An Englishman, a German and an Israeli...

Trip Start Jan 16, 2012
Trip End Jan 01, 2014

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Where I stayed
Sunflower Two Hotel Cat Ba
Read my review - 3/5 stars

Flag of Vietnam  ,
Thursday, May 3, 2012

...walked onto a boat; two days later they had shared a suitably ludicrous Vietnam style tourist experience...

We set off full of optimism on Tuesday morning for our trip to one of the "natural wonders of the world", Halong Bay.  Somehow, the Vietnamese managed to ruin this experience with contemptible behavior.  After Ninh Binh-gate, we were towards the end of our tether with the country, so when the minibus arrived on time our mood lifted somewhat.  We had also paid for the "delux" version of the two night, three day visit to Halong Bay so were expecting pseudo-VIP treatment throughout.  The reality was somewhat different as several nationalities were crammed into a minibus which was driven surprisingly slowly by Nam standards from Hanoi to Halong Bay, arriving around four hours after we had left the capital.

The scene at the port was one of insanity and, as with all "organised" tours in Vietnam, one got the impression that all the key protagonists were doing their job for the first ever time, when in fact they repeat the same role several times a week.  The people from our bus were divided into two groups and we ended up in the much smaller group of six, and we naively presumed this was because we were the delux group and were about to be whisked onto a yacht fit for docking in Monaco.  Alas this was not the case and we were shown onto a tired white double deck junk boat which looked exactly like those onto which all of the hundreds of other tourists were being hoarded onto. We decided that presumably our preferential treatment would therefore be reserved for better cuisine and entertainment but a shoddy inadequate lunch of one fish and some rice between six of us whilst the six crew members gorged on three fish suggested this was not the case.  There was also an excellent moment over lunch when we went through the inevitable introduction phase.  It turned out that our group consisted of two Brits, two Germans and two Israelis.  There was a pause pregnant with a very torrid history when this was revealed but we are the generation who must move on so we quickly moved to complaining about the food in an effort to unite us as a group.  It was now we realised that our guide spoke limited English and requests for more food/to see our cabins or the night were greeted with stern "no's" followed by hysterical/nervous laughing.  The mood in the camp was starting to grow a little dark...

We were however soon off the boat as we took the short journey from Halong Bay City (think Benidorm, but weirder) to a cave maybe a kilometre away.  The cave itself was stunning but there were so many tourists inside that it was almost impossible to enjoy.  The usual vast tourist numbers had been swelled hugely by the fact that we were there during the very long Vietnamese national holiday (the reasons for which was never properly explained to us) and it was a slow trudge through a tackily light wonder of nature, all the while being barged by Vietnamese who have been taught neither patience nor manners.  Our tight group was already slightly hacked off with proceedings and matters did not improve when we discovered we would be required to pay positively European beer prices of two US dollars for a small can of beer and were then deposited on a small floating platform in the middle of the sea from which the only activity was to pay five dollars per person to be taxied into a small cave.  As no one was interested in this, the Israelis, both of whom had just finished their three years of compulsory national service, suggested that the boat should take us to the next destination rather than making us all stand there for the obligatory hour.  The captain's response of "no" this time ignited some real tension and it was explained to him that we had paid good money for the tour and that he would move the boat (the fact that one of the boys was 6 foot 7 tall seemed to help sway our captain).  However, once we had got our own way all we were able to do was stand and wait on another platform, until 40 minutes later a boat turned up towing some kayaks for the highlight of the day.  My amusing rocking of our kayak soon had Shelley in tears but, once I had grown up, and paddled us sensibly around the placid sea we had an excellent 30 minutes or so in a truly spectacular place, where over 3,000 limestone rocks tower vertically from the sea.  The other bonus of this stop is that a lady rowed over to us in a small wooden boat selling cold beers for 75 cents a can.  I organised a small mutiny as we all stood beside our boat downing as many cans as we physically could as our captain fumed in his cabin.  Once back on the boat, we were taken on a short ride to the largest of the limestone crops, Cat Ba island dock where we had to await the arrival of a supposed 12 new guests.  Again this meant the chance to disembark the boat and fill up on cheap beer and, by the time we had picked up about six new guests an hour later, we were all a few beers along the road to happiness (or at least indifference).  By the time we returned to the boat, we were finally given access to our cabins but there was a resolute refusal to allow us to turn the AC on, despite stifling heat and this lead to one of the crew raising his hand to the tall Israeli when he tried to grab his AC controller.  The response was slightly menacing, as the Israeli cracked his fingers and threatened to throw the small Vietnamese sailor into the sea...

We had been joined by two Poles (of course, making for an excellently combustible historical group) and a Vietnamese family in Cat Ba and the Poles soon latched onto the horrible atmosphere between guests and crew, which was exacerbated by a dinner eaten in silence, with the odd glare between the two groups as the crew again ate like kings whilst we were the beggars at the feast.  Any Twist style requests for more food were met with Dickensian strength rebuttals and it was turning into a thoroughly unpleasant experience.  We had all agreed to drink nothing further unless drink prices were reduced - a deal which Shelley and I successfully brokered, but only on the proviso that we have at least 20 beers between the 8 tourists on board.  About an hour later and we had stuffed about 30 odd beers down but apparently this concession had come at the price of the karaoke which we had been promised.  The captain declared that the karaoke machine was broken and suggested we all go to bed (it was 8pm) but when the taller and more volatile Israeli, Ely, threatened to "get him" the machine magically came to life and although - to Shelley's, but no one else's, disappointment - we did not have karaoke, we did have hard Euro techno instead of Vietnamese TV.  We retired for the evening at around midnight after some top deck star gazing, feeling we had won a small moral victory, although envying the passengers on the surrounding boats where the music still played and there we screams of pleasure. Bastards...

Life in our large and well presented cabin was to present the next challenge as moving the suitcase from the bed caused the migration of a small population of beetles.  Shelley was unsettled by this but I persuaded her all would be OK if she just went to sleep but worse was to follow when, just before lights out, a huge cockroach ran across the headboard of our bed.  She was now screaming and my solution was to summon the effects of the countless cans of beer I had drained throughout the day to sympathetically pass out, only to be woken up throughout the night by screams at every slight noise in the cabin.  Matters deteriorated even further when I was awoken at 5am pouring with sweat to find that the Ac had been turned off.  Moments later we heard the by now familiar voice of the Israeli threatening all sorts unless the AC was turned back on until check out at 730am.  The initial response of "no" elicited a tirade, followed by silence, and we could only assume he had got his way - we did not.  Breakfast was positively unpleasant - we were served one fried egg each and some disgusting bread whilst the crew gobbled large bowls full of noodles, together with eggs, throwing daggers at us throughout.  Not entirely what I would expect from a deluxe cruise...

Things went from bad to worse as we pulled up from our 50 metre voyage to Cat Ba Island, where we would all spend the second night of our trip, as four policeman were awaiting the arrival of our boat and the crew were refusing to hand over Ely's passport.  It did not look promising as the crew babbled away in Vietnamese with their side of the story whilst no one explained to us what was happening - we had at least all remained to stay together and support Ely until matters were resolved (true progress).  However, soon enough an interpreter who spoke excellent English was summoned and the police quickly surmised it was a tour complaint rather than police matter, and peace finally came to the West Bank (of Cat Ba) - ha ha.  There was still time for the crew to threaten to come onto the island to cut Ely's throat and stab the rest of us before we were able to wash our hands of a thoroughly unpleasant time...

The only designated activity once on the again Jurassic Park esque, and very large, Cat Ba Island was climbing one of its many peaks, something which I achieved but only at the expense of about a week's worth of fluid in the oppressive heat of a jungle.  Once this was completed we were transferred to the thoroughly pleasant Sunflower Hotel and fed before being left to our own devices.  We reunited with the league of nations from the initial bus trip down, initially soaking up the sun on one of Cat Ba's many beaches before drinking the night away until 2am in a bar which had probably never previously hosted an English/Scottish/Dutch/Chilean/Israeli contingent...

Good times tend to come with an associated physical price tag and our group who had shared such a good night only hours earlier barely had the energy to look each other in the eye or say hello when we saw each other again at 730am.  The boat trip back to Halong City and subsequent bus trip back to Hanoi were both painless enough but the overall sentiment of all who had taken the trip (including those not on our boat) was that the Vietnamese had managed to turn what should have been a fabulous experience into a nightmare by treating people with unprovoked hostility.  As per the previous sign off, it is a stunning country but one which is ruined by most interactions with the natives (particularly, ironically, those engaged directly in the service industry whilst those in the countryside are fantastically innocent).  So it was that our last act before boarding a bus to thankfully take us out of this country was to spend an hour in a tour office with the two Israelis complaining bitterly about our treatment on something we had paid good money for...          


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