Well, like I mentioned in the video (what do you think of the video by the way? I know the production value is crap, working on it), After a couple of days in Hanoi I made my way to Halong Bay. Halong Bay is simply one of the most incredible places on earth. It features over 2000 limestone karsts that dot the entire bay. There’s obviously a big tourism draw to it, but even more incredible is the life it supports. There are fishing villages and towns that exist entirely on the water, to the degree that some say people are born, raised, and die in the villages without ever touching solid land! I read that on the internet so it has to be true.
Scooters. They’re everywhere in Vietnam. The Top Gear lads posit that it’s because cars have massive import taxes on them which keep them out of affordability for all but the rich. So you end up with millions of scooters. It’s really hard to put into words how many there are, they’re everywhere, driving every direction, and somehow everyone makes sense of it. The scooter functions as their daily driver, their family vehicle, a construction truck, the lot. It’s amazing how much use they squeeze out of a two-wheeled vehicle, but once you see a family of three plus their pet poodle all managing along on a scooter, you begin to understand it. It’s just their normal.
Crossing the street is another matter completely, at least in Hanoi. There aren’t really a lot of traffic lights in the cities, so you look left and right, not for a clearing in vehicles but for buses and cars. If all you see is scooters, they say you should point your eyes across the street and step out into traffic, and, whatever you do, DON’T STOP WALKING. The traffic will adjust around you as long as you keep moving predictably. If you stop all of a sudden though, you’ll get hit. Take this advice at your own risk, I’m not liable if you follow what I just said. It seems to work for them, and true to form, the only time I was in an accident was when Carnation and I were in a taxi on our way to the Temple of Literature.
Getting to Halong Bay
There are tons and tons of companies that will book you onto Halong Bay cruises. It’s a big tourist racket, so pay attention to TripAdvisor, Flyertalk, and Milepoint for recommendations on the most reputable vendors. I used Far East Tour, which can be found at www.fareastour.com.vn. They were responsive and delivered everything as promised, up until everything went wrong with the tour, but that’s for later 🙂
I had booked an overnight cruise on Halong Bay, which included the 8 hour roundtrip bus ride from Hanoi. The morning of the tour, the bus arrived promptly sometime after the scheduled 7am pickup time. I hopped on and we made our way eastward out of the city. Very quickly the crowded, urban feeling was swept into the city’s outskirts, then into rural Vietnam.
As we drove through the countryside, you’d see really tall and thin houses off in the distance. I was told this is because houses are taxed based on how much physical land they occupy. So everyone builds these really skinny houses that go up 3-4 stories, even out in the middle of the countryside.
We’d pass through a village every now and again, when the scenery would get a bit more interesting.
And then we’d inevitably drive past some of the electronics factories that make the devices that some of you are using to read this very report.
We then stopped at a “shop”. When I say “shop” I mean tourist trap. There are all sorts of souvenirs that you can buy there, no doubt overpriced. They have almost anything you could imagine there, from people painting nice paintings to beautiful needlepoints, to statues, to intricate stone tables.
Some of the stuff was pretty impressive, but they made us stand around there for almost 30 minutes when we all really just wanted to get to Halong Bay.
We got back on the road and, after just a little bit, caught our first look at some karst formations in the distance.
After a bit longer, we went across a beautiful bridge to the main docking facility for all of the tourist boats.
The tourist boat center split everyone up into groups according to their boat, and after everyone had arrived, we made our way to the Dragon’s Pearl of the Indochina Junk company.
It may look a little junk-y (pun intended), but the reviews were excellent, this is one of the nicer boats on the Bay. A few years ago the government decided that the boats all needed to painted white, so the former array of differently colored boats is no more, just white boat after white boat.
As we boarded, we were directed to our rooms to put our stuff away.
It was a small room but appointed very nicely with local decor. There was a freshwater shower in the restroom as well, so, although spartan, the room was perfect for an overnight cruise on Halong Bay.
We all met in the dining hall for our orientation. Lunch was included with the tour, and we had the option of buying alcoholic beverages. So I did.
The lady from Indochina Junk began her orientation lecture by telling us how the Bay was formed eons ago and today enjoys UNESCO protection. She said there are over 2000 islands and that her company would be taking us to a section of Halong Bay to which they have exclusive rights so our pictures wouldn’t be crowded out by other boats. The weather was bad so we wouldn’t be staying overnight in the bay and would come back that night. We’d be visiting a private beach to swiWAIT WHAT DID YOU SAY?! She said it so smoothly that nobody even noticed, but I asked her to repeat that one part, about the weather. She said that yes, the governing authority predicted the weather would be bad that evening so no boats would be allowed to stay out in the bay that night. Someone else asked if that meant we’d be staying in our rooms while docked in the harbor, but I don’t think she understood the question, so she just politely nodded.
Thinking everything was still ok, I stepped out and enjoyed the beautiful Halong Bay.
The boat was really nice, with lounge chairs to soak in the sun, and the captain took us on a wonderful tour of the various formations. True to the lady’s word, it seemed like we were the only tourist vessel in that part of the bay.
I had the tour lady take my picture as we made chitchat.
While she was taking my picture, I asked her to confirm that we’d be spending the night in the harbor and would tour again the next morning.
“No,” she said, “you’ll return to Hanoi tonight. The weather is going to be very bad.”
[record needle noise]
I asked her to stay put and got the rest of the passengers together and made her repeat what she had said. She then reiterated her point about the weather. I pointed directly above my head with the camera.
At that point everyone became a bit…upset. We didn’t throw anyone overboard, and I guess logic would dictate that just because the skies were ALMOST CLOUDLESS at that moment didn’t mean storms wouldn’t blow in later. There was an unfortunate incident a few years ago where some boats got caught up in rough seas that resulted in a fatality, so better safe than sorry I guess. I just wish the lady could’ve been up front about it and ensured we understood.
She did say we could stay in Ha Long City if we liked, but we were on our own for finding a hotel in either Ha Long or Hanoi. They reimbursed us the difference between a day tour and the overnight tour we had scheduled. It was just a huge bummer, Halong Bay was literally the reason I went to Asia. I hate being told no, also. She was on the phone at one point when we were asking her to help us book hotels and she said she was on the phone with her supervisor, so I told her to give me the phone and had a nice conversation with her boss, after which wheels started spinning and our booking agents were contacted to assist us with hotel bookings. I spoke with Sophie from Far East Tours, and she was able to contact the Hilton in Hanoi and get me a booking at a reduced rate for that night. I was incredibly frustrated, but decided to try and enjoy the experience as best as I could.
We approached the private island, where the tour lady was sure to tell us that for their overnight cruises they can arrange a fish cookout on the island. Gee, thanks.
From the beach she led a tour up to a large cave on their island, which was admittedly impressive.
I went for a swim and a kayak ride from the beach, which helped reduce my stress levels a bit. Our beach time was up, and we made our way back aboard the ship and got showered up and ready to disembark. The boat started making its way back towards Ha Long City and the end of our tour. I was still bummed, as were all of us, but I enjoyed the ride and snapped a few more pics, until the tour lady interrupted me and asked me to fill out a customer satisfaction survey. I had tried as hard as I could to be polite to this lady, as she was clearly in over her head and wasn’t trained on how to handle a situation like this, but that was the last straw. I politely took the survey from her, ripped it into tiny pieces, and put it back in her hands, admitting that she probably wouldn’t want me filling it out anyway. She sincerely thanked me, which I thought was odd for how rude I was to her just then. Oh well.
Charles Dickens said “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”…ok that’s probably exaggerating it a bit too much. Let me be clear: I am complaining that my overnight cruise of Halong Bay, one of the most beautiful places in the world, was cut short to only 5 hours on the bay. That means I have it pretty dang good and have been really blessed. While I was disappointed and almost incited a mutiny aboard a foreign passenger vessel, I still got to see this incredible place that took my breath away even more than I thought it would. At the same time, I was probably a bit too harsh on the tour lady. It wasn’t her fault, she was just doing what she was told. Her managers hadn’t equipped her with the authority to handle the situation so it’s not surprising people ended up angry. At the end of the day, I safely made it back to the Hilton in Hanoi and had a restful night’s sleep, an enjoyable day at a spa in Hanoi the next morning, and safely made it to the airport for my red-eye flight to Tokyo. I had, and still have, a lot to be thankful for. I guess that’s a lesson for all of us in our travel pursuits: while packing, leave room for grace.
It’s been almost two years since my trip to Halong Bay and, although retyping all of this made me a bit upset, I’d like to think I have a better perspective now: I’m glad I didn’t get to spend the night on Halong Bay. It gives me another thing to look forward to when I go back!