In The Vang Vieng Laos” or “Beer Lao” written on them. Like Thailand, it seems to be a country that serves no other purpose than a piss-up for British and Australian twenty-somethings.
“Maybe that’s… you know, they are British tourists,” Chris said. We’d both often teased Max and Jess for saying that things were “AMAZING” or “the best thing I’ve done on my gap hya.” Since then we’ve developed a theory that the British in general have a very low threshhold for wonder and awe, since they hail from cold and gloomy Knifecrime Island. Naturally, as Australians, we assess the world by a more robust standard.
Since the UK is our ultimate destination this is making Chris a little anxious. I, on the other hand, refuse to believe that the UK (and Europe in general) will be anything other than a glorious utopia of cleanliness, low humidity and working infrastructure. How marvellous it must be, to have the electricity on every day, and to walk into a hotel room and not have to fix half the things inside it!
I miss the first world, not Australia. I miss my friends and family, not Australia. Even when I do miss Australia, I miss the beach and Lancelin and Collie and WA’s south-west. Not Perth. When I stop and really think about Perth: about the suburbs, about working at Coles, about the isolation and the stagnation… I don’t want to go home, I just want to leave South-East Asia. The day we cross the Chinese border and get off the Banana Pancake Trail will be a sweet day indeed. I’m nowhere near ready to go home. Which is good, because I’ve now been away from home longer than ever before in my life, since I only racked up 77 days in Korea before saying “fuck this” and bailing.
We paddled back to the sea gypsy village, dumped the kayak and life jackets and hung around for a while waiting for everybody else to finish and return to the boat. “I think I’ve stepped on at least four or five planks where, if I put my full weight on them, my foot would go right through,” I said.
“They can’t build on land,” Chris said. “What made them think they could take on the sea?”
We chatted to an American couple while sitting around waiting. They said they liked Vietnam a lot better than Cambodia, because in Cambodia everybody was trying to rip them off; the girl had particularly hated it, and related a string of anecdotes about paying people ten US dollars because they told her it was the fair price, or paying thirty dollars to a bunch of demanding orphans, etc. “No wonder she didn’t like Cambodia,” Chris muttered. “She’s an idiot.”
After half an hour or so, all the tourists had returned to the boat and we were ready to leave. This was one of the highlights of the trip, as the dumbass captain tried to take off without untying the boat first. Ah, Vietnam!
We anchored in a neighbouring bay (just as chock-a-block full of other tour boats as the last one) to do some swimming. As with Nha Trang, this was ironically the highlight of the trip. There’s not much you can do to mess up the fun of jumping off things into the water.
This boat was a lot higher than the one in Nha Trang, though, and it took me quite a while to build up the guts to jump off the third level. Only after Chris stood there verbally haranguing me, and a bunch of Irish girls did it first, was I able to work up enough confidence (well, shame) to throw myself in. I did it twice and, no matter what, at the last second I always took my hand away from my nose and tried to spread my arms to break my fall instead. Daft, since the whole problem I have with jumping from a height in the first place is getting water up my nose. I’m not sure how high it was. I recall the really high cliff at Stockton (the once Lindsay was trying to convince us was dangerous) as being slightly higher, yet I had no problems with that.
At this point the sun had set, and after showering and changing clothes for the evening it was time to Enjoy Dinner. Food was included in the tour price, but the catch was that you had to pay for your own drinks, at inflated prices. $2 US for a beer may seem cheap to those back home, but it’s two or three times what you’d pay on the mainland. We soon went up onto the top deck to look at the stars, and I noticed on the way out that the boat crew had cracked out the souveneirs and were trying to sell them to the tourists who were still eating.
There wasn’t a whole lot to do after dark. We lay on the deckchairs for a while, listened to our iPods and the shouts and yells emanating from the thirty other tourist boats crammed into our bay, and then went to bed. Lonely Planet ranks Ha Long Bay quite high, and claimes you will be “lulled to sleep by the swaying boat.” In actual fact you will be kept awake by the vibrations of the diesel generator right below your cabin, but hey, let’s not split hairs!
The cheapskates turned the air-conditioning off at about 5.30 in the morning, so we were already awake and dripping with sweat when Dingus hammered on our door at 7.30 to inform us that it was time to Enjoy Breakfast. Breakfast was unenjoyable stale bread, eggs and bad coffee. We went up onto deck for a while, but were soon ushered back down by Dingus to pack and “check out.” He then hammered on our cabin doors again five minutes later.
“Excuse me sir, is time to pack and check out so…”
“Yes. I know. That’s what I’m doing in here. You already told us.”
The next Fun Activity To Enjoy on our itinerary was trekking on Cat Ba Island. The consent amongst the four of us was unanimous: there was no way in hell we were spending two hours trudging through a sweaty Vietnamese forest after getting barely any sleep the previous night. If we were going through Kakadu or the Amazon, then maybe, but as Chris put it: “There is nothing I’m going to see that’s going to wow me.” We made this known to Dingus, and he said he’d see what could be done.
After getting off the boat, waiting around on the pier for about half an hour while Dingus secured a bus, and driving through some winding jungle roads, we arrived out the front of the national park. The four of us, plus one British girl who couldn’t be fucked with a death march either, remained on the bus while everyone else shuffled off. It was only then that Dingus stuck his face in and said, “Hello, I am sorry, but bus driver says is no good, cannot take you…” And so on in that fashion.
“Where is the bus driver?” Chris said. “Let me talk to him.”
“How much do we have to pay him?” Elisha asked.
$2 each, as it turned out. I suppose it was a huge inconvenience for him, to take us to where he was driving anyway. Oh, no, wait – it’s because every last person in this fucking country is a money-sucking vampire.
We spent the rest of the afternoon lazing around in the hotel. Kristie and I were considering looking for a beach, but I lost all enthusiasm for it after about fifty metres, and – judging from the the harbour out front of our hotel – I doubt Cat Ba boasts any decent beaches anyway. “I hate this,” Chris said. “I hate being stuck here. I had more freedom at work.”
I’ve been reading up on some of the horror stories about shonky Ha Long Bay tour operators, and I think we got off fairly well – even if we did probably pay too much. The problem was ours, not theirs. Chris and I do not enjoy package tours. We do not appreciate being spoonfed, being told precisely what to do on a fixed itinerary. It was especially insufferable given that we just finished riding our own motorcycles from Saigon to Hanoi – something very few people do, and something which gave us absolute freedom and independence. To then be squashed onto an organised tour boat, part of a horde of tens of thousands of Westerners who visit every year, was to go straight from one extreme to the other, and it was a nasty backhand across the face.
My new rule is that no matter how Unmissable or Amazing or Must See something is, I’m not joining a tour group to do it. If it’s a choice between missing the thing, and going on a tour, I’ll cut my losses and move on. This experience made me realise just how much I value my freedom while travelling.
Not only that, but even as a tour experience, it made me realise just how many things Vietnam lets slide, things that would be inconceivable on an organised tour in the West. Turning the air-conditioning off two hours before we were due to get up, and trying to hawk necklaces over dinner, and – most inexcusably of all – not organising a boat until we actually got to the quay… all of these things just wouldn’t cut it in Australia or America or Europe. But they’re par for the course in South-East Asia.
I looked up our hotel, the Holiday View, in Lonely Planet. Outside of a tour, the prices are a staggering US $45 – $70. I cannot fathom how they justify charging that much for a room that was indistinguishable from virtually every other place we’ve stayed. In fact, I’ve paid a hell of a lot less for a hell of a lot more. It wasn’t even particularly new, clean or competent – it had the same fuck-ups as every other hotel room in this region, including an air-con that dripped water onto the bed, so that we had to sleep with our heads at the other end.
We got up at 7.30 to Enjoy Breakfast and were then hustled out onto a tour bus that took us to the pier, where we again sat around waiting for an hour while Dingus secured a boat to take us back to the mainland. Once there, we waited around some more, before eventually being led to a cramped “VIP dining room” at the back of a restaurant, fed some more mediocre crap, and then getting on another bus to return to Hanoi.
Even after clocking up more than two thousand kilometres riding from Saigon to Hanoi, the road between Ha Long and Hanoi was the most reckless, dangerous, insane road we’d yet encountered. I felt unsafe on the bus, let alone on a motorbike. Our driver was constantly overtaking everything in front of us, even with huge trucks swooping towards us flashing their headlights, and only just managing to squeeze back into the right lane with a finger’s width of distance and a gut-churning whoosh as the truck would fly past us. This happened over and over again.
Then, when we arrived in Hanoi, Dingus had the gall to stand up and suggest, in his reedy voice and irritating accent, that we should all give the driver one or two dollars each because he’d done such a great job getting us back to Hanoi. “Hmmm,” I said. “Do I want to tip the man who gambled with our lives?”
My thoughts on tipping aside, there is no way in hell I was giving any money to a Vietnamese bus driver. After a month riding a motorcycle up this country, there is no kind of man I loathe more than the reckless, impatient, ruthless Vietnamese bus driver. He is the scum of the earth; the lowest of the low. We got off the bus without tipping him and without giving Dingus a second glance. Chris was particularly incensed by his customary tour guide end-of-trip refrain: “I hope you have good time with us and will see us again when you come back to Vietnam.”
“When I come back?” Chris said later. “When I come back will be when I’m conscripted to fight you idiots. Actually, no – I’ll volunteer.”
So that was Ha Long Bay. It was an unendingly execrable trip and I will never go on a package tour again. Now we’re going to go out, have dinner and get drunk to celebrate the fact that we’re back in Hanoi, free men once more.