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Can you spell tourist trap?

 

I have to admit that I didn't really want to go to Halong Bay. Yes it is recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site, and yes the photographs look interesting, but I have to learn to listen to and trust my instincts. The weather had been poor in Hanoi, overcast and showery, and Halong Bay is only 170 Km north-east of Hanoi so I knew that the weather would be much the same and not the best conditions to go boating. I had been hanging around Hanoi for about 3 days and every morning I was bombarded by the hotel receptionist, insisting that I book a trip to Halong Bay. But content for the time being to explore more of Hanoi, I ignored the harrassment. Something about him raised a level of distrust that I couldn't explain, but by the third day he broke my resolve, deciding that I needed to move on from busy Hanoi, I booked my trip. Having given the hotel my custom, I thought I would be taken care of. I was wrong - never do business with people you don't trust, no matter how irrational those feelings might be. I also booked my bus trip south through the reception desk - another decision that would come back to hound me later. 

The following morning at 08:30 I was bundled into a minibus full of vietnamese and a tour guide and we made a very quiet (them not speaking english, me not speaking vietnamese) 4 hr journey north to Halong Bay. Half way there the minibus driver pulled up next to a tourist souvenier shop packed with dim rows of overpriced ceramic ware, paintings, chinese carvings, and natty jewellery. There was also a cafe in the store but since they had no electrical power, they were unable to serve anything. I slowly moved around the store being stalked by a sales person, wondering if they ever manage to sell these goods and who would buy them. When we arrived at Halong Bay, the tour guide led us from the bus stop to the pier to catch the boat. The pier was mad - hundreds of local and foreign tourists crowded around the few available chairs while the tour guides hurried around collecting tickets and looking for the allocated boat. The boats that take tourists out to Halong Bay are a type of diesel powered multi-storey chinese junkboat, and there is a fleet of around 2000 boats that service the tourist market here. After sitting around for an hour in the sweltering heat of the grimy pier terminal we were finally handed our tickets and ordered to board the boat. 

Our allocated junk was listing rather alarmingly to port and I noticed that none of the other junks shared this trait, although most of them looked pretty second hand - they have a technique for mooring these boats alongside the pier which is not unlike bumper cars. I just hoped that it was sea-worthy and that we would return safely. There was a mechanic on the top deck frantically performing maintenance to the boat's generator which was leaking thick dark oil - our only source of power for lighting, fans, and hot water. Inside the junk was nice enough; the middle deck contained the dining area with about 8 tables and bench seats. The top deck had a few deck chairs for sun tanning and the lower deck housed the cabins. There were about 24 people onboard, mostly foreign tourists plus the vietnamese group from the minibus. Shortly after we left, the staff served lunch which consisted of rice and an assortment of fried pork, fish, squid and vegetables. If you wanted something to drink, it was extra on a cash only basis - overpriced bottled water or low alcohol beer. We seemed to be the slowest junk in the water as every other boat it the fleet steamed past us. 

It soon transpired through conversation with fellow guests that I had been charged 3X more than the price most people had payed for this trip. I was very annoyed, angry with the hotel for overcharging me, but most of all angry with myself for not shopping around before buying my ticket. The boat slowly chugged across the bay until we arrived at a small island. There were already about 50 boats at the pier, all there to see the cave on this island. We were all hurried off the boat and herded along like cattle through the cave (the formations made to look more impressive using cheesy green and blue neon lighting). Around 15 mins later we were back on the boat and lumbering towards our next destination. This was a fishing village, the houses floating on rafts constructed of wood and plastic drums. Here you could hire a canoe for an extortionate sum - an offer I declined - or buy fruit sold by women in small row boats (thoughtfully shipped from the mainland to sell to tourists). 

Our next stop was Catba Island to offload half the guests who were spending the night on the island while the rest of us stayed on the boat. After a swim in the sea to cool down the staff served dinner (which consisted of rice and an assortment of fried pork, fish, squid and vegetables). Some enterprising guests had spotted a vendor on the island selling cheap beer and having stocked up, were intent on enjoying their purchase - suddenly the boat staff produced a sign that declared a "corkage" charge for all drinks brought on board, which just happened to rule out the difference that the guests had saved buying their booze on the shore. During dinner we were informed that they had run out of drinking water and all the cold beer was finished too. We requested music from the staff so they turned on the TV and played what I can only describe as euro-techo beats accompanied by semi-erotic videos. I turned in to bed early, thankful that I had only booked a single night on this stupid trip, but once again annoyed that the "extra" fee I had payed for a single room (recommended by the hotel receptionist) was not realised. There were 16 guests on the boat and 8 cabins! At around midnight I woke up to a sound akin to a cat drowning - I learned from other guests the next day that the captain had become very drunk and decided to plug in the microphone and treat us all to some authentic Vietnamese karaoke. 

In the morning we received a revolting breakfast of an oily, cold omlete, bread and bright yellow glow-in-the-dark margarine. We then headed to Catba Island to pick up some more passengers before heading back to the mainland pier. Once there we were marched down the road to a restaurant and served lunch (which consisted of rice and an assortment of fried pork, fish, squid and vegetables). Back on the bus at 13:30 with a broken air-con and flat battery (they had to push start it whenever we stopped) and an obligatory stop at another awful tourist souvenier shop, we arrived back in Hanoi at around 16:30. 

Apart from the trip which was just too touristy, the scenery was interesting and there were a number of good people that I met on the boat. But I don't think I'll ever go there again - I guess I have had the good fortune to have lived in many beautiful places already and Halong Bay was just OK to me. 

I was booked on the bus that evening for a journey to Hue - I'll save that for my next blog entry. 


Source: Travel Blogs

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Xin Chao Travel Halong Bay
We are happy to send you our impressions on our excellent trip to Halong Bay with your company. The organization and monitoring of our trip was impeccable, thanks to our friendly and excellent guide Minh not forgetting the super driver Dzung.

Mardy Scott (Australia)
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