Apr 07 2008

Shrouded in Mystery: Halong Bay

Published by at 11:07 am under Hanoi,Vietnam

Halong Bay, VietnamFor a country that’s so skinny, Vietnam has an awful lot of UNESCO-listed World Heritage sites. Foremost among these may be the jewel of the north: ancient, foggy, beautiful Halong Bay. The Bay is a short 3-hour drive east from Hanoi, but feels like a different planet. In one morning, you can leave the cramped, noisy, motorcycle-packed city streets behind, and discover a world where jagged limestone formations rise up through the water and mist, and secret caves and grottoes wait to be explored. After seven months of travel, I don’t think that anything we’ve seen can top the natural beauty of Halong Bay. If you’re searching for ghosts, sunken pirate ships, or sunken pirate ship ghosts, THIS is where you need to look first. And if the Scots still haven’t found Nessie (we’ve been away for a while), then it’s surely because she’s moved here.

It’s only natural, then, in a place like this, that mysteries should abound during a 3-day boating adventure. And now it’s time to get out your detective notebook and goofy-looking Sherlock Holmes hat, and help us solve…


Day 1

8:00am: Picked up at our guesthouse in a van full of other tourists, plus our English-speaking tour guide, Tain (pronounced “Tine”).

8:01am: Tain introduces herself.
Tain: “How are you today?”
Group: “Fine.”
Tain: “Can you say louder! Fine!”
Group: “Fine!”

8:30am: Our van becomes stuck in traffic on a bridge out of Hanoi due to a traffic accident. Some members of our group climb out of the van to wander around the bridge. Tain distressed.

12:00pm: After four hours of Tain’s somewhat intelligible tales of obscure Vietnamese geographical statistics, we arrive at the docks of Halong Bay only one hour late.

12:30pm: Our three-level wooden tour boat departs for adventure, and we stake out chairs on the top deck to watch our slow progression into the thick bay fog.

1:30pm: Lunch is served on the boat. Communal bowls of rice, salad, strange meats, and a fish for all of us to pick at distract us from limestone formation spotting.

3:30pm: The boat docks at an island. Tain leads us ashore and up a short climb to the mouth of a cave. The small entrance belies an enormous interior. Tain leads us through several massive rooms, all eerily ambient with colored spotlights. We marvel at curiously shaped rock formations with names like “Buddha” and “dragon,” as well as a very distinct penis that Tain insists is “finger.” Those so inclined can decide for themselves by checking out our Flickr photos.

4:30pm: Tain leads us back to the boat, and tells us our next destination is a small fishing village.

4:35pm: Instead, the boat pulls out into the middle of the bay and puts down anchor for the night. Curious indeed.

6:00pm: Dinner is served on the boat. Strangely reminiscent of lunch. While we eat, another boat pulls up beside ours, and the staff tie the two boats together for the night. For added stability, we assume.

7:00pm: Most of our boatmates retire to bed. 7:00 is too early for me to go to sleep, so we move to the top deck to have a beer with the only two other people awake: an Irish couple named Julian and… OK, I forget her name.

8:00pm: Lamenting the jacked-up price of beer on our boat ($2!), I begin eyeing our neighboring boat. I wonder what THEIR beer costs?

8:05pm: I board the other boat. Descending the stairs to our boat’s lowest level, I am able to sneak past our boat staff, hop across to the other deck, and climb the stairs to this boat’s lounge area.

8:06pm: I startle this boat’s passengers by appearing in the lounge doorway and announcing my mission. Unfortunately, price controls are in full effect: beer is $2 here as well. Fortunately, these passengers remain awake past 7:00. I hurry back to our boat with this news.

8:10pm: I return to the other boat with Brittany, Julian, and what’s-her-name. We introduce ourselves to these night owls, and all drink over-priced beer together. Everyone agrees that Irish accents are funny.

10:00pm: We say our goodbyes, hop back to our deck, and hit the sack.

Day 2

8:00am: Breakfast is served on the boat, and consists of untoasted “toast” with jam, and one omelette that the chef has managed to split between our group of twelve by making it long and skinny, and cutting it into slices.

8:30am: A new boat pulls up beside ours, and Tain rushes Brittany and me onto it. Turns out we’re the only two of our twelve who booked the 3-day tour: our boatmates are only signed on for 2 days, and must return to Hanoi today. So we shout hurried goodbyes in mid-leap between boat decks, throwing our bags ahead of us as we jump. Why, exactly, weren’t we placed in a group of 3-dayers all along? The plot thickens.

Halong Bay, Vietnam9:00am: After a half hour of trying to bond with our new boatmates, we arrive at Cat Ba Island. We now have a new guide to replace Tain, but I never do end up understanding his name. Let’s call him Jasper. Jasper leads us to pick up some rented bicycles, and then on a ride across the island to a small village. Here we meet up with a local guide, who leads us on a walk through the forest and to a small cave.

10:45am: I buy a can of lychee juice from a roadside island market. It tastes really good, no matter what Brittany says.

1:00pm: Back to the boat, which now takes us to an isolated beach nearby. The boat staff sets up a long table with chairs on the sand, and prepares to serve us a multi-course meal.

1:15pm: One of our new boat friends (a young Thai guy) finds a sea cucumber in the water. I hold him (the cucumber) and find him to be very slimy. Which explains why I accidentally drop him on his head/ass/it’s really hard to tell with a sea cucumber.

1:30pm: Lunch is served, distracting us from further beach exploration. Sea cucumbers rejoice.

2:30pm: The boat departs from Fried Chicken Leg/Sea Cucumber Beach. Oh yeah, we had fried chicken legs for lunch.

Kayaking on Halong Bay, Vietnam3:00pm: Our boat anchors at a floating kayak rental depot. Two at a time, we grab oars and climb into kayaks. Now, the tour brochure promised that a kayak guide would take us to Monkey Island to observe monkeys in their natural habitat. Monkey Island isn’t a term you want to throw around loosely with me, so when it seems like we weren’t getting a guide there at all, but are simply being left to paddle around the kayak depot on our own, I ask Jasper about it. Jasper points vaguely into the distance and says, “Monkey Island that way. You go there and say, ‘Ooh! Ooh! Ooh!’ and all the monkeys come out!” This was met with riotous laughter from his comrades. Hint: this may be a clue to the unfolding mystery.

4:30pm: We return our kayaks to the depot, after rowing rather aimlessly around the bay for the last hour and a half.

5:00pm: Our boat docks on a different side of Cat Ba Island. We all pile into a van to be driven to our hotel for the night.

5:10pm: We arrive at the 3-star hotel promised in the brochure. We all exit the van and begin to walk up the sidewalk. Until Jasper stops Brittany and me, and tells us to return to the van, because we will be staying elsewhere. Annoyed, I ask why we’re being separated from our second group in two days. His reponse: “hotel full.” Suspicious…

5:20pm: The van drives Brittany and me to our designated guesthouse down the street. It’s nicer than most places we’ve stayed on this trip, and would normally make us both very happy. But there’s the unresolved issue of the tour brochure touting a 3-star hotel, yet Jasper not allowing us inside. And it’s quite clear that the 3-star hotel isn’t full.

5:21pm: We refuse the key to the room in this guesthouse, and tell Jasper that we were promised a 3-star hotel when we paid for this tour. He doesn’t believe us, and suggests we take up any problem with our guesthouse (where we booked this tour) back in Hanoi. This, of course, solves nothing, and we tell Jasper so. His next suggestion is for us to call our guesthouse now to talk about it. Here’s a novel idea, Jasper: why don’t YOU call our guesthouse. Jasper reluctantly agrees.

5:25pm: Jasper gets someone from our guesthouse on the phone, who insists that the brochure in the lobby says nothing about a 3-star hotel. We know he is lying, but what can we do? We swallow the bitter pill and wait to fight again another day. Tomorrow, specifically.

7:00pm: A tasteless dinner in our guesthouse lobby, because we are barred from joining the rest of our group from dinner in their hotel. We’re chest-deep in intrigue now.

Halong Bay, Vietnam9:00pm: We meet up with our group once again at a waterfront bar, The Green Mango. But everyone is tired from a long day, and we all end up returning to our beds earlier than expected.

11:00pm: Sleep.

Day 3

7:30am: Breakfast in our guesthouse (included in the tour cost) consists of one baguette each. I finish mine and ask for another, but the guesthouse staff refuses.

8:00am: We load into the van, and pick up the other members of our group at the 3-star hotel. The van drives us back to the boat docks.

8:30am: Our boat departs from Cat Ba Island, and a beautiful day follows, but it’s one that is really not worth detailing on an itinerary. It takes most of the day to return to the mainland, and we spend our time on the top deck of the boat, spotting shapes among the foggy limestone formations. We arrive back in Hanoi around 5:00pm. Today’s swimming trip (as promised in the brochure, surprisingly) never materializes. What happened?

Once safely back in Hanoi, we make a bee-line for the guesthouse where we booked our tour. We find the brochure that we were shown when booking, and sure enough, it promises a 3-star hotel, as well as a host of other activities that were never delivered. With this evidence secured, we ask our guesthouse to call a meeting with the tour company, APT Travel.

APT Travel sends Jasper as a representative, and we sit down to discuss the evidence at hand. It’s very clear that a number of things were SOLD to us, but never delivered. Here’s a look at our dossier…

  • 3-star hotel: NOT DELIVERED
  • Guided kayaking to Monkey Island: NOT DELIVERED
  • 3-hour trek through Cat Ba National Park: NOT DELIVERED
  • Visit to a floating fishing village: NOT DELIVERED
  • Swimming on Day 3: NOT DELIVERED
  • Visits to Dragon Island, Dog Island, Fighting Cock Island: NOT DELIVERED

Evidence: bulletproof. APT Travel: unconvinced. After laying out this list to Jasper, he does not deny that we did not get to do half of the activities promised in the brochure, and that we paid for up front. But when we ask for a partial refund of our money, the conversation proceeds as follows…

Jasper: “Yes, but don’t you think you got a good deal? Don’t you think you saw many things for the small amount of money you paid?”

Ben: “No, Jasper, I don’t think it’s a good deal to pay for one thing, and be delivered something clearly inferior. That is not a good deal at all.”

Jasper: “Yes, but my company does not make much money on the tour. We make very little money, it’s such a good price for you.”

Ben: “Jasper, that is not relevant.”

Jasper: “Yes, but others on the tour paid much more than you. You got the tour very cheap.”

Ben: “Jasper, that is not relevant.”

Jasper: “Yes, but do you think it is really fair to get money back when you saw many things, and others pay more for the same tour, and my company makes so little money?”

Ben: “Yes. Yes, I think it is very fair to be reimbursed for things your company tricked us into paying for.”

Jasper: “Can not do.”

In the end, Jasper and APT Travel offer us a complimentary dinner in one of their restaurants in Hanoi. We have to catch an overnight bus out of town, so we do not have time to eat at their restaurant. Nor do we really want to eat whatever vile bodily substances they will surely put into our food. But will Jasper even offer us the cash equivalent of said meal? Of course not. We leave Jasper with the belief that he has received the last laugh. What Jasper does not know is that we have a website…

Solution: APT Travel is a fraudulent tour company, and you should NEVER EVER do business with them. CASE CLOSED!

P.S. Sorry for the long delay since the last real update. Blame Cambodia! (we’ll explain later)

NEXT: A Conversation at The Green Mango »



3 responses so far

3 Responses to “Shrouded in Mystery: Halong Bay”

  1. Kango Suzon 07 Apr 2008 at 12:06 pm

    It’s like Sherlock Holmes!!! And almost as enjoyable!!! Except the part about you getting ripped off, that is. Thank goodness you have a website….

  2. craigon 09 Apr 2008 at 12:23 pm

    Typical Hanoi / Vietnam BS

  3. Karenon 23 Jun 2009 at 6:46 am

    I really liked your blog! Can you provide more information on this?

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