Nothing But Hassles on Ha Long Bay

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Traveling in Vietnam: Nothing But Hassles in Ha Long Bay

I really don’t like packaged tours, so I signed onto a 3-day boat tour with considerable reluctance. I expected a lot of crowds, delays, and trudging around to sights I really didn’t care to see. Unfortunately, I was exactly right.

Halong Bay is Vietnam’s biggest tourist draw — a calm, wide bay surrounded by ragged limestone islands that jut out of the water. I had planned on finding a hotel on Cat Ba Island and arranging day trips into the bay from there. While it’s low season throughout most of Vietnam, it’s high season for Halong Bay and every hotel I called was booked full. If I was going to see it –and everyone I’d met said I just had to– I was going to have to book a tour.

The cheap tour was $29, but I’d been warned to avoid the cheapies. “You get what you pay for,” seemed to be the going advice. For $59 (plus a $12 upgrade for a single room), I’d get to spend a full day and night on a Imperial junk boat, hike in a national park, visit a cave, kayak around Monkey Island, and eat seafood. I was tired of the noise and chaos of Hanoi and wanted nothing more than to sit on a boat and watch the scenery roll by.

Even the tours were full for a couple of days — a typhoon had rolled through over the weekend and bookings were backed up. I had time to kill, waiting on my Chinese visa, so I wandered around Hanoi for a couple more days and left Wednesday morning on the tour.

As we left Hanoi, our tour guide, Huong, introduced himself in a burst of nervous, stuttering pidgin-English.

Our group was a fairly small one: a Vietnamese family of five, an English couple, two Dutch women, and two French couples. As we left Hanoi, our tour guide, Huong, introduced himself in a burst of nervous, stuttering pidgin-English. He had that classic bullshitter’s smile and I knew instantly that he’d tell you anything you wanted to hear. Unfortunately, I was right again.

He proceeded to explain that there was a change in plans: instead of spending the first night on the boat, we’d be sleeping in a hotel on Cat Ba. We’d sleep on the boat the following night. This didn’t bother me too much, as it just seemed like a case of the Asian standard, “same same same, but different”.

One of the Frenchmen went absolutely ballistic about the news, however, haranguing the guide about this not being what was promised and the tour company being a bunch of cheats. I couldn’t understand why he was so mad, but learned later that this was his second tour — his first had been interrupted by the typhoon and he never got his night on the boat.

Everyone else took it in stride and four hours later, we arrived in Halong City, the base for most trips into the bay. We were then force-marched onto a large boat filled with dining tables. I’d got into a conversation with Mark and Jo, the English couple — they were charming and funny and were wrapping up a seven-month trip, heading home on Saturday, via Bangkok. They, too, were looking forward to some quiet time lounging on the boat.

The three of us were sitting at a table when the guide forced us to split up. The meals were served family-style and they didn’t want to prepare food for a fourth table. Mark and Jo joined the Dutch women, Charlotte and Annabeth — I was stuck at the fuming French table. They spoke no English (other than the angry guy, who I’d named Sulky), so my part of the conversation consisted of saying “merci” when someone passed a plate.

Nothing but hassles in Halong Bay, Vietnam

As we ate, the boat headed into the bay at a good pace. I finished my bland meal quickly and climbed up to the top deck to check out the view. The bay is just as lovely as advertised, though it was overcast and dark rain clouds were gathering on the horizon to the west. I could see at least 20-30 boats like ours nearby — the tour industry here is huge. I would guess that there are nearly 100 tour boats on the bay at any one time.

“You like ladies? You come with me to massage parlor. We meet many nice ladies.”

I was the only person up top for awhile, then Huong joined me, explaining that I would have a good time in Cat Ba. “Big party town,” he explained. “You like ladies? You come with me to massage parlor. We meet many nice ladies.” When I told him I didn’t really like massage parlors, he backtracked, explaining that he had a bad back and the massage was good for his health.

Thirty minutes later, we docked to tour the Hang Sung Sot Cave. I wasn’t terribly excited about the idea, but let myself be herded along with the others. The cave was hot, humid, and packed with over a hundred other tourists. Three large chambers were full of stalactites and other rock formations lit up with colored lights — they even had a fountain in the back that looked like a lawn sprinkler. All it lacked was a disco ball.

Huong played his role, singling out various rocks with a laser pointer and explaining in his terrible English that each was a dragon or a Buddha or such. He showed us a small rock with a squiggling line through the middle and explained that it was a “man and woman copulating”. I have a dirty mind and even I couldn’t see that.

A large rock that looked like a cupcake was a “fairy’s breast” and the grooves beneath it were blood. “So, you’re saying it’s a bloody fairy boob?” I asked. “Yes, exactly!”

Nothing but hassles in Halong Bay, Vietnam

Drenched in sweat and bored, we finally left the cave and returned to the crowded dock, where the French couple sat waiting — they’d seen this all the last time. The boat pulled back into the bay and we enjoyed a couple hours of touring around, passing close to the shear limestone cliffs and watching hawks soar above the peaks, hunting. Everyone had their cameras out and were clicking away. Everyone but the French couple, that is — they’d seen this too, and refused to enjoy it a second time.

The storm came closer and closer, finally catching us as we docked on Cat Ba to board our bus to the hotel. The rain was heavy and blowing sideways, blanketing us in heavy fog. It looked like we’d be waiting awhile, so Mark and I ordered over-priced beers to pass the time. When the rain let up, we headed to the bus and another tour group boarded our boat — they’d be sleeping on the bay tonight.

We checked into the three-star Sunflower Hotel and were told to meet downstairs for dinner at seven. It was still drizzling out, so I enjoyed the AC in my room and caught up on email. Dinner was the same bland affair — not too bad to eat, but nothing that you’d seek out again. I got stuck sitting across from a chattering Kiwi from another group — he was so jittery, he nearly vibrated. His leg constantly jiggled, shaking the table, and he wouldn’t shut up. In a club I’d have assumed he was coked to the gills.

Huong had recommended a bar called the Blue Note, but as the Dutch girls, Mark, Jo, and I gathered to leave, I suggested we find something on our own. I really didn’t want to deal with Mr. Jiggly or the tour guide anymore. They agreed and seemed glad that I was the one to suggest it — we were all on the same page. We found a nice place and spent the evening drinking beer and swapping tales, then returned to the hotel.

Breakfast was absolute mayhem, with everyone shouting over one another to be heard and children dancing on tables.

Breakfast was a large buffet in a dining room packed with Vietnamese tourists. It was absolute mayhem, with everyone shouting over one another to be heard and children dancing on tables. Literally.

I met Mark and Jo again and we agreed that we were all still hopeful for the day ahead. The plan was to hike in the nearby national park, then board another boat for an evening tour. We’d spend the night on the boat and head for shore in the morning. Beer prices aboard the boat were outrageous, so we conspired to buy a bottle of rum to sneak aboard.

After leaving our bags in the hotel lobby and piling into another minibus, I realized our group had shrunk dramatically. The older French couple had left the tour to spend time on the island and the Vietnamese family was gone as well. There were now only seven of us and my first thought was whether the tour company would hire a boat for such a small group. I asked Huong what the day’s plans were and he insisted that we’d be on the boat by 3pm.

Ten minutes later, after we were conveniently out of town, he stood up to announce that there was a typhoon on the way and that the bay was closed. We’d be spending the night in Cat Ba again. The bus erupted in angry questions. Sulky was apoplectic, demanding that they return to Hanoi. Mark and Jo were peppering Huong with questions — they had to be on a plane on Saturday. If there was a typhoon coming, the ferries would be closed and they couldn’t risk getting stuck on the island.

“No, no… ferries okay. Typhoon finish at ten tonight,” he claimed. Jo patiently explained that typhoons don’t just stop at ten o’clock. If it was a real typhoon, it could last for days. I checked the weather forecast on my phone and saw that there was a 50% chance of rain the next two days — hardly typhoon weather.

When asked for more details, Huong would reply “I don’t know. No one can predict weather.” “But you just said the typhoon was over at ten…” Jo reminded him. He flushed darkly and clammed up.

I was stuck on a bus with six unhappy people, heading for a hike that I had no interest in.

I had really hoped to stay on the bay, but was willing to roll with it — a night in Cat Ba would still be a nice change from Hanoi. The one thing that really irked me, however, was that they waited until we were on the bus to tell us. Had they told us upfront, I could have rented a scooter and had a great time touring the island. Now, I was stuck on a bus with six unhappy people, heading for a hike that I really had no interest in.

At the trailhead, the arguing continued, with Jo asking Huong for details. She was polite but firm and pointed out the inconsistencies in his story. It was decided that Mark, Jo, and the French couple would return to Hanoi after the hike. Charlotte and Annabeth wavered but when they heard I was staying agreed to stay as well and make the best of it.

As we argued, three tour groups of at least twenty people each headed up the trail. It looked muddy, steep, hot, and crowded. In short, it looked like a whole lot of “not fun” and I decided to stay behind while they climbed. I relaxed and chatted with some Vietnamese couples who were sitting in the shade of the snack hut. Huong was there and played translator for me, finally proving himself useful.

Nothing but hassles in Halong Bay, Vietnam

After awhile, I got up to explore and take some photos, finding an artificial pond and a spring at the end of a overgrown trail. The pond itself was nothing to look at, but the surrounding grassy meadow was filled with butterflies. I counted at least ten different types and spent a happy hour chasing them around with my camera, enjoying the quiet. It would prove to be one of the highlights of the trip.

People began returning from the climb and they were invariably muddy, sweaty, and exhausted.

Returning to the trailhead, I bought a beer and sat in the shade, watching the constant flow of tourists headed up the trail. Soon, people began returning from the climb and they were invariably muddy, sweaty, and exhausted. Several were scratched up heavily from slipping on the rocks. I felt pretty good about my decision to stay behind.

Two Americans were comparing stories — one had nearly fallen off a cliff, just catching ahold of a root at the last minute. The other had slipped on a steep section and slid ten feet on his butt, tearing his shorts. Feeling left out of the conversation, I remarked that I had nearly sprained my wrist while lifting my beer. They didn’t find it as funny as I did.

My group returned without major damage and Huong led us back to the bus to return to Cat Ba town. We weren’t allowed to board, though, as we had to wait for another group to finish. He said that it’d just be fifteen minutes, but it was a lie — the group had started up the trail just ten minutes before. We spent two hot, boring hours sitting on a concrete bench in front of the information center because they were too cheap to drive us back to the hotel — a twenty minute drive.

Charlotte and Annabeth had reconsidered on the trail and wanted to head to Hanoi, but Huong yelled that it was too late. “You make choice. You live with it!” Mark, Jo and the French couple had to be at the hotel at 3pm to catch their bus. “Don’t be late!”

Huong offered to arrange for the Dutch girls and I to visit Monkey Island, but it would cost extra. Checking in the guidebook, we learned that the monkeys there were quite aggressive and were known to carry rabies. We passed.

Arriving at the hotel at 1:00, we agreed to walk to the nearby beach for an hour before the bus arrived. Mark and Jo left their main bags in the lobby with everyone else’s. We found a table at the romantically-named Beach One and had a drink and chatted about what a disaster this had been. The French couple had joined us and finally relaxed a bit, now that the end was in sight. After an hour of pleasant conversation, the two couples said their goodbyes and headed back to the hotel.

Nothing but hassles in Halong Bay, Vietnam

Charlotte, Annabeth, and I wandered over to the much nicer Beach Two and hung out for a few hours, watching the place fill up with Vietnamese families. The Vietnamese really make the most out of a beach — grown men were wrestling in the water, kids ran about squealing happily, and the air was filled with laughter. It was a lovely scene.

We made plans to have a nice dinner at a place Annabeth had spotted earlier and headed to our rooms. I found a note under my door — it was from Jo. Both of her bags had been stolen from the hotel lobby and she wanted me to check and see if they ever turned up. It broke my heart — they’d traveled for seven months, only to have their stuff stolen right before going home.

Checking at the front desk for an update, I was told “They left tour, so we not responsible.” I met the girls for dinner and told them the sad tale — it drained the last dregs of energy from the evening. We all agreed that it was probably an inside job — the hotel employees knew they were leaving at three and wouldn’t be able to put up a fuss. Her’s were the only bags missing. She had also been the main thorn in the tour guide’s side, so it’s possible he arranged it out of spite. I’d like to think I’m wrong in believing this, but I bet I’m not.

We were told to meet in the lobby at 6am the following morning “to beat the typhoon”.

We were told to meet in the lobby at 6am the following morning “to beat the typhoon”. Apparently, the storm had stopped for a beer or two and was now running late. It had rained lightly the night before, but the skies were now clear. We all showed up on time, then waited on the steps for an hour for yet another group to join us.

We got another hour’s ride on the bay, but the boat headed straight for the dock with no extra time allowed for sight-seeing. After one last meal where I was split again from my friends, we headed for Hanoi. Sharing the bus with the group who’d spent the night on our boat, I found that they, too, were unhappy with the delays and lies. Any sarcastic remark about typhoons would fill the bus with grim laughter.

In Hanoi, I said my goodbyes to Charlotte and Annabeth, thanking them for their company. They were the real highlight of the trip and I was sad to see them go. I bumped into them again the following day and learned that they’d got a $5 refund on the trip. I’d asked the hotel manager about a partial refund and she’d been told by the tour company that Huong had denied everything I’d claimed — it was all the weather’s fault. If I wanted to come to their office and talk about it, they’d reconsider.

“No thanks,” I told her. “I think they’ve already wasted enough of my time.”

Sometimes, I hate being right.

{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Laura July 31, 2010 at 2:59 pm

Wow. Such a bummer. I can’t believe how ridiculous this tour got. It’s definitely noted for when I make it to Vietnam.
.-= Laura´s last blog ..A Mokoro Trip Through Botswana’s Okavango Delta =-.

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Elise July 31, 2010 at 3:44 pm

Wow! So sad to hear that you had such a terrible time in Ha Long Bay! We were there about 2 months ago and booked an overnight tour on the bay and we had a great time! Yes, it was mass tourism to the extreme but we still found ourselves enjoying the company on the boat and the landscape around us. Arguably, you had much more chaos on your trip! Hope you enjoy the rest of your travels in Vietnam!
.-= Elise´s last blog ..6 months of Experiences =-.

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wes August 1, 2010 at 8:18 am

Thanks, Elise! Glad to hear you had a great time. I’m jealous :)

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Mitch July 31, 2010 at 4:26 pm

It’s uncanny how your trip echoes mine – Rusty Keyhole, motorcycling up Vietnam, planning to head for China and now a catastrophe of a trip to Ha Long Bay. If you ever catch up to me I’ll have to buy you a beer.

My trip to Ha Long was equally marred by hassles and bullshit, but it was also my problem – I just hate guided tours. And it was beautiful and all, but after Phong Nha and Tam Coc I was pretty tired of karsts.

Our bus driver also refused to drive us back to the hotel after we declined a hike, we had to bribe him $2 each. Money well spent.
.-= Mitch´s last blog ..DAY 89- Hang Time =-.

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wes August 1, 2010 at 8:17 am

Beer sounds great!

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Shawn July 31, 2010 at 7:49 pm

Well I think it will be a place I will avoid once I migrate to Vietnam. The first book I read when I departed in 2007 was Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain, and from reading I have avoid all tours except one.

I don’t mind bypassing landscape along with the bad food and disorganized tour industry. If I cannot rent a boat and do it myself then forget it.

The bottom line is that tourist areas and traps are sickening to the traveler.
.-= Shawn´s last blog ..Renting in Sarajevo—Five Weeks =-.

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Michael Tyson July 31, 2010 at 8:34 pm

Wow, that sounded horrific! Sounds like you took it all in your stride though, which is admirable.

I’ve developed a couple of rules of thumb when it comes to tourism – the cost of a tourist site is usually inversely related to it’s worthwhileness, or the more expensive the more touristy and disappointing it will be; and anything anyone recommends I take with a bazillion grains of salt and do a bit of research online first – 9 times out of 10 I decide it’s not worth it.

At the end of the day, the most important thing when you find yourself in a situation like this is attitude. Sounds like you made the most of it!
.-= Michael Tyson´s last blog ..Nettle’s birthday =-.

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wes August 1, 2010 at 8:16 am

That’s a good rule of thumb. I generally avoid the big tourist draws, too. This one, however, I was loathe to pass up. Glad I went, in the end, but it wasn’t all it could have been.

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Dave July 31, 2010 at 11:36 pm

Wow, that sounds truly horrendous. I heard a very similar story from an English couple in Laos a week or so ago – it really does sound like things are not good on Halong Bay at the moment. I really must have got lucky when I did my tour in late August 08 … it was more expensive than yours though from what I recall (maybe $80 or something) but the food was good, the boat was great and the staff and fellow travellers were brilliant. Things didn’t even seem all that crowded in the cave or on the water. Luck of the draw, I guess. I used Kangaroo Cafe in Hanoi, for what it’s worth for anyone else considering it.
.-= Dave´s last blog ..The Friday Photo 19 – Perth city view =-.

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wes August 1, 2010 at 8:14 am

Lucky!

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Nick Laborde July 31, 2010 at 11:41 pm

Seems that the the bullshitters smile is the same no matter what part of the world your in.

“nearly sprained my wrist while lifting my beer” that could be devastating … you would have to use your left hand for beer, that wouldn’t be very efficient.
.-= Nick Laborde´s last blog ..4 Extreme Budgeting Tips For Saving Some Serious Cash =-.

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wes August 1, 2010 at 8:13 am

I wonder if my travel insurance covers that? ;)

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Nick August 1, 2010 at 12:34 am

Dude that sucks. I wish you better luck with your future stops. Either way your articles are always a good read. :)

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wes August 1, 2010 at 8:13 am

Thanks, Nick. I hoped that if it was bad, it’d at least be bad enough for a good story. It was close ;)

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Natalka August 1, 2010 at 12:49 am

Wow, so different from my experience last June. We paid about $80US for a day trip and it was great, food delicious, the tour guide got along with our group, everything went without a hitch. The only disappointment was that we had all decided on the way back to Hanoi that we wanted to have dinner together yet and asked the driver to instead drop us all at a particular restaurant instead of driving to each hotel of several hotels to drop us off and he refused (we did however all get off at the first hotel and taxi’d it to the restaurant). We booked our tour from the tourist centre/coffee house across from the lake. But this tour merged with tours booked by others in their hotels. I am not a “tour” gal either but my experience turned me around to that thought. No regrets. “you get what you pay for” is certainly true

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wes August 1, 2010 at 8:12 am

I think it’s really just a bit of a coin flip. I could have improved my odds by visiting during the slower season, certainly. So many tours subcontract with others and travel agencies swap tour companies, etc. — you really can’t know what you’ll get in the end.

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lily August 1, 2010 at 1:26 am

Ooooh, that does sound like a challenging trip Mr Vagabond. I can really relate to Mr Sulky – I have had monumental sulks in some of the most spectacular and gorgeous places on earth purely because someone was trying to manipulate ‘my’ experience for their own convenience and gain … if I was on your trip you would be descibing me as the ‘Brit with the face like a slapped arse’ … hahah!

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pirate63 August 1, 2010 at 4:50 am

good read Wes,we were lucky when we were there,just 4 on the boat!,good weather.safe travels.

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wes August 1, 2010 at 8:08 am

wow, nice! I’m envious :)

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Sally August 1, 2010 at 9:15 am

Thanks for reconfirming my vow to never do a group tour again! Yikes, sounds awful! (Oh, and if that French couple still wants to sleep on a boat you can send them over to Malaysia… I could use a hand sanding the sailboat I’m living on!)

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Katy August 1, 2010 at 11:02 am

My trip to Halong Bay was last September, and the night I spent on the boat there actually WAS a typhoon in the bay. It was terrifying and exhilarating, but we were all drunk and just laughed about our viciously rocking boat. Alas, the next morning we discovered that one of the tourist junk boats had capsized during the storm and several people drowned (tourists and crew). Article here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/sep/28/british-holidaymakers-die-vietnam-boat
Perhaps they’re now erring on the side of caution if they suppose a typhoon is en route? We chugged past the sight of the sinking the next morning and saw playing cards, clothing and empty soda cans floating in the water. Heartbreaking and sobering.

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soultravelers3 August 1, 2010 at 5:22 pm

Yikes! Sounds like a bummer. You seemed much calmer than I think I would have been. Just the sight of that crowded beach made me cringe.

Those French folks should have stayed home, it’s quite lovely here in the south of France. ;)
.-= soultravelers3´s last blog ..Darling Dordogne- Vacation Holiday in France =-.

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Dan - Voyagner August 2, 2010 at 9:28 am

Beaches don’t have to be pristine, secluded travel brochure cliches to be enjoyed.
.-= Dan – Voyagner´s last blog ..The Night of the UFO =-.

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ayngelina August 1, 2010 at 7:58 pm

Oh I wish I had known you were going so soon I would have looked up my recommendation. I did go with the $29 cheapie but it was like a backpacker special, sure the rooms were not amazing and there was no fine china but I still did the kayaking and caving and really enjoyed my time as we were the only boat around.

Also people had warned me beforehand not to do the 3-day as the second night was on the island for a similar experience you had although not nearly as bad.

But it sounds like
.-= ayngelina´s last blog ..Moving on up to Avenida Central =-.

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Dan - Voyagner August 1, 2010 at 9:58 pm

Sounds like a pretty typical SE Asian budget tour, you really end up feeling like a football going from bus to bus and often company to company. I’m inclined to believe it is one huge web, how is it we can travel from Phnom Penh to Bangkok only exchanging money when we buy the ticket, be handballed out of Cambodia with help from nothing other than our bus ticket and a smiley face sticker. Somehow it works, most of the time.
.-= Dan – Voyagner´s last blog ..The Night of the UFO =-.

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Siam.Rick August 2, 2010 at 8:35 am

Funny how all the ripoffs centre around seashores and lakes. Same same in Thailand as Vietnam. Wherever the most tourists congregate, which is usually some idyllic beaches, the touts and scams rise in proportion. As do the bullshit smiles. I know I’m going to pay more because I’m a westerner. That’s OK. But I’ve never experienced more attempts to rip me off, with some success, as in Vietnam. I’ve been to VN twice now. I’d love to see more there but I’m turned off by the lies, deceit and manipulation. I will go back but try to stay off the beaten path. That’s usually the most valuable and wonderul experience anyway. Wes, I recall you’ve met some truly honest and helpful Vietnamese during your motorbike experiences.
.-= Siam.Rick´s last blog ..Why move to Thailand Why move at all =-.

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wes August 2, 2010 at 9:34 am

Yeah, the scammers definitely seek out the busy areas. Get out of town and it’s an entirely different experience. I had the motorbike worked on several times and was never charged more than a dollar. Half of the time, they’d refuse to take any money at all. I was invited to share tea, food, and rice wine so many times I’ve lost count.

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Wailana August 6, 2010 at 4:06 am

Brilliant post man. I would definitely be waiting down at the bottom, sipping that beer wit ya. The more I read about these tours the more I’m inclined to avoid them and go solo.
.-= Wailana´s last blog ..Until Next Time- A Portrait of Honokaa =-.

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Jo August 13, 2010 at 3:48 pm

Vietnam is the ONLY place in the world where it seemed like I HAD to do organized tours. Even when I took a private motorbike to one location, I somehow ended up on a tour, without even knowing it…This itinerary sounds just like the one I did, only we had a pretty decent time, other than the hellish mini-bus rides there and back.

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DaveGoRound March 3, 2011 at 5:21 am

Sounds like you got caught in the trap, my friend. I’m heading up there in a few weeks, and I am going to try and find a company to take me for just one night on the boat. let’s hope I can beat the odds.

Thanks for the detailed write up. Do you remember what company it was?

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G @ Operation Backpack Asia January 17, 2012 at 4:21 am

Aw so sorry to hear about such a bad experience for you there! For your readers, just wanted to share our experience which was pretty close to perfect so they have at least one starting point where it’s likely (based on our personal experience anyway) to have a good time. Will have a write up on the blog eventually but for now, I can happily recommend hotels-in-vietnam.com (specifically Vivian, though hopefully anybody will be good there – she was our agent for everything though, so I know she’s good).

We paid $100 each for a 3 day/2-night trip on the Imperial Junk, one night on the boat in a beautiful cabin, and one night in a “bungalow” which was really a gorgeous room overhanging the water on a picturesque little bay. It was absolutely wonderful, even had AC. There was a couple staying at the bungalows independently and they were paying 60 bucks a night just to be there, so our whole trip with a night there was a steal at a hundred bucks. Food was decent (especially compared to reports from others on other trips); there was a little transferring around which wasn’t ideal but we could live with it. We knew that comparatively even with that, we’d had a great trip in a place where it can be really hard to be sure of what you’re going to get.

Of note, we also arranged it so as to return from the cruise and leave on the train to Sapa the same day – all went without a hitch, and really helped us maximize the trip, getting to do both things in less than a week. The Sapa trip was also wonderful – 2 days, 1 night in a homestay (do the homestay!!). It wasn’t a homestay as we’d imagined it with a little family in their little house, more like with a family at their quasi-guesthouse, but we had a great time and I would recommend it. It sounded like the people that did the hotel just had an average nothing-special evening, while our experience was great and quite memorable.

Anyway hope that helps anyone who’s interested in doing this trip – it’s too bad it’s such a crapshoot to book with a good company to go see Halong Bay, but it is a nice trip if you do get a good one. So again: should be about $100/person, ask for 3 day/2 night, one night on the island and ask for the AC beach bungalows, Imperial company – do the deluxe if you can, my friend did and I think didn’t have the transfers, and had really amazing food. If there are 3 of you, even better – the triple room is massive (on both boats)! Vivian at hotels-in-vietnam is personally recommended for booking all this and actually getting what you’ve asked for.

Good luck, I hope this helps!! :)

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wes January 17, 2012 at 10:33 am

Thanks for the write up. I’ve met a lot of people who had great experiences. I just got unlucky. There’s a bit of a roll of the dice involved, as many tours will mix and match their clients depending on who has open seats, so there’s no real quality control. Win some, lose some :)

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