Ha Long Bay is a world heritage sight and arguably one of the most beautiful places on earth. It would be difficult to fuck up a simple cruise out to the bay to see them. The tour group I chose managed to do so in an amazing number of ways.
I booked the tour at Sinh Cafe Travel one of the major travel agencies in Hanoi. I would recommend that you never step foot into the agency and certainly NEVER book a tour with them. Let me repeat... if you are in Vietnam DO NOT EVER BOOK ANYTHING WITH SINH CAFE TRAVEL!!! There were a number of different options offered - a two day one night cruise, a three day two night cruise and an open ended cruise which allowed you to stay on Cat Ba island for a while. There were also three levels of cruises, budget, luxury and superior. I went with the mid-level luxury hoping that I would get what I paid for... a slightly nicer boat and food. Gah... I was sooo mistaken, so very mistaken.
The travel agent told me I'd be picked up at 7:30am but my ride didn't arrive until nearly 8am leaving me waiting on the side of the road inhaling exhaust fumes and having my eardrums assaulted by the never ceasing honking of Hanoi. He drove me to a different branch of the travel agency and had me wait for the van that would pick us all up. Here I was told to leave one of my bags for safe-keeping because there wouldn't be room on the boat for too much luggage. Fine, okay, no problem.
Considering the travel agent had told me "There's already a group formed for tomorrow's cruise, so you can join them." I had assumed that the folks on the van were all on the same cruise. But no, once we got to the docks, the guide started dividing up people based on whether they were going on the one day or two day tour.... having to ask *us* which packaged we'd chosen because he didn't have a clue.
THEN HE WENT TO BUY TICKETS TO THE BAY!!!!! Somehow this ever so minor REQUIREMENT was something they decide to leave until everyone's at the dock ready to go. A group of four of us, an English couple, a 40 something Swedish man, and I were left sitting around for the better part of an hour while our guide got the tickets and sorted out the other groups. Fine fine fine... I've been in Asia long enough to be used to waiting around for things. I had a book - no problem.
Finally the four of us board a boat - which is not entirely dissimilar to the boat in the advertisement except that rather than it being "a new boat" as we were all told, it was at least a decade old and not at all well maintained. The varnish was completely gone from the stairs & banister and the floor threatened splinters and upturned nails to those who neglected to wear their flip flops the whole time.
We joined a group already in progress - four retirees from America. They'd been on the three day, two night cruise, and on day two of their cruise rather than say... cruising around the bay, they were brought back to the harbor made to wait for an hour or two then rapidly made to switch boats when a large group of Japanese tourists showed up. Way to treat a person like a valued customer! =(
The bay itself was gorgeous, amazing, beautiful, etc... and I wish I had the pictures to show you... but honestly even the amazing beauty of the surroundings were overshadowed by the incompetence of the tour organizers.
The first stop was a cave, and since the retirees had visited the cave the day before they were made to wait in the boat while the new group of us went and spelunked for a while. It was actually quite cool, all lit up with colored lights and satisfyingly spooky. Were it not for our tour guide's insistence on absolutely butchering the English language while retelling several legends about the dragons of the cave, I might have enjoyed it.
"The pissermen were pissing in the bay." "Pissing???" "Yeah, yeah... the pissermen, you know catching pish." "Oh FISHERMEN?" "Yeah, yeah, pissermen. The pissermen." and on and on. I was basically the only one who could understand him and occasionally had to translate to the others in our group when they couldn't make heads or tails of what he was saying. To make up for his poor English he made sure to repeat each sentence about five times to make sure we all understood him. Now, I'm more than willing to listen to a student struggling with his pronunciation but if I'm paying for an English guide, it would be nice if he actually spoke English, or at least didn't pretend he could and let us wander around in peace. Finally he did leave us to explore another cave on our own if we wanted to. I wasn't in the mood for more climbing so I sat on a bench to wait for them, the Swedish guy got himself a beer and we sat and chatted for a bit.
Back on the boat I went up to the top deck to chat with the retirees. As we were pulling away from the docks I noticed that the young couple I'd been chatting with were on the boat beside us. "Are you supposed to be on that boat?" I asked them. "Yeah, the guide told us we had to switch to this boat for the rest of the tour." Um... ok... bye. The retirees told us (the Swedish guy and I) that the same thing had happened to them the day before, they'd been with one group and those folks left in the evening only to be replaced with us in the morning. And sure enough, down in the dining area there was a new, even younger couple from New Zealand waiting to join our group.
Up till this point we'd not been allowed into our cabins, despite having asked to see the rooms & put our stuff away. But now that we were well out to sea, the guide started handing out room keys. He handed a key to one of the retirees and said "This is for you and... " and pointed to the woman's husband. She joked with him "But I wanted to stay with my boyfriend!" And the guide joked that he'd see if he could find someone for her. He handed the other keys to the other couples and then he handed me mine. "This is for your room with him." he said motioning to the Swedish man (who was on his third beer by my count.) At first I thought the guide was joking... but he was serious.
"No." I said firmly. "We're not together... only one person." To this he laughed in my face and said "Yes, yes, together." "That's not okay." I replied.... "Yes, you booked a shared room" was his answer. Now... I had, in the travel agency, asked for a single room saying that I would pay the extra $10 since I was alone... but the woman told me "No, no, sharing is better." and I consented. Never EVER would it have occurred to me that I would have to specify that I was okay sharing a room with another WOMAN, but not a man I didn't know.
I didn't want to make a scene, nor to offend the Swedish guy who by all accounts was a decent guy, so I decided to suck it up. But for the love of Pete! In which country is it okay to assign a single woman to room with a man she'd never met????
The sudden forced intimacy of being roommates DRAMATICALLY changed my feelings towards the Swedish guy. Before we were joking around and almost flirting... but that was when I thought I'd be going to my own room at the end of the night. I didn't want there to be any confusion about the fact that we were JUST roommates. I decided to spend the rest of the evening chatting with the retirees, reading my book, and staying STONE COLD SOBER. The Swedish guy, on the other hand had switched from beer to whiskey and offered me one. I politely declined.
Back up on the deck and preparing for a nice mellow night under the stars I saw (and heard) another boat pulling up beside us. It was a group of completely plastered 20 somethings - mostly Canadian but with an Irish lassy leading the charge. They were hollering hello and shouting greetings to the retirees on the deck below. One of the guys actually climbed from their top deck to ours and announced "You're being invaded!"
Surely not. No... absolutely not, they are clearly mistaken.
Oh no... apparently these were the folks who'd been cruising with the retirees the day before, back to rejoin their original group. Are you keeping track? Personally I'd had enough of this giant game of musical tour groups and as soon as dinner was over I went to my .... sorry OUR room to read for the rest of the evening. I was in bed, covers up to my neck and book in hand when my roommate came in to unpack his stuff. He kept up a steady stream of conversation despite my attention being clearly focused on my book... and at one point said something like "I was surprised you were arguing with the guy about sharing a room with me - I thought - what kind of guy does she think I am?" He'd mentioned earlier that he had a daughter, so I asked him "Would you let your daughter share a room with a man she'd never met before?" before I'd even finished my question he was saying "Hell NO!" He assured me I was safe with him.... and then offered me some whiskey before pouring more of it into his beer can. "Um... no thank you."
I actually did sleep relatively well, waking only when my roommate came in to go to bed and then when our alarms went off in the morning. Rather than getting to sleep in we were instructed that breakfast would be at 7am and if we missed it, too bad, there would be no more food until lunch time back in the harbor. Tell me can you feel the love?
Day two was more of the same, we paid extra money to get into a tiny boat to see a particularly interesting karsts and to go swimming inside it. But once in the tiny boat we weren't allowed to go swimming and in fact spent all of five minutes exploring it before getting back on the boat. Shortly after this excursion both the Swedish guy and the retirees boarded yet a different boat and I was left with the New Zealand couple and the pirates I had not spoken one word to the night before.
We headed back to the harbor on exactly the same route we'd taken to get out there, seeing the exact same sights we'd seen on day one... only this time much slower. Back at the docks we had to wait for a good hour before a bus came to take us to lunch. Then after lunch we had to wait again to get on a different bus back to Hanoi. It was all of 24 hours after my tour had started and I was the ONLY person left from the original group.
As we got into the city, the tour guide asked us where we'd each been staying so he could drop us off. I told him I wasn't going back to my friend's house (where I'd been picked up), that I needed to go back to the travel agency where we'd started so that I could pick up my bag and get a ticket for the 6pm bus to Hoi An. The agent had originally said we'd be back to Hanoi by 4:30, but it was rapidly approaching 5pm and we weren't even at the center of town yet.
At one stop near the lake he let off a couple in front of their guest house and then motioned for me to get off the bus too. I reiterated that I needed to be dropped off at the travel agency where we'd started.
"It's over there." he said pointing across the intersection and motioning that it was just down the street.
"Just there" he pointed again and I saw what looked like a travel agency.
"Can I have my receipt so I can get my bag back?"
"No - gave it to the company already."
"Um... ok, but how will they know it's me?"
He jotted a number down on my hand and hurried me on my way. I wandered off to attempt suicide by way of crossing the two streets.
I walked into the Sing Cafe Travel agency - I didn't think it was the same one I'd been to before - but they all look the same. "I went on a tour of Ha Long Bay today - do you have my bag?" I asked.
The guy looked at me like I was crazy. Gah! It wasn't the same place. "This morning, I took a tour and I left my bags at the travel agency - is it here?"
"No." He said plainly, and clearly not particularly interested in my dilemma.
And then I flipped out. The tour guide was gone, I was in the middle of Hanoi, intending to catch a bus within the hour and had no idea where my bag was. I saw the couple from New Zealand walking down the street and caught up with them. They were as supportive as they could be, pointing me down a street that had the agency where they'd booked their tickets. I related my story to her and she was mildly sympathetic but not at all helpful.
"Where did you buy the ticket?" She asked.
"I'm not sure - they all look the same. Can't you call the other branches to see who has my bag??"
"There are hundreds."
I showed her the number that the guide had scribbled on my hand but it meant nothing to her. It didn't seem to matter that I was asking her point blank to help me. It wasn't her problem.
I stormed out of the shop and at this point I just lost it and wandered through the traffic, the honking and the vendors shoving things in my face "Buy something madam?" in tears. I could not take it anymore. Finally I found a familiar street and located the agency where I'd originally booked my tour. I was hysterical when I entered the shop but took a second to try to pull myself together enough to speak.
"What is the problem?!" One of the guys fairly shouted at me.
I relayed the situation as clearly as I could, mostly that I needed my bag back... but also that it had been a completely shit tour - the drunk Swedish man for a roommate, the constant changing of passengers, getting dropped off in the middle of Hanoi with nothing but a number scribbled on my hand to guide me. I was done, and it pissed me off that I couldn't even really let into them because I knew they didn't understand half of what I was saying anyway. Eventually the agent got on the phone with someone and seemed to have located my bag. "Don't worry." "No problem." they kept telling me (forget "I'm sorry" or "That's terrible." - those words apparently haven't made it into their vocabulary). "It IS a problem! This is NOT okay!!!" I told them.
Eventually the guy who'd picked me up the morning before showed up on a motorbike with my bag. I reamed him out (in slow basic English) and told him I wanted a refund for the tour because it was so crap. He put me on the back of his motorbike and we headed out - I thought back to the office to give me my refund. "We go back to your friend?" he asked. "NO!" (You fucking moron!!!) I shouted... and wanted to shout. I was done done DONE with Vietnam. I got off the motorbike, and headed back to the main tourist information office (not the shitty little shop-front agencies - the expensive one). I walked up to travel agent and asked for the first flight to Bangkok.
It was, unfortunately, too late to go anywhere that night, so I booked a room in a mid-range hotel nearby, and spent the in an air-conditioned room watching some old movie about a mummy. The next morning I got up at 6am to the soundtrack of Hanoi, honking horns, yelling vendors and an occasional rooster crow. But soon enough I was on a flight 'home' to Thailand.
I can't even tell you how relieved I was when I stepped out of the airport. There were tons of cars and taxis outside the airport.... and no one was honking. They were just stopping and going and ... more or less... staying in their lanes. On the bus ride to backpacker-ville (Khao San Road) I was amazed at how peaceful and orderly Bangkok traffic was, and how much cleaner the air seemed. It could have been Portland for the difference from Hanoi.
I considered staying in Bangkok for a night, but I realized that if I hustled, I could get down to Ko Phangan in time for the famous Full Moon Party. And so I did. I booked an overnight bus / boat combo ticket and spent the next 18 hours in transit.
Everything is fine now. Despite not having a reservation, I was able to find a nice fan room (at Bongo Bungalow) walking distance from the beach where the party will be. It's far enough away to be relatively quiet, and it was only 400 baht/night. It even has hot water & a flushing toilet. Paradise as far as I'm concerned. I got a nice long night's sleep, and ate breakfast while watching several episodes of The Simpsons in the restaurant. Yeah - it's tourist mecca, but I don't care. I'm done with adventuring and fully intend to spend my last week or so in Thailand parked on a beach with a frosty beverage in hand.
Speaking of which... it's nearly noon and I'm still sober. I will be rectifying that shortly. I don't intend to do anything interesting (well aside from the Full Moon Party).... and have no camera to share pictures, so if I don't post for a while... don't worry, I'm happy.